Leah, Xena and Gabrielle all rushed forward to grab the Priestess before she fell to the ground. Leah took Aglaia’s head and held it on her lap. Tears flowed freely down the librarian’s face, as she stroked the blonde hair. She looked up at Gabrielle.
“Was this worth it?” she asked in anguish. “So many people hurt… What was this for?”
Gabrielle touched the woman’s shoulder. How much can I tell her, I wonder? Aphrodite clearly didn’t want the others to know what happened, she thought for a moment.
“I don’t know if it was worth it. All I can say is that , well, the Gods have their own plans for us. Sometimes more than one of them get involved and it gets…confused.” She squeezed Leah’s shoulder gently. “If it makes you feel any better, Leah, Aglaia will be fine. Athena told us so. And no one died, so that’s a plus.” She looked up to see Tereus, Eudore and Marcus approaching. The young soldier and the girl were still holding hands as the Goddess had placed them. Gabrielle looked up at Xena to find the warrior looking back at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Four?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena nodded, “Four.” She agreed. Gabrielle hugged the taller woman with one arm.
“Make that six.” The bard said quietly.
Leah threw a puzzled look in their direction, then returned her attention to the unconscious priestess. “What happened to her?” She asked, her heart breaking to see the pale face, drawn and aged.
“I’d guess she’s just tired. It can’t be easy being used as a vessel by a Goddess.” Xena took the limp Priestess from Leah’s embrace and lifted her easily. “We’ll stay the night here and return to town tomorrow.”
Eudore and Tereus helped the Librarian to her unsteady feet and they all reentered the cavern. Leah saw that Aglaia was brought to her own chamber. The little librarian insisted she’d watch over the priestess, but Gabrielle had noticed a few severe cuts along one of Leah’s arms and insisted on tending them. Eudore scolded the older woman.
“What were you thinking, fighting armed men?” Her tone was harsh, as she realized how easily Leah might have been killed.
“I don’t know, it just seemed the thing to do.” The librarian’s voice was dull with exhaustion and emotion. She looked up as she heard a merry laugh. Tereus stood in the doorway.
“And you always told us you were a coward. You’re a complete liar. I’ll never trust anything you say again.” Leah smiled tiredly at the boy. Gabrielle looked up and announced she was finished cleaning and dressing the wounds. Leah glanced at her arm in surprise.
“That was fast. And it doesn’t hurt.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I’ve had alot of practice. And it will tomorrow. Now you,” she rose to her feet, “get some sleep.”
Eudore said she’d stay and watch over the two of them, but Leah protested. Gabrielle clucked at the librarian.
“Let her. You’ve done your part. Get some sleep.” The bard exited the chamber, followed by Tereus.
“Tereus, can you and Marcus fend for yourselves?” Gabrielle asked perfunctorily. The boy nodded and waved her off with a smile. She cast a wondering glance in his direction, but didn’t stop to think about the merriment he seemed to be enjoying. She hurried through the passage to find Xena already laying back against their pallet, her arms behind her head, as she always did. The warrior’s eyes were wide open, and a frown filled her countenance. Gabrielle stretched her back and sat next to Xena. Her hands massaged the warrior’s arms and neck lightly, until she could see the tension flowing away. The frown lessened, then disappeared as a look of weariness and contentment replaced it. Xena closed her eyes and sighed.
“You always know where to rub, don’t you?” She asked. Her eyes flew open, and she grabbed the bard, pulling her down to the pallet. Strong fingers found tense muscles, and the bard swallowed convulsively, as her neck and shoulders relaxed.
Gabrielle leaned into the warm hands with pleasure. “You never really realize how tense you are, until something makes you relax.”
Xena stopped and thought about that for a moment. “Yeah, like that guy Epicurius said, ‘Pleasure is the absence of pain.’ Or something like that.”
“You’re an absolute bard when you want to be.” Gabrielle laughed. Her eyes met those of her lover. She sat up. “I have to stay awake and you’re going to relax me into sleep. Xena, we need to talk.”
