In the Kingdom of Horses Part 1 by Mary Morgan
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In The Kingdom of Horses
Part 2

Hesiod shifts a little. It must be his age, he supposes. Sitting on a hard surface never used to bother him this much. He is wearing his best tunic and cloak, in honour of the occasion, but they are heavy and itch against his sweaty skin in this dreadful humidity. The promised storm hangs on the horizon. It hasn’t come closer. With the evening, a wind has sprung up. It blows from the land, has crossed stagnant marshes. The clouds have drawn back before it. Between Scylla and Charybdis. We can be drowned or stifled, it appears.

"Or both." The voice comes from his right hand side and Hesiod realises that he has spoken aloud. He looks round and down to meet Gabrielle’s tired grin. She is wearing a much lighter and simpler tunic than he is, but looks equally hot. Strands of her short, red-gold hair have stuck to her forehead. "Phew!" she says, comically, and blows a puff of air upwards. The hair flutters limply, then flops down again.

"Why do you travel with that woman?" He has surprised himself with that question. He had no intention of asking it. But the heat and the tension are getting to him, he supposes, and this is why he has blurted it out.

"Huh?"

Gabrielle swivels round on the bench which they share, here in the shade of the Palace’s east wall. She stares at him. He has made her angry, he can see that. But he feels committed now. He gropes for an explanation. In the end he says lamely, "You’re like the songbird," and winces. Dictating how life should be lived was easier when I was just writing it down, he reflects, not talking to someone who was actually there.

 

"The one carried away in the talons of the hawk? In your scroll? Is that how you see me?"

Gabrielle sounds either amused or outraged. He isn’t sure which. Cautiously, he nods. "She might eat you up or she might let you go, but she’ll never understand you. You’re too different. She’s a creature of violence, a warlord." He believes this. He feels bound to explain it to her.

"You don’t know her." Now he is certain; Gabrielle is furious. It makes her voice quiet, and very intense.

"Yes, I do. I’ve seen many people like her. People who steal what others have toiled to make, and left their prey to starve." He is aware he’s becoming poetic, but can’t help himself. "Greedy, arrogant people. Greece was over-run by people like that when I was there, when I was slaving to make a living off the godsawful land."

"Well, things are different there now, and it’s thanks to Xena. She’s been fighting against people like that ever since I knew her. Believe me." Gabrielle’s voice is firm, decisive. Full of faith in her friend. He can hear that she believes it.

"But I bet she still thinks people like us, or at least like our fathers, farmers I mean, are lesser beings. I bet she still thinks people like her, who don’t work but who can swing a sword and don’t mind spilling blood, are superior merely by nature." Hesiod finds he is desperate to convince her of this. Shut up, a voice commands him. You’re making it worse. But he can’t. He has gone too far.

Gabrielle’s certainty seems only to grow. "Xena thinks she is like us. Her mother ran a tavern. She doesn’t think herself better than anyone."

Hesiod takes one final chance. "Are you sure? Yes, she’s a hero when she has a sword in her hand, when she’s looking down on everyone from the top of a horse." He is, he decides, pleased with his passion. I can still find some fire to put in my words, after all. "But can she be a real, everyday hero? Someone who fights the land and the weather? Someone measures victory in the amount of food she has put on her children’s plates?" He looks at Gabrielle, trying to gauge the effect he is having on her. All he can see, however, is her profile and that doesn’t tell him much. You’ve said enough, he tells himself, and makes his last point. "Can you see her settling down? Seeing how she measures up to that kind of challenge?"

Gabrielle only laughs, though there’s an edge to her laughter. She says, "No. Not Xena. She wasn’t born to live in one place. But that doesn’t mean she thinks that she’s special, or a hero. I wish she did."

Gabrielle has stood up, a little abruptly. He thinks she is about to walk off, but she turns to face him. "Was there a Perses?" she asks now.

Hesiod feels himself blush. "Perses?" It must be the heat. He runs a hand over the bald top of his head in confusion.

"Perses," the small woman repeats. Her eyes have narrowed. "The brother you wrote Work and Days for. My father made me learn that by heart, you know. All that splendid advice. ‘The world’s a dangerous place. Home’s best.’ Remember writing that? Oh, and what about, ‘Trusting a woman is like trusting a thief.’ He said if I didn’t pay heed, I’d turn out as worthless as your little brother. The one you thought you were so much better than."

Gabrielle’s skin is flushed. The lines between her brows and round her mouth have deepened. She’s getting her own back. For Xena. Perhaps for herself as well. For the nights she had to spend learning his poetry by rote. And really, he cannot blame her. He drove her to this display of temper.

So, perhaps he owes her the truth. He nods. "Yes, there was a Perses. And yes, he cheated me of the better part of our father’s estate. But that was the last I saw of him. He never came back, rich or poor. I never got a chance to show him how wise I had become, how much of a success. That was nothing but wishful thinking, Gabrielle."

He has surprised and disarmed her. He can see that. She stares a moment, then a small smile curves her lips. She takes a steadying breath. He watches her shoulders rise, then relax. "Ah," she says, "I see. Well, I can relate to that." She sits down beside him again and laughs a little. "Sorry. I just hate it when people criticise Xena, you see. It’s not as though you know what she is really like, after all."

"So that’s why you travel with her? To explain her to people like me?" Hesiod cannot resist returning to his argument.

"Perhaps." At first Gabrielle seems willing to leave it at that. But it seems he has set her thinking. "I suppose I used to tell myself that," she goes on after a time. Her voice is very low. He has to strain to hear her. "But that isn’t why, not really."

When she falls silent again, Hesiod asks, though he knows he won’t like the answer, "Why?"

"Because I have to." Gabrielle’s reply is immediate. Then she stops once more. She has clasped her hands together and is staring down at them. "Because if I don’t, Xena will just go on seeing herself as a monster who can never make good. I told you she doesn’t see herself as a hero. I do that for her, I hope." Gabrielle draws a deep breath, then lets it out. Very softly she adds, "And because I can’t live without her. No more than I could live without the marrow in my bones." She pauses after saying this. Then she nods.

Hesiod feels as though he has been punched, just under his heart. He realises this is the feeling he used to thank the gods he had been spared. He was right to do so. He cannot imagine anything worse. Because he is feeling it now. As though a cold wind is whistling through his bones. Hades, he curses. At my age!

"Ah, sorry," Gabrielle is saying. "That was very melodramatic of me. Must be the occasion. All this doom and gloom in the air." She grins a lop-sided, rather shame-faced grin. "I didn’t mean to say that stuff to you. Really."

She thrusts her hand out, and when he takes it, gives his hand a shake. "Forgive me?"

"Yes. Yes, of course." Hesiod looks at their hands. Hers is small and fair skinned, smooth and strong. Not like his own, which is huge, knotted with veins and spotted with freckles. He feels awkward, depressed, and gently pulls his hand free. Then he says, to forestall a silence, "So, you didn’t like it."

"Um." Gabrielle has been caught off balance. "Oh, your poem. No. No," she repeats. Then she chuckles, in embarrassment. "I mean yes. There’s a lot of truth in it."

"But?"

"But I was hardly old enough to appreciate that. Or in the right state of mind." She is still smiling.

Hesiod nods. "And?"

"And?" Gabrielle pushes the hair on her forehead back with an impatient hand. The thought depresses him. "Well, I always felt there was something missing. It was a fine portrait of that kind of life and how to live it well, of course. I don’t mean it wasn’t. But…"

She hesitates again. He waits. Then she says, "Well, what about passion? There’s no passion in it. You think that life is heroic, but you don’t make the people who live it sound like heroes. Well, you didn’t to me." She pauses. "Perhaps father saw it that way." Now she looks thoughtful again. Then she resumes, "And there’s no love in it. Not of the land. Not of the sea. Not of a person."

Hesiod grins wryly, mostly at himself. He decides not to point out that there are friends and fathers, wives and brothers, husbands and children in his scroll. He knows that isn’t what she means. All too well, as it turns out. Instead he says, and this is a new thought for him, "Perhaps, it’s because my scroll is about what I think real heroes do. Keeping to Zeus’ laws, with no hope of reward. Surviving their life as well as they can. Perhaps, for people trapped in that kind of life, love is too much of a risk."

"Ah." Gabrielle nods. She considers this. Finally, she says, "Well. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t want to survive my life at that price. Okay?"

