Part Two


"Goodnight, Xena." Gabrielle went into the bedchamber and shut the door.

Xena cursed, and pounded her fist into the wall. When Malache arrived, she found a glowering Chabouk in satrap's robes, with her sword and Chakram belted on over them. She wisely made no comment about Gabrielle's absence, or Xena's grim mood.

They were greeted effusively at the House of Cheksum, by bowing servants who made Xena's teeth grate. Who was this idiot son of a sleeping king? She wished Gabrielle were by her side. The bard would know which number this one was, where he stood, who he favored. Then she remembered why Gabrielle wasn't with her, and ground her teeth. Malache saw that the Chabouk was in a foul mood, vibrating on the edge of rage. Without her companion to bring her down, Malache knew that the mood would only get worse.

An experienced Harlot, she could see sexual frustration from a mile away. Xena was tortured with it, like a bow strung too long. Malache knew that she could ease that, and do it well. Yet, there was something else to it that held her back. The Chabouk was clearly in love with her companion. What was equally clear to Malache was that Gabrielle was in love with Xena, but neither knew what to do about it. To a Harlot, it looked easy. They were that most rare of pairings, a perfect balance, in love from the soul. They tortured themselves with desire. They should, Malache thought, just give in to the Goddess' will and love one another. What was so hard about that? Something must be, because they both resisted it, though it left them falling apart. Greeks, thought Malache.

She took the lead at the banquet, letting Xena sit and seethe. It did her reputation no harm to be thought dark and angry, above flattery. Malache sat on a supper couch nearby, not at the foot of Xena's. It would be too intimate a gesture. Throughout the meal Xena alternately glowered at the prince, and ignored him. The blank look on her face was telling. Her mind was somewhere else. Malache had a good idea where it was. She remained relaxed and charming, flattering as a Harlot can only be. She left the heir feeling gracious and witty, always a good way to make one's host feel. He hadn't been one of her initiates, but by the end of the evening, he clearly wished he had been. After the meal dancers were brought out. Malache, sensing Xena's temper about to break, gave a gracious excuse and drew Xena away. On the street, she glanced at Xena's stormy look and sent the carriage away. "Shall we walk, Lord Chabouk?" Xena nodded, grateful. They walked in silence, Xena fighting her internal battle. Malache let her do so. It is not my place, she reminded herself. But to see a pure balance in such a state tore at her heart. At the palace gates she stopped.

Xena looked down at her, remembering something of the manners required of her. "Thanks. For covering for me tonight." She said, in a voice strained and tense.

Malache's heart went out to her. She took Xena's large, callused hands in her own. "I could offer to ease your pain, Xena." The warrior's eyes burned, clouded with desire and confusion. Malache knew that the warrior was attracted to her, and also that it didn't matter.

Xena's silence was the silence before thunder.

"But I know that it would solve nothing for your heart." Malache finished.

Xena exhaled, like a man having an arrow drawn out of a wound. "So the Harlots learn to see clearly."

"I see a reflection. Goodnight, Lord Chabouk." She reached up, and kissed the warrior on the cheek.

Xena watched her walk off into the darkness. It would be so easy, to seek a night of forgetfulness in Malache's arms. Her body cried out for it. But her heart weighed like lead in her chest. At last, she turned and walked into the palace.

She entered the outer chambers, silent and despondent. The lamp was out, she lit it and dropped the flint. It struck the mosaic floor, a loud sound in the silence of the chamber. The door to the bedchamber opened. Gabrielle stood, blond hair framed by the light of the lamp cluster, a dozen halos like a diadem of fire outlining her. She waited for me, Xena thought.

"I didn't expect you back before dawn. Where's Malache?"

"Gone. Home, or to the Temple, I don't know."

"How'd it go?"

The guarded question tore at Xena's already bruised heart like a crossbow bolt. "Horribly. But I was without you by my side, how else could it go?" Her voice felt as thick as molasses in her throat.

Gabrielle gave a soft cry, and came into Xena's arms. The warrior gathered her up, crushing her against her chest. "I'm set to be mad at you until dawn, then you show up and say something like that." Gabrielle said, her face against Xena's chest.

Xena closed her eyes, and rested her chin on the bard's head, trying not to think of anything, trying not to end the moment. She felt Gabrielle's head shift, then opened her eyes on Gabrielle's scrutiny.