She saw concern and consternation cross the warrior’s blue eyes, but Xena steeled herself for this encounter, as she had for so many others. Gabrielle took one of Xena’s hands and kneaded it.
“What do you want to talk about?” Xena’s voice was hard, the way she always got when she didn’t want to deal with a painful subject. “About Solon and Hope?” Her voice almost cracked on her son’s name, but she kept it under her control out of sheer willpower. Gabrielle marveled again at the amount of control Xena could muster against any strain. Seeing the pain in her lover’s eyes, and the willingness to bear the pain if need be, the bard quickly relieved Xena of her doubt.
“No, not that. Not now. We’ll work that out when this is all over. We need to figure out what happened today.”
Relief flooded Xena’s taught face. “Oh that! ” She laughed. “Just ask Tereus.” She closed her eyes and laid back.
Gabrielle sat, stunned. “What do you mean, ask Tereus?” she asked in confusion.
“He’s got it all figured out.” Xena patted the pallet next to her. “C’mon, let’s get some sleep” Gabrielle looked at her partner in amazement for a moment, then decided she was too tired to deal with anything at all. Curling into a spot next to Xena, her head on one strong, tan shoulder, Gabrielle took two breaths and fell fast asleep.
Xena was gone when Gabrielle awoke. This was natural, as the warrior often did scouting, hunting or worked out in the early morning. But this morning Gabrielle was disoriented, and became a bit frantic at her companion’s absence. She had no sense of time in the dark cavern and for a moment she couldn’t remember how she got there. With her head spinning, the bard looked around for something to jog her memory.
Xena’s form came into sight in the dim light. Impulsively Gabrielle grabbed the warrior and held her tight. Xena lifted Gabrielle smoothly and they stood, crushed together, for a long, silent time. They kissed and ended the embrace. Xena ran a hand along Gabrielle’s face and smiled down at her.
“Nice relaxing vacation, hmmm?” The blue eyes sparkled with good humor.
“Oh yeah, “Gabrielle agreed wryly. “Let’s do it again.”
“Now you know why we should never take time off. If we come to a town, a catastrophe occurs. Tidal wave, infestation of monsters, attack by a warlord…” Xena teased.
“Gorgons, out of control Gods…” Gabrielle continued. It was good just to be able to joke about it. The tension of the morning eased away in the strong embrace of her more-than-competent warrior.
They laughed. “Let’s go get the others.” Xena prompted.
The small group was gathered in the “war room.” Eudore, Marcus and Tereus were preparing and serving breakfast. Gabrielle offered to help, but she was shooed into a seat. The bard wasn’t sure when food had ever tasted so good. After assuaging her hunger, she looked around at her companions. Aglaia looked tired, but her color was good and she was merry. Leah, who looked as if she hadn’t slept, favored her wounded arm, but suffered Eudore, Tereus and Aglaia tending to her with a cheerful countenance. Eudore and Marcus kept gazing at each other, subtly they thought, but Gabrielle had to drink deeply to hide a laugh at one of the more prolonged looks. She threw a similar look at her lover, and was rewarded with a knowing smile on the warrior’s full lips.
Tereus was the big surprise. he seemed to have grown several inches from just a week ago. His face was fuller and his eyes deeper. He laughed merrily at all the jokes made and contributed many of his own. Some were so subtle that even the quick-witted warrior had to work them out before she got the point. Gabrielle watched him as he teased his Eudore about abandoning him for the Temple and Marcus. The girl blushed prettily, but gave as good as she got. The bard determined to find out what, exactly, the Goddess’s gift to Tereus had been. It was obvious Xena knew. Leah had a puzzled grin that said she too, was trying to work out the problem. Aglaia and Marcus, who had not known the boy long, could not be expected to notice a difference, yet both treated him as an equal, with no sense of condescension or artifice. Maybe because of what all we went through….but no, that’s not it. I wonder…? The bard was obsessed with finding out what the gift was. I’ll see if I can worm it out of Aglaia later, she decided, frustrated at not being able to work it out.
