The Crucible

Chapters 1 - 5

By

Pysta

Χοάνη (Crucible), (n.):  a place or set of circumstances where people are subjected to forces that test them and often make them change.

Prologue

In the days following the arrival of the Thessalonian Amazons, the two Councils continued to meet at the evening meal, and much was exchanged in the way of daily life on the island, and how the integration of the two Tribes was to proceed. Mostly, it was a time for bonding and friendships to be created, as the Thessalonians began to think about what each wanted to do, and how each wanted to live, and where, and with whom.

If there was one exception to all this, it was that there was no move made to introduce the two Queens to ceremonies attendant to the worship of Gaia. Galateia and Lykia seemed ill at ease about any questions regarding the Temple, and the inner workings therein. The Queens had yet to set foot inside the building. When Xena or Gabrielle would broach the subject, they were met with deflection. For their part, the two Queens accepted this – understanding that these were the Mysteries – and there would likely be some kind of rituals or initiations that would be required of them, in due time. There was no sense of urgency about it, yet. Xena had more of a problem with this than Gabrielle did. She was - and probably always would be - skeptical when it came to the Gods and Goddesses. 'Twice burned, forever cautious' (as the old saying went). She had had too much of the capriciousness of Immortals to go back to any of the blind trust of childhood.

Xena found a parallel reticence in her probes regarding the defense of the island, and how they managed to stay seemingly untouched, while all around them, bloody strife continued. In her rounds of the town, she had seen no signs of any armories or storage of weapons, and no apparent routines for fighting drills or practices. The women seemed completely passive – disinterested in anything approaching self-defense or aggressive fighting behaviors. She had to admit in her heart of hearts that this irritated her. . . and she wasn't sure but what it was just her own unease with the idea of living peacefully. She shared this with Gabrielle, whose response was a calming: "Give it time, Xe – they'll share everything when they are ready."

Aside from this, there was only one other disquieting thing. More frequently, in their casual conversations with the Thessalonian Amazons they heard remarks and comments – in a variety of contexts, but strikingly similar in theme – such that the Amazons of Lemnos were strangely lacking – no deep joy, sadness, anger or strong emotions of any kind. They were kind, courteous, friendly, hospitable, and completely passive. They were incurious about the harsh past and difficult memories of their new Amazon sisters, and seemed - when these were divulged - to display a singular lack of appropriate responses.  "If I hear one more ''That's too bad, dear,' the next time I tell them about the Fire, I'm likely to do something I'll regret!" - as one woman said to Gabrielle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 1

The time of the new moon was upon them, and the period of mourning for the Old Mother was spent. The time had come to put her to her final rest. A long, winding line of women, walking in single file, moved slowly out of the central square of Myrina. The women were dressed in white, but the various Counselors were also wearing colorful sashes, draped over one shoulder. They followed a worn path leading up through the fragrant lavender bushes covering the hillside behind buildings that nestled above the curved beach. Richa Nera - a rocky, jagged volcanic hill rising above the idyllic sheltered bay - was their destination. The line stretched right from the square to close to the summit of the ancient mound, where the women disappeared from view. A cave was there, a Sacred Place, where the Old Mother was to be sent to her rest in the arms of the Goddess. The sunset blazed all around them, lighting everything with a soft, golden glow.

At the head of the procession came the honor bearers, Lykia and another woman, carrying the bier with the body of the Old Mother. She was wrapped in a simple brown cloth, adorned with a spray of rosemary, for remembrance.

Near the end of the procession walked the High Priestess of Gaia, her head and shoulders draped with the Shawl of ceremonial stripes that symbolically brought all the colors – and the Tribe – into one harmonic whole. As she walked, she chanted, slowly and sonorously, the Hymn to The Goddess:

"I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of life.
I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of love.
I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of the avatars.
I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of each one.
I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of all beings.
I believe, O Goddess of all Goddesses
That Thou art the eternal Mother of the Universe. .
I believe, O Goddess of the Universe
That Thou art She Who created my soul and set its warp.
Who created my body from dust and from ashes,
Who gave to my body breath, and to my soul its possession . . ."

Behind her, came the last two figures - the two Queens: Gabrielle of Potedeia, Amazon


Queen of Thessaly and Lemnos, Chief Bard of Athens, Lion of Thebes and Protector of Pharaoh; and Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess of Thrace, Redeemer of Chin and Jappa, and Amazon Queen of Lemnos. This would be their first ceremony of the ancient mysteries of Gaia, and they were wondering just what they would see, and how it would compare to the rituals of Artemis.

". . . Mother, bless to me my body
Mother, bless to me my soul
Mother, bless to me my life
Mother, bless to me my belief. . .
. . . Enwrap Thou my body and my soul beloved
Safeguard me this night in the sanctuary of Thy love . . .
. . . Thanks be to Thee, Oh great Goddess
For the many gifts Thou hast bestowed on me
Each day and night, each sea and land
Each weather fair, each calm, each wild . . ."

"I wish I could get more excited about the pageantry. I never was much for it. After the Twilight, I had hoped we could be free of all this."  Xena scowled as she shielded her thoughts so that they would be screened from everyone but her mate. Gabrielle looked sidelong, her mouth betraying just the hint of a smile.

"Come on, Xe. You know how benign this is, compared to Olympus! We both know how much Amazons need ritual in their lives.  They love the chance to dance, and drum and chant, get dressed up in their feathers and leathers! Ok, so they don't have those here – but if they did, they would! A little mystery is not a bad thing. And think how it would have been, if we hadn't had a friend in Aphrodite – and Artemis."

"The mystery we know is always preferable to the mystery we don't?" Xena's long legs took the steep slope easily.

Gabrielle's eyes lingered on the ripple of the muscled thighs, and she caught herself as her thoughts strayed to the sudden image of them under her hands, the night before, as they lay in love together in their bed. She pulled her thoughts back to the topic at hand. "Now, Xe –aren't we the last ones to suspect mystery? We reek of it, ourselves! After this is over, we can get to know Galateia, and the women of Lemnos. We'll make a tour, and tell our stories, and listen to theirs, and it'll all work itself out."  The Queens had discussed the idea of an excursion around the island of Lemnos. They hoped to go soon after the enforced period of morning for the Old Mother.

"You think it'll be that easy?"  Xena looked over at her, one eyebrow arched up. "When has it ever been easy? Where Gods are concerned, they always manage to jerk us around – set us against one another. The way Galateia has been, since she discovered we've got the InSight, just proves my point."

Gabrielle mused over Xena's evaluation of the situation. She had to agree the High Priestess was proving to be an enigma. Gabrielle thought it was only to be expected. The woman had maintained her position for years, and enjoyed an unchallenged stewardship. It would be a miracle for her just to relinquish everything immediately. It was not in Xena or Gabrielle's nature to push someone aside in that way. Both of them were too knowledgeable of the intricacies of political maneuvering to do such a thing. On the surface, she always seemed in awe of them, maybe even a little smitten, but that masked something deeper, something not so easy to understand. So the folklore of the Legend: 'And they returned to Lemnos, and ruled as Queens, and lived happily ever after' was proving elusive.

She came back to awareness of the voice of the Priestess, and the bard in her was again engrossed in the language of the Hymn.  In truth, she thought it passing beautiful.

". . . I am giving Thee worship with my whole life
I am giving Thee assent with my whole power
I am giving Thee praise with my whole tongue
I am giving Thee honor with my whole utterance
I am giving Thee reverence with my whole understanding
I am giving Thee offering with my whole thought
I am giving Thee praise with my whole fervor
I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion
I am giving Thee pleasure with my whole desire
I am giving Thee love with my whole heart
I am giving Thee affection with my whole sense
I am giving Thee my existence with my whole mind

I am giving Thee my soul, O Goddess of the Universe . . ."

Xena, on the other hand, was not one to get distracted. She was worrying over her continued apprehensions since they had landed at Myrina. "I don't think the Old Mother did us any favors! She had her own reasons – maybe she didn't know what was true here – she was in Thessaly all those long years - or maybe she just needed us to get here, so we could deal with everything after she was gone. The way she talked, we'd just get handed the Island. Now why do I get the feeling that it's not going to be like that, at all? There's something still hidden, here."  When no answering thought came from her mate, she realized that Gabrielle was listening to the verses.

Xena came to an abrupt halt, for they had passed through the mouth of the cave, and were now standing at the back of a sea of women. They were lit by three braziers, placed around the sacred space, illuminating only the immediate area. The rest of the large cavern was dark. The air was cold, after the heat of the sun outside. It felt good.

The women were seating themselves on the rocky floor, and were ranged in two semicircles, with a wide clear area between them, leading down a gentle incline to the sacred space. This was paved with octagonal flagstones, in the center of which was a large altar stone, also flat and highly polished on top, with a large depression worn into it. "It's like a large bowl." Xena thought, and her eyes immediately searched the dim recesses above, where she could see a huge stalactite hanging down. The stalactite was slowly dripping, and she watched the drops fall through the air into the rocky bowl beneath. It was full of the liquid. She was not sure it was water. In other caves that she had seen, usually this would generate a stalagmite – a mirror cone would usually form from the drops calcifying and hardening from the floor upwards. This liquid seemed to wear the bowl, increasing its depth. "Huh, there doesn't appear to be an outlet, but the liquid doesn't seem to overspill. Interesting . . . I wonder what it can be." 

". . . I am beseeching Thee
To keep me from ill
To keep me from hurt
To keep me from harm
To keep me from mischance
To keep me from grief
To keep me this night
In the nearness of Thy love . . ."

Gabrielle chuckled to herself, as she watched Xena's eyes search the environment, noting when she had made her assessment of the altar and its configuration. She dearly loved how Xena's mind worked - always alert, always curious about everything. "I won't even mention the rest of her. . . Artemis, I apologize for my distraction . . . but You, most of all, should understand!"  She had to admit, in her heart of hearts, that she would hold first allegiance to the Goddess of the Amazons. She owed her life and happiness to Artemis, and always would. She thought she could respect Gaia, if only for providing this refuge for the last of the Amazons in this place. If what the Old Mother had told them were true, she and Xena - a part of Gaia, after all – would somehow have to come to terms with this deity. Her eyes roamed over the quiet figure next to her, as they stood behind Galatea, waiting for the Priestess to make her next move. The bier with its burden rested on a lashed wooden cradle next to the altar.

The Amazons of Thessaly sat together as a group near the back of the host of women. They, too, were getting used to this strange new set of rituals and customs, centered on the worship of Gaia, and they seemed uneasy with the spectacle. They cast frequent glances at the two Queens. Gabrielle smiled reassurance at them. They were all strangers, still, and needed the comfort of familiar relationships and of their two Queens.

The torches swirled and soughed as a cold wind snaked through the cave from somewhere back of the darkness. Gabrielle shivered.  She could see the little bumps rising on her arms, Xena seemed unaffected. "Ah, well – her body heat is higher than mine."  Her eyes strayed to the patterned scar that circled Xena's neck, as though she were a Celt, with a torque resting on her collarbones. The Chakram - legendary weapon of Ares, Olympian God of War - had been transformed by Xena herself into a tattoo. "It will go wherever she goes, for the rest of her days. It still has a power in it.  But it is less a burden than the weapon was, for sure."  


Her fingers twitched, at the tactile memory of how the scarred flesh felt – a raised, rough texture. It mirrored her own body-art - the Fire Dragon of Jappa, given to her by Akemi and transformed in the Conflagration – again, by Xena – into the Water Dragon. The woman who returned to her was more than the Xena who had left her, bereft, in Jappa. "Of all things to think about, why are my memories of these coming to mind?" Gabrielle pondered, for she knew by now that there are no coincidences, and she rarely had a thought without a good reason.

". . . May the Goddess shield me
May the Goddess fill me
May the Goddess keep me
May the Goddess watch me
May the Goddess bring me
To the land of peace
To the grove of the Goddess
To the peace of eternity
Praise to the Nymph
Praise to the Mother
Praise to the Crone
The Three in One" *

Her thoughts came back swiftly to the present, as she realized that the voice of Galateia had stopped, The Hymn was finished. There was a deep silence. Galateia moved forward down the slope to the altar. Gabrielle and Xena stood where they were, waiting to see what would be happen next.

Galateia faced the altar. She lifted her arms, holding them up-stretched. She threw back her head, and her voice sounded loudly, as she cried out:

"BEHOLD - GREAT MOTHER GAIA!  We bring to you your servant, last of the Old Mothers - who has faithfully completed her long exile in the land of Greece, and who has shepherded the Great Queens of Lemnos home!"

Galateia now turned, and faced the Tribe. The women - with one voice - began chanting; one low note which would underlie the next part of the ceremony.  Four women rose up from the front of the seated throng, and moved to the cradle. They lifted the small shrouded bundle from the bier and shifted it, laying it gently to rest in the bowl-shaped depression. Xena and Gabrielle – indeed, all the women – now watched, as drop by slow drop, the liquid fell on the shrouded body underneath it. The sound of the drops as they splashed the cloth covering the Old Mother was clearly audible to Xena, with her preternatural hearing. The liquid already in the bowl began to saturate the figure.

Galateia turned again to face the body. Stretching out her hands over the body, she began another incantation, pitched just above the note of the underlying chant:

"Sleep thou, sleep, and away with thy sorrow . . .

Sleep, thou beloved, in the Rock of the fold.
Sleep this night in the breast of thy Mother
Sleep, thou beloved, while she herself soothes thee. . .

Sleep, O sleep in the calm of all calm
Sleep, O sleep in the guidance of guidance
Sleep, O sleep in the love of all loves . . .
Sleep, O beloved, in the Goddess of life!" *

Then, as her voice died away, she stepped back, and with one arm raised across her chest in the Amazon salute, she bowed her head before the still form. There was another deep silence.

'They're all waiting for something . . . or someone," Gabrielle thought, and Xena answered in her head, "Right . . . and here it comes . . ."

A dark form loomed suddenly over the altar – a tall, hooded, robed figure emerged from the inky gloom of the rear of the cavern. It began a strange weaving and swaying over the Old Mother's body, stretching its shrouded arms over the corpse. Galatea's voice suddenly broke the awed silence of the collective audience.

"ALL PRAISE TO THE GREAT MOTHER GAIA!

 SHE HAS GRACED US ONCE MORE WITH HER PRESENCE,

 TO TAKE BACK WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY HERS!

ALL PRAISE TO THE GODDESS!"

As one, the Lemnian women in the cave bowed their heads down to the floor, and stayed in this supine position. Xena, Gabrielle and Galateia were the only ones left standing. The Thessalonians remained seated, looking about them with unease.  Galateia gazed at them with a fierce expression, and motioned for them bow down. They slowly acquiesced - although this Gaia did not seem very "godlike" to them.