Hesiod looks at her. Then he looks south, to the storm, to the sea. Okay. When he speaks, it is to say, "It’s nearly time."

Something changes in Gabrielle’s face. For the first time he sees that she’s not simply tired out by the heat . She’s worried as well. No. Worried is not enough. She’s terrified. "Don’t worry," he says. ""Nothing is going to happen."

"You think so?" Gabrielle’s eyes widen. She stands up again, counts off her fingers. "There’s a curse on this Kingdom. There’s an oracle just itching to be fulfilled. There’s a storm out in the bay just waiting to rain – what? Fire and brimstone down on us, or something. There’s a coronation due, and an offering to a god who, we can assume, is pretty fed up. And Xena is here."

She has run out of fingers. She repeats, louder, "And Xena is here. And that always means that something will happen. It means that she’s going to be needed, that she’ll get involved, maybe get hurt. Maybe get worse than hurt. You understand? Just to make sure that, whatever happens, the innocent don’t suffer. That good has a chance to be done."

Gabrielle is almost shouting. Tears sparkle in her eyes. Hesiod can see panic is mounting behind them. Love. What a blessing. To have been spared it for all of these years. He tries to calm her down, saying, "Whatever trouble is coming, it’s coming for Xanthippe. She’s the one who tried to defy the oracle. She’s the one who conceived life on a deathbed"

Gabrielle’s attention is caught. She closes her eyes, then recites, "’Don’t beget life after a funeral. Wait till a feast day first.’" She is quoting from his poem again. She opens her eyes, looks at him. "Is that why she’s cursed? It’s that what’s wrong with Pelagos?" She does not sound entirely convinced.

"What else can it be? Pelagos was born nine months to the day after Polybos died." It makes sense to him. He goes on, "So you see, there’s nothing Xena can do. It’s between the Queen and the gods."

"Oh, that won’t stop her. Not Xena. It’s what she does." Gabrielle drags an arm over her eyes, sweeping the tears from them.

Hesiod sighs and stands up. It is almost dark. He sets his hands on her shoulders. "Right. I see. So, we’d better be there when whatever happens, happens." He keeps his voice as calm as he can and makes Gabrielle meet his eyes. "Come on. You don’t want to be late." He swings her around, slips a hand through her arm. Together they walk down to the shore.

 

 

 

Gabrielle feels helpless. We’re all helpless. Xanthippe, Pelagos, Xena. We’re acting out a fate decreed 18 years ago, or whenever that oracle was given. But at least the Queen, the Heir, Xena have roles in this drama. She has none. What can I do? Her lip curls in self-contempt. Take notes. Stand here beside Hesiod and take notes.

And Gabrielle is taking notes. She cannot help herself. What she sees is being turned into words which imprint themselves on her brain. And I suppose I’ll tell this as a story one day. It is what she does. And when she tells the tale, the whole scene will recreate itself in her head. It always does.

So, what will she see, when that happens? To her left, the sea, and the wall of cloud that still looms blackly there. It is closer now. It seems to have come in with the tide, which is reaching its height. There is no thunder, but lightning plays round its base. Its continuous flashes make the beach bright. The water itself is flat as glass. It reflects back the stuttering, blue-white dazzle. Even the waves lap in with barely a bubble of froth. They are silent too. To her right, the bank of dunes, casting a pitch-black shadow in the moonlight.

Between the dunes and the sea, guards carry torches. In the centre of the ring they make, Xanthippe in robes of regal purple, a gold wreath in her hair. Pelagos, wearing sable, has nothing to tie back his own, luxuriant hair. It flows round his face, down his back. She knows that face from her dream. The horse frets and fidgets. It has a halter studded with gold round its head, which Ikarios is holding. Perhaps Thalassos is here as well. How can he not be? Gabrielle feels for the boy. Like her, he has nothing to gain from what happens here, and too much to lose.

Over their heads is the moon. Full, its face looking down on them. It has just reached its zenith. And so it is time to begin. She feels her breathing pick up, sweat stand out on her skin. At last she lets herself look towards Xena. The warrior is wearing her armour again. She stands slightly apart, sombre and business-like in the midst of the pomp of the court.

This is all wrong. I should be standing beside her. But Gabrielle is not. It isn’t her place. Her place is here, with the grooms and the generals, the retainers and burghers, the servants and tradesmen. All have been summoned to witness the transfer of power from mother to son. All will in time pledge their allegiance to their new ruler. Other than that, we’re just the audience, not really part of the play. We have nothing to do. Except to keep calm, not to run. These people are so frightened. Who wouldn’t be, in the face of that imminent storm? Something, a sense of their duty, or perhaps merely the guards, keeps them silent and still. At least, thanks to Hesiod’s status, she stands at the front of this petrified crowd. The old man is silent beside her. But I’m here for Xena. She clings to that mutinous thought. Just for Xena. For Xena she’ll do what she can.

The priest, she thinks his name is Keleus, has begun a chant. He is facing the sea, so Gabrielle guesses it is to Poseidon, but her pulse is hammering in her ears and she cannot hear the words clearly enough to be certain. Once that is done, the man turns to the land. He starts chanting again. There is a good deal of gesturing going on, most of it towards Pelagos. When he falls silent, Xanthippe steps forward. Beside her, a servant carries a crown beaten from gold which has been made to look like a wreath of wild olive. Pelagos barely bends his head to her, but Xanthippe is tall enough to place it on his head. That done, the Queen Mother steps back and bows deeply to the new King.

The sight re-ignites Gabrielle’s outrage. Get away from there, Xena. The words are loud in her head. Come here. Come to me. Whatever you owe Xanthippe, you don’t owe a thing to Pelagos. But they sound hollow, even to her. There is more at stake here than an old debt owed to an old enemy.

Xena does not move. Of course not. She’s Xena. She’s given her word. Gabrielle composes herself. She must not let Xena down. She must be alert. She is calmer now. There will be need for her later, she is suddenly sure. Her heart beat steadies and her head clears. She readies herself, for whatever may happen. She sees the priest turn to Pelagos, say something softly. Sees Pelagos fail to respond. He has not moved since the crown was placed on his head. Anyone else would appear to be slumping, so lax is his stance. But this is Pelagos, so he looks elegant and casual instead.

Keleus says something again, this time more loudly. Gabrielle catches the words, "to Poseidon." The priest adds a hand gesture, points to the horse. Pelagos continues to ignore him. Keleus, baffled, stands silent. Gabrielle cannot see where Pelagos is looking. It appears to be straight through his mother, whose gaze has stayed fixed on her son. The silence lengthens. This cannot part of the ritual. Hesiod mutters, "What’s up with the boy?" Neither Xena nor Xanthippe move, but Gabrielle is sure she has seen both grow more tense. Except for Pelagos, everyone’s tense. Especially the horse.

Gabrielle finds her eyes are drawn to the beast. He is fretting still more, his hide slick with sweat. Here and there, it has worked to a lather. She suspects that only Ikarios is keeping the horse in its place. The Master of Horse is smoothing his palm over its muzzle, constantly talking. The beast’s eyes look enormous. His nostrils are wide and seem flushed scarlet. When he shudders, flecks of foam float around him. It’s as though the storm is already here. In the horse. Gabrielle shudders.

Pelagos straightens. With his usual indolent grace he faces the sea. "Poseidon," he utters. "Here’s your horse. Come get it."

Gabrielle hears Hesiod gasp, and stifles her own incredulous giggle. Is he mad? Behind her, the crowd moans and mutters, jumpy with fear. Xanthippe and Keleus have stiffened in shock. Somehow detached from the scene, Xena quirks a cool eyebrow. She is watching the horse and ignoring Pelagos.

"No?" The new King makes a show of offence. "Our best stallion not good enough for you? You’ve heard he can’t deliver where it counts, perhaps?" He swaggers forward, hand out to grasp the horse’s halter.

The horse rears, pulling Ikarios clear off his feet. Xena is there, on the other side, pulling the beast down again, hanging on the halter to keep him in place. Pelagos has staggered back, still managing, impossibly, to look graceful.

"You can’t talk to a god like that, you fool!" Keleus howls. He is in mortal terror, his eyes darting to the sea, the storm, as if he expects to be struck down in an instant. Voices around echo his words. Gabrielle can feel that the crowd is a hair’s breadth from panic. She chokes on the stench of their fear. Hesiod has an arm round her shoulder. He hustles her forward as someone snaps out an order. Suddenly guards face the crowd. Their drawn swords and set faces warn them back. Thanks to Hesiod, though, she stands outside their cordon. Closer to Xena.