They made a leisurely meal of their breakfast. When they felt sufficiently restored to face the incipient wrath, or maybe downright hostility, from the town, they gathered their gear and headed out of the cavern.
The day had dawned crisp and clear, as it always does after a violent storm. The air was so clear, they stopped to fill up their lungs often and admire the view. They all knew it was a delaying tactic, but no one mentioned it.
Eventually, as the sun neared its zenith, they approached the gate. They walked calmly, almost stoically, as they came in sight of the guards. Xena had one hand on her chakram, but casually, as if she always rested it there. Only Tereus seemed relaxed. Marcus seemed the most worried, but he had good cause to be. Certainly the Goddess herself had commanded he desert his post, but what if his superior officer denied this? He walked slightly in front of the others, fighting between diffidence and desperation.
The young soldier approached the guards and began a stiff salute to the commander of the watch, but was arrested in his action as the entire guard crashed to attention. Xena’s hand grew tighter around her weapon, and her eyes were hard. Dammit, I don’t want to fight these men…and it’s the Third, no less. She gritted her teeth and watched closely. The commander of the watch stepped up and drew his weapon, Marcus made a move towards his, but a hand stayed his movement. It was Tereus, who nodded to the soldier and pointed with his chin towards the gate. It was opening slowly and the guards were splitting into to two ranks, one on either side of the gateway. The watch commander finished drawing his sword and flourished it in a salute that caused it to flash in the sunlight. Xena relaxed her hand and smiled uncertainly. All the guard echoed the salute with their own weapons and they stood, at attention, saluting as the wondering companions walked down the aisle, staring with confusion and not a little relief. Of all the possible scenarios they had envisioned this morning, welcome was not among them.
They all walked, a bit stunned, as the city welcomed them as heroes.
When they entered the city, they were met by a large delegation, headed by the magistrate, Evander, who was beaming his politician’s smile. They were addressed broadly, and loudly, and, as a fanfare of trumpets sounded, escorted into the town’s square.
Xena noticed that many of the men in yesterday’s attack were scattered around in the crowd, but instead of scowls and grimaces, she saw only happy faces and grins. Gabrielle caught her eye and the warrior shrugged. The bard thought she might have an inkling what was going on, but there was no time to speak with her friends, as they were being paraded into the center of town, to the acclaim of cheering crowds.
Speeches commenced. Evander spoke of their heroic deeds, especially the brave killing of the Gorgon, and the rescue of one of their town daughters, the lovely Eudore. Speakers came and went. A reunion between Eudore and her tearful mother and bruised father was enacted. Aglaia was welcomed as the new Priestess of the Temple of Athena. Even Leah was commended for bravery far beyond the mortal bounds of a Librarian’s job.
Throughout the entire ritual, the seven companions stood, nearly silent with amazement, for this was not the welcome they had expected. Not one comment was made about the attack on the men of the town, and no word was spoken of the appearance of a Goddess. In time, it was apparent that not one of the vigilantes remembered any such thing happening.
Gabrielle’s bardic mind put the facts together quickly and she later related the events to her friends as she could interpret them. The men of the town, hearing that one of their own, Lycurgus, was hurt, ran to the temple to back up Xena and her friends. They discovered the warrior and companions in a pitched battle with a huge Gorgon and her minions. While the men fought the minions, Xena and Gabrielle slew the foul monster, rescuing Eudore. Leah had stood over the unconscious body of the Priestess and Marcus, Tereus and Eudore each had a tale of prowess and bravery to boast of. If they hadn’t known it all for a falsehood, they would have each blushed in embarrassment.
They were all invited for a state dinner at the magistrate’s house in celebration of the Temple’s reclaiming and future rebuilding. As the seven friends were lead away dazedly, Gabrielle intercepted Tereus, who had smiled the whole day, just like a cat who has drunk cream.
“Okay, Tereus, spill it. You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? How?”
The boy’s face split into the grin he had been hiding all day. He turned to the bard and said seriously, “You can’t guess?”
With those words, the answer to the puzzle appeared in the bard’s mind. She slapped her forehead in annoyance. “Of course! Wisdom! Athena is the Goddess of Wisdom! Is that what she gave you?” She propelled the youth along in the wake of the magistrate’s entourage.
