Disclaimer:Xena, Gabrielle, Ares, and other characters from "Xena: Warrior Princess" belong to Renaissance Pictures/MCA-Universal. All other characters in this story are my own. This is a work of not-for-profit fan fiction, written solely for the entertainment of fellow fans; no copyright infringement is intended. The story contains some adult language and sexual situations, and is intended for mature audiences.
This story takes place in an alternate 2005, in a world where Xena and Gabrielle are well-known historical characters and where modern history has taken a slightly different course (such that, for instance, September 11 and the war in Iraq never happened). Most of the modern-day events mentioned in the story, such as the civil war in the Huandong province of China, are fictional; the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea actually took place in the 1980s.
I am grateful to my beta readers, Sais2Cool and Tango, for their invaluable help, advice, and occasional slave-driving. I also want to thank my readers for their support, encouragement, and continued interest in this story, which took a long time to complete.
WARNING: This story is rated NC-17 for the graphic depiction of consensual sex between a man and a woman and some graphic violence. If you are under 18, if this is illegal where you live, or if this offends you, please find another story to read.
Summary: A 21st Century historian studying the life of Xena, Warrior Princess finds more than she bargained for.
The woman wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she watched her husband in the semi-darkness that was tinted orange by the reflected glow of the hearth. She could see that he was drunk, and yet there was a frightening clarity of purpose in his movements, his face, his eyes. He ordered her to get their daughter out of bed.
"Why?" she asked, her blood chilled by foreboding. "What's happening?"
And then he said it: "I'm going to kill her."
She stared at him silently, frozen to the spot. Maybe she whispered, "What?" or maybe she said nothing at all. She wouldn’t remember, later.
"She'll make a fitting sacrifice for Ares, God of War."
With that, he picked up a lamp and went outside, into the rain and wind that battered at the shuttered windows. She watched him walk toward the stable. Then she took a step toward the open door. Shivering, either from the cold or from terror, she followed him. When she came inside the stable, he was sharpening his sword. The sound of its sickened her. A man, her husband, methodically preparing for the murder of his own child.
The mother was not going to let this happen. Her eyes fell on the axe that stood in the corner, leaning against the wall. Her legs were shaking when she went to take it, but her hands were steady, though the blade was heavy in her grasp. Her husband never heard her coming. The screech of sword on whetstone was interrupted by another, even more sickening sound, and then it was over. The rainwater washed the blood off the woman's hands and dress as she walked back to the house.
The little girl slept soundly through the night, and knew nothing of what had happened. But it was, unbeknownst to her, a baptism by blood. Perhaps her father didn't fail completely, and she was indeed, on that day, given over to the God of War.
x x x
Lynn stared at the computer screen, sipping nearly cold coffee from her New York University mug, then put down the mug, reached for the phone and dialed. As she waited, she leaned back in her swivel chair, looking absently around her cramped office. A dark-haired, blue-eyed warrior in black leather, with a chakram in her hand, looked on sternly from a wall poster for the 2001 conference of the Ancient History Association, "Xena of Amphipolis: The Hero, The Myth, the History." It was Lynn's only concession to interior decoration, other than a dusty potted plant on top of the file cabinet and a bronze equestrian statuette of the Warrior Princess on one of the bookshelves.
The phone was picked up at the other end, and after a brief silence a muffled voice groaned, “Y-yeah?”
"Jackie?" She skipped the ritual lie exchange: I hope I didn't wake you. -- No, of course not. It was almost ten o'clock, for heaven's sake. "It's Lynn Doyle."
"Oh -- Lynn ... yeah, hold on." There was a rustling in the phone, and then the voice said a little grumpily, "Good morning."
"'Morning. Listen -- I read the chapter and -- you really need to tone it down."
"You don't like it?" Jackie sounded crestfallen.
"No, it's good, it's just a bit too -- melodramatic."
"Lynn!" Now she sounded fully awake. "The man is trying to murder his own child in cold blood as a sacrifice to the God of War. It's a kind of melodramatic situation, don't you think?"
"Yeah, it is -- but 'blood chilled by foreboding'? Jackie, really... And besides, you need to curb your imagination."
"What do you mean?"
"Rain, wind -- it was a dark and stormy night -- how do you know it was raining? It's not like we have weather reports from two thousand years ago..."
There was another short pause. "How do you know it wasn't?"
"I don't. But you can't just make it up and say it was raining -- "
"So what do you want me to say?"
"Nothing! Nothing at all about the weather."
"Then the reader is going to assume that it wasn't raining. You know, by default. How is that different?"
Lynn was stumped. That didn't happen to her much.
"And besides," Jackie pressed her advantage, "I'm trying to create an atmosphere, you know? We -- you don't want it to go like this: 'When Xena was seven, her father Atrius came home drunk one night and told her mother Cyrene he was going to kill Xena as a sacrifice to Ares, God of War. When he went to the stable to sharpen his sword, Cyrene followed him, picked up an axe and killed him to protect her daughter.'"
"Okay -- that sounds a bit dry."
"It sounds like a report for child welfare."
"Well, all right... The rain can stay. But lose the chilly foreboding, okay? And -- " she paused, turning to the screen again -- "the baptism by blood. That's a bit much."