"Don’t talk to me like that, old man." Pelagos grabs the priest’s robe, shakes him, tosses him to the ground effortlessly. "You’ve made me King. Now you’ll do things my way."

He’s mad, Gabrielle thinks. But there’s no trace of madness in Pelagos’ face. It is calm. It is even serene. He has to be mad. At that moment Pelagos turns, sweeping the beach with his gaze. Their eyes meet. Gabrielle freezes. Beside her she feels Hesiod shift, and knows he is bowing. Though she wants to as well, she can’t move a muscle. She is transfixed. Like a snake and a rabbit. Dismayed, she sees Xena’s alarm and knows that her partner can’t help her, that she can’t leave the horse. These thoughts fill her mind as she watches Pelagos saunter towards her, turning his back on Xanthippe, Keleus, the horse as though they none of them exist.

"Ah, Xena’s little bard, isn’t it? Mother says you’re rather good. Hesiod does too, I hear. You should be honoured. He’s never done that before." He ignores the old man, looks only at her. "I hope you aren’t offended I missed your performance last night."

Gabrielle stares up at him. She still cannot tear her eyes away. She is aware that Hesiod has held his ground and placed a hand on her shoulder. She is grateful for this. The old bard’s fingers are digging in and it steadies her, lets her look at Pelagos more calmly. This is crazy, I have to be imagining it. But Pelagos does not look like a boy any more. There is white in his beautiful hair. Lines have been gouged into the skin of his face, which seem only to make it more perfect. Time like a sculptor, running its chisel again and again over the lines which have pleased it. He looks old. But not mad. He looks desperate, though. "Perhaps next time," she says, quietly, trying to soothe him, trying to establish some kind of normality. "Just tell me what story you would like me to tell."

Pelagos returns the smile, sweetly. Just for a moment he looks simply tired. "That would be nice," he says, "but I’m afraid my time for hearing stories told is long past." Then he bends suddenly, whispers, "Let’s see if your dour, dark friend over there can do what she was brought here to do." Then he is gone. Gabrielle, dazed, catches the scent of his skin, smells the sea and the stables. A herbalist’s shop. Incense burned to invoke some underworld goddess. And, unmistakably, sex. Acidic, pungent, it has made her head swim.

The King has returned to the horse by the time Gabrielle wins back command of herself. Hesiod has sagged with relief, is supporting himself on her now. She can hear he is breathless with shock. She braces herself, letting the effort it takes focus her mind in the moment. She looks towards Xena, summons a smile and a nod. I’m okay. Xena returns them.

At that moment, the horse’s nerve breaks. Crazy with fear, it tries to escape the new King. In spite of his short, stocky strength, Ikarios is tossed to one side by the brute’s frenzied heaving. He crouches, panting, shaking his head. Xena is only just managing to hang on. She drags the horse’s head down till its muzzle touches its fore-hooves. "Get away from him," Gabrielle hears the warrior snarl at Pelagos. "Get away before he goes mad."

"No wonder Poseidon won’t take him," Pelagos says pleasantly. He watches the struggle as he might watch a play. "The beast’s not up to scratch. Barren and mad. Completely unbroken. We can’t give our god such a substandard offering, can we?"

He draws his sword, begins swinging it idly. Now he straightens his arm. The blade lifts and points. It comes to rest inches away from the horse’s left eye.

"No!" somebody screams. The cry comes from behind her. Gabrielle turns, as much as Hesiod’s weight will allow. The crowd ripples and parts. The front of it splits and Thalassos bursts out. He dodges a guard, rolls through the legs of another. Scrambling up, he sets out at a run for the King, flings himself at his sword arm.

"Get off me." Pelagos is regal with rage. "I’m your King, stable rat." He flails his arm fiercely. Thalassos hangs on. Pelagos roars like a lion. He punches the boy straight in the face, and the horse screams, but Thalassos is silent and does not let go.

"Stop it, you fool!" Xena yells. She grabs at the sword, but the horse sees its chance, breaks her hold, bucks and then rears. She renews her grasp on the halter, forces it down, can only watch as Pelagos switches his sword hand. Raising that arm, he reverses his grip, drives the sword’s pommel into Thalassos’s head. The boy drops like a stone. The horse screams and rears up again, pulling the warrior off her feet as it does so. Thalassos is lying under its hoofs.

Gabrielle gathers herself. She can look on no longer. Hesiod stops her. "Stay here, wait," he hisses at her. "Your friend’s going to need you." Sobbing with fright, the old bard staggers towards the boy. Ikarios gets there first. He drags the boy aside, then collapses to the ground again. Hesiod squats by them both. He produces a rag, presses it tight against Thalassos’s head. The pale fabric is stained by his blood, which looks black in this uncanny light.

"Xena," someone else says. It is Xanthippe. Her voice stills the frenzy. Even the horse quietens. It comes down on all four hooves, and does not move again. Everyone looks at her. She ignores everyone but Xena. "Now you can see. It can’t go on. It’s time for you to finish what you started." Her tone changes, loses its calmness, becomes desperate. "Do it now."

Xena steps away from the motionless horse, drawing her sword. She moves so that she faces Pelagos. Her face is dead white, her eyes are like pits. They don’t leave Pelagos. Beside her, the King’s honour guard stiffen, begin to close in. Xanthippe holds up her hand. Pelagos snaps, "Stay where you are." Uncertain, they do, watch blankly as Xena raises the long, shining blade. Her arm shortens, as it must do before she can thrust.

Gabrielle has remembered her dream. It jars her. The scene on the beach springs into a new focus. She sees what will happen, and it fills her with horror. You can’t do it, Xena. Not in cold blood. She won’t let her do it. You’re not Xanthippe’s assassin. Nor will it help. It feels wrong. But she doesn’t know why. The bard draws a deep breath and gathers herself. I’ve got to do something. But she doesn’t. Xena has shifted her stance, is looking towards her, has shaken her head. "Not now," the gesture is saying. Gabrielle’s gaze meets her eyes, holds them, sees something rare in her partner. Doubt. Hesitation. Oh, Xena, Gabrielle thinks. But she does as her warrior asks her. She waits.

"Come on, Xena. Do what she says." It is Pelagos, who taunts her. "Do it, you bitch. Why hesitate now? You didn’t before!" However, he looks at his mother, not Xena. Who sends back his stare, straight backed and stone eyed. "Come on!" Pelagos yells one last time. Xena still does not move. He howls and springs at her, sword out and aimed at her heart.

Gabrielle is moving already. All the suppressed need to be there, to be by the warrior’s side is released. But I’m too far away! Mere paces, but too far away. She can see that Xena isn’t defending herself. A darkness gathers behind Gabrielle’s eyes. Rage and grief. Through it she sees the sword enter her warrior’s chest, pierce her heart. I’m too late. Much too late. Still, she hurls herself forward, though she knows she will fail.

Then her head clears and she stops, gasping, confused. Xena is standing, still holding her sword, completely unwounded. She’s okay. It didn’t happen. I just imagined it. She’s alright.

It is Pelagos who isn’t. He has let his sword fall to the sand. There is something strange happening to him. He turns his head to look at his mother. His lips move, but Gabrielle can’t hear a sound. The new King is voiceless. And something is wrong with his body, as well. For a moment Gabrielle’s mind, still dazed by her vision of her warrior’s death, cannot pin down what is wrong. Then it does. She can see the beach, the sea, the imminent storm, through Pelagos’s body. It is no longer solid. It writhes and unravels as though made from ribbons of smoke. Yet as she watches, this also changes. He becomes still less substantial, no more than white wisps of mist shrinking on glass. And now she can’t see him at all, only the beach and the sea, the wall of furious clouds. Though these flinch and waver, as if made from hot wax or seen through the haze of a midsummer’s day.

Gabrielle draws a shuddering breath. What just happened? She looks towards Xena. The warrior’s face is stark white and blank. Shock, the small woman interprets. She has seen Xena like this only a few times before. She makes herself move once again, needing to be by her partner. She tries to say her name, but her throat is too dry. Shock, she diagnoses again. Xena, she says in her mind. It steadies her enough to reach her friend’s side. Then she has an arm around Xena’s waist, can feel the living warmth and strength of her. Xena, she says mutely, one more time. At the back of her vision the darkness breaks up, is a shower of blots which are fading. She begins thinking again.