Tereus nodded. He spoke evenly, but his clear eyes twinkled. “Luckily, she’s given me a good dose of humor about it, as well.” And he ducked, as the bard made to slap him on the head. Still smiling, he took her arm formally and escorted Gabrielle into the great hall for their meal.
During the meal, all the companions redirected the questions aimed at them, as much as possible. Aside from the fact that they did not understand the details that the townspeople remembered, they were loath to speak of what they knew. Their apparent reluctance was thought of as understandable humility, and their reputations soared.
Eventually they were let go from the formal function held in their honor. Evander insisted they remain the evening at his mansion in comfort. They all accepted, seeing a way to avoid the crowds and the obligatory tale-telling that comes with an adventure. Their accommodations were sumptuous, and not a few of them wondered at the fine furnishings and rich materials. Only Gabrielle and Xena had ever had access to finery of this sort, and the others spent the evening dazzled by their new status. They promised to meet again in the morning, and parted, to a sleep full of dreams.
Aglaia woke up gasping for air. She was suffocating, she knew, and she tried to claw away the film the covered her mouth and face. The room was in complete darkness, except for the fiery eyes of who knew what monster, coming to possess her. She tried to scream, but she couldn’t and she panicked, thrashing in her fear.
Cold air flooded her lungs and she coughed and hacked as she gasped for breath. She looked around wildly, to find the source of her fear, but it was gone. She saw a figure holding a double candlestick and heard a reassuring voice, attempting to soothe her.
“Hey, it’s okay, I’m here.” Leah’s voice came to her as if through thick walls. The Priestess closed her eyes again and leaned back into the bedclothes, breathing heavily. A hand stroked her face, soothingly and she sighed. The feeling of suffocation was passing, and with it the presence of the *thing* that had sought to take hold of her. She heard Leah speaking and she realized that the Librarian was asking a question.
“What was it? A bad dream, a premonition?” Concern filled the woman’s words.
Aglaia shook her head and opened her eyes. Now she could see the dark, curly hair of the other woman, and the glint of her eyes by the candlelight. She smiled and touched the face above her.
“No. I have to return to the Temple as soon as possible. There is a ritual that I must perform.”
Leah nodded sagely. “Purifying, huh? After what happened to you, I imagine you must feel, well…used? Is that right?”
The blonde nodded. “You know, my predecessor told me about this, but I never…” She swallowed. “It’s like its not really you, but you can feel it.”
Leah stroked her hair softly. “I’ll take your word for it. We’ll go back tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to come…” The priestess began, but Leah shushed her.
“Of course I do. You may not remember, but Athena specifically requested that I move the Library to the Temple. I have a duty to the Goddess.” She smiled and the priestess turned her head and leaned into the hand that cupped her cheek.
They lay like that for a while, listening to the sounds of night in the palace, murmurings and scufflings around them.
“I do remember, actually.” Aglaia said finally. “I remember every word.” She sat up and faced the librarian. “How did you come to be here with me, anyway? Your room is down the hall…” She saw the other woman give her that lop-sided smile.
“Well,” Leah hesitated, then rushed out the words, “I got lonely and wanted to find you. I missed you.”
Aglaia smiled softly, leaned over and kissed Leah. The Librarian responded with a surprising softness and shyness. They embraced, still kissing, the escaping tension of fear changing to a rising passion.
Aglaia separated herself and teased. “But what will they think of their staid Librarian, repository of knowledge and wisdom, when they find you haven’t slept in your bed?”
Leah ran a hand along the priestess’s collarbone, following it with her mouth. Aglaia threw her head back and moaned. Leah tongued up the line of the bone, into the hollow at the base of the throat and halted. The priestess held the darker woman there for a moment, then pulled her up for a long kiss.