"Come to bed." She said, touching Xena's face.


"Not another word." She took Xena's hand and led her to their bed. She unbuckled the swordbelt and set it within easy reach, pulled off the satrap's robes, then pushed Xena down. She blew out the lamps and climbed into bed, wrapping an arm around Xena's waist, resting her head in the hollow of the warrior's shoulder. Gabrielle heard Xena sigh, and begin to relax. She smiled, into the warm skin under her cheek. If this is what it takes to get her to finally relax, I can sleep here, Gabrielle thought, and closed her eyes.

In the morning Malache found them breakfasting in the audience chamber. Xena looked better, rested, as near to peaceful as Malache had ever seen her. Her eyes followed Gabrielle's every move, as the bard talked and ate with equal gusto. Gabrielle also seemed happy. She smiled at Malache and invited her to sit. Malache made a mental note to Mara, and smiled back. Something had happened between them during the night. The sexual tension seemed unabated, but they seemed to the Harlot's eye to be closer, sitting near one another at the table, occasionally brushing hands as they ate. Xena would reach for a piece of bread and meet Gabrielle's hand on the same mission, and neither would withdraw for long moments. Xena would look into Gabrielle's eyes with an adoration that made Malache look away, blushing. The balance is reset, the next phase begins, Malache thought.

"What's on the agenda for today, Malache?" Gabrielle asked, bringing the Harlot's attention back to the table.

"The Grieving for Dummuzi. Then, the celebration, that lasts for three days. "

"What's the Grieving? A play of some sort?" Gabrielle's teeth tore through the skin of a black plum, savoring both that and the thought of more Harrian theater. She looked at Xena, who shrugged. It was nothing the warrior had heard of in her travels.

"It's part of the festival. I forget, you aren't Harrian, you wouldn't know Dummuzi. He is the Lord of Sheaves, the Goddess' consort." Malache saw the lack of comprehension on their faces. Greeks, she sighed to herself. She reminded herself to be patient, to remember that these women were from a land where their gods often hated one another, and thereby knew little of love. She fell into her teaching priestess mode.

Har, Queen of Heaven, Great Mother, looked down on the earth one day, observing her creation. I am lonely, she thought, for all life I have created a mate, yet forgot one for myself. If a creature is singular, alone in the world, soon that creature will die. The heart must be fed as the body must be fed, or it withers away into dust, blood thins and veins close, and the spirit seeks a nobler house. Her eyes roamed over the fields of her land, and she spied a goatherd with his flock.

He was beautiful young man, glowing in the sun like new struck bronze, reclining among the tiny white flowers called lady's tears. Though of humble birth he had the grace and carriage of a born king. The Great Mother looked on him with joyance, finding him pleasing. She appeared to him in all her glory, and he fell to his knees, worshipping. Har raised him up, taught him pleasure and love, whispered to him of wisdom and the mystery of life. He became her chosen, her consort, Dummuzi the Beautiful, her balance. His sweetness and his gentle heart eased her loneliness, his beauty fed her eye, his youth brought new fire to her agelessness. He was mortal, so she could not bring him to her house. She made him lord of the land of Har, the first Great King. To this day his line runs in our royal house, his beauty occasionally appearing again in his descendants, to please the Goddess. This is why the ruler of Har is always a king, called the Beloved. It is to maintain the balance of heaven and earth, to unite them in love, as Har was united with Dummuzi.

Now, in the underworld, in the House of Bones and Dust, Har's sister Chehou saw Har frolicking with her lover and was seized with jealousy. She rose up to the surface world, to the field where Dummuzi lay among the flowers in repose, dreaming of his Goddess. Chehou was cunning, and used her magic to appear to the dreaming youth as a fair maiden. "Come, Beautiful Dummuzi, and love me. The embrace of one fair mortal should be for another." She enticed him with gifts and honeyed words, but Dummuzi just turned his face away. When you are the lover of the Goddess, who else might tempt you?

This made Chehou wroth, and she appeared to him in her terrible glory as Lady of Death. "You who spurn me, she serve me!" She stole him away, sundering the earth and fleeing into the House of Bones and Dust. In her sepulcher dwelt the beautiful youth, pining for the earth and his lover.