The hooded figure, meanwhile, continued its weird dance above the body of the Old Mother.  It did not seem to notice the break in the proceedings. However, as the silence continued, it slowly paused, and then rose up to its full height – easily a head taller than Xena – and its dark hood turned and gazed at the two Queens. There was no visible face – just blackness, and two glowing eyes.

Xena suddenly turned her head, looking at a spot to the left of the hooded figure and the altar. Her eyes went wide, and the pupils dilated almost completely black.  Gabrielle drew in her own breath, as her eyes followed Xena's - and she, too saw the apparition of the Old Mother take shape in the space. They both listened, as a quiet voice spoke in their minds. "Do not cast me into the Darkness, my Queens! Send me into Light, I beg you! Heed not this Dark One, for she is not the Gaia she pretends to be!"

Xena turned and searched Gabrielle's face, looking for the confirmation she needed. It was there. Gabrielle nodded her head once, her lips set in a grim line. Xena turned back to face the dark figure. She took Gabrielle's hand in hers, and spoke.

"Gaia . . . If that is who you are . . . the soul of the Old Mother has spoken to us. She has no wish to join the great Shadow. She chooses Light. She chooses freedom!" She clasped Gabrielle's hand even tighter. The weaving figure paused again, cold anger radiating back at them.

A rasping sibilant voice hissed at them. "Why do you violate my ritual? What manner of Queens are you, to flaunt it? The transfer must be complete!  My sacred daughter cannot rest, until her troubled soul adds its burden to the great Shadow. Her power will strengthen the ShieldWall for generations to come!" The figure renewed it's swaying above the body. A throbbing sound began to emanate from the space around the altar and the area above the body of the Old Mother.

Allowing herself to sink into the compelling surge of power from her mate, Gabrielle moved to face Xena, her back to the bier and the dark figure behind it. She leaned in, her forehead resting on Xena's shoulder, her hands creeping around Xena's waist. A soft sigh rustled from the Thessalonian Amazons, as they craned their necks to watch their Queens, for they knew the Dragon was to be released. Now Gabrielle knew why the unbidden memories had come, and why Xena was speaking for the Old Mother's ghost. The Dragon was meant to free the Old Mother from the clutches of this strange Pretender. 

Xena stood straight, her head up, her eyes closed, as the power surged up from deep inside her. A moving, glowing band of energy swirled around Xena's neck; then flowed down, through the chiton, and into the etched shape on Gabrielle's back. The outlines of the creature began to glow beneath the thin material of her chiton, until gradually it pulsated, and the light in the shape of the dragon began to radiate outwards from her back. Gabrielle swayed, and sucked in her breath, as it awakened. She could feel it uncoiling, and a shudder passed through her. She pulled back, her eyes searched Xena's face, where she sought - and found - the look of utter, absolute love. Gabrielle's hands gripped the cloth of Xena's chiton, but their locked gaze never wavered. Bowing her head, she released the Dragon. It gathered itself, and leaped from her back. The material on her back hung in shreds, blackened at the edges of the hole.

With a, dry slithering sound, the shimmering image stretched out through the air and then, solidifying, it landed on the body that lay in Gaia's Bowl. The wrapped form, resting in the liquid rock, began to pulse with an unearthly glow.  The dark figure behind the altar hissed, and shrank back at the fierce actions of the lizard form. The Dragon's voice sounded in the sudden stillness as the silver-white flames ignited the body, and roared up, torch-like; and within the flames there rippled all the colors of the spectrum.

As the flames rose higher, licking the jagged stalactite that hung there, suspended – bringing the ocher colors of the rocky ceiling into vivid focus - the voice of the Warrior Queen rose in the Lament she was legendary for having created. Gently rocking the woman clasped in her arms, she sang the Old Mother into the Light.  The Dragon crouched protectively over the body, until the flames had died down to a glow, and there was nothing left but ashes, slowly soaking into the liquid in the bowl-like depression. Then the Dragon sprang up and - its image once again stretched thin and wavering - returned to the bowed back of the golden-haired Queen of Lemnos, where it coiled itself, and went back to sleep. Xena gently folded Gabrielle into her arms, careful not to touch the scarred image, which still glowed and burned.

The hooded figure, which had drawn back at the manifestation of the Dragon, once more rose up to its full height. From the darkness of its hooded countenance, a deeply outraged voice came hurtling at them. "YOU HAVE PRESUMED TOO MUCH WITH THIS TRAVESTY! YOU DARE TO CIRCUMVENT GAIA AT YOUR PERIL! BEWARE MY WRATH!"

In the profound silence following this dire pronouncement, Xena put her arm about the shaking shoulders, turned her back on the dark figure, and led a sagging, silent Gabrielle out of the cavern. The Thessalonian Amazons rose up and followed their Queens, from long habit forming a defensive ring around them. Xena yanked a torch from one of the wall sconces, to light their way back down the hillside to the town, for darkness had fallen during the ceremony. As they exited the mouth of the tunnel, she could see a blaze of stars above their heads.

The dumbfounded women of Myrina were left to themselves and their deity, In the normal protocol governing the ending of the ceremony, likely Galateia was supposed to have gone before everyone else - to have led the women back down the hill in a dignified procession. Presumably, she was answering to the darkly shadowed figure.

Xena was damned if she was going to think it was really Gaia - and so the High Priestess and other women of the Temple would have to salvage what they could of the ceremony. "A definite breach of protocol," Xena thought, glumly. She did not much care. Her understanding of the import of tonight's ceremony was causing ominous misgivings to swirl around in her head. She did not like to think where they would lead. "Damned all Gods and Goddesses – they are always trouble!" She ignored the throbbing pain of her own scarred tattoo; she would salve it, later.

Paphos, Io, Talia, Alysia, Eusta and Ikthenia moved up to form a protective phalanx around the two Queens, who were walking slowly. Io took the torch from Xena. The rest of their Tribe followed behind as a rear guard.

Alysia ventured a hesitant question. "Xena, should we talk about this? What is this going to mean?"

Xena shook her head. "Give me some time to sort things out, Alysia. My main concern now is getting Gabrielle home. Will you make sure that all our women are on the defensive, for the rest of tonight? I don't think there will be any further excitement - there has been enough, already - but we might as well be prepared. I will see to the rest, before the dawn comes. And then I will send word as to what may come next."

Alysia nodded acquiescence. "Very well, Xena."  She dropped back, to confer with the rest of the women. Then all but Io and Paphos split off to return to their lodgings.

The four figures walked in silence back through the streets to the house of the Queens. As they entered the gated courtyard, Gabrielle suddenly sagged against Xena in another faint. Xena stopped, catching her as she began to fall.

"Get some rest," Xena muttered to Paphos and Io. "If I need you, I'll let you know." They pulled the gates shut and fastened them, and went off to their room.

Without hesitation, Xena lifted the slight form, and carried her mate through the doorway, across the hall and up the sweep of stairs to the floor above. Gabrielle murmured a faint protest, but Xena hushed her. In their bedchamber, Xena gently deposited her on the bed, face down. Gabrielle suffered in silence, wincing as her back inadvertently was brushed by the remnants of her shirt. Xena went to the cupboard, and brought back the alabaster jar with the healing salve. She sat down next to her prone partner, carefully removed the ragged tunic, and began to apply the ointment to the dragon outline.  "Well, my love – that was impressive. This is the first time I've seen your "pet" at work!" she said, her voice hushed at the memory of that sinuous creature, crouched over the body of the Old Mother. "I'm sorry – I didn't see that we had much choice, there."

Gabrielle nodded. "Sss . . . ouch!" she hissed in pain. "I know." Gabrielle turned her head, fitfully. "Did you see Galatea's face? She wasn't expecting any of that. Do you really think that was Gaia?" She laid her hand on Xena's thigh, gripping it involuntarily at the pain. As the healing properties began to numb the scarred pattern, her hand relaxed, and she turned her head to look at Xena. Her expression was weary. "I think you were right. This is not going to be as easy as I thought, is it?"

Xena shook her head. "The power just came surging out. When that  . . . well, whoever it is - started hissing about taking the Old Mother's burden. I'm beginning to see, now, why the old woman brought us here. She may not have been strong enough to go up against that creature, by herself. She needed us, Gabrielle.  Lemnos needs us." She sighed, and looked ruefully at her partner. "I'm going back up there, as soon as you are settled, and do a little snooping around."

"But, Xe . . ."

 Xena gave her a mock-fierce look. "Don't say it! If the Dragon release is going to be like the other times, you need rest - a little coddling! Just enjoy it, why don't you? Don't worry about that  . . . thing.  I'll deal with it." She leaned down, and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek. "Now, go to sleep. Give your back a rest." 

She sat, keeping company, as Gabrielle gave her one last rueful look, sighed, and settled her head sideways into the pillow, her hand clasping Xena's firmly. As Xena waited, she pondered the strange events of the day. Her free hand moved, restlessly smoothing the disheveled hair on Gabrielle's head. Her eyes traveled the dear, familiar face, noting the lines of fatigue. She thanked Artemis once again for giving her back the love of her life. She really didn't care if Artemis was only a memory, now – as her long suspicion of the Gods came back to mock her.

"You should fall on your face and thank Her, for what you have regained," she scolded herself. "Give it up, Xena. The Gods created you, and they still live inside you and Gabrielle. Mystery is what got you here. Now you and she best learn to use it -just as you did the Warrior Path - and you can start with this 'Gaia' Pretender."

 She sighed, and straightened. Shrugging her shoulders, she tilted her head first one way then another, working out the tensions the events had brought to her body. Then, gently disengaging her other hand from the sleeping Gabrielle, she dipped her fingers once more into the pot, and applied some of the salve to her own necklace of pain.

"And for that, I'll need to take a closer look at the cavern."

She got up, silently passed through the house, and exited. Her tall form strode purposefully through the dark streets, retracing the route to the cave.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When she arrived at the cave mouth, all was silent. The torches were dead, and there was no one about. She stepped cautiously into the mouth, and peered into the darkness: Silence. Then, striking her flints, she relit a torch, and entered the tunnel. She walked quietly through to the large cavern. The dripping of the liquid into the pool was the only sound, and her nose twitched at the remaining odor of burned flesh, the stink of it acrid at the back of her mouth. She waked slowly down the incline, to the altar, examined the bowl with its chalky liquid – now suffused with the ashes of the Old Mother.

She held the torch higher, and walked around behind the altar. As she advanced on the back of the cavern, the inky darkness fled at the hungry torchlight. All was in silence. There was, as she suspected, another exit. A large boulder, easily twice Xena's height, formed a part of the back wall, and there, behind it, Xena found a narrow passage. She inserted herself in it, holding the torch before her, having to turn sideways to squeeze forward. It was not pleasant. She felt her chest brushing up against the wall of the passage, through the thin cloth of the chiton. She inhaled, and kept doggedly on. The passage ended, suddenly, in another small chamber, carved out of the rock. There was a pallet, an unlit lamp, and a dark robe hanging from a spike in the wall. She fingered the robe, then brought it up to her face and sniffed at it. A dark, musky odor emanated from the garment. The smell – it reminded her of something . . . what was it? She shook her head, vexed that the memory would not come.  "No goddess wore this," she said to herself. "A mortal, and one who has a name, I'll wager.  Now, where are you, my lovely?" She cast about the room – a dead end. The woman had left with Galateia, and her coterie. She must have walked out as an ordinary worshiper. "Neat," Xena said to herself. "That was very well-staged. Galateia, you have some explaining to do." 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Xena made her way back down the mountain to the town, not bothering with a torch, but extending her hunting senses. It was very dark. The moon was still too young. She entered the maze of streets, threading her way to the door of the Temple. She paused, listening, before melting back into the darker shadow of a pathway down the side of the building. She boosted herself up the wall behind the building, and dropped down into the garden. She was looking for – and found – the small dark entrance that marked the chute used to drop the leavings from the Temple kitchen down onto the midden. Moving slowly to avoid making any noise, she stooped and crawled inside. It was steep, but she could manage it. The other end of the short, cramped passage opened through an identical grate into the kitchen.

She moved through the darkest part of the kitchen and thence into the side corridor, leading to the private rooms of the temple guardians. She was looking for Galateia – and for the Pretender.

A noise from one of the rooms down the hallway attracted her attention. She drifted closer. There was a silent figure standing – statue still – before the door.  This must be one of the Sibyls Eusta had told them were permanent fixtures in the Temple. Xena could now hear the sounds of muffled whimpering from behind the closed door. In the old days, she would have reacted with violence, and with force. However, she was a different soul, now – and she was aware that sounds could be deceptive.

She reached over, and put the pinch on the figure. Nothing happened. Xena drew back in surprise. "Hmm  . . . this is like no Sibyl I've ever encountered. This guardian is not human – whatever it is. All right - what's the best way to get past a golem? She fished a small scrap of scroll out of the pouch attached to her girdle. It had a small endearment written there, from Gabrielle. Leaning even closer to the still figure, she whispered in its ear. "Open your mouth, and receive the Prayer of the Goddess." Its jaw dropped, the mouth sagging open, its expressionless face grey in the darkness, Xena stuffed the vellum in, quickly. "Now, your Master speaks! You will obey my voice. Go to the Grand Hall, and wait there for my Presence." The Sibyl shut its mouth. Xena waited with baited breath. Would it work? The figure slowly stirred, then turned and walked down the hall. Xena briefly stared after it.

"Not bad! Gaia must sound like me, when she's not being a Goddess. I just hope Gabi will forgive me for what I've done with her love note!"

She paused a moment, then noiselessly slipped through the doorway, pulling it slightly closed behind her. She slid sideways in the shadows. There was a single oil lamp burning on a table next to the bed. The light wasn't much, but it was enough to reveal the figures of the Pretender and Galateia. Both were naked, except for an inky black mask and hood covering the Pretender's face and head. She straddled Galateia's prone body, which lay face-down, legs splayed, hands cruelly bound behind her back, and a gag stuffed in her mouth. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Methodically and violently, the 'Goddess' of Lemnos was raping the High Priestess.

Xena slid back out the door. She strode down the hall, and exited through the garden. Once outside, she leaned against the outer wall of the building, working to control the rage that had welled up within her.

"Okay – okay. You don't know. This might be how they pleasure one another . . . it is none of your business!" Xena beat her fist against the stone, until it ached in protest. "Damn, damn! You know it isn't that! You know she is not a willing partner for that bitch! Now how do I prove it to the Amazons of Myrina - before any more harm comes to Galateia?" 