This time, Leah pulled away with a sigh of satisfaction. “I am not a repository, the Library is. And I have no more wisdom than the next person. That’s what *you* do.” She joked as she began to untie the laces of the Priestess’s shift. “And to Hades with them, if they can’t handle it.” She began a detailed exploration of the area between the Priestess’s breasts with her mouth. And Leah smiled, as Aglaia leaned over and blew the candles out.
Tereus dreamt of a field of wildflowers. They were white and red, blowing softly in a light breeze from the sea. He was walking along the edge of the field, when a little girl ran up to him holding two flowers.
“Which one do you want?” She asked, holding the two flowers out to him.
He looked down at her and smiled. “Which one do you want to give me?” He asked her. She thought seriously about it.
“The one you’d be happiest with.” she decided.
As he reached for the flowers a voice sounded in his ear. “Pick carefully.” He turned and saw that the Goddess Athena stood there. No longer armed, she stood in a loose flowing gown, her hair bound up. He was captivated. No beauty like Aphrodite, but Athena had a depth of passion that he instantly knew no other, mortal or immortal, might have. Save one. Tereus stood on the strand, now, looking out into an ocean of bright blue.
“Which should I choose?” He asked, but no answer came. He looked at the little girl, but Aphrodite stood in her place.
“It won’t matter, really.” the Goddess teased him. “One is power and the other influence. It’s all the same.” She giggled seductively.
“No, it isn’t,” He replied, but the Goddess had changed into Athena again.
“Then you already have chosen.” and she held out both flowers. She took his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks. “Not all heroes are warriors.” She said and she disappeared.
Tereus awoke to find the dawn breaking through the window of his room. The light sparkled and blinded him. He put his hands to his eyes to find them full of tears. He pulled his hands away in surprise, then shocking himself further, he wept tears of glorious, bubbling joy.
Eudore walked along a grey corridor alone. There were no markings, but she knew she faced a difficult task at the end of the corridor. Intermittently doors opened along the passage and people she knew came out to face her.
The first door opened and her mother stood there, hands on hips, looking furious. “Always causing a scene. All we ask is a little thought for others and you just go running off. We never understood you, always wanting more than what we could give you.”
As her mother scolds her, Eudore cannot find words to defend herself, so she bows her head in remorse. “I am sorry mother.” she says to her own surprise. She cannot find any of the excuses she has used in the past to justify her actions.
With her mother’s harsh words ringing in her ears, the young woman continues down the corridor to the next door, where she waits meekly, knowing she will be berated by the next figure. The door opens and she sees Aglaia beckoning her inside. There is a fire, and a table laden with food. She begins to enter, glad to find comfort where she looked to find trial, but the door closes too swiftly. Eudore looks up to see the eyes of the Gorgon staring out of the Priestess’s face, fixing her in place, not even her heart moving. Slowly, her breathing slows, and stops. The passage falls away, she stands, a stone marker, along a well-worn path.
Two people, a man and his daughter walk by. They stop to admire the stone figure. As they walk away, the man speaks.
“And they call this stone the “Selfish Girl.” Do you remember why?”
The daughter responds dully, “Because girls should know their place and not argue with their parents.” The man nods proudly, but Eudore sees a dying light in the girl’s eyes and is incensed. She begins to scream and thrash in her stone prison.
“No! That is not the right way! Life is a gift, not a chore!” She bounces against her shell and cracks appear. “Duty is for those who have no plan in life. Its an excuse to not have to think!” With each breath she throws herself into the now fragile stone. With a final heave she breaks free and she scoops up the wondering child as she runs, as fast as she can.
Panting, she finds herself in a wood. There is no sign of human occupation and the wood is dark. The child begins to cry, but cannot tell Eudore why. The young woman begins to panic as the sun goes down. She is hungry and tired and her burden gets heavy.
The little girl looks at her and asks, “Mommy, why don’t you love me? ”
Eudore’s heart breaks and she sits down, weeping, protesting uselessly. The child disappears, and Eudore reaches wildly for her, crying out. Still sobbing fitfully, she lays down on the forest floor and falls asleep. In her dream she hears a conversation. One voice is familiar and the other strange, but mellifluous and girlish.
“What are you doing, leaving your acolytes strewn about my sacred forest?”