Xena looks down at the beach. Gabrielle follows her gaze and sees what her partner does. A dust of white powder, a few shattered fragments of glass, a lock of black hair, a small signet-ring, crusted green with corrosion. She looks closer, can see on the signet a horse, which is rearing. She knows where she saw it before. She can hear Xena’s breathing. It is rapid, as though she has run a very long way. Oddly, this calms the bard further, clears her head. She looks back at Xanthippe, and feels Xena shift against her. Her partner is doing the same.

The Queen’s eyes are fixed on the place where Pelagos was standing. She does not move, is so still that Gabrielle doubts she is breathing. Perhaps time has stopped. Xanthippe holds something white in her hands. As she watches, the Queen’s fingers relax, loosing two scraps of white. They hang in the air, swirling this way and that, though there’s no hint of a breeze. It seems to take them seconds to fall.

As the tatters of scroll touch the sand, Xanthippe’s hands clench in a spasm. She falls to her knees, then falls further, flings out her hands to steady herself. Shells in the sand shatter to pieces. Their fragments slice through her skin. She whimpers with pain, raises herself till she squats on her haunches. The imprints of two palms are left in the sand, dotted with splinters of shell marked with blood. She covers her face. Her moaning goes on and gets louder. The Queen rocks in time to it.

Xena draws in a breath. "He thanked her. That’s what he said." The warrior’s voice buzzes close beside Gabrielle’s ear. "He was looking at her, all the time. Not at me. ‘Thank you,’ he said, when she took out that scroll." Xena takes in a deep breath. Gabrielle tightens her grip. "Why didn’t she tell me?"

Gabrielle closes her eyes for an instant. She knew. She knew so much more than she told me. It shocks her. She has to fight to repress it. Deal with this later. For now, she gives Xena an answer. "To make you think you had no other choice. But you had. You chose not to kill him. Why, Xena?"

Xena sighs, rests her chin on Gabrielle’s head. "Just instinct. Something felt wrong." She pauses. When she speaks next, her voice is still softer. "I’m sorry. I would have said more, but Xanthippe swore me to silence."

Of course. A matter of honour. Gabrielle nods, feels her hair brushing the skin under Xena’s jaw. "That’s okay." She counts to five, then bumps Xena gently. "Just don’t do it again." She senses the warrior’s smile. "You know," she says after a moment, "I think your instinct was right. You couldn’t have killed him. Only one person could."

"Xanthippe," Xena agrees.

Does Xena know why? Will she tell me? No, she’ll have promised. Though Gabrielle is aware she is close to the answer. She has all the pieces already. Has Hesiod guessed? He was so close to the truth, has he worked it out now? Perhaps he won’t want to. It shocks Gabrielle. How did Xanthippe dare to do such a thing. Love, Gabrielle answers herself. It can drive one to madness, and worse. Oh yes, she knows this, perhaps better than Xena.

"It is over?" a voice asks to her left. It is Thalassos. The boy has awoken. He is struggling to stand, though Ikarios, crouching beside, keeps a hand on his shoulder. The Master of Horse is shaking his head, in an effort to clear it. All around them, people are stirring, pale and appalled in the face of disaster.

"I don’t think so." Hesiod sounds frail and troubled. "It may be only beginning. I’m afraid this is what the oracle foretold." He pauses, then adds, much lower, "No one can cross the gods’ will."

Classic Hesiod, Gabrielle thinks. She hears a soft snort from her partner. But he’s right. She looks out to sea. The storm has not moved. Its massive pillars of cloud still threaten the land. What did the oracle say? She can’t quite remember. That the sea would take back the land. That was it. She feels her fear gather again. This is merely a respite, lasting mere seconds, perhaps. For little has changed. Only, the cloud’s base has lowered. It hangs scarcely a foot from the mirror-smooth sea. She looks up. The moon is still poised at its zenith. And the tide has not turned, is still full. No, it’s not over at all. Time has stood still and is awaiting the outcome, it seems. We’re at a balancing point. If things tilt one way, the storm will retreat. If they tilt the other, the tempest will sweep us away.

In the unnatural calm, Gabrielle looks around her. She sees Keleus, the guards and the court, the townspeople and traders. The Master of Horse. Hesiod and Thalassos. Xanthippe huddled, still deep in despair. All are silent and waiting. The guards have let drop their swords. They stand shoulder to shoulder with ordinary folk, knowing they share the same fate. They know nothing can stop it, and that there’s no running away. No wonder they’re scared.

As Gabrielle watches, the people’s eyes shift. They fix on something behind her, behind Xena. Something which takes up a space she has blanked out of her vision. The hair stands up on her neck, on her arms. Her skin turns ice cold. She can feel something is being drawn out of the world. All light and all warmth, all colour is fading. It is being sucked into one single being. The horse. It’s the horse.

Gabrielle turns, and is aware that behind her, Xena turns too. She feels the shock run through the warrior’s body, then through her own. Because the horse is transfigured. Not in any one detail. It’s not bigger, its eyes have not changed colour, it does not glow with uncanny light. There is no doubting it, though. The bard can sense what has happened, clear in the dark of her brain, with faculties other than sight. Her flesh chills still further, her eyes dazzle, the beast’s nearness is crushing. With one blow of its hoof, the creature could pulp the whole world. The storm is inside it, she thinks. Or, she amends, it’s the storm. No; it’s the god, Poseidon himself. But this is still not right. His justice, about to be done. Gabrielle presses herself close to her partner, draws some strength from their contact. Enough strength to be able to watch, at the least.

The horse’s eyes burn. It looks through them straight at Xanthippe. It knows what she did. Poseidon knew always. And the bard too has guessed it, though she can barely believe such a terrible insight. How did she dare? Once again, love is the answer. Love for Polybos, love for Pelagos. Perhaps love for her land. But the oracle stands. She hasn’t beaten it. Here’s the sea, and it’s come for the land.

The horse moves. It is only a flicker, a quiver, just under its skin, but it signals the start of the storm. Gabrielle watches the horse’s nostrils flare open still further, sees it draw breath. When it gives voice, it has the full weight of its body behind it. The silence is shattered. All the rage of the tempest resounds in this sound. She is astounded the sky does not crack. She clutches at Xena, feels Xena’s arms close firmly about her. Then the horse sinks back on its haunches and arches its neck, more like a cobra than any warm-blooded creature could possibly be. It is ready to strike at its prey. At Xanthippe.

"Forgive me," Xena says, as she works herself free of the bard’s tight embrace. Gabrielle gasps with the shock of it, the sense of injustice. You’ve done enough, she wants to respond. You can’t leave me. But she cannot say this. She cannot deny Xena’s absolute right to be what she is. It will kill me, Gabrielle thinks, I can’t let you go. But at some deeper level she has known this must happen. She drops her arms and stands back, watching mute with distress. Xena gathers herself, springs onto the back of the horse.

The horse rears itself upright, strikes its front hoofs at the sky, tries to dislodge her. Xena defies it. She throws her weight forwards, forcing it down. Gabrielle catches a glimpse of her face. Her eyes have narrowed, her mouth is shut tight. Her focus is all in the moment. It bucks now, not once but again and again. Xena bobs like a cork in the sea on its back, but clings on. Churned sand whirls around them. Gabrielle does not notice as grains graze her face. The beast comes to a halt, standing four square on the sand, then jerks up its head, cranes it round, trying to crush Xena’s face. She mirrors its motion, flexing her back until she is nearly bent double. When it flings its head forwards again, she follows suit and it screams in frustration.

The horse pauses. No one believes it is beaten. No one is surprised when it bursts into movement again. Stretched out in full gallop, it heads for the sea. Xena has her hands full of halter. She tightens the rope and heaves hard, but the horse will not turn. Though its head is bent sideways, it keeps to its course. Thus it reaches the edge of the sea. Its hooves thrash the quiet swell into foam. Xena throws her whole body sideways, hoping to topple it into the tide. Instead the beast bugles a calls. It wrestles the halter out of her hands and carries them onwards, over the water. The flashes which play at the base of the storm seem to grow more intense. The horse makes straight for them.