After walking about the streets for another candle mark, she spent the rest of the night sitting up next to her sleeping partner, watching over her, and thinking hard.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 2

Xena walked out into the part of the courtyard that was shaded by the grape arbor. A long bench, with a cushion covered in banded colors, sat next to a table bearing a bowl of fruit, nuts and figs, some feta and a loaf of bread, and a flagon of wine.  She poured herself a cup, and sat down next to her companion - who lay, one arm draped over the curved side of the bench, a still face turned up to the sun's rays filtering down through the back-lit leaves. The leaves cast a pattern over the sleeping figure, and Xena suddenly found those gently curving lips too inviting, and leaned over for a lingering visit.

"Mnmf," Gabrielle muttered sleepily, - then responded wholeheartedly to the greeting.  Xena, finding the Bard's tongue demanding admission, hastily thumped her wine cup onto the table, and wrapped her arms around the familiar body.

Xena grinned. She drew back slightly, and looked at Gabrielle's face. "Uh huh – I can see your sap is rising again . . . we're gonna have to do something drastic about it!" She shook her head, imitating a tragic air.  "Oh, what has been done to my Gabrielle? She's turning into some kind of a voracious vine-creature!" Gabrielle broke into a fit of laughter, as Xena picked up her cup and downed it in one long swallow. She wiped her lips with the back of her arm, and then she went back for more. Gabrielle ran her finger under the folds of Xena's chiton, where it curved down between her arm and her breast, as she once more captured Xena's lips.  Xena stilled - waiting and wanting it all. Yet she teasingly drew back, her one eyebrow raised. "What is this? Haven't you heard that old saying - 'wandering hands and a wayward heart?' "

Gabrielle's eyes opened wider, their brilliant green almost matching the grapes clustered above them. "I have not!" she said indignantly. "When have you ever seen that, in me?"

Xena's hand captured the fingers that still tickled under her chiton. "Not ever."

Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Not even with all those handsome young men, in my youth?"

Xena kissed the palms of Gabrielle's hands. "That wasn't you wandering. That was you being the sweetest, kindest soul I know." Gabrielle laid her cheek against the fabric above Xena's beating heart, and smiled a secret smile.

Xena quelled the sudden, unbidden image of the Pretender and Galateia that flashed into her mind, shielding it from Gabrielle. She would let her recover, first, before sharing what had been revealed in the depths of the night.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The arrival of Talia interrupted their interlude. She came seeking Gabrielle. They had planned a visit to the House of Healing - where Talia had been spending most of her days since the arrival: observing, talking, listening, and assisting with the care of those women suffering various ailments.   She had settled into a routine much like the one she had followed at their old village. Although she was not the person in charge, she seemed content with her role, and was eager to build a good relationship with her counterpart, Kallidike. They shared a deep love of their work. Gabrielle was glad, because that meant Talia's own healing was happening, and she would be able to go on into the future, her head held high - and with her love of Eponin something to cherish, intact.

"What's the news, Talia?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze pulling away from Xena's somewhat petulant expression.

The woman stopped, flustered, as she realized she had interrupted a very private moment. "O, my Queens! Please forgive me! I can come back later . . ." She began backing up. "I just thought you might have recovered enough to come with me, today. Like we planned?"

"Oh, Talia – it's all right – really! We were . . . just . . . ah. . "   Gabrielle stuttered, and then stopped, the heat rising in her face. Xena clasped her hand, and shook it slightly.

"Talia – Gabrielle seems to be recovering nicely. As the official Healer to the Queens, I am sure you are pleased!" Xena smiled innocently.

"Oh, yes . . . of course, I am happy to hear it, my Queens! Although really, Xena – you are much more the healer for yourselves than I could ever be.  Has there been anything, yet, from Galateia or her Council? It is quiet in the town. We have not had any reaction at all from anyone. We expected at least something – but no one has said anything to any of us about the ceremony. It is strange. "

Xena shook her head. "I wouldn't wait for it. The Temple is quiet, today." Xena said, suddenly somber. "Somehow, though, I expect a visit from Galateia. This Sedate Xena Routine is sometimes really trying, I can tell you!" With obvious effort, she tried for a smile, but managed only a grimace.

Gabrielle gave Xena a thoughtful look, and nodded. "Oh, I can just guess. Well, Xe - shall we resume our . . . umm . . . conversation  . . . when I return?"

 Xena nodded, and popped a grape into her mouth.  "Have a good time." She waved them off. The cushions were already cozy. She leaned back and inhaled the lingering, citrus scent of her Bard. She wanted to think about the next step – the inevitable visit from Galateia - and maybe, after – a nap. She even managed a smile, as she heard Gabrielle's response in her head: "Sedate Xena – yeah, right!"  

"Not for much longer, I suspect." Xena said to herself, her face growing somber once more.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle and Talia ambled in companionable silence down the street toward the building that served as the House of Healing.  They passed a pleasant spot, halfway down the hill, where an old grapevine curved over a low bench. Gabrielle paused, putting her hand on Talia's arm. Talia looked at her with a questioning smile.

"Talia, can we sit a moment, here? And can I ask your opinion about something – as a friend?"

"Certainly we can, Gabrielle."

They sat together, and Gabrielle frowned as she thought through what she wanted to say. She started, cautiously. "When I look at myself in a mirror – I see someone who doesn't look a day over thirty seasons. If you just count the seasons as they normally pass, I am fifty-five seasons. But after Ares' little stunt of putting us in 'deep freeze' for so long, I have trouble seeing any changes in myself. That experience did something weird to both of us. We never got a straight answer from any of the Olympians. Now, it's too late. So now I just have to wonder."

"Well, if you want my honest opinion, you are both remarkable women. You truly do seem as if you are only thirty seasons old.   But do you fear growing old, my Queen?"

Gabrielle frowned, and looked down at her feet. She sighed heavily.

"No more than most. It is hard, because Xena and I are not normal – I mean, in the way that everyone else is normal. Normal people don't have a dragon tattoo that comes to life, or a chakram scar that harbors strange power! Not to mention the number of times we have both died to this life, and then returned. Although we do not dwell on it, I think we have both wondered if we have acquired some kind of immortality – or at least, an unusually extended lifetime. "

Talia frowned pensively. "Maybe I'm asking the wrong question."

Gabrielle looked away suddenly. Talia pulled her arm, turning Gabrielle around to face her. She saw the look - before it was quickly masked - of pain and of sadness.

"Oh, my dear . . . Is it that you are afraid you will not grow old - when all the rest of us will? It would surely be hard, saying farewell to so many of us, over the long years?"

Gabrielle did not respond. Talia looked at her with compassion. "I can't take away that fear, my friend – but I can offer you this: you and Xena have already taught us all a few things about life. Whether you go before us, or with us, or after we have long gone, that is a powerful gift." She paused, wanting to say the rest as gently as she could.  "But for the really important question - the one you haven't yet asked - I think you are no different than any of us.  I think you - like all of us - will probably live just as long as you need to."

Gabrielle nodded and then hugged her friend. "'Thanks, Talia. I guess that's what I've come to believe, but it's good to hear it from someone else."

"Any time," she hugged her back. She wondered, again, at the strange life her friend was living. "Have you and Xena . . . talked about this, at all?"

Gabrielle sighed. "At times we have - but never very comfortably - because we both feel so strangely about it. For a long time, before our deaths and resurrections, it was mostly about Xena – wondering if she were like Hercules and part immortal – because there was always some question about whether Ares was her father, or not. Now, I guess it is about both of us – and it is still awkward to discuss. I think it is very likely that we are something of Gaia – so we have been given abilities that are more than most people have, and we have that power for a reason. But what it is meant to accomplish, we still don't see."

Talia nodded. "I guess that's not so crazy. Especially as there aren't any easy answers. It's not like there's some test for it.  Or is there?"

Gabrielle laughed. "I don't know! I used to think, if someone did not ever die, it meant the person was immortal. We have died and come back. We've tempted the Fates and outwitted the Gods so often - I don't know if that counts as the test, or not!"

Talia nodded. She paused, and continued hesitantly. "Gabrielle, as long as we are truth-telling, here –may I ask you something?"

"Of course you may, Talia."

"Since we have come here, I have to say that I like most of the women we have met. They seem, as a rule, amiable and good-natured; but I wonder, if there isn't something . . . troubling about them."

Gabrielle waited.

Talia sighed. "Maybe it is just my imagination, but I could swear that they all seem . . . well, kind of flat to me."

'Flat?" Gabrielle frowned.

"Actually, they remind me of  . . . sheep.  .  ." She cleared her throat, and smiled apologetically.  "I don't mean to belittle them! It's just that they never seem to have any opinions! The stories they have told us, of their lives? They're boring. There's no . . . excitement to them!" She sighed again. 'Have you noticed this, at all?"

Gabrielle looked at Talia, frown lines puckered between her eyes. She thought of the conversations she had had, since their arrival, with the inhabitants.

"Well, Talia. Maybe it's because they've not had the stress that we have had. Maybe that's what peaceful life is like. We're not exactly familiar with it, are we? I'm not even sure I know what it is, to be peaceful!"

Talia grinned. "Maybe," she replied, skeptically. "But if that's true, I guess I'm not sure the peaceful life is what I really want, after all! Anyway, it's been bothering many of us – not just me – that everyone here is so remarkably dull!"

 They both laughed, and Gabrielle answered. "Well, I sure won't mind giving it a try, anyway – just to find out! We can always get up a lively hand-to-hand competition if we need some stimulation!"

They laughed again - then agreed they had better get on with their intended visit. Rising from the pleasant seat, they continued down the steep hill to the broad avenue below, and then crossed the wide square to the House of Healing. They pulled open the heavy door, and entered the cool recesses within. The building was shaped in a square, with rooms all around a center courtyard that was open to the sky and the sun. They walked through the arched hall to the courtyard, where they found Kallidike sitting under an old cedar tree with her two young apprentices.  

"May Gaia give you peace, my Queen . . . Thalia?" Kallidike rose, and bowing her head to Gabrielle. "I hope you are well?"

"Greetings, Kallidike," Gabrielle responded. "I am fine, now, thanks. All that must have been . . . startling to witness, I am sure. I do not relish these experiences, frankly. They are always a trial to me. But it is a part of me, now, and I must accept what comes of it." She paused, thoughtful. "I hope it was not too disturbing for the women of Myrina. We do not mean to do anything to which you would take offense."

Kallidike nodded, calmly. "I am sure, my Queen, that we will all come to understand the meaning of Gaia's actions. It is not always so clear. We must wait for further guidance."

Gabrielle gazed at the healer. She saw only calm, which unaccountably disturbed her more than had the response been anger, or resentment. What were these women feeling? Why did they never express it?  Talia's observations flooded into her mind, but she put them aside, firmly. It was not the appropriate time to cloud this visit. She affectionately clasped the healer's hand. "We have come to visit the women who are healing." Gabrielle smiled at the others clustered nearby. "Is Lykia here with you? I had hoped to speak with her. I need the practice with our sign-language."

Kallidike shook her head. "No, My Queen. She is not here."  She gestured for them to follow her. She led them to the opposite side of the courtyard, and through a connecting door to a long room, containing some pallets, where several reclining figures took their ease while they were being treated. The group moved among the figures, stopping here and there, as Gabrielle took their hands, and stooping, kissed the foreheads of the silent women.

A sudden commotion heralded the arrival of someone in need of help. Two women held another in a basket-carry - her leg stuck out in front of her, wrapped in bloody bandages, and a hastily contrived tourniquet made from one of their girdles. The woman was pale, sweating, and half-swooning. Kallidike, Talia and Gabrielle all went into swift action. They laid her on an empty pallet, calling to one of the apprentices for sutures, cloths, water and the ointment against infection. Talia questioned the two who had brought her, to determine what had happened, while Gabrielle applied pressure to the bandage directly over the wound. The woman had been cutting back old grapevines, and the cutting tool had slipped, and embedded itself in her thigh. They had pulled it out, and it was clear that the woman had lost much blood in getting her to the healers.

Kallidike took the container handed to her by one of the assistants, opened it, and then calmly said "I wanted the other. This is just the earth for the bee-stings - it is useless for this.  Go back for the ointment." The girl turned to walk from the room.

Gabrielle's head came up, and she looked at the box in Kallidike's hand.  A strange, dizzy feeling surged over her, and she heard herself speaking, in low, urgent tones. "Kallidike! Call her back, quickly! Send her to Richa Nera and have her bring a flask of the liquid from the Altar – from Gaia's Bowl - HURRY!"

The young woman turned back towards the clustered figures, a questioning look on her face. Kallidike spoke to her. "Go, now. Do as she says." The youngster turned and calmly walked out. The Healer turned a questioning gaze toward Gabrielle. "What is it, my Queen? What do you mean to do?"

Gabrielle shook her head, the buzzing feeling still with her. "When she returns," was all she said.

Gabrielle waited, agonized, as the moments passed with infinitesimal slowness. The girl finally returned, holding ewer to her chest, so as not to spill it. She brought it up to Kallidike, her arm outstretched. Gabrielle, still leaning on the wound with all her weight behind her hands, nodded her head at the other assistant. "Now get her a mortar. Quickly!" The girl went over to a long shelf, filled with vials and boxes and bags of healing medicines. She returned with a mortar and pestle. Kallidike opened the box, and poured out a good amount of the reddish earth into the mortar. Then she did likewise with the pitcher, the liquid flowing milky into the bowl. Kallidike stirred the mixture, creating a paste the consistency of curdled cream. The stuff had a bubbling quality to it. She looked at it, then at Gabrielle. "Now what do we do?"

"Bring it here." Gabrielle instructed. "When I pull the bandage off, you scoop that – all of it – directly into the wound. You must be quick!" With that, she suddenly released the pressure of her hands leaning on the wound, and snatched the blood-soaked pad away. The horrid, gaping wound welled up with thick, dark blood. Kallidike leaned in, and did just as Gabrielle had instructed. The sticky, frothy red paste completely covered the wound, and there was a sudden silence, as they all watched, and waited, to see the result. They all sighed with relief, when nothing happened. There was no sudden surge of blood – no blood at all, in fact.

Her head in a strange fog, sounds strangely muffled in her ears, Gabrielle – trance-like - stretched out her arm, and held her hand palm-down over the site. The paste began to glow with a strange, reddish light.  Then it died away. She slowly passed her hand over it once more. The glowing intensified - then died away again. The wound now appeared as though it had scabbed over. The others stared at Gabrielle, their faces awed.

Talia used a cold wet cloth to wipe the forehead of the injured woman. They had put a bolster under her head, and had another large pillow under her injured leg. Talia felt her forehead, and then put her fingertips to the side of the woman's neck – feeling for the life-pulse, there. She nodded. "It is good - steady, and not too fast. She will make it." She proceeded to cover the injury with a clean pad of cloth, and loosely wrapped the leg with gauze. She then gestured for the two companions of the woman to come forward. They moved to the side of the pallet. "Sit beside her, and stay company with her." They sank down, dust and sweat still streaking their cheeks.