The other voice, more mature and serious answers. “She brought herself here. I cannot control that. Would you like her to make an offering? Or do you fancy her for yourself? You always had an eye for the pretty young things.” Eudore can hear the laughter in the voice, and there is no meanness in the teasing.
The younger voice laughs. “Do you mean me, or my brother? Both I suppose, but he doesn’t discriminate much, does he? No, no, go ahead, she’s yours. Anyway, she’ll want to be marrying that young man of hers and he’s all for you. I have no use for him or married women. She goes with my blessings on her childbirth.” The voice fades away, and Eudore is left feeling sad that she is gone.
When she awakes, she is laying by a stream that leads to a temple. It is unadorned, but there are food offerings laid out. She has nothing to add. Hesitantly she bathes in the stream, then lays herself prostrate on the floor of the Temple.
She hears a step and feels someone looking down at her. She feels a hand tugging at her and lifting, and she sits up suddenly to find herself in a strange room at the mansion of the town magistrate.
She was alone, the world quiet about her. Searching within herself for emotions, she felt fresh and new, as if she had been washed from within. Laying back on the silken pillows, Eudore stretched and fell into a dreamless, nourishing sleep, confident that the hand of the Goddess had been laid on her.
Marcus could not sleep. He tossed and turned for what seemed like hours. Giving up, he slipped back into his sandals. A walk around the grounds would do him good, he thought… He walked out of the room and found his way onto the main floor. As he slipped outside, the cool night air made him shiver. He breathed deeply, thinking that this was what he needed.
A soft presence behind him made him start. In the darkness, he assumed it was one of the guards, but the tall figure hushed him. It grabbed his forearm and leaned close.
“Is this what you want? A small town life with a small town girl?” The figure hissed. It squeezed Marcus’s arm hard, until he gasped with pain. “Life is so much more, Marcus. It can be glory and riches for the taking. Isn’t that what you want? Glory and battle? Come with me, let me train you and together, we can rule Greece, if not the world.” The voice was insistent, yet seductive.
A vision appeared to his right. Eudore, gone old and fat, a brood of snot-nosed children who whined incessantly around her. She looked at him sourly and complained. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going out? How do you expect me to manage without you? You have to tell me when you’re going out, you know that.” He shrank from the sight.
On his left, he saw himself fighting off a huge barbarian. With nary an effort he speared the mighty warrior and stood triumphant. His heart swelled with pride at his own prowess, knowing himself to be the equal of any in the world. Even Xena.
Xena? What brought on that thought, Marcus wondered. The stranger, bearded and dark, still gripped him. “Think of it Marcus – even as great as Xena.”
Marcus looked into the smoldering eyes and realized with a start that he stood toe to toe with the God of War. “Th…that’s not what I want.” He stammered with surprise.
“Yes it is, Marcus. Remember, we Gods can read your thoughts…” The God of War hypnotized the young soldier with his presence. He felt as if he were caught in a tar pit. As he fell into the blackness that reached out for him he heard Eudore’s voice.
“Marcus, I’m here.” The soldier reached out for that link and grabbed on with his whole soul. As he felt the touch of the flame-haired woman, he remembered stories. Stories by Petros of pillaging, and killing, stories of pain and despair and homelessness.
He looked the God of War in the eye. “No, I do not want that. Battle yes, but only if I have to. I have no heart for victimizing the innocent. Keep your glory Ares, I don’t want it.” The God of War stepped back in surprise, releasing his hold on Marcus’s arm.
Marcus, more in control, fully aware of Eudore’s presence, a flame that burned clean and bright in his mind, laughed. “And I sure don’t want to take on Xena. One of her is quite enough for the world.” Ares scowled as he moved backwards into the shadows. As he opened his mouth to speak laughter rang out. A woman’s voice, clear as a bell in the night laughed at the God of War and he shrank from the noise. He disappeared from sight without a sound.
Marcus closed his eyes and leaned heavily on the wall at his side. He was overcome with a desire to sleep. Returning to his room he slept deeply, waking up last of all the companions.