And then it is gone, Xena with it. She’s gone. Gabrielle sinks to her knees. She closes her eyes. She can still see them, now black blotches on scarlet, now crimson splashes. They float in the darkness. When she opens her eyes, the storm has moved closer. It covers the moon and the stars. The play of its lightning has ceased, and the darkness is total. The bard does not care. She is gone. The words lodge in her brain, batter her mind from within. Gabrielle sets her eyes on the place where her partner has vanished, sees nothing but blackness. Like an eye’s pupil. She will outstare it, however. She will not move, she swears to herself, she will not look anywhere else. Not till Xena comes back. She wraps her arms round her waist, hugging hard, rocking backwards and forwards. So her vigil begins.

 

Xena is aware, as soon as she straddles the beast, that this is not really a horse. She has tamed horses before, taken on brutes ready to set their will against hers. She mastered them all, rode them into compliance, too tired to deny her. But this creature, by its nature, cannot be ridden, cannot be tamed. It is stronger than her. Though she exerts her full strength, strains every muscle to turn it and tame it, this beast resists her. It is too much like the sea. She could as soon saddle and bridle the ocean. A tick in the hide of a dog must feel something like this. She invests all her strength and her will into just keeping her seat. She will not be thrown off. She employs every muscle, each inch of skin to cling to the beast. She moves with it, out-thinks it, is prepared for each one of its tricks. The hairs of its mane score her hands. If they were not callused and hard, the skin of her palms would be covered with blood as well as with sweat. But she hangs on.

When the horse leaves the land and heads into the storm, Xena thinks she has lost. They make straight for the dazzle of lightning. In spite of herself, Xena flinches. The light blinds her, her skin chills and retreats at the thought of the flame. Then they are through it, not a single hair scorched, and everything changes. Where there was silence and petrified stillness, an unnatural light, now there is darkness and chaos. The worst of the storms she has weathered have not prepared her for this. Its fury appals her. I’m so sorry, she thinks. Sorrow sears her.

But she’s not ready to die. Gabrielle would never forgive me! She aims the thought at the storm, fights to establish her bearings, although winds knot around her and lash at her face. The rain is so fierce it fills her eyes and her nose and her mouth; she chokes and fears it will drown her. But she will not give up. Rage rises inside her. I won’t end in this way. I won’t leave her. Beneath her, muscles bunch as the horse tries again to unseat her. What does it stand on? How can it move in this melee of winds? And where are we? Nowhere she should be; on enemy ground, on his terms. She hasn’t a chance. But the horse is at home in the maelstrom. Yes! There’s the horse. I still have the horse. She wraps her arms round its neck and her legs round its belly. She presses her face into its mane, lets the rain sheet down over her back. She may be adrift in the storm, but the horse is her anchor.

She feels no more than a network of frail, brittle bones bound by soft paste, while the horse is all muscle and sinew, all timber and hemp. Not my anchor, my ship. Now she remembers. Her first voyage, just after Lyceus died. She was filled with such rage that merely defeating Cortese had failed to assuage it. She wanted far more. Only the sea could begin to contain it, this rage. She learned its ways fast, impatient to take what she could. But her first voyage was nearly her last. That was a storm! Most of her men were swept into the sea. She roped herself to the stern-rail, wrestled the tiller to keep the ship headed into the waves, prayed the rudder survived. As each breaker crashed over the prow of her craft, she screamed her defiance, right into the throat of the gale. Later, she thought that perhaps she had shouted it into submission.

After that, how she relished the challenge. She adored the sensation; risking her life and succeeding became an addiction. Choosing mere safety became a defeat, felt like even a sentence of death. Life was coaxing a ship which seemed to be made from the husks of last summer’s leaves through the cruel, snapping waves, or dancing its keel over currents as supple as snakes. She welcomed foul weather, relished setting a course like a tightrope slung between peaks of the mountainous seas, longed to be filled to the brim with tempestuous wind. At such moments, she was the ship, as her will was the voyage.

She taps into that skill and that daring. I did it once. Tricked the great beast of the sea into bearing my craft and my crew on its back. I can do it again. As she thinks this, her world settles. The horse comes to a rest. Xena raises her head. It is calm. The eye of the storm? She herself can see nothing however, no moon and no stars. This place is lightless. She takes a deep breath and straightens her back. The horse is gentle beneath her. She leans forward and smoothes one hand down its neck. It whickers gently. Just a horse now. It seems she has mastered the beast. It is hers. Yes! she exults to herself. And what else? Is the storm mine, and the sea?

She straightens again, makes a fist, punches the air. This is the feeling she craved for, when she took to the sea, when she led armies on horseback sweeping over the earth. Total power. Once she almost ruled Greece. Now she will govern the sea and threaten the land. All will be hers. She throws back her head and yells with delight. She readies herself, winds the rope of the halter tight round her hand, presses her legs into the sides of the horse. She will go onwards and claim what is hers. She will first take the storm, then the sea, and then take the land. All will bow down before her. As it should be, as it would once have been, had she not weakened. Now what is to stop her?

She is. Something has changed. As much as she wants to, she cannot go further. She snarls in frustration, but she knows. Power did not complete her. She is no longer the pirate, no longer the warlord. Conquest did not fulfil her. At the time she did not know why; why all the power and the strength still left her empty, still wanting more. Always more. A need driving her onwards, making each triumph hollow, each new possession a frivolous toy.

Now she knows. She knows what completes her. She is not really herself on her own. Too much of her nature is smothered and starved. Taking power alone does not feed this need deep inside her. It wants something better and richer. Something which cannot be seized and can only be given. She grows strongest only with giving herself and with getting this gift of another. Gabrielle. Without Gabrielle, she can never be Xena.

She sits back on the horse, suddenly weary. She has battled herself. Not even battling the horse tired her so. Squaring her shoulders, she pulls on the halter to turn it. Land is back there, she is sure. She can sense Gabrielle. She tightens her legs, and the horse erupts into fury. Now what? However, she already knows. There is unfinished business. The sea still wants something. Xanthippe? The land? Feeling the beast ready itself, aware of its limitless strength, Xena groans. Xanthippe, you fool. It will take you and your Kingdom.

Then, all of a sudden, she decides that enough is enough. She knows what she wants now. The life that she shares with her bard. Everything else merely stands in her way. She’s had her fill of old guilts, dooms and forfeits. It is time to end this. "What do you want?" she screams into the storm, ignoring the horse. She feels the storm’s eye focus above her. Don’t you already know? The words rise within her, her words, plucked out of her head. They rumble inside her, make her bones shake. She shudders, but is angrier still. "Can’t you just answer a straightforward question?"

Be still, little mortal. You presume. Why should I want? The words have no emotion, are calm and impartial, yet they shrill in her teeth, rasp the bones of her skull against one another. She sees herself tiny, no more than a mote in this eye, a speck in its darkness. Is this how I am? She should give up. She has no power, no craft. There’s no reason to love her. But Gabrielle does. The thought is a lifeline. She grabs it. "Then why do all this?"

I don’t, little mortal. You do it all. You all need this drama. It makes sense of things for you. Gives meaning to death and to change. I just oblige.

Xena sucks in a breath. What’s going on? Is this really Poseidon? She holds the breath, struck by a thought she can barely express. But then, what is Poseidon? She shakes the thought out of her head; this will not help. Instead she hears Gabrielle’s voice: "Stories are powerful things." When did she say it? Xena tries to remember. Long ago, surly and rough with unpractised concern, she asked Gabrielle, "Why do you bother with this?" She was tired, but Gabrielle was much more so. It had been a long day. Yet Gabrielle settled herself on a log and pulled out her scrolls, though she was wan with exhaustion, and had eaten barely a bite.

"What?" Xena sees the bard now, blinking up at her blankly.

"Put these away." She had reached out for the scroll and the quill, ready to snatch them from Gabrielle’s hands.

"No!" The bard gathered them into herself. "What’s wrong with you, Xena?"

"You need to sleep," she replied, already ashamed of herself. "You can write this tomorrow."

"Oh." She recalls Gabrielle’s smile. "That’s okay. But I need to write now, while I remember."

"Tell me why?" And when Gabrielle, baffled, said nothing, she added, "Why write all this stuff down?"

"It helps me make sense of what happens, I think." Her bard has always had patience, thank the gods. Most of the time. "That’s why we need stories."