Har searched the all the world, asking all living things if they had seen Dummuzi. Birds of the air, creatures of the deep waters, beasts who dwell in the fields and the hills, none had seen her lover. At last a rock serpent came to the foot of the Goddess, and said "Great Mother, I have seen Dummuzi. He was stolen away to the House of Bones and Dust by your sister, Chehou." Har took up the rock serpent and kissed him. "Your loyalty will be remembered, faithful one." This is why no Harrian to this day will slay a rock serpent.

Har journeyed into the underworld, but that is a tale in itself. I'll say that she passed many trials, and finally stood before her sister's throne. "Return my lover to me." said she. Chehou refused, saying that she had come to love the youth, and did not want to give him up. Har knew that a fight between sisters is a terrible thing, so they compromised. Dummuzi would spend a portion of the year with Chehou in the underworld, then return to Har, to be Great King and Beloved of the Goddess for the rest."

Malache finished, looking at Gabrielle and Xena to see if they understood.

Gabrielle, eyes shining, seemed captivated. "That is a great story! I wonder what Dummuzi looks like, to drive two goddesses mad?"

Malache looked off, eyes unfocused. "A youth in the flower of strength, skin like bronze, limbs smooth and muscled like a hunting leopard, hair like night's moonless hours, brows like eagles' wings set over eyes of the soul's despair, sprinkled with a handful of carelessly flung stars. A smile to shame the moment creation began in the void of chaos." Gabrielle looked sharply at Malache, who seemed to remember where she was and who was listening. "Uh, it's not said what Dummuzi looks like, only that he was beautiful."

"What can we expect at this festival?" Xena asked.

Malache shot her a grateful look. "A riot through he streets of the City. Women wail and tear their hair, score themselves with their nails, howl their grief to the sky. Men stay indoors. It isn't safe to face down a woman in the frenzy of Har's Grief. After the Grieving, the men return, and the feasting and celebration begins, lasts for days."

"Hera's tits. We aren't expected to run mad through the streets?" Xena asked.

"No, no. You aren't born for it. You will watch from a platform by the main Temple."

"What about you?" Gabrielle asked, having a hard time picturing the lovely Malache turning into a madwoman, a Bacchae.

"I will be grieving for Dummuzi. I'll rejoin you afterward, when I'm more myself. The Goddess comes hard on the Harlots during this festival, we often become filled with her. It takes us longer to come back."

After Malache had finalized plans to rejoin them, she made a swift exit. Gabrielle noticed that the normally composed Malache seemed distracted, forgetful of their presence. She looked at Xena, finding the warrior's expression curious. "Did you see the look on Malache's face when she was describing Dummuzi?" Gabrielle asked her.

Yes, Xena thought, that's how I look at you when you can't see me. Aloud, she said, "She was describing someone in particular."

"I thought so, too. I wonder if Malache has a lover." Gabrielle said, the thought somehow comforting to her. It made the Harlot seem more human, less of a threat.

"If she does, she can't talk about it. Harlots belong to the Temple for their term of service." Xena kept her voice neutral, understanding the control Malache must have over herself. She'd only given a moment's indication of what her own heart held, the night she'd offered to ease Xena's pain.

"How awful!" Gabrielle said. "It's like slavery."

"Not really. Temple girls volunteer to be trained as Harlots, there are always more applicants than there are places for them. The training takes several years, they get an unparalleled education in dance, politics, history, literature, philosophy, theater, as well as the arts of love. When they're done, they can do almost anything." Xena explained, wondering if Gabrielle could see the value in it. "This culture understands the power a woman can have. It's not like Greece."

Gabrielle wandered to the edge of the platform, peering down the street. It was still empty, not even the dust moving. Xena sat underneath the canopy, long legs stretched out before her, arms behind her head. They'd been waiting for an hour at least since climbing the platform for the rites to begin, but so far, it looked like all the populace of the City had packed up and left. A desert eagle made lazy circles over the Temple square. Xena watched his flight in admiration for his seeming repose, knowing that if he spotted prey, he would become a bolt from heaven. That's the way to attack, she thought, stay perfectly relaxed, then explode into furious action with no transition. She was calculating what his diving speed might be when she first heard the sound.

"Gabrielle. Get back from the edge." Xena called, springing to her feet. She didn't wait for Gabrielle to comply, she pulled the bard back.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, not moving from Xena's possessive grasp.