Gabrielle sat back, feeling the depletion that follows intense action and anxiety.

Kallidike shook her head in wonderment. "My Queen – how did you . . . ?"

Gabrielle looked up, puzzlement showing on her face. "Oh – I saw it!" she answered, vaguely.  "I . . . it rolled out before me, like one of my stories . . .  But let us go out to the courtyard. They can stay with her. She needs silence, now – and healing rest." The three women and the two attendants walked back out into the courtyard. They sat under the tree once more. The assistants brought a pitcher of water, a bowl, and a towel, that the Queen might wash the blood from her hands.

"Where does this earth come from, Kallidike?" Gabrielle asked, as she held her hands over the bowl, as the attendant poured the water over them. She wiped them dry with the towel, and nodded her head in gratitude to the young woman.

"It comes from another of our sacred sites, my Queen. It lies to the north, in a very rugged place. It is called Gaia's Cradle.  A wide, shallow depression in the land, which probably used to be a lake, but now is dried up; and what remains is a huge area of red, cracked mud. Nothing grows there. We discovered some time ago that the mud, when mixed with water, helps heal the stings of bees, and is also good for snake-bite."

"I see." Gabrielle said. "Well, it now appears that it is able to do even more than that!"

"Indeed, my Queen. Although I would say, you have caused it to change. I am thankful to you for giving it this new healing property. It will mean a great deal more to us, now."

"Oh – No . . . it wasn't I who did anything!" Gabrielle appeared flustered at this idea. She shook her head. "No . . .  really – it was the water from the Altar – really!"

Their conversation was interrupted by one of the companions of the injured woman, who came running out to where they were seated.

"Healer!  Come quick!"

Gabrielle, Kallidike and Thalia rose and followed her into the room. They approached the pallet, and could see that the woman had regained her senses, and was attempting to sit up.

"Hold, my sister." Kallidike commanded her. "Stay put. You have had a nasty injury. I do not want you to move around, just yet."

The woman looked up at her confusedly. "But I'm fine!"

The three women clustered around her. Thalia undid the bandage that held the pad of cloth over the wound. She gently pulled it back, and gasped. "Kallidike, Gabrielle – look!"

They all bent forward.  Thalia gently wiped away the residue of reddish dust that obscured the wound site. Where minutes before there had been such a terrible, gaping wound – there was now just a faint scar.

 They all looked at the leg, and then at one another, in astonishment. Then they turned, as one, and looked at her with awe on their faces. She could deny it all she wanted – it was the water, certainly - but it was Gabrielle, as well.

"O, Sweet Artemis! What have I done?" Gabrielle whispered.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 Chapter 3

After a brief nap, Xena got up and crossed to the arched entry to the house. She ascended the stone stairs to the upper floor, then down the hall to the room that Gabi had taken to calling the 'scriptorium' - where she was planning to house the scrolls of her own stories, and those that told of the Amazon Nation. Xena had set up a large table for her near the wide window, so that it caught the best light of the day. This was where work would begin on the fire-lost scrolls. Xena had an idea, already, for a wall of cubbyholes, like the chest Gabrielle had, back in the Amazon Village – only this would need to be made of the local brickwork – wood being so scarce here. She even had a design in mind for the glazed tiles she would put between each cubby. She was looking forward to the physical labor of making this for her Gabi. With any luck, it would be completed in time for their Mating Day – at the Spring Equinox.

Here also, on the opposite wall, was another kind of repository - where Xena had mounted all the accoutrements of the Warrior Princess years. There was the sword and scabbard, as well as the katana from Jappa, her armor, whip and breast knife, their bows and arrows, and Gabrielle's staff and the sais.  It was a sobering sight. She sat down on a bench nearby, and gazed at the wall of the Past. 

"Can I possibly hope that these will now gather dust, and never have to be used again?" she muttered pensively. She rubbed her hand on the scar at her neck, sighed, and shook her head.  "Don't hold your breath for that one, Xena. Life has shown you many surprises – but so far, peace has never been one of them!"

She rose from the bench, and restlessly paced up and down the length of the room, talking to herself. "That charade in the cavern stank of more than just cremated remains. I didn't like the look of that mumbo-jumbo. It smacked too much of Alti, for my liking!  Alti . . ." she frowned, her thoughts pulled to the past. "I wonder . . . if this Pretender is any kin to her. She certainly has the ruthlessness and the appetites." Her mind cast back to the Bad Old Days, when she was pursued by the thoroughly wicked shamaness. "More than a passing similarity, here . . . I wonder . . ."

She stopped before the weapons wall, eyeing the objects. Then she took down her own sword, and strode out of the room. She ran lightly down the stairs, and back out into the courtyard. She stopped in the center of the open, paved area and went completely still. She began, slowly and methodically, to go through her warm-up routine. If nothing else, it kept her limber, attuned to her body and its needs. As she felt her muscles warming up and stretching out, she picked up the pace. Soon, the sword was a blur, as she executed the parries and counter-parries, thrusts and counter-thrusts; and then began to work in the flips, front and back. Her body was freely sweating, now, and she suddenly found herself grinning with delight, at the easy rhythm of it all, and the old familiar feeling of her blood singing in her veins. She laughed, and then let loose with a Warrior Princess yell, just for good measure. Then she stopped, panting just a little, and leaned on her sword pommel . . . and waited.

"Xena! Is everything all right?" Paphos' voice preceded her as she came out onto the terrace. She came closer and whispered. "Galateia is finally here to see you. Io is guarding her in the entrance hall."

She grinned at Paphos.. "Everything's fine! I was just having myself a little workout! Go ahead and send her through. Tell Io to ease up."

Paphos nodded, and turned back. Xena called out after her, "Gabrielle and I are going for a swim, later – we'll bring back lobsters for the evening meal!"

 "Oh - good idea! How many of us are there to be tonight?"

"I think just the four of us."

Paphos nodded, and strolled back into the house. Xena leaned back, waiting, admiring the way the sunlight was filtering through the vines. She willed herself to be calm This was going to be awkward, at the very least. Galateia emerged from the house, looking warily about her.     

"Will you take a cup?" Xena waved the flagon. Galateia nodded. Xena poured her a cup, and held it out to her. Galateia came over, and accepted the cup.

"Why don't you sit and make yourself comfortable?" Xena suggested.

Galateia looked around, then walked over and sat down on the nearby stone bench. She sipped her wine nervously. "I . . . hope Queen Gabrielle is . . . well?"

Xena nodded. "Well enough. The  . . . after-effects of her experience at the Old Mother's ceremony have diminished. Other times, she has recovered fully after a day or two."

Galateia looked startled. "Other  . . . there have been other times?"

Xena sipped her wine. Leaning over, she selected a chunk of cheese from the plate, then tore off a piece of bread from the loaf, wrapped the cheese with the bread, and chewed on it thoughtfully. She took another long swallow of the wine, to wash it down.

"Actually, twice – besides this time.  Once in Jappa, where the Dragon saved Gabrielle from the attack of a Demon. And before we got here, it saved both of us from being reduced to cinders when the Grove of Artemis was burned to the ground." She put down her cup and picked up the sword, and rested it across her knees. She did not feel like going on about it. Small talk had always tried her patience; but she needed to draw this woman out. She needed answers.

Galateia moved uncomfortably, her eye on the sharp sword in Xena's hands.

"Tell me something, Galateia . . . who is Gaia?"

"Gaia is our Goddess." Galateia answered promptly.

"No. Who is Gaia?"  Xena calmly asked again.

Galateia flushed. "You question the devotion to the Goddess?"

"No - I do not question your devotion. I question how you show that devotion, and how you are choosing to interpret that devotion . . . So I am asking you again – who is this Gaia-person?"

Galateia shifted uneasily in her seat. She seemed to have forgotten her drink, which she held clutched in her hand.

"My Queen!" she said, her voice catching with dryness. "I have come today to apologize to you and Queen Gabrielle. I . . . we did not realize the extent of your powers. We did not understand how . . . how much your coming would change our lives, and our ways." She paused, waiting for Xena's response.

"All right – we're coming up to it, now. This is all about their power, and our power, and my reputation."   Xena changed her tack, going oblique once again. "I'd suggest you take a drink of that. I do not mean to discomfit you." Xena waited calmly. Then she leaned forward once again. "I still am waiting for your answer, my Priestess." Her use of the possessive was deliberate. Galateia swallowed nervously. Her face had turned pale, and still. She again eyed Xena's sword uneasily.

"You may speak frankly with me, Galateia. I am not here to denigrate the Goddess, or your belief in Her. I am also not here to deny the Amazons of Lemnos a full, rich and devoted expression of their love for the Goddess. I am here to make sure that the women of Lemnos are safe and secure, and untroubled by any form of oppression: either from the world out there, or the world of this island. That I will do. It is time, now, for you to explain what is going on here, and why."  Her dark blue eyes gazed levelly at Galateia, and she waited for the woman's response.

"It is nothing, my Queen. It is a device, only - a way to give us the semblance of Her presence. It is a focus for our rituals and ceremonies. A . . . a drama, if you will."

"Really? If that is all, then why was the Old Mother so disturbed that she felt she had to turn back from her patient waiting for Elysium, in fear of losing that safe passage? She surely would not have bothered, if all this was just a performance!"

Galateia swallowed nervously. She twisted the cup in her hands. 'I . . . I don't know what you want to hear."

Xena's eyes blazed. "No? Then what I said at the ceremony came as a complete surprise to you? You had no idea what I meant when I answered your 'goddess'? I find that hard to believe." Xena sat back, waiting.

Galateia tipped her head forward, seeming to study the contents of her cup. Xena could tell there was a silent conversation going on. She sat, motionless, and cast out her senses, searching for the murmur of the mental voices. Yes – there they were – just beyond the edge of hearing. If she stretched out a bit further, into the velvet of that inner dimension, she sensed the other – the dark presence they had challenged in the cavern.

Galateia stared, preoccupied with the internal communing.  Then she suddenly sat up, lifting her chin - her gaze and attention returning to Xena.

"Verdict reached, then?" Xena asked, dryly.

Galateia shook her head impatiently. "It is not that simple, my Queen. We have worked long years, here, to establish a sanctuary for our Amazons, so that they could live peaceful and productive lives without fear of aggression. It is paramount to the Goddess that you do not jeopardize what we have built! I understand that you have all had a difficult, painful journey to these shores, and that you wish nothing more than to settle here and be free of it all . . . but that has its price. We in the Temple are bound to uphold the laws we have formulated." She stopped abruptly, as if she were frightened she had gone too far. She looked again at the sword in Xena's lap. "You . . . you push the Goddess too far. She does not take kindly to her power being . . . questioned."

Xena sat back, idly fingering the sword, studying her. Galateia was a striking young woman – no question. She had coal black hair, honey-colored skin, deeply set brown eyes, and a well-formed body. There was no indication of bruising or injury. She seemed none the worse for the scene Xena had witnessed. She did not want to antagonize this woman – who was a key to their successful integration into the fabric of Lemnos – but she also did not want to be manipulated by her – or the so-called 'goddess.'  She gazed directly into Galateia's eyes - her own turning the color of lapis.

"I think maybe you are getting Gaia and this 'stand-in' mixed up. Where does the actor leave off and the Goddess begin? Perhaps it is finally time for you to tell me what the price is, for admission to Lemnos. We have been very well-fed, well-housed, and well-entertained guests here, so far, Galateia. However, that is not the same as fully-embraced Amazon Queens of the Tribe of Lemnos." she said, keeping her voice measured, low, and calm.

Galateia's eyes dropped. She moistened her lips, wiped her hands on the fabric of her chiton, and ignored the first question completely. "The Goddess traditionally requires the surrender of all weapons and an Oath of Submission."

"Surrender? Submission? Maybe we are now talking about someone who has more power than ordinary Amazons do, and who postures as a 'goddess' to get what she wants." Xena's voice took on a sharper, more dangerous quality. "And this is all given to that 'player'?" She waited for Galateia's reply.

Galateia raised her eyes again. "She is the embodiment of Gaia. She acts for Gaia in this, and in all other rituals. There is no separation between her and the Goddess, for the women of Lemnos."

"Let me make sure I am getting this. Your expectation is that Gabrielle and I, and all the Amazons from Thessaly who came over with us will surrender our weapons, and our . . . what you call 'soul's burden' to that  . . . person?" Her raised eyebrows and suddenly fierce expression was not lost on the Priestess.

She inclined her head; then looked up once again, into the brilliant gaze of those dark blue eyes. "That is the custom, my Queen."

"I see." Xena leaned forward. "So tell me: when you have had other Amazons come here, say from the high steppes of Anatolia - as we did from Thessaly - what did this 'Gaia' do with their weapons?"  She looked curiously at the woman. "They must have brought their weapons with them, surely, as we have done?" Xena leaned forward, presenting a conciliatory manner. She rested her elbows on her knees, keeping the sword lying across her lap. "So – did they willingly give them up to your 'goddess'? "Did she destroy them? Moreover, while we are at it, please - tell me the nature of this oath. I am eager to have that explained."

The Priestess sat, silent, her gaze turned inward once more. Xena sighed, and tapped her foot impatiently. She would much rather speak with the Pretender, directly, than have to go through this well-meaning but obviously enthralled young woman. "Oh, well – in for a dinar - I might as well just go all out." Sensing that she would need to take a more conciliatory tone, she elaborated.

"Galatea, I am not blind. I see that it must be hard for anyone who comes here to understand how this island remains a carefully protected sanctuary in the eye of a very stormy world. I admit that I struggle to trust my own longing for such a home! I know that there must have been women who would have been even more of a problem than I might have been, in my youth – and they would be difficult to convert to a . . . passive state. Amazon warriors are used to a life of fighting. I ask this, because I know that some of our own companions are having a hard time. It is a strange new environment for them: different houses to live in, different clothing, no horses, even – although it took a while for our Amazons to adapt to the horse, having started out as foot-stealthy tree-dwellers! The food they eat - everything is new, and different! They will need to have a way to talk about the frightful things they have experienced in their lives, and an alternative way to channel their own aggression – peacefully. I must find a way to help them make whatever adjustment is necessary, so they can live long, happy lives, and not ever regret, coming here. If you have a way that works, I would appreciate knowing of it. I want very much to understand." She waited, curious to see what the response would be.

"It is a simple thing, really. There is a ceremony, the weapons are surrendered, the Oath administered and the soul's burden relinquished. Then all is peaceful."

"Maybe I am slow of wit, today. Humor me. What do you mean when you say 'the soul's burden is relinquished'?"