Ah, Xena thinks. It isn’t much. She doesn’t really understand. This is an insight of feelings, not words. She has her bearings, at last. Strange how this place has brought her heart into focus. She shouts into the eye, "What death and what change?"

The eye of the storm gives no answer. "Oh, you want me to do it? But of course." Xena snarls in frustration, almost hurls herself into the eye, fists ready to beat it, to force its surrender. Xena! Gabrielle’s voice? It is filled with alarm. Xena reins her rage in. "Okay, okay, Gabrielle. I hear you." She gathers her wits and thinks through the problem. That’s all it is, just a problem. Like tactics. Like a board-game. Think of the pieces: Xanthippe, the oracle, Pelagos, the kingdom, the crown. There’s an objective, one you can work out. Think, Xena. You can do this. And she can. She has the answer. As she thinks this, the eye of the storm speaks again, for the last time. One word.

Then the horse rears and is racing again.

 

Gabrielle’s mind cannot encompass the pain. How long has it been? How long has she knelt here, looking for Xena? Seconds? Hours? Or no time at all? In this weird darkness, in this silence, with sea and storm stalled, with no moon and no stars, with only torchlight to see by, how can anyone know. Does it matter? She wants to howl, but the sound is too large to be made. It will split her heart open instead. Or else she’ll go mad. She cannot endure this thing sane.

It is Xanthippe who saves her. The Queen tries to rise, staggers forwards. She catches herself on Gabrielle’s shoulders. The bard braces herself, bears Xanthippe’s weight. Leave me be. This is your fault, she wants to scream. She cannot do it, however. Xanthippe is sobbing. Tears have mixed with the blood on her face to make it one mask of red. "It was my fault," she says. "I was ready to pay. Why did she do that?"

More shadows loom round. Gabrielle looks up, sees faces she cannot put names to. She has no time for them now. Nor should they see this. The Queen is maddened by grief. She waves them away. "Give her some air." Her voice. She must have spoken. An old man nods, speaks to the others, leads them away. Two guardsmen remain, out of earshot, however. Their torches smoke in the still heat of the night, but they burn. Gabrielle turns back to the Queen.

The strength leaves Xanthippe’s legs. She sags. Gabrielle reaches up, steadies her as well as she can, helps the Queen fall till she lies half in her lap. She sweeps hair frosting silver away, mops at the blood with a rag she has torn from Xanthippe’s own gown. Those are nail marks, she thinks. Fresh blood brims in the crescents and Gabrielle wipes this away. She dug deep. The bard notes her own coolness. Where is my pity? she asks herself, appalled, but she cannot feel anything now. Not without Xena.

The Queen moans and mutters. Fractured words, sometimes mere sounds, sometimes a mixture of both. Afloat in the flood of her terror, Gabrielle does not listen at first. Her mind is elsewhere, is with Xena. Torchlight throws ragged shadows over the beach, the Queen’s face. They mimic the fears which swarm through her head. After a time, though, the patter of words turns into a pattern. This is more than mere rambling. She’s easing her soul. Phrases start to make sense. Whether she likes it or not, the bard pays attention.

But Xanthippe’s grief has risen again. She lifts her hands to rake at her cheeks. Gabrielle catches hold. "Shh now," she soothes, as though to a child. The Queen lashes out. She wails like a beast. It takes what is left of Gabrielle’s strength to contain her.

"Why didn’t it work?"

The bard grows alert. Xanthippe’s storm of despair has passed by, at least for a time. Now she holds Gabrielle’s hands in her grasp, pressing tightly. Her voice is lower, she speaks almost calmly. "I meant only good. I wanted to give my husband an heir, and so keep a part of him with me. To give the Kingdom an heir at the same time. Why was that wrong?"

"Things just go wrong, that’s just what they do," Gabrielle says. Empty words, meant only to soothe. She is trembling with tiredness. Her arms are scratched and her fingers are crushed. She still feels nothing, however. Will it be like this always? She cannot put out of her mind her last sight of her partner, almost at one with the horse and the storm and the darkness. She’ll come back. She has to. But she cannot shake her fear off. Xena! she cries in her thoughts, as if her partner could hear her.

"No." Xanthippe is shaking her head. "Hecate warned me, though I thought I knew best and ignored her. What harm could it do – that’s what I thought. But from that moment, nothing went well, so we all knew Poseidon was angry."

"Why was he angry?" Gabrielle knows that the Queen needs to keep talking.

"Polybos was my consort. Only my child can inherit." The Queen sounds impatient.

The bard nods.

"Xena told you?" There is an edge to Xanthippe’s voice.

Gabrielle is tempted to nod once again. You’re still jealous. It is true. When will you learn? Instead she says, "Only that. Nothing more. And everyone knows it." Xena would never betray somebody’s secrets. Not even to her. So she will honour her name.

"That’s true," Xanthippe mutters, "but everyone’s wrong." She pauses. "When he was born," she begins and then she falls silent.

"When he was born?" Gabrielle prompts. It is instinct. Most of her mind is focussed on Xena. But you still want to find out the story. Deep inside, she writhes in disgust at herself.

"His face was old. It was wrinkled, when he was born. I thought he was dead, though the birth had been easy. The midwives looked as though something was wrong, and he was making no sound."

Her voice is so low that Gabrielle must bend closer to hear it.

"They handed him over to me, and I looked into his face. Black eyes. Polybos’ eyes. As black as the grave. They were open and staring. He knew."

The bard is growing dizzy. She does not feel quite in her skin. So much of herself is watching for Xena, she feels she is halfway into the storm. Focus, Gabrielle, you can’t lose your head. Xena is going to need you. "What did he know?" She gasps out the question.

Xanthippe ignores her. "He was never a boy, not inside. I couldn’t treat him as one, although he had grown inside of my body. Though I couldn’t treat him as anything else. It was always between us. What I had done, who he was, and the fact that we knew it.

"And he was wild. He burned like a fire fed by old timbers. A fire which wanted to burn itself out."

Xanthippe is crying. Tears leak from her eyes. She lies limp and exhausted on the bard’s arms. "Husband and son in one body. That’s what he was. Polybos come back again, with nothing of me in his soul or his body. My husband reborn as my son. I’ve killed them both."

Gabrielle recalls Xena’s words. "He thanked you," she says. "He wanted this. It was the right thing to do."

"What would you know?" Xanthippe’s strength is returning. "Wait till you have a child. Then tell me again." She is scornful. "How can killing my son be the right thing to do?"

"You already know." Gabrielle cannot be hurt any more. She is too numb. Oh, believe me, I know. "Just as you know that you loved him. You both knew. You did what he wanted."

Xanthippe looks up at the bard. For the first time she sees her. "I’m sorry I brought Xena here. This wasn’t her business." Gabrielle thinks that she means it. Deep inside, she tries to forgive her. She tightens her grip on the Queen, looking into the darkness.

And it blinks. For a second there is nothing but blackness, then the stars are above, and the moon, moving on past its zenith. She hears the waves lap, tipped with silver, as the tide turns. There is no storm, just the horse, and on its back, Xena. The beast’s flanks are heaving, it hangs its head down, foam streaks its neck and its sides. Xena clings to it tightly. Her hands grapple swathes of its mane. Muscle and sinew stand out in her arms, in her legs. Her face is slick with a mixture of sweat and sea-spray. Beneath it, her skin is dead white.

Both have been run to a standstill, Gabrielle sees. She is moving already, has set Xanthippe aside and risen and taken a step without conscious thought. Her pulse hammers hard in her head and her legs feel like reeds, but none of this matters. All that matters is closing the distance which parts her from her partner and now she has done it, has rested a hand on the warrior’s thigh and she is just holding on, keeping her steady, or herself, or perhaps both together.

Xena covers Gabrielle’s hand with one of her own, but she does not glance down at her partner. Instead she straightens, shaking her head. The dark, tangled hair swirls in the air. She looks at Xanthippe. The Queen rises too, stares back at her gravely. Gabrielle tries to read the thoughts in Xanthippe’s eyes. But the woman has ruled both herself and her Kingdom for most of her life. Her face reveals nothing. Like Xena, Gabrielle thinks. Is this where you learned it? That look of total command? Who would govern a kingdom must first govern her features? Gabrielle feels a brief pang, which she masters.