The sound started far away in the maze of streets. It was like a wolf pack giving tongue to sorrow, the ghostly distant rising and falling of voices nearly human. Then it grew clearer, and the hairs on the back of Gabrielle lifted. Human throats were making that noise, she realized, and shuddered despite the vicious heat of the Harrian afternoon.

Xena's hands went from restraint to protection as the bard moved closer to the warrior. Xena had fought tribes in the wastes of Asia that gave the ululation to mourn their dead. She had heard women wailing as they searched a battlefield for their men, knowing she caused the slaughter. This was worse. It was human throats bending a sound that came from another source, flesh and muscle straining to channel supernatural agony. The very stones of the City rang with it as if they too, wept, trembling in their mortar. Something ran through the streets of the Red City with the women, howling its agony to the slate blue sky.

Gabrielle's fingers closed around Xena's forearm, seeking the flesh above the bracer. The sound grew closer, the very air crying out in response. The unearthly keening cut at their ears. Gabrielle started to weep, tears spilling from her eyes before she knew she was crying. The sadness came like a wave down the street, and with it, the mob. They ran into the Temple square from the mouths of a half dozen streets, lamenting in one voice from a thousand throats. Dust rose, churned by their bare feet, clinging to the torn edges of their tattered gowns. Their hair was rent and wild, their flesh laced with blood from the kiss of nails and teeth. Madwomen, running straight at them. Xena reached for her sword.

The mob charged toward the platform like an oncoming army, the more fearsome for being empty handed and heedless of danger. Gabrielle shrank back from the edge, leaning against Xena. Faces surged around the platform, twisted into masks of tragedy. Gabrielle thought she caught a moment of Malache, her eyes wide and staring, her mouth a rictus, hands extended like claws. There was nothing beautiful now about the Harlot, her very youth a mockery of the grief she wore. The mob crashed and swept around the platform, but did not breech it.

Mara broke from the pack, clambering up the Temple steps opposite the platform. She stood between the columns, reeling, her hair torn and matted with blood, her gown in ribbons about her limbs. She was a creature from the nightmares of mankind's dawn days. Her head snapped back and she howled, her pack answered her, baying like hounds. A woman, naked, skin painted green and black like the scales of a snake ascended the steps, writhing, sinuous, inhuman in her boneless approach. She flowed up the steps, lowered herself to her belly before Mara, and kissed her foot. Mara ceased howling, raised the woman up. The painted woman whispered in Mara's ear, twining herself around Mara's body. A shout split the skies, one of triumph, of raw joy, following hard on the heels of the over arching sadness. It tore Gabrielle's ears to hear it.

The mob echoed that shout, their sadness cast off like old rags, joy coming on them as hard and uncompromising as the grief had been. Around the square doors burst open and men rushed out, carrying trays of wine and food, garlands of flowers, cloths and pitchers of scented water. They met the women, cleansing the blood from their limbs, wiping the dust of the road from their hair. They fed them grapes and bread, tipped back cups of thick sweet wine to ease tortured throats. Then music started up, and dancing, spinning in the square. The festival began in full riot.

On the Temple steps Mara reeled, clutching her head. She staggered like a drunkard, eyes rolling back in her head. Two Harlots ran to her, sanity coming back to them. They took her arms and held her up, as her head lolled forward. Silence bloomed in the square, spreading out from the Temple steps. The music ended mid strum, conversation froze like flies in amber. All eyes locked onto Mara, supported by the two Harlots. Her head snapped up, her eyes were sane, unclouded. Gently, she took her arms from the women supporting her, and stood on her own. "The Great Mother has spoken. The phoenix shall perch on the throne when the spotted hide is cast off. A leopard rests among eagles, in the sunset nesting, foaled by the Lydian mare. Dummuzi has come again, his blood tells. The royal heir who is and is not a prince of Har will be Great King."

Silence met her pronouncement, then awareness of what had happened spread. The shouts of joy redoubled, people took up the name of the Goddess, of Dummuzi, of the Great King. The prophecy had been given, the heir would be found who fit. Har would have her Great King. Xena felt the waves of joy crashing around them, cresting, rising and crashing again, her senses under siege from it. The light was too sharp against her eyes, the smells too strong of wine, of flowers being trampled into the dust, the gladsome cries piercing her ears like nails. I'm catching their madness, whatever it is, -she thought.