Galatea sighed, her tone that of a long-suffering adult speaking to a wayward child. "It is easy enough!  The Dark One – the living manifestation of Gaia's dark side – performs a 'laying on' of the hands, and she receives from each supplicant the dark dreams, memories, and pains that they have suffered in this life. "

Xena sagged back in her seat, as the significance of this washed over her. 'O, my sweet Gabi – this is shades of your flirtation with Mnemosyne and of mine with the Fates. She is relieving the women of Lemnos of their emotions and memories, and weaving these into an invisible shield to cloak the island!"  She felt an immediate surge of concern from Gabrielle.

The hapless Galateia continued explaining. "They must give up killing. There must be no temptation to go back to the old ways. We . . . take the temptation away, by destroying the weapons. The Oath, and the transfer of the soul's burden, completes the passage."

Xena nodded thoughtfully. "I see . . .  ('Not to mention making sure no one – including the Queens - threatens the peace from within . . . How could we,  with all our memories scrubbed of any conflict or pain?") In that case, what did she do with . . . recalcitrant warriors? I assume there were some. If they were anything like the old Xena used to be, I'm surprised you convinced any of them, considering what they must have gone through to get here."

Galateia shifted uncomfortably under Xena's gaze. "Oh . . . well . . . it wasn't anything so terrible, really. They were simply . . . isolated."

"Isolated?" Xena's eyebrows shot up.

Galateia nodded. "Yes, my Queen. They were shunned. They were banished to the other side of the island, where they live . . . apart.  They were also denied access to the TribeMind."

Xena cast her senses speedily to the north. The emotions she expected – dark anger and sorrow - were not there. Instead, she came up against what she could only feel was something like a blanket – a muffled blurry mass that gave no clue to anyone living in that place. She felt her eyes tearing. "Such cruelty here - why deny them the mental connection? What purpose does that serve?"  Her throat closed with the pain she felt so keenly. She knew that despair. She had lived there once, herself. She felt her own anger, and frustration, at not being able to sense these 'Outcasts.'

"How . . . many have there been? And how long has this been so?"

Galateia shrugged. "Maybe two score . . . thereabouts. I have lost track, over time. It has been, oh – maybe twelve seasons, since we had any number of . . . reluctant refugees. Until your tribe came, we have had no other arrivals. We doubt there will be any more. It is not possible, now."

"Not possible? We came, didn't we?"

Galateia looked uncomfortable. "Well, of course, that is different. We knew of your coming. That is why we came out to greet your ship. The Old Mother . . . made a way for you."

Xena nodded.  "I see. Getting back to the 'Outcasts' - have their numbers increased, now that they live beyond contact with the women of Lemnos?"

"I know not." She shook her head, her shoulder lifting dismissively. "All things considered, it has worked out for the best, this way. The island remains safe. The Amazons of Lemnos are at peace. We have no bloodshed, no violence, and no sorrow born of strife. It is a goodly life. One we will not willingly give up." The warning was obvious.

There was a long silence. Xena worked to get her emotions under control.

Do you at least trade with them?" Xena asked.

"No, we do not trade. There is hardly enough along that shore, to eke out a living. What would they trade? It would be ridiculous." She shook her head. "They doomed themselves, by their willful refusal to join with us! We had solved the problem. Why did they intentionally reject that? It was nonsense. There was no other solution imaginable. Gaia pronounced judgment upon them – and that was the end of it."

"Gaia?" Xena asked - her voice sharp.  "Or was it Gaia's 'stand in'?"

Galateia shrugged. "It is all the same, to us."

 "How much land do they hold, in this 'cast-off' place?" Xena asked - her voice icy.

"Enough." Galateia responded. "The boundary is about a league in from the shoreline, and stretches across the top of the island."

"And how do they live?"

"As best they can, I imagine . . . Gaia provides." She responded

"Ah, Gaia provides, but of course - so that your Gaia should not have to," Xena responded, her forthright assessment causing the Priestess to flinch. "How do you enforce this . . .  separation? What keeps them apart? Would that also be the ShieldWall your 'goddess' referred to, last night?"

Galateia stared at Xena, a look of anguish now entering her expression. "You don't understand, my Queen! It works! Gaia has provided us this way to keep all of us safe and secure. We saw how well it worked, and we have kept it strong, all these years. We have kept out those who would destroy the peace we have. You cannot conceive how good it has been, here, without all the violence, the anger, and the fear!" Her hands twisted in her lap, the wine cup forgotten on the seat beside her. "Don't you see, my Queen? We have awaited your coming for our entire lives! We have been told, since we were babes, that you would come to us, and be healed of all you have suffered, and endured. That the Amazons remaining in the Wide World would come home to us; and we would succor them, and heal their wounds, and they would all find peace, here! Oh, why do you not see?"

Xena continued to stare at the woman, her emotions roiling. "O, my sweet Gabrielle – we have a large problem, here – and one that will take all the tact we can muster.  Something I'm running short of, at the moment!"  She felt a twinge from her mate – a reassuring surge of warmth that helped calm her anger. She sighed.

"Galateia – I know that it will take time for you to trust us, and for us to understand what you have accomplished on Lemnos. I am now going to make a pledge to you. If you knew anything of me, you would know that I do not pledge myself lightly! I always . . .  always keep my word. I say to you that there will be no return to the ways of violence and warfare on this island. There will be no erosion of the peace and safety of the women of Lemnos. I will take these . . . 'Outcasts' under my protection; and I will find a way to return them to the love of their sisters, and their rightful place in this society. I may not do so in the way you have chosen, but you will have to find a way to accept them – and they will learn to accept you. Beyond that, your 'Dark One' is going to have to relinquish the role that she has played - now that we are here, and ready to assume our rightful dominion and protection of this island, and of the Amazons of Lemnos. We have come at the Old Mother's calling. The terms of the prophesy charge us, as the rightful Queens, to bring Lemnos into the Light. The big question now is - do we have your support, in this matter? I need to know - are you truly empowered as the High Priestess of the Temple of Gaia - or are you enthralled to this Pretender? Do you need our help, Galateia?" Xena paused. "Please, let her give me some sign," she thought.

Galateia's face was pale, and her brow was sweating. She looked at her abandoned cup – then snatched it up, and drained it of the remaining wine.

A sudden commotion interrupted the thick tension between them. Xena knew instantly that Gabrielle had returned. They both watched, as the sun-browned figure crossed the gap between the arched entryway and the arbor where they sat. She came up behind Xena, who felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Xena reached up and gave it a squeeze. Then she took the sword from her knees, and laid it across the table.

"Greetings, Galateia!" Gabrielle spoke, her voice cheerful. "How goes it, with you?" She crossed to the table, poured herself a cup of the wine, and plucked a ripe fig from the bowl of fruit. Then she plopped herself down on the flagstones at Xena's feet, and sat back between Xena's long legs. She took a healthy mouthful from the cup. "I have just been to the House of Healing, with Talia. It has been a very extraordinary day!" She took a bite of the fig, and waited expectantly for them to urge her on.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Gabrielle's eyes drew together, a slight frown between them. She had hoped to calm the situation with her light-hearted approach. Xena put her hand to Gabrielle's head, and combed her fingers affectionately backwards through the thick, silvery-gold hair.

"We've just been discussing some . . . issues . . . my love." Xena said, lightly. "But I'm sure we'd both like to hear about it." She looked across at Galateia, who visibly relaxed; relieved, no doubt, to be out from under the white-hot intensity of Xena, aroused. . . ".But - before you do – Galateia was about to give me an answer. And I'd just like to get that out of the way, before we change the subject." Her eyes narrowed as she watched as the woman's face, where an ill-concealed battle was raging.

Gabrielle smiled. "Oh, of course – I will surely defer to our Priestess! And what is your answer, Galateia?"  She gazed curiously at the woman. She had of course picked up most of the conversation, while she was walking back from the House of Healing – having 'listened in' after the fist surge of outrage from Xena.

The woman hunched her shoulders, the conflict apparent in her face. She seemed uneasy. She tried to mask this – but not quickly enough, so both women caught the underlying anxiety.

'As I suspected," Xena thought to Gabrielle. "She's caught in a net she can't easily get out of." Gabrielle's hand caressed Xena's calf.

Galateia had recovered her mask of calm, and answered. "I can only take this back to the Temple, and confer with the Dark One."  Her face had resumed the expressionless mask of her position, but the woman who looked out of her eyes was a frightened, unhappy soul.

"Oh, adroitly done, my Priestess," Gabrielle thought, "And you have told us volumes, without need of words: So much for the serenity of relinquishing your soul's burden! One thing at a time, though. The lines are drawn."

Xena nodded. "Thank you, Galateia. We shall not fail in our obligation to any of the Amazons of Lemnos - including you. I expect you to take the rest of what I have said under advisement. We will surely have more to discuss – and soon."

Galateia inclined her head, but said nothing more. She rose, and strode off to the side gate. Xena and Gabrielle gazed after her.

"Well," Gabrielle said, "that was revealing. Do you think she is being manipulated?"

Xena reached down and gave her a hug. "She is being bullied and intimidated," she whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "And I think she is in danger."

"Of course she is." Gabrielle agreed, turning to look up at Xena. "And we'll have to rescue her, won't we?"

Xena nodded.

Gabrielle sighed. "Okay . . . put it on the list: Save the Outcasts, save Galateia, and vanquish the Pretender. Just, please – can we go for a swim, first?"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

They made their way down to the harbor, and then took the path that curved out around the edge of the bay, toward a beach of white sand. As they walked, Xena filled Gabrielle in on the exchange with Galateia.

"Do you think Galateia got it? I mean, got that you suspect she is in trouble?"

Xena shook her head. "I hope that what I said, and how I said it, will sink in. I do not see her as an adversary, but I am certain that she is in thrall to this person, and - no, I don't think the Pretender is anything even approaching a goddess. I know that what our InSight saw in Galateia is still there - but buried deep, now. Her youthful altruism and enthusiasm for the Legend of the Chakram and the Dragon were probably how she began her Stewardship.  I think that time - and the influence of this hidden person - has ensnared her. And we're beginning to get a hint of why the Old Mother was so keen to get us here." She smiled bleakly at Gabrielle, who was walking, head down, her brow furrowed in thought, as she listened to Xena. "I just wish she trusted us, more I think we need to find out who this ''Dark One' really is, and the source of her power over Galatea and the others on this island, before she does any more harm to any of them. She is already causing Galateia great suffering."

Gabrielle nodded, thoughtful. 'That one reminds me too much of Alti. Oh gosh, Xe – do you suppose . . .?"

Xena shook her head vehemently.  "No way - that one is permanently gone. But I agree – there is a similarity. I suspect this one has been trained as a shamaness, somewhere – the ritual she was performing reminded me of Anatolian practices. I have to tell you – her hold over Galateia includes bondage."

Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, her face anguished. "Gods, Xe – are you sure?"

Xena nodded. "The night of the funeral, I saw them. You don't want to know the details," she said, dryly.

"We've got to do something, Xena!"

"I know. We will."

"You have a plan?"

"Beginning to," Xena said, laconically. "but first, we need reinforcements."

"You mean, the Outcasts?"

"Exactly - and you need to summon the Egyptians. We're going to need all the help we can muster. We have to move quickly, so she isn't put into any more danger. I'm worried for Lykia, as well. None of us have seen her since the Old Mother's ritual."

"So – we go soon?"

"Soon."

"Just you and me? Just the two of us? No horse?"

"No horse." Xena's expression softened.

"No tagalongs?"

"Nope." Xena's mouth twitched. Despite the dire circumstances, they needed this – the banter between them they'd had so long ago, and shared, in the old days. It had made so much bearable.

 "What about the usual dim-witted but adoring villagers?" Gabrielle's chin quivered.

"Hmmm . . . I don't know about villagers. There might be some adoring Amazons - but they're not dim-witted, as a rule." Xena's eyes danced.

"Can I bring my scrolls - and my staff?"

"Oh, my love! Could I expect anything less?"

 Gabrielle shook her head, and they both broke up with laughter.  When they had managed to catch their breath, Gabrielle shook her head, wiping the tears out of her eyes. "We'll never get away with it! We have to be Queens. We have to have meetings! How are we going to manage this in secrecy – when everyone is one big 'group hug'?

"Oh, I don't know - I think we might manage. We could leave Alysia and the Council in charge. It would work to our advantage, by the same token. We have the InSight, so it's not as if we'd be out of touch. We'll just need to shield our interactions from the Lemnian women"

"Do we dare go off and leave our Tribe at the mercy of the Pretender? Do you think Galateia is safe, now that you have thrown down the challenge? Do they think we will just go quietly like sheep to the slaughter? I have had my fill of Lethe, Xena – I am not going to give up my memories – no matter how painful they have been!"

Xena shook her head. "I know. I will not give up mine, either – not again! We need to show them another way, Gabrielle: the way of the Light. As we have always done.  Look at what happened, just today, with you and that healing. It is another way that you found. Why do you suppose they hadn't figured that out, already?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Don't know, Xe. It seemed such a simple thing, when it happened. It was like I was meant to know it, all along."

"Exactly - we seem to draw on the InSight to bring about healing. If I hadn't done the chakram thing, and you hadn't released the Dragon, do you suppose the essence of the Old Mother would have ended up in the fluid? Then been available to transform that dirt? Somehow, I doubt it. No – it was something about you that made it change, when you combined the two and helped heal that woman's injury. We disrupted the intent of the 'Dark One', to suck all the dark memories of the Old Mother into the ShieldWall. Instead, the goodness and the Light of the Old Mother caused the change in the waters. Maybe that's why the same things don't happen with them. They're all too dopey."

Gabrielle shook her head. 'I guess that's what the Old Mother meant, about you and I being from the true Gaia. We seem to have access to power that they do not – even though we share the InSight. At least, they have something that is akin to our InSight - but the 'Dark One' is perverting it. All these women walk around Lemnos, now, with gaps in themselves. They have paid too high a price for their happiness and peace, and they don't even know it. Won't we have to do something about this, for Galateia - and against this Pretender - before we go?"

Xena nodded. "Looks like it. I would not want any oath-taking or weapons confiscating happening while we are gone. Or that Galateia should pay for our lack of piety." 

Gabrielle nodded. Then her face lit up. "Imagine – just the two of us, out on our own, going off to right the wrongs and rescue the oppressed! Imagine that!"

They looked at one another ruefully. Some things would never change.

When they reached the beach, they disrobed. Gabrielle unfastened her sandals and took off running across the sand and into the aquamarine water. Xena followed after. They whooped and sputtered as they dove in; and, swimming with powerful strokes, they raced one another out into the bay. Gabrielle's arms and shoulders were powerful, but Xena had those long legs, so they were surprisingly well matched.