Xena sucks in a deep breath. Gabrielle hears it rasp through her throat and her lungs, and she shudders herself. Xena. Enough, she pleads, but keeps her peace. This still is not over. Xena speaks. "The sea," she says, "shall take back the land."

Xanthippe waits.

"Thalassos," the warrior says.

It is a summons. Gabrielle hears a rustle of clothing behind her. Turning a little she sees Thalassos start and stare back at Xena, eyes wide with shock. Standing by him, Ikarios bends, mutters a word in his ear, pushes him forward. The boy steadies himself, then obeys. He stops when he gets to the horse. "Oh, Pegasos," he whispers. His voice is the voice of a terrified child, and Gabrielle longs to embrace him. Now Xena’s hand grips her own and keeps her in place.

After a moment, Xanthippe bows. She is looking at Xena no longer. "I understand," she says, to the horse. "I will do what I can to prepare him."

The oracle? Gabrielle thinks. Is this what it means? It seems so, and she marvels at all that has been suffered to make a stable boy King.

Abruptly, now that Xena has relayed the God’s message, the horse staggers. Its whole body shakes. Sweat sprays off its hide. Gabrielle, ignoring its hooves, sets her shoulder against Xena’s leg, trying to keep her partner in place. The beast’s shudders rattle her bones, she is soaked by the foam which flies from it so. Thalassos braces himself.

For a moment, alone, he keeps the horse upright. Then Ikarios is there, on the beast’s other side, and between them they calm it.

Once it is settled, Xena sags, starts to slip from its back. Gabrielle gasps. She braces herself, lets Xena lean sideways towards her, musters the last of her strength. Thus she eases her down. "I’ve got you," she breathes to her partner. "You’re back. You’re okay." But she is frightened again. Xena is never as helpless as this. What has this done to her? she thinks in panic. I must get her inside. She has to rest.

Before she can act on her fear, Xena stiffens. "Wait," she breathes in Gabrielle’s ear. Her voice is husky with weakness. "Look at Thalassos."

He has been soothing the horse, running his hand over its muzzle again and again. He steps away now, motions Ikarios to do the same. In the moonlight, the blood on his head looks like ink. He weeps silent tears, but something has changed in his face. He knows who he is, now, Gabrielle thinks. Oh, poor Thalassos. The boy stands for a moment, uncertain, then looks first at the sea, then at Keleus. The priest simply looks back, his mouth working, not over his fright. Xanthippe, beside him, says sharply, "Finish the ritual." Keleus visibly gathers himself.

"Poseidon," he says, "dark-maned earth-shaker whose voice is the voice of the sea, we ask for your blessing. " His voice gathers strength.

"Lord of the sea, protect us and make our herds strong. As Hippios promised, we give you the best we have bred. See how we honour our pledge."

The words ring through the night. All the crowd hears it. All bow their heads, repeating the phrases. In the silence that follows, Thalassos looks back at the horse. His lips move. "Goodbye, Pegasos," his says, so quietly that only those nearest can hear.

Finally, Xena comes to the end of her strength. Her legs buckle and she sinks to her knees, then begins to pitch forwards. She is limp and unconscious. Gabrielle must wrench herself round, must catch her and use her own body to cushion the warrior’s fall. "Xena!" she cries. She grasps Xena’s jaw, feels for her pulse point. Her fingers tremble so much, she can detect nothing. Gabrielle forces herself to be calm, tries again. She finds a faint flutter. She closes her eyes in relief. Then she looks up and around her, seeing pale, confused faces. "Help me!" she orders. She is desperate to get Xena away from this cursed, killing place. "We have to get her inside. She saved your Kingdom for you, damn it. Now help her."

Calling for guards, Hesiod shakes off his shock. The men lay their spears on the ground in a lattice, weave two cloaks through the pattern. As Gabrielle watches, they lift Xena onto the improvised stretcher. She scrambles up as they do, supports Xena’s head. She cannot bear to see it hang slackly, exposing her partner’s throat to the deathly pale moonlight. She chokes back a sob. It fills her with terror, seeing Xena so limp, so utterly vulnerable. They start for the palace, Gabrielle keeping pace, keeping the back of one hand to the curve of her partner’s chill cheek.

Though all this, Gabrielle is aware that the old bard is beside her, has his hand on the small of her back,. She welcomes this comforting presence. It reminds her that, after all, the world has not come to an end, that it is not empty of everything warm and alive. That the feeling of coldness and dread exists in her only. Xena. She repeats the name in her mind, again and again, in time with her steps. It is a plea. Come back, it means. Don’t do this to us. Don’t leave me alone. Though she will not let Xena go anywhere alone. It is simply a fact. She will always be by her side. The word she repeats is her promise as well.

 

 

Hesiod sits by the woman’s bed. It is night once again, with hours until morning. A whole day has passed and Xena is still not conscious. Her skin is cold and damp. Though she is not moving, she does not seem at ease. He can see her eyes moving under her eyelids. Dreaming, he guesses. And about nothing pleasant. There is a fire in the hearth. The suffocating heat gone at last, swept away by fresh winds from the sea. It is cold tonight. By the fire, on a tumble of furs and under a blanket, Gabrielle sprawls in utter exhaustion. She has sat by her partner all day, constantly talking, in a low voice which he took care not to hear. He can see only the red-gold of her hair. He smiles at her slumber, remembers how hard she fought to refuse it.

"She doesn’t know you are there," he said in the end, alarmed by her pallor, by the dark circles under her eyes. "You need rest yourself. For her sake."

"You don’t know that." Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed on Xena. "How can I rest when Xena’s like this." The comment was made in a mutter, aimed as much at herself as to him. He studied her profile, and sighed. Stubborn, like you. Hesiod readied his patience, meaning to try once again, but just at that moment, Xena stirred from her stupor at last. She was murmuring something. Both bards leaned closer, striving to hear what she said, but the warrior turned on her side and began to breathe deeply.

"She’s sleeping." Gabrielle pushed back her short, red-gold hair. "She’ll be okay." Tears started to slide down her cheeks. "Sorry," she said, "I can’t seem to stop this." She covered her face with her hands, brushed at the tears with her fingers.

"You’re just over-tired," Hesiod said. "Lie down for a moment. Then you’ll be fresh when she needs you. I’ll sit by her side for a bit. I’ll wake you as soon as she rouses."

Which has led him to this. He, Hesiod, blessed by the Muses, the bard who scorns women and those who use force, playing nursemaid to Xena, a warrior woman. He has to smile at himself. And why does he do it? For love of the woman who loves her. He can’t help but see that she does, but he’s stayed, just to be near her in case she needs help. His smiles twists and turns wry. You thought you were safe from life’s little messes? Not till you’re dead.

Xena stirs on her bed. Her eyes open and find him. He meets her gaze squarely, trying to calm her, but sees panic begin. "It’s all right," he says quickly. "You did it. The storm went away. The Kingdom is saved." Xena’s agitation only grows. She tries to rise, her gaze moving past him, searching the room. Suddenly understanding, he says, "She is here. Gabrielle’s here. She’s been with you all the time. Now she’s asleep."

Xena only relaxes when she has seen Gabrielle for herself. Then she lets him settle her back in the bed. When he offers her water, she drinks. He draws back after that, meaning to call Gabrielle, but the warrior shakes her head. "Let her sleep," she says. Though her voice is no more than a thread, it rings with the tone of command. She’s tough, this one. Already on the mend. He won’t disobey her. Instead he meets her eyes again. Their colour is so vivid, the blue of a clear winter sky. What thoughts lie behind them? At this moment, something shifts in her face, something opens. She starts to tell him a story.

"When I was young, in my first year as a warlord, I made many mistakes. I was too angry. I didn’t think I could ever fail. I usually didn’t, but no success was ever enough. I kept looking for more. Then I made a mistake which nearly killed me."

She falls silent and swallows, and he gives her more water. She takes the cup for herself this time, though she must use both hands to do so. He watches her throat move as she sips, and is struck by its length and its elegance. He still wants to tell Gabrielle to awake, to stop worrying, but he knows that the woman’s will is against it. Despite her weakness, he finds he cannot easily go against her. No sooner has he realised this, than she starts to speak again. Now her voice is quiet because she has softened it to nearly a whisper, not because she does not have the strength to produce more.