The wails of grief that had reduced Gabrielle to tears had been more bearable. Her head felt like it would split open. There was something, a shimmering in the light, like a fish passing through water, that caught her eye. Something is walking in the square that isn't mortal- Xena thought.

Gabrielle seemed buoyed by the frenzy of joy, her skin was flushed and her eyes fever bright. Xena looked at her in awe. Gabrielle didn't seem to feel any of the strangeness, the pain that Xena felt. She's strong enough to snap from grief to joy with no transition. That is the hideous emotional drunkenness Harrians call balance, not the center, but both extremes.- Xena thought.

Gabrielle caught Xena's eye and laughed, her throat arched, the sound an agony to Xena. She couldn't feel the joy that everyone else in the square seemed to drink down like uncut wine. Gabrielle glowed as if life energy filled her. She extended her hand to Xena; the warrior could see trails of fire in the air. Gabrielle looked like a Goddess poured into mortal flesh, her spirit too great to be contained. Looking on her became an agony of its own, too much like staring into a mirror of polished gold reflecting the sun at noon. Xena thought that she would go blind, from the brilliance, but she couldn't look away from the bard.

Gabrielle took Xena's hand, and the pain stopped. The cacophony became sweet music, the sharp light became clarity, happiness unmarred by doubt or violence. Xena looked around the platform, to see how the Harrians were reacting. All the City seemed to be embracing, laughing with the joy Gabrielle felt. The square became a sea of lovers falling into one anther's arms. Xena felt a frission of fear run along her spine. "We have to get out of here." Xena said through a jaw clenched with effort. Already she was losing her reason, wanting only to stay, to give in to the joy, to pull Gabrielle into her arms. Was not all the world rejoicing? Should she not embrace her consort?

"Gabrielle. This isn't us. It's a sending from their Goddess."

Gabrielle laughed again, and stroked her arm. "Stay and celebrate with me, Xena."

"Gabrielle, this square is about to become a sea of debauchery." The warrior was distracted by Gabrielle's hand caressing the iron muscles of her sword arm.

"I'm not afraid, Xena." Gabrielle said, taking both of Xena's hands, giving the warrior a look both loving and wise.

It made Xena shiver, as the grief had not. Focus, she bellowed inside her raging skull. "Come back to the palace with me. We aren't Harrian, the festival is affecting us differently." Xena asked, hoping that distance from the square might help.

"Anywhere." Gabrielle said, the sense of knowledge and acceptance still in her voice, on her face. She looked ageless, infinitely older than Xena, marked by time but unbowed.

That was it, the look of the Goddess. It fell into place for Xena, the missing portion of the Harrian character. Not the emotional drunkenness of their balance, not the religious fervor, but this look: experience without suffering. An endless awareness of the passage of time, without attachment. Trial and grief and love and loss and no suffering. For Xena, anchored to her past with chains of adamant, defined by her own deeds, her crimes and the rivers of blood she'd shed, it was almost beyond imagining. Gabrielle, her Gabrielle, had that look, that knowledge, that ability to let go. I am what I've done, the warrior thought, how can she look at me like that?

Gabrielle took her arm on the staggering walk back to the palace, through the crowd of revelry, the press of flowers and flesh. Hands caught at them, beckoning them to stay, Harlots cast garlands at the warrior's feet and hot looks at her face, an actress in an open vest cried out to Gabrielle. Yet they walked, holding on to one another. Xena wanted Gabrielle to hold on to her, wanted it enough not to protest, not to fight, not to drown herself in recriminations that knocked at the doors of her mind. There was nothing in the world then but Gabrielle. The bard's hand felt like a live coal on her arm.

Xena remembered hoping that the effects of the festival, hovering like smoke over the City, would lessen once they reached the palace. They did not.

Back in the audience chamber, it was worse, or better. There were no distractions, no outside sensations to dull her, only Gabrielle. The light from Gabrielle's face burned her. She felt her soul, shrouded in darkness like eagle's plumes, rise to meet Gabrielle, her wings sweeping up into the rarefied air. Her heart trembled, but the warrior was not one to live in fear. She gave herself up to the mystery, with something akin to grief.

The pounding at the door went unheeded by both of them. Xena heard nothing, only felt Gabrielle's arms close around her. The burning clarified, then diffused the darkness like water mixing into wine, like dawn uncovering the hills of the desert.


Continued in Part 3.

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