They arrived together at a small flat rock that stuck up from the floor of the bay, and hoisted themselves out of the water onto its surface, to let the warm sun dry them. Xena lay on her back, the water droplets glittering on her tanned skin, her eyes closed. Her chest heaved as she panted from the exertion of the swim. Gabrielle lay beside her, on her stomach, propped up on her elbows. She could feel the soft, caressing breeze across the surface of her skin, and she shivered in delight. She exhilarated in the sudden rush of feeling, as the knowledge welled up within her: they were equally matched – full partners. She pushed up onto her knees, placing her hands on either side of Xena, and brushed her tongue across Xena's chest, licking up the salty droplets. Xena jumped, reflexively, at the feel of it - keeping her eyes closed against the sun. Gabrielle watched, as the aureoles darkened in relief, and the nipples swelled and hardened with desire. Xena's hands grabbed Gabi's shoulders.

"What are you doing to me?" she growled.

"O, I am loving you, my Xena," Gabrielle said, her voice husky with emotion.

"Huh. Two lecherous old women," Xena smiled, her eyes still closed - arms reaching around the sweet, familiar body, pulling her close. As the sun traveled west in the sky, their figures began to move in the age-old dance.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 4

The following morning, Xena and Gabrielle met with Alysia, the Council of Thessalonian Amazons, Io, and Paphos. They explained the situation – Xena's conversation with Galateia – and the urgency they felt to find and make contact with the Outcast Amazons. Galateia's comments had indicated to them that the band was somewhere on the north coast of Lemnos. They would visit the Temple – and after a confrontation with the High Priestess and the 'Dark One', they meant to set out for the North. In order to slip out without the inhabitants of the Temple knowing, a diversion was going to have to be set in motion, so that Xena and Gabrielle could go North, and make contact with the Outcasts as quickly as possible.

The Council was uneasy. The dark cloud of the Pretender hung above their heads, and they did not appreciate her oppressive presence. They did not want their Queens out of the picture so soon after a major confrontation. They were all for decamping, en-mass, and joining up with the Outcasts. They had lost their initial enchantment with the peaceful town of Myrina, and the women who lived there so quietly. The inhabitants' serenity now seemed ominous. Xena and Gabrielle had quite a job to convince them of the rashness of this idea.

"Look, I know how you feel." Xena said to them. "All your sympathies go out to those women, wretched in the North, isolated and probably suffering privation. You don't like it that cut off from their Tribe they live deprived of the rights they all should share as free Amazon women. You are right about that. The answer is not to add more of us to their ranks. The answer is to dissolve the Wall that separates them from the rest of us. The answer is to break the hold that this 'Dark One' has over the whole Nation."

Eusta, the one among them who had refused the InSight, now spoke. "But how will that keep all of us safe, Xena? The 'ShieldWall' you talk of is surely effective, in keeping out the hordes we have just escaped. How will you defend us without it? Isn't this just the thing that your InSight was meant to do?" 

Xena looked quietly at the assembled solemn faces.  This was going to be a hard thing to say - maybe an impossible thing to ask of them.

Gabrielle, who had been standing by silently, spoke up in her stead. "If there had been no ShieldWall, when we arrived on this island, would you have stayed, anyway? Remember – we came ignorant of its existence."

They sat, silent. She was right, of course. They had come, trusting in Artemis, They had come, trusting in Xena and Gabrielle.  They had all so longed for a safe harbor, and a quiet life.

"I know how tired you are – we all are – of encountering such fear, and violence, wherever we go.  We have to make a stand, here in Myrina, and for this whole island home. We have to build a strong, happy Tribe, who will inhabit all the hills and valleys of this place, and live together as one Nation. That will come, but only if we are willing to trust one another, and hold on to all that we are, and all that we have been, and will be. I am asking that you stay here, and not give up on your Sisters in Myrina. I am asking that you let Xena and I find a way to return the emotions, dreams and memories of these women to their rightful place, which is in their own hearts and minds.  They may find it hard to live fearlessly without the oblivion of Lethe. In the end, it will be infinitely better than the powerlessness that this ShieldWall enforces. We shall have allies arriving here, soon, in the women from Egypt. They will be able to help with this in ways I haven't even had time to explain to you all. We can do this."

Xena smiled at Gabrielle. Her Bardic Voice was strong, vibrant, and truthful. Every day, she was a demonstrably stalwart and powerful leader, the partner of her heart. "She builds them up, so I can tell them the hard part. Will it work, I wonder?" She studied the faces before them.

"There will be some disarray, when it comes time to take down the ShieldWall. I can probably guarantee that you will see some unhappy women around here. We will not let that turn to something dark for the Sisters of Thessaly. The hard battle is not for you. It is for Gabrielle and I; and it is with Galateia, the Sibyls in the Temple, and above all, with this 'Dark One' who calls herself 'Gaia.' I wish it were easy – a simple matter of going to the Temple, and casting down this Pretender – but the ShieldWall is made of the memories and feelings of all the women of Lemnos – barring the Outsiders – and they unconsciously keep it knitted together, and functioning. The 'Dark One' has merely enabled them to do this."

Gabrielle spoke up again. "In order to convince them to release the power of that ShieldWall, we must be clear about the consequences of keeping it. For all they have given up of their fears and sorrows, they have traded them for isolation, and ultimate oblivion. No one can now come to Lemnos. No one can seek refuge here, as long as the ShieldWall stands. Not one more woman in the Known World may come here, ever again, as long as the Tribe of Lemnos survives. How long would that be, with no descendants to inherit our Right of Caste? When we are all gone, what kind of a place will remain, but a deserted isle, waiting for some conqueror to claim. Who will hand down the stories of the Amazons, then? We will not let you down. We will confront them, and help them to see the right – and the only – solution."

The women conferred with one another, while the two Queens waited patiently. Io and Paphos sat quietly to one side, listening to the whole proceeding. Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at them. Then she called the meeting to order once more.

"My good Council – will you give us your support in this matter?"

Alysia stood, as the titular head of the Council. "My Queens, we are in your hands. We are for you, as we always have been, and always will be. You are our hope and our strong shield. You are our comfort, and our spirit. We await your instruction. How can we be of service, now?"

Xena heaved a sigh of relief. Then she listed quickly, ticking off her fingers as she spoke: "First, we will pay a visit to the Temple. We will not be telling Galateia and the Pretender of our plans, however. Our visit to them will be to set the "diversion" in motion. Second, we will need you, Alysia, to take over the daily decision-making. Third, we will need the rest of you to keep watch on the Temple, the Sibyls, and Galateia. I expect that the 'Dark One' will continue to remain hidden. This is not someone who walks around and barters at the marketplace, or hangs out the clothing on washday!" They all laughed, albeit nervously. "But make no mistake – you may have to act – with the full force of Amazon defensive capability, if need be. Finally, we will be going north to find the lost Amazons, and do something at least temporarily to disable the ShieldWall while we are at it. We both feel that it may become necessary for us to bring the Outcasts back with us - if they will agree - to help deal with the Pretender. I think it would be good if we could have a guide, when we leave – someone who is familiar with the land, and who would not be indisposed to us."

Ikthenia spoke up. "I think I know someone. There is a woman I was introduced to, shortly after we arrived. She is the goatherd who roams the hills outside Myrina, moving with the goats as they graze. My guess is you could work your way north with her. Most of the island is inhabited only by the herds and wild animals. I believe she is still in Myrina, gathering supplies."

Xena nodded. "All right, Ikthenia. Will you find this woman, and ask her to come to us this evening, if possible?"

She nodded. "I'll go now." She got up from the table, and left.

Xena turned to the others on the Council. "Will you adjourn, now, and let us work out the details of the rest? We will be sure to have Alysia report to you, as all of this unfolds.  We will keep in touch with you, Alysia. using the InSight." They arose, and departed after Alysia. Eusta lingered a moment, behind the others. Gabrielle looked up, and smiled at her.

"Eusta - what more can we do for you?"

The woman looked sadly at Gabrielle and Xena. "It is not important, my Queens. I just wondered . . . have you seen Lykia anywhere, since the Old Mother's funeral? I was supposed to spend some time with her – to begin to learn the basic rituals for the next feast day, and she never has come to get me. I know we aren't welcome yet, at the Temple, so I didn't feel comfortable just going there . . ." she trailed off, her face full of concern.

Gabrielle walked over and put her arm around Eusta's shoulders. "No, we haven't seen her. I asked Xena about her, myself. She is usually out and about, and I expected to see her at the House of Healing, when Talia and I were there. She wasn't there, either. We will see if we can find out for you. Maybe she is not feeling well, or has forgotten your meeting plans."

The woman nodded, and silently turned and left the room.

Io and Paphos remained with them.  Io spoke up. "Can't we go with you?" she pleaded, in a rush. "I know you would rather be off by yourselves. It would be good experience for us, and we are eager to see more of our new home."

Xena looked at Gabrielle. They had known this would come up. Neither of them wanted to have to say no, but they both knew that this time they would.

Gabrielle smiled, and took Io's hand in hers. "Io, we know how much you and Paphos want to be with us, and share in our adventures here. This is a situation that neither one of us is clear on, yet – we do not know what to expect. We need to approach the Outcasts with care, and determine what to do about them. We know that they are probably blind to what has been happening since our arrival. They may not even know about us. They are likely an unhappy lot, from what we have been able to find out.  We will be starting from scratch, and we think having only the two of us will pose less of a threat"  She paused, waiting for Io's response.

Io looked at Paphos, crestfallen. "But, will you feel . . . safe? I mean, two more wouldn't be so bad . . ." She watched the two women's faces, and saw their answer. "I . . . I guess you and Xena know best."

Xena grinned. "Did you think we were just going to let you sit idle? We have a big job for you. You are going to be our "diversion." Do you remember what we told you about the forty Egyptian women? After their sojourn in Athens, Anacreon was to bring them to Lemnos. With things as they are now, that would not be possible. Gabrielle has been in contact with them - using the InSight – and has directed them to go instead to Lesvos, where they are to stay with Sappho, until we call for them to come home to Lemnos. Gabrielle and I want the two of you to go to Lesvos. It means getting Althaia and a crew for the Leto. You will go to Sappho, and wait there for the women to arrive. When they have, you will bring them back. With any luck, by then the ShieldWall will be down for good,"

Paphos' eyes widened. "You . . . you mean – the Sappho?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Yes."

Io nodded, her brow furrowed with thinking of the plan. "But – how long do we have to wait there? What if the Destroyer has taken them or Anacreon is dead? How will we know? And how are we going to be a 'diversion'?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Good questions, Io . . . They are even now sailing to Lesvos. I received a mind message from Djeserit just this morning.. It won't be such a long wait!. Especially as you will be in such good company! You may even arrive there at the same time – if the winds are favorable."

Xena looked at them keenly. "You will be the diversion, because we will be telling Galateia and the other one that the two of you are going to school – with Sappho on   Lesvos."

They both looked at each other, and Gabrielle and Xena watched them hesitate, their eyes big with fear and excitement. "Okay – so they are more likely to let us go, right? That would be because it seems so – well, ordinary? Paphos smiled. "Awesome!"

"And of course, you won't say anything about forty Egyptian women coming back with us! We will do whatever it takes, Xena. We will make you proud. You'll see!" Io put her hand on her heart, to swear it.

"We have confidence that you'll do just fine." Gabrielle got up, went around the table, and gave them both a hug.

Paphos paused, and looked back at the two women. "Could I really have gone to school with Sappho?"

"Would you like that?" Gabrielle asked - her expression soft.

"OH – it would be wonderful!"

"After all this is over, I will see what we can arrange."

Paphos came back, and threw her arms around Gabrielle. They she ran off to join Io, and begin their preparations.

"All right, so let's review this." Gabrielle said. . "I thought you said that the ShieldWall keeps everyone away. So now, we are going to ask, very nicely and sweetly, for them to part the waters, so to speak – and let the Leto sail."

Xena nodded. "Yep; exactly - the wall keeps the world out – but it also keeps all of us in. Nice little control factor, isn't it - especially for someone who enjoys control."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "Wait a minute, Xe. That puts Io and Paph . . . Oh - no, they would be like bait, Xe! The 'Dark One' will be watching that boat like a hawk! We'll be off in the highlands; but then what, if she decides to change her mind? What are you thinking?" Her voice rose with her anger. Then she stopped abruptly. "On the other hand . . . they're not exactly children, any longer. And we will need those women, especially for the mending, once the ShieldWall is down." Her eyes were suddenly full, and she didn't bother to wipe them.

Xena looked away. "I know," she said, softly. "But I swore, long ago, that if we had another situation, none of ours would ever again be used against us – like Solon and Hope, and even Eve . . . I think if we play this right,  Io and Paphos will be allowed to go. We are more likely to be the 'bait.' I just don't want to underestimate this person – whoever it turns out to be. I was too aware of the Old Mother's real fear – which means there is true power, there, that needs disarming. If we can get them away to Sappho, and have Sappho keep them safe for us, until this is resolved, I'd feel a whole lot better, wouldn't you? Then they can come back, once the Wall is down, and bring those women with them."

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm, pulling her close. "Another reason I have to agree with you on this one, my love." She hugged the woman to her chest, wanting her to relax. "Now, are we ready to 'beard the scorpion' in her den?"

"Oh, sure – like what else did we have planned, today? We haven't had a good challenge since the Ceremony. I just cannot wait to be the mad, bad, Xena! A day without confrontation is so boring." Her grimace was genuine. Her determination to make things right was equally so.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Xena and Gabrielle pushed open the tall, bronzed doors of the Temple, and strode through into the darkened interior.  The hall, with its circular peristyle of columns, was silent. As they stood quietly, the torches mounted at regular intervals around the walls suddenly lit, one after another. A figure came through from the opposite side of the circle. It was the Galateia. The three Sibyls followed, and silently stood behind her as she came to a stop before the two women.

"My Queens," she said - her voice low and guarded. "To what do we owe this sudden visit?"

Xena came up closer, so she was eye to eye with the High Priestess. "Two things bring us here, Galateia. First, Eusta asked us to inquire after Lykia – she hasn't been seen since the Old Mother's passage. Lykia invited Eusta to participate in the next feast day rituals, and was to have begun teaching them to her after the funeral.  She has not done so, and Eusta is concerned.  We hope she is well?"

Galateia licked her lips and her face suddenly flashed a look of anguish, quickly masked.  She struggled to find her voice.

"Ah, she is undertaking a retreat . . . She is in seclusion. It is . . . a custom for one of us to do so . . . after a Great One has passed."

Gabrielle watched her carefully, a growing sense of alarm rising up within her. Something was not right, here. The woman was lying, and - she was upset. "How long a seclusion is required?"

"Oh, it varies. It is pretty much left up to the individual. Ly . . . Lykia did not indicate how long she felt moved to do so."