"I had marched against a rival warlord in the depth of winter. My army was smaller than his. His castle had withstood a Persian siege barely two years before. This was the worst winter in living memory, with the snow coming up to my stallion’s shoulders. But I thought my boldness would take him by surprise. I was Xena: how could I lose?" Xena’s lips writhe as she sneers at her much younger self. She takes more water. Now the cup is held in one long-fingered hand.

"Of course, lose is just what I did. I was lucky to get away with my life and a few of my men. After that, though, we found we had another battle to face. A much greater battle. We had to get back over the mountains and into safer terrain further south. We had no horses left and almost no food. But if we wanted to live, we had to make that march. So we did.

"Very soon, we were so tired that all we could do was put one foot in front of the other. We rationed our food, walked as long as it was light. Keeping moving kept us warm, better than any fire could. This went on for days, I suppose. I’ve never remembered exactly how long."

Xena’s gaze goes inwards for a time. He guesses she is turning over her memories of that time. He watches her face as she does so. No trace of emotion shows. However, he sees that already colour is flushing her cheeks, has tinted her generous lips.

"One night," she begins, taking him by surprise, "we were huddled round a fire we’d managed to start in the lee of a rock. I heard the men talking to one another."

Xena’s voice changes as she recalls their words. She’s a natural mimic, Hesiod realises. What an actor she could have been. It does not even occur to him that women are barred from acting.

"’She was here today,’ one of them said. You’ll notice I can’t remember his name. That’s how much people meant to me then. ‘Fool,’ was what I thought at the time. ‘I saw her as clear as I see you,’ he said. ‘She looked like my little sister.’

"’I saw her too,’ another man said. ‘She was walking beside us Her hair was the colour of that fire, like sunlight, and I think she was singing.’

"’I heard her,’ a third man said. ‘She was telling me a story, The story of Ceres and her search for Persephone and how she brought her back from the dead.’

"It seemed the men had all seen her. Walking beside them."

Xena falls silent again. She is looking towards the hearth once more. Once or twice she blinks. Hesiod thinks she is beginning to feel sleepy. He should be encouraging her to sleep, but now his curiosity is aroused. He wants to hear the end of the story. He wants to know why she has told it.

"Did you see her?" he asks.

"No." Xena shakes her head. Her gaze does not waver. "Though they said they saw her walking beside me, too. I didn’t hear anything either. My anger was keeping me warm, I suppose. I was angry with the warlord, with the snow, with the mountains. With anything that stood in my way. And what they were saying made me even more angry. I was furious with them. I wanted to laugh at them. I wanted to order them to stop talking such womanish nonsense. I remember thinking something like, ‘As if some golden-haired girl would care about us. As though she’d walk alongside us.’ But I held my tongue, thank the gods. I knew that I needed those men, even if they were fools, and that whatever got them back in one piece was okay by me."

Xena stops talking. Her eyes close. Tears squeeze themselves from under their lids. Embarrassed, Hesiod looks away, towards the table where his scroll is lying open. I should get on with my chronicle. He is aware this is cowardice in the face of something he doesn’t understand, however. Something which disturbs and frightens him, however much it intrigues him. Some bard, he berates himself in disgust. All the same, he is about to get up when a grasp on his wrist stops him. He is surprised by the strength and the warmth of that grip. Xena has recovered so quickly.

"I thought of all that for the first time in years just after I met Gabrielle," she says, as though she has never stopped talking. "When we started travelling together, I wasn’t very kind to her. I ignored her most of the time, or snapped at her for talking too much and not looking where she was going. For lots of other stuff too. She couldn’t do anything right.

"But the truth was, that I liked the sound of her chatter, and I liked the way she stuck to me, no matter what I said. I drove her hard in those days. I wore her out time and again. Sometimes I used to gallop ahead on Argo, and then stop and let her catch up, then push on without even a glance at her, without showing her how glad I was that she was still there. But she always kept going; she’s stubborn. You may have noticed."

For the first time, the warrior and the old bard share a smile. Hesiod nods.

"At first I thought it was a matter of control. That this way I kept the initiative. If she left, I was prepared for it. I was even responsible for it." The warrior’s smile turns self-mocking. "Yeah, stupid. I know."

Hesiod doesn’t reply. If he is honest, he has to admit he understands this attitude. All too well.

Xena continues. "That wasn’t the whole story though. I understand myself better now." Xena’s smile widens to a grin. "What a thing for an ex-warlord to say. That’s what living with a bard can do. But it’s true. I finally figured it out when I was in that godsawful storm."

Hesiod nods again. His own smile grows in response. He cannot help himself. He is starting to like this woman.

"I suppose it’s because what I felt then has just gone on getting stronger over the years. So I’ve had time to think about it." The smile has gone from her face. Something has sobered her. "I think I was testing my luck, back in those early days. I mean, I was afraid it was only luck, and that it would run out. I was afraid that one day she wouldn’t catch up with me, or wouldn’t want to. I had to keep proving to myself that, yes, she was real, and that yes, she wanted to be with me.

"In my nightmares, though…" Xena breaks off. She shoots a quick glance at the hearth, and swallows, hard. Apparently, however, she needs to say this. "In my nightmares I’m afraid of something still worse. I’m afraid that she’s not really here. Like the girl my soldiers saw, because they needed to. I’m afraid I’ve only imagined her, because I need her so much, because she’s just what I need."

Xena closes her eyes, so tight that lines crease her temples. Tears leak from under their lids. Then she ends, in a whisper, "I’m afraid that she feels so much a part of me because that’s just what she is. Part of me. That she doesn’t really exist at all."

The warrior draws in a shaky breath. Now she cries openly. Hesiod, discomfited, looks away, looks towards Gabrielle. Eyes the colour of the sea meet his, moist with unshed tears. He knows she has heard it all.

"That’s why I do it, I guess." Xena is speaking again. "Force her back a bit sometimes. It isn’t really that I need the distance, though at times I do. I know she’s the best part of me. I can’t bear not to have her right by me. But that’s why I’m afraid. I need to know, too, that she’s real. I’m still testing my luck, still afraid to believe that she will really be there, walking beside me." She closes her eyes.

Hesiod can think of nothing to say. Why has she told him this? To hear her worst fear. To hear you say it’s not true. Inspired, he repeats the words he said earlier. "She’s here. She’s always here. She never leaves you."

As he says this, Hesiod is aware of a presence behind him. A small hand touches his shoulder, rests there a moment. He looks up into Gabrielle’s face. She is looking at Xena, and smiling a smile which is gentle and rueful. He moves, lets her slide into his place. She takes Xena’s hand, laces their fingers together, watches a similar smile as it grows on her warrior’s lips. After a moment, she lifts their linked hands to her cheek.

Hesiod withdraws to his scroll, but writes nothing. Behind him, both women sleep, closely entangled. Gabrielle has an arm tucked tight around Xena. Really, she’s the protector. He will stand guard as they sleep, make sure that nothing disturbs them. It is the best he can do. He stares out of the window, sees the stars glide over head, carried along with the dome of the heavens as it circles the earth. At length, he slips into a doze. Images drift through his brain, portray what will happen. Soon they will leave, for the south, for the Greek homeland, which Gabrielle misses so much. He will grieve at her leaving, but he’ll survive it. Love is a hard thing to live with. It resists reason, control. He will find what he remembers much more easy to bear.

As for the Kingdom, Xanthippe will continue as Regent. She will grow greyer and frailer as day succeeds day. She will add Pelagos’ name to Polybos’ tomb, and go there to grieve every morning. She will name Thalassos her heir, and teach him as well as she can. With Pelagos dead, the horses will regain the vigour which went into his making. In time, they breed once again. Thalassos will have a fine stallion to give to Poseidon, when he begins his own reign.

As for himself, he will keep writing his Chronicle. But perhaps not just now. He wants to try something else. Hesiod wonders if he can do it again. Tell a story to keep a crowd silent, make them laugh, weep and applaud. Just once more would be nice. He wakes up from his doze, takes up his quill. What was that story? The Muses whispered it to him once, long ago, high on the slopes of Mount Helikon. Something about a King and a statue. Yes, now he recalls. He has never told it before. It always seemed frivolous, and far too unlikely. He never believed someone could need love quite so much. The statue, which was of Aphrodite, turned into a flesh and blood woman. Galatea. And the sculptor who carved it? What was he called? Some king or other. Pygmalion. The words beat in his brain in time with his pulse. Smiling, absorbed in his story, Hesiod writes.

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