Gabrielle nodded, giving Xena a quick look. "Ah . . . I see. Well, I'll tell Eusta that Lykia will be delayed for some time. I'm sure she can be patient, in this."

Xena now spoke up. "We have also come, Galateia, to meet with 'Gaia'. I suggest you announce us at once."

"I . . . do not know if that is possible, my Queens. She is not . . . someone who comes at my beck and call."

"No? Who else would have the ability to 'beck and call' her, if not the High Priestess of the Temple? Doesn't a state visit of the Royal House of Lemnos deserve her august presence?" Xena's intent was clear. She was not in the mood for quibbling over semantics.  "So what's it going to be, here? Does she come to us, or do we go to her?"

Galateia was now visibly wringing her hands.. "Please, my Queens – do not take offence where none is intended! It pains me to see us at odds, like this. Is there no way that we can make our relations more amenable?" Here eyes betrayed desperation.

"That depends on how you take the subject of our visit." Gabrielle spoke up, her voice calm and even.  They would have to play this carefully, so Galateia would not be in an untenable position.

Galateia turned with a look of surprise, on her face. "And what subject would that be?"

"Simply this: we have had plans for sending our wards, Io and Paphos, to Lesvos. We expected them to attend Sappho's school. She has agreed to foster them. This was something we had decided before we ever came here, and we had no idea this . . . barrier was going to a problem. Therefore, you can imagine our dismay. The young ones have naturally been excited at the prospect for some time, and we would hate for this to prevent them from having the experience. We need you to make the necessary  . . . arrangement . . . so that the Leto can transverse the . . . barrier . . . and take them there safely."

Xena watched the woman closely, as she picked up the conversation. "So is this something that you are allowed to do, or does it require a decree from On High? If that is so, we would rather have it direct from the 'horse's mouth' – if you take my meaning."

The Priestess stood silently, her eyes searching the faces of the two Queens. The sudden question about Lykia had thrown her completely. How could they know? She had been terrified that this would get back to the Dark One, who had promised her even more unbearable torture, should word of Lykia's absence become common knowledge. She quailed at the prospect of the truth coming out – especially if the Queens discovered what had happened. She wanted this so much to be over, and done with. She wanted them to be the heroes she had envisioned them to be, and not push her into the darkness that threatened, if she did not comply with the 'Dark One's demands. How could she possibly tell them - that Lykia had been murdered, by the Dark One, after the fiasco of the funeral? The woman's rage at the Queens had been uncontrollable She had taken it out on the poor woman. Galateia was bereft - and under that, ashamed.. She should have taken Lykia's place. At least the torment would have ended.

"I will ask." She turned, and walked back the way she had come. The Sibyls stood where they were; as if rooted to their spots on the floor like some strange caryatids.  It gave Gabrielle the willies. She wanted the comfort of Xena's voice in her head, but this was no time or place to try the InSight. She kept her eyes on Xena, as the tall figure roamed around the hall, walking past the silent figures as if they were of stone. Xena stopped, abruptly, in front of one of the still figures. She looked closely at the expressionless face, then smiled, and whispered something in its ear. After a moment, the figure slowly turned its head and looked at Xena. Then she turned back, eyes forward – still expressionless. Xena smiled again, and came back to Gabrielle's side, and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, hugging her reassuringly. 'Courage," she breathed. "This will soon be over."

"What was that all about?"

"I'll tell you later . . ."

The figure of the Priestess appeared, suddenly, followed by the dark, looming figure in black. She moved to one side, gesturing to the Queens, and spoke to the wraith. "The Queens of Lemnos, Exalted One, have come to supplicate you." She bowed her head, the image of deference. 

Xena grimaced at the characterization, and coolly looked the figure up and down. Whoever the woman was, she was a head taller than Xena. Gabrielle stayed close to Xena, and worked to slow her breathing. She was surprised at the fear she felt. "Silly – just because the woman is tall, doesn't mean she's fearsome!"  She flinched, as the hooded visage swiveled to stare at her, the words barely surfacing in her mind.  "Ok, I guess I am being a little quick to judge, here."  A thin sound of hissing laugher emanated from the figure.

Xena moved, then, standing unconsciously taller; and Gabrielle could feel the steel coiling inside her partner, and the dull emotional surge as Xena worked to keep it in check.

"Well, we are waiting to hear what you have to say. Are the rightful Queens of Lemnos permitted to request that you lift the barrier for one small boat and two young Amazons?" Xena spoke, her voice stern.

The figure turned its head away from scrutinizing the blonde Queen and settled again on the tall, white-haired one.  This Xena was always the troublemaker. It was tiresome, and vexing.  She had hoped that, with the demise of the Old Mother, they would come willingly to heel. It was obviously not going to be so simple. She growled in her throat with annoyance. "However, flies come better to honey," she reminded herself. "Give them enough rope . . ." Besides - she would know where the brats were, if there had to be a sudden change in her plans.

"You try my patience, Xena of Amphipolis. Nevertheless, I am not a vengeful Goddess, and I will allow your younglings to travel to Sappho. Their voyage through the ShieldWall can coincide nicely with the occasion of the Queens of Lemnos taking their Oath. We shall expect you both here as soon as you have seen to their departure from the harbor. You can bring the rest of the Amazons of Thessaly with you. Of course, should you decline the invitation; you can expect that they will never return to Lemnos – at least, not in your lifetime." She turned, abruptly, and was suddenly gone. The torches flared, and went out.

Galateia looked at them with a sorrowful face. "I hope you will see this as favorable, my Queens - and when the time comes, you will understand, and join your subjects in the ways of Lemnos." Her eyes dropped to the floor, then her gaze came up once more – desolate and pleading.  "We are only here to serve them."

Xena looked steadily at the woman. "As are we, Galateia.  I doubt any of us will forget that. Meanwhile, have courage, Priestess. Help comes in strange ways, even if unexpected, and uncalled for."  The two of them turned, and strode from the Temple. Gaia gazed after them." There is little hope." she thought sadly. "She is used to getting her way."

 The bronze doors boomed shut behind them.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

They walked up the hill toward their home.

"So what do you think?" Gabrielle asked - her voice husky with emotion.

Xena shook her head – her anger barely contained. "I have a bad feeling about this. I don't believe that stuff about a retreat – Galateia looked stricken at Lykia's name even being mentioned. My guess is – something very bad has happened."

"Do you think . . . Lykia is a captive of this Pretender?"

"No, sweetheart . . .  I think she's past even that – I think she is dead."

Gabrielle felt a chill pass through her. "Xe – what is going on, here? Who is this person?"

"I don't know, yet - but I will - and believe me, we won't stop until she is dealt with. There is too much fear and too much manipulation by someone pretending to be the Goddess of a peaceful Amazon Nation. From where I stand, it looks more like she's got everyone just where she wants them, and is indulging in her own personal private kingdom of domination."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 5

Io and Paphos went down to the harbor the next morning. They needed to arrange with Althea to get the Leto to leave as soon as possible. The weather was fine: a promising stiff wind out of the west. They estimated it would take a good ten candle marks to get to Lesvos. They hoped to get the details worked out immediately. They stopped at Alysia and Eusta's home, and picked up a hefty pouch of dinars, to use for the expenses on their trip. Alysia told them she wanted them to be very cautious and circumspect about the plans for the sailing. Since Xena and Gabrielle were leaving this same morning, they had to be ready to divert attention. They took no other baggage with them – in order to appear to be merely running errands. They had to have their story ready – and be able to tell it convincingly.

As they approached the docks, Paphos suddenly put her hand on Io's arm. Io slowed, and turned to look at her.

"What?"

"Here comes trouble." Paphos telegraphed to her. Io saw immediately - Galateia was walking directly toward them. She patted Paphos' hand, which was convulsively clutching her arm even tighter, as the Priestess came closer.

"Io and Paphos!" She hailed them, her face curious. "What brings you here so early? I thought you were preparing for your journey to Sappho."

"Oh, yes – we are."

"Ah . . . we wanted to see about getting some . . . some . . ." Paphos trailed off.

"Fish!" Io interjected. "Fish. Lots of fish," she added, lamely. "We are planning a big feast, a kind of farewell feast, see – before we leave for Lesvos.  And we knew that the Queens like fish, so we thought we'd come down and speak with the fishing crews, and arrange for it . . .them, I mean . . . the fish." she stuttered. 

Galatea smiled blandly at them. "Ah . . . I see." She said. "Well, don't let me keep you . . . from your fish!"  She started again, then paused, and turned back to them. "Oh, please tell Xena and Gabrielle I have the time factor for them. I will stop by later today."

"Oh!" Paphos responded. "That won't be possible . . . they're . . . they're . . ." she turned and looked at Io with a beseeching look.

"They're off camping for a while . . ." Io said, quickly.  "Won't be back for oh, I'd say three suns . . . didn't they say, Paphos?" she added, doing her best to smile.

"Camping?" Galateia repeated, looking startled. "What is this camping?"

"Oh, it's something they used to do, in the old days . . ." Io shrugged. "They like it. They go out in the hills, nobody around for miles. It's a kind of ritual - . . . and they  . . . camp. We're going to have the feast as soon as they get back, and then we're off to school!"

The Priestess shook her head. "Not very convenient, considering your immanent departure!" she said.

Io nodded. "I guess. Well, that is just their way. They don't like arguments about their camping. She shook her head. "It's very . . . sacred to them."

"Sacred?"

"Oh, yeah - No question." Paphos joined in. "Really sacred. We aren't even allowed to ask about it!"

"I see. Well, since it is a matter of the sacred, I will just have to give you a message for them when they return from this . . . camping. Tell them the passage is possible - but only for the next quarter-moon. You will tell them, won't you?" Galateia moved off, without a backward look.

"Certainly we will." Io called out, as she smiled and waved at the Priestess. "I just don't get her!" she hissed to Paphos, as soon as the Priestess was out of sight.

'What do you mean?"

"There is just something so phony about her. She acts so calm – but you know, underneath that mask – she seems frightened, to me. I have a confession to make . . . I tried the InSight on her, once!"

"Io!  Weren't you worried she'd catch you?" Paphos gave her a horrified look.

"Nah – I was pretty crafty about it. Anyway, I saw that Galateia really believes all that stuff about the legend of the Two Queens. She sure is into all those rituals, and chanting and stuff. She's super single-minded when it comes to having no weapons here, and no violence. I just do not see how they manage it, without doing something weird to keep intruders away, and not have armed Amazons anywhere. I still feel . . . naked. I know - it is silly. There is no violence here, right? Then why does it make my skin crawl? That doesn't even begin to describe how I feel about that supposed Goddess person! She gives me the willies. . I feel like she could chew me up for breakfast, and spit my bones out for the cats! I don't care what they think – she's not a Goddess, at all. We never used to wonder with Artemis. You always knew how much She loved us, with that One - even if She was in a major snit sometimes! I think this one is flat-out evil."

Paphos nodded. "I know . . . she has some serious power.  She gives me the creeps too. But I know what you mean – they are all so closed-mouthed about the weapons, and avoiding violence. They seem so . . I don't know – completely unconcerned. Underneath that, don't you think they are all just afraid? Although, I have to admit I've never heard any of them so much as whimper, or shout, or get angry, or anything, much. They all act as if they just woke up! You know, we have probably been through more ordeals, year for year, than these women have ever faced. I'd say we could hold our own, if we had to."

They hustled over to the fishing smacks, lined up at the docks. They were looking for Althaia, who was currently crewing on one of the boats. The name of the vessel was the Cassiopeia.  It was there, moored alongside the others, and Althaia was just tying off some rigging when they came alongside.

"Hola, Althaia!" Io sang out. The woman grinned, and waved them closer.

"Hola! What brings you two down here?" she offered them a hand up, and they eagerly swarmed aboard.

"We're on a mission for Xena and Gabrielle - and it's very urgent. Is there some place we can talk with you that is private?"

Althaia looked intrigued. "Sure – come into the cabin . . . the others are away, getting some stores for the galley. So we have a few minutes, anyway."

They ducked into the small cabin amidships, and Paphos began hurriedly to explain. "Xena and Gabrielle want you to take the Leto over to Lesvos – the sooner the better! We have to go there, and bring back all those Egyptian women Gabrielle told us about – remember?"

Io chimed in. "Althaia, Xena said you should be in charge. We don't know where the Leto's crew is, now."

 Althaia scratched her close-cropped head, and stared out the opening at the harbor beyond. "Well! I don't see why I shouldn't. We have just been out for the last week, and managed a good catch. Nothing else planned but a layover. I'm a free agent, now. When do you want to go?"

 "Right away – as soon as it is possible."

Althaia arranged with the two youngsters that they would to meet at the Leto's moorage within two candle-marks. She would gather up and load the stores for the journey. The other Thessalonian Amazons who crewed the boat were living aboard the Leto, so they would not be hard to find. They could easily get underway at the turning of the tide.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Earlier that same morning, Xena and Gabrielle were up and preparing to leave. The sun was just a dim glow to the east, over the bay of Myrina. They silently stowed the familiar items in the packs that had seen so much of their lives together: the changes of clothing, the scrolls and quill case, the medicine bag. Gabrielle had a small pouch of the rare earth, as well, and a small skin of the water from the Altar of Gaia. Flints, hunting knives, and a stash of tea. A cooking pan. A bag of olives, figs, cheese, and bread. Two nested wooden bowls and spoons. Their bedroll. Two full skins of water. Then they stopped at the weapons wall. Gabrielle took down her staff. She turned, and looked at Xena, who stood silently, her eyes roaming over the collection.

"Anything more?" she asked, laying her land lightly on Xena's arm.

Xena turned, and looked out the window, at the growing light of day. She shook her head. "No – I think not." She turned back, and gave Gabi a pensive smile. "All right, my Love – let's go!" They walked down the steps, and out into the dawn.

In the street below, they found Ikthenia, Alysia and the herder, who had come to them the evening after their visit to the Temple. Together, they had mapped out their route. They would be led to her camp on the high plateau by the herder, then move along with the goats, to the northwestern part of Lemnos.  Alysia and Ikthenia bade them farewell.

"Ikthenia, keep a wary eye on the Temple for us, will you?" Xena cautioned. "Call it prudence. I want you to be ready for anything." She turned to Alysia. "Above all, keep your InSight on the two youngsters. I hope that Galateia and the Pretender will be lulled into thinking that they will not sail for at least another week, once they hear the story Io and Paphos will feed them. They are vulnerable until they are well away from the island. Althea will be in charge of the Leto. Make sure she understands the situation - she needs to get them away no later than tomorrow."

Alysia nodded. "You can depend upon it, my Queens."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They took the path leading northeast, up over the low ridge of volcanic hills surrounding the peaceful bay. The way was rocky, and hard on the feet, but they both had forsaken their sandals for sturdy boots. They were also wearing short Roman-style togas and leggings. Soon, their stride lengthened, as they stretched out their walking muscles.  Their spirits lifted, to meet the rising sun. The scent of rosemary was strong in the air, and there were scattered patches of wildflowers growing among them,

"We haven't been across country like this since . . . well, in a long time." Gabrielle mused, as she walked by Xena's side. Her staff made a rhythmic thump that evoked a surprising number of memories. They were setting a good pace. The woman who accompanied them walked slightly ahead. Seemed to prefer silence, and kept her distance. Obviously not used to Queens as everyday company.

"True." Xena nodded. "Do you think we've forgotten how to do this?" she teased.

Gabrielle flashed a brilliant smile.  "O, I think we'll remember. Some things stay with you! Like riding a horse – or . . ."

" . . . Fishing?" Xena prompted - a big grin on her face.

Another wave of memory washed over Gabrielle: images of herself, laughing, as Xena did her imitation of a Great Blue Heron; then tossing her a flopping big fish. "Not much chance of that here . . . look at this land – volcanic, isn't it? It reminds me of the area around Mount Olympus . . . and Mount Fuji."  Gabrielle sighed.  "It's not very hospitable to lakes. We'll be lucky to find running streams. I wouldn't mind an occasional fish – but we'd have to be getting it from the sea – and we're not likely to see that until we hit the north coast."

"I was joking, Gabrielle." Xena said, reaching out and ruffling Gabi's hair, as they walked.

"Do you think Io and Paphos are all right with the plan?  It seems - somehow dishonest to send them there thinking they will come back so soon.  I left a scroll of introduction for Sappho, with Paphos. Do you think they will really be permitted to get to Lesvos? Did anybody find out if Althea is in port? I thought she sign up with a fishing boat, to get more experience. Will they manage to find crew enough for the Leto, from among our Thessalonian Amazons still in Myrina? I know many of them have spread out already and are building their new homes. I fear for them, Xe . . ."

Xena smiled to herself, as she listened to this running river of worry coming from her mate: another flashback to the constant chatter of a certain young woman from Potedeia. "Gabrielle," she gently chided, "you're fussing."

"I know, Xe." It's just that I'm bothered." She shook her head. They kept walking. Xena waited. Sooner or later, Gabrielle would settle. She could count on it. Gabrielle walked ahead of her, with the guide out front. Her ash-blonde head was shaking slowly back and forth. She was sorting it all out.

"GODS – NO! NOT THIS, AGAIN!" She swore, as she abruptly stopped in her tracks. Xena was brought up short, right behind her mate.  The forcefulness of her cry caused the guide to turn, and stare at them from her place a few yards ahead of them on the track .And Gabrielle was suddenly, unaccountably, in tears.  Xena stood, nonplussed, and then - in a stride - had her arms about the Bard.

"Hey, whoa – sweetheart – what is this?"

Gabrielle sniffed, and angrily swiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry, Xe – it's just that I really am having trouble trusting that we can just go do this, like we always did before. That creature is frightening me . . . Me - the Lion of Thebes! It doesn't make any sense! Here we are on a perfectly safe island, without any likelihood of violence or danger. We are walking along - two grown, capable women, with no need for weapons. We have powers we don't even understand! Why should I be fearful? This is ridiculous!"

"Yup - it is ridiculous. But it's also understandable." Xena turned, and looked at the guide, who had dropped to her haunches, and was patiently waiting for them to resume their journey.  "My sister," Xena called out. "We are going to sit here and have a conversation. Is the path well-marked?" The woman nodded affirmatively. "Good," Xena said. "How about you go on ahead, and we'll catch up to you later?" The woman looked speculatively at them, then nodded once more, rose to her feet, and went on up the trail, until she was out of sight over a small rise.

'Now," Xena said, turning back to her mate. "Let's get this sorted out." She went over to a large outcropping of rock, flat on the top, which stood dustily nearby. The sun was not so high in the sky, yet, and the morning light was pleasant enough. They sat on it together. As they had done so often in their lives, Gabrielle leaned in, Xena's arms protectively around her. How many conversations they'd had, over the years, in just this way? . . . and usually, it all got said.

"So what am I doing, now?' Gabrielle sighed, heavily. 'I feel like such an infant!" She accepted the water skin that Xena handed her. She took a deep swig of the cool water.

"Exactly! Here we are setting out on a journey - doing things we used to do, a hundred times before. We have been reminded of things we used to talk and jest about, our old ways of playing. What's more natural, than that you should suddenly be thrown back to that time, when life was not so easy for us, and the dangers were constant? Look - in the past few minutes, you mentioned Fuji. This is a hard memory, and it brings back all the old feelings and sorrow. The last time we set out together, alone, cross country like this - was the road to Jappa."

"You mean, I'm remembering the loss so intensely, that I am feeling what I felt then, as if it were now?"

"Well - not completely.  The remembered pain – not the real pain. The InSight is strong in you now – so you are connecting with your younger self in ways that make the remembered pain more intense. Now we have that goddess-Pretender to confront. We will certainly have to face her down: sooner, or later – and that will not be pleasant. Of course, we'll be equal to it – we've faced much worse, in our time. Only now, you are battling with that youngster in you, who still feels vulnerable and remembers the pain of the past. So you are certainly feeling vulnerable. I'm not always good with the deep stuff – but does that make sense?"

"Yeah – it makes sense."   She laughed, shakily. "How did you get so wise and articulate?"

"Well, I got carried along inside you for quite a spell, for one. And, then - I had the good sense to hang onto you – what else?" Xena hugged her close, whispering in her ear. "Rest easy, love. Dealing with this is not going to mean that you lose me, Gabrielle. We are safe, now. All that is behind us. Truly."

Gabrielle sagged into her. She was overwhelmed with weariness - of the past, of the nightmare memories, of the loss.

"Xe?" she whispered back.  "Are we to carry this always? A long, long life of it sometimes seems unbearable to me." She turned, and a tear trickled down her cheek, as she laid her head against Xena's head. "I'm sorry - sometimes I wish I could just forget the past. All of it, except our love. There is a part of me that wishes it were that simple – to surrender the sadness and pain to the ShieldWall. I can see why the women here would give it up."

Xena hugged her close. "I know – so do I."

"Xe I need to say something to you, because there isn't anyone else who would let me say it and just listen.  Maybe that's all I need - I don't know. I am afraid of what it will do to me, over time - especially if it turns out to be a very long time." Gabrielle shook her head, her face a misery.

Xena went very still. Whatever was bothering her, Xena wanted to hear it. She wanted Gabrielle to know that she could say anything, by now – do anything, even – and it would be all right. She just sat, her arms around her woman, waiting. 'I'm right here, - whatever you need. You know you can say anything to me."

Gabrielle turned, so she could see Xena's face. Lifting her hand, she traced the familiar line of Xena's cheek and jaw, stroking it again, and again. Xena sat, still, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle's face. "Whenever you are ready, my love." Gabrielle nodded, then laced her fingers between Xena's long ones, and held on tight.

"Xe, I thought that once we were here we would finally be somewhere safe." She shook her head, bemused.  "That was probably my last remaining bit of naiveté. Oh, I know . . . this struggle with the Temple will have to be resolved. The Pretender will have to relinquish her hold over the island. I know that we will have to earn our safety, and peace, every step of the way. That is not really my problem." She paused, her fingers laced between Xena's fingers against her midriff, as she struggled with her tears.

"It is more just . . . I think I am having a hard time with this notion that you and I are different from mortal women. It's the after-effects of the Dragon, too. On the other hand, maybe, just call it the accumulation of our life. Call it all the struggles we've had to honor our relationship, and protect it from so many assaults and attempts to drive us apart - or worse. If we really look at it,, Xe - we've had a brutal time of it - practically since we first met."

A look of anxiety crossed her face, and she continued hastily, "I don't want you to get into that old thing now of feeling that you are bad for me, or that it's your fault. Please! I couldn't bear it if you felt that, after everything we've been through together, and all we've been to one another! That's not what I am saying." She stopped, as Xena hugged her tight, and kissed her.

"Say it, then.. What do you need?"

"I need to be somewhere, just with you, just alone. No one else except us - for a long enough time that I can feel whole again – or maybe whole for the first time. Every other time we've been together, there was always this feeling of uncertainty – could we stay together? Could we weather all the assaults, and manage your redemption, lose and find each other? We did – we did!"

Xena nodded - her face sad with the memories. "Yes we did."

"At the risk of sounding completely selfish, I could say - right now, without any hesitation - to Hades with the Amazons, and to Hades with Gaia, and our powers, and our destiny! It would not bother me one bit!  I . . . I guess that is what has been triggered by this little excursion. You know  . . . once more, into the fray, for the Greater Good." A harsh bark of laughter escaped her throat, leaving it aching.  "Great Artemis, - how I hate the Greater Good! I loathe it. I want to be free of it." She looked guiltily at Xena. "Or, I want us to be the Greater Good. Let the real Gaia and the TribeMind take care of the rest of it! Now there is this opposition. I guess I thought we would just show up and everybody would be glad to see us, and not question our role, here. I thought we'd just be ordinary women, like all of our Amazons. I don't want to be the Hand of the Goddess. I need – I want – peace."

Xena waited. She knew her love well enough. Now Gabrielle would try to accommodate the shining altruism that lived in her like a beacon.

"There – I've said it. I know it isn't realistic! I know we have to go on, and do all the things we've said we want to do. We have responsibilities." She sighed, heavily. "And I will be right with you, living up to every one of them - superhuman powers and all."

"Yes, my love – I know you will." Xena said, gently.

"I've never thought of myself as becoming a selfish old woman, who hides from the world and thinks ill of people. I don't want to become . . . smaller . . . like that. I feel like I have spent most of my youth doing what youth is supposed to do – being idealistic, and brave, and ready to fight the good fight, and overcome adversity, and help others along the way. I learned the Way of Peace, and the Way of the Warrior. Now, I am not young, anymore. Now I need to be an older woman, who can pass on what I have learned from all those experiences. I want time to teach Paphos the barding ways, and all my tales of our adventures, and finish writing the history of the Amazons, and build the scriptorium. Then, when she is ready, teach her the skills of governance. Get my reward for all that I have given up, while we were young.  I am naming my reward: it is to be with you - - and just live. I don't want to be treated as a living Mystery. I want the Dragon to retire. I want to be an ordinary old woman!"

Xena sat, quiet, thinking. She stroked Gabrielle's arms, and held her tightly.  "You are still the best thing that ever happened to me," she said, her voice low and passionate. "And you still have the most incredible way of getting right to the heart of everything. And I wouldn't jeopardize that for any cockeyed Amazon rescue mission!" She paused a long time, thinking just how to put it.  ". . . Here is what we will do. We will go see these miserable Outcasts, and we will bring them home, somehow, to the rest of the island. We will figure out what this Pretender and Galateia have created, and find a way to return their feelings, memories and dreams to the women of Lemnos. We will teach them a better way to be free from fear. Then, we will have those very capable young women take up the duties and responsibilities for building this Amazon Nation into the strong thing it will be.  Oh, we will still be the Queens of Lemnos! We will be the Heart of the Tribe – not its Fist, or its Voice – and not its Mysteries. That will be for the women of this land, themselves, to be. That will be a way for us to go quietly reap that reward of yours. Maybe then the need for our mysterious powers will subside. What do you think?"

Gabrielle looked long into the deep blue of Xena's eyes. Then she nodded. "All right. I think I can abide that. I will be patient, a little while longer. Then I want you, all to myself. For as long as I want. And for you to have me, all to yourself, for as long as you want." She looked searchingly into Xena's eyes, her own scanning back and forth, as she plumbed the depths of Xena's expression. "But I worry about you, Xe. Do you think you can live without the rough-and-tumble, active life we have had? There would not be as much excitement. We wouldn't be waving our arms, and throwing out rays of power, or anything even remotely Ares-like. Will you be satisfied with that?"

Xena looked at her, the blue eyes searching, searching, in return. A lightning-fast range of feelings crossed her face. "You just try me," she answered. "Do you think I will regret not being beaten up every week, or having to fight my way to a drink of ale,  or to a simple night's sleep with my Soul Mate at the end of the day? Do you think I would mind not having to play head games with every person who is supposed to be our ally - or even worse - our friend?  Or to be able to choose my exercise each day purely out of my own delight at moving – without having it be always when someone else wants to fight with me? Not to mention not having to cope with warlords, dictators, and assorted perverse gods and goddesses!" She shook her head slowly, a dreamy look in her eyes. "I'd love time to spend with Io, one on one, teaching her all that I know - so that she can rally the Outcasts. Maybe help them establish a gymnasium, and organize a competition each season, for excellence in the martial arts. I can't wait to turn Althaia loose and have her build a sailing school, and a crew of women who can take on any boat they can build! I would like to see Galateia being a beacon for the Charge of the Goddess, free of subservience to some twisted control-hungry shamaness. All ordinary things any self-respecting ex-Warrior Princess could do – without need of any special powers! O, no, my love – I'm not a hard sell, at all!"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Within a half candle-mark, they had caught up to the herder, who was patiently waiting for them up the trail. The land was hilly, with arroyos and pockets of green areas around and between the rounded humps of the hills – following the waterways of likely small springs.  Outcroppings of basalt, worn and weathered, crowned them. Small, scrubby bushes and myriad wildflowers covered the skirts of the hills. Very good places for the grazing of goats.

All the rest of the morning, they walked.  At mid-day, they stopped to have some food. The three ate in silence – the goatherd still unwilling to converse with them. She was quiet, and yet not aloof. Gabrielle sensed that the woman, being so solitary in her work, was naturally a person of few words.

She looked up to find that Xena, who had finished her rough meal, was climbing up a small hillock next to the trail, to see what she could see.

"Xena . . ." She sent. "Are you ready to go on?"

''Coming! I just wanted to get the lay of the land." 

When Xena got back down to the trail, she looked hot. Gabrielle handed her a water skin, and Xena gratefully took a deep pull on it. Gabrielle moved around behind her, and proceeded to braid the long white tresses into a thick braid down her back. She pulled a length of leather braid from her waist pouch, and tied off the braid. Then she stood back and admired her handiwork. "There. Is that cooler, now?"

Xena felt it, and smiled. "Great. I like it! Maybe you can do this every day! There will be all that time." She grinned at Gabrielle. "Won't there?"

Gabrielle smiled a secret smile and nodded. "O yes, my Xena - I will make each moment last a lifetime."

"We both will."  The answer caressed her mind with such a fierce longing that it left Gabrielle breathless.

* * * * * * * * * * *

part 2

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