"You got it," Jackie said, sounding quite pleased with herself. "I'll send you the rewrite tonight."
After saying good-bye, Lynn hung up and looked pensively at the screen. Suddenly, she realized she was smiling at the memory of how Jackie Lyons had walked into her office for the first time, on an unusually warm March day about a month ago. She was twenty-seven but looked like a teenager -- a fresh-faced slender girl with lively grey eyes and hazel-brown hair gathered in a ponytail, in a long, very summery green dress with a pale floral pattern. She had emailed a week earlier, on a literary agent's recommendation, to offer herself as a co-author for Lynn's book about Xena. Her credentials included a popular biography of the French Revolution's celebrated assassin Charlotte Corday, The Virgin of the Terror, and a boundless enthusiasm for all things Xena -- so boundless that Lynn half-expected the phone to start jumping up and down when they first spoke.
When Jackie came in, she stopped in the doorway and started to say, "Hi, I'm Jackie -- " and then trailed off and looked around, her mouth slightly open, face glowing with curiosity. Her eyes alit on the original 1878 edition of J.J. Bachofen's Die Kriegerprinzessin von Amphipolis, rich brown with faded gilded lettering on the spine -- the book that had made Xena a cult figure -- and she headed straight for the bookshelf. "Wow. Can I see that?"
"Sure," Lynn said, and for the next few minutes Jackie leafed raptly through the book, inhaling the pungent smell of the yellowed pages, admiring the engravings and the old-style Gothic German letters. Finally she looked up at Lynn, smiling a little sheepishly. "I think I read this book at least twenty times when I was a teenager," she said. "I mean a translation of course -- it had these beautiful illustrations -- "
She continued until Lynn cut her off: "It's a fun book as long as you don't take it too seriously." Jackie looked so stricken that she felt almost guilty as she explained, "Bachofen was a romantic, not a real historian. He never met a myth he didn't like. The rest of us got saddled with the task of separating those myths from the facts. That's what my book is all about..." Then she paused and for some reason added, "our book" -- even though she hadn't even decided yet that she wanted Jackie as her co-author.
Jackie beamed. "Oh, I almost forgot -- " she reached into her leather knapsack and pulled out a copy of The Virgin of the Terror, with an idealized, wild-haired Charlotte Corday on the cover -- "here's a copy of my book... You probably find it silly, huh? The girl kills just one guy and gets a whole book written about her... ha-ha ... that was a joke." She reddened a little, momentarily flustered by Lynn's unamused stare. "I mean, because you write about Xena and she - well anyway, the book's for you... You know, you kind of look like Xena, has anyone told you that? At least on those Pompeii murals -- except that your hair's not as dark and your eyes are grey -- well, kind of green -- "
"Yeah, I've been told," Lynn said, getting up from her chair. "Come on -- let's go have lunch."
They had pasta in a small, noisy Italian place, so crowded that you practically brushed your elbows against the person at the next table, and there Jackie talked about how Xena was her imaginary friend when she was seven ("My mom actually took me to a child psychologist, can you believe that? And the child psychologist kept trying to figure out if I really thought Xena was my best friend...") and about the recent Channel 13 broadcast of Verdi's opera Amore e Guerra ("Okay, so Bryn Terfel isn't my idea of what Ares would look like but wasn't he great? 'Addio Xena' -- you know, when she drinks Death's tears and he -- oh, you didn't see it? You're kidding! Carol Vaness was a perfect Xena, she even looks -- well, I have to give you my videotape!"). None of it was very encouraging; the girl was up to her ears in just the kind of romantic nonsense Lynn had set out to rectify. But somehow, Lynn, who rarely talked to anyone about her childhood, found herself telling Jackie how she got a book of stories from ancient Greek mythology for her eighth birthday, and how, when her father looked in on the birthday party a couple of hours later, he found all the other kids playing and Lynn sitting on a windowsill lost in the book.
And then, somehow, it was settled: Over coffee, Jackie asked if they were going to work on the book together, and Lynn replied that she would have her agent draw up the contract.
"Really?" Jackie laughed with obvious relief. "I was worried that you'd think I was too much of a romantic."
"You are. But -- " Lynn almost said "I like you anyway" but caught herself in time -- "I like your dedication."
That was how Jackie Lyons had ended up as her co-author on the biography of Xena.
Lynn scrolled down the page and started reading the part where young Xena led the defense of her hometown against an attacking warlord. A hesitant knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. She turned to see Carrie, a student from her Xena seminar, fidgeting in the doorway.
"Hi, Professor Doyle?"
Carrie looked like a time-warped refugee from the sixties in her faded tie-dyed T-shirt and brownish knee-length tights, with tattered sandals --which she sometimes took off in class -- on her bare feet. She was an art major who had signed up for the seminar after watching the 1972 musical Xena! on television.
"I think I, like, finally have an idea for my term paper?"
"Okay. Have a seat. Tell me."
Carrie sprawled in the chair; Lynn noticed that she had been using her left arm as a notepad again.
"Okay, it's like -- I want to do something about the, um -- " she gave a small giggle -- "psychosexual symbolism of Xena's weapons?"
Lynn was long past being shocked by anything that came out of a student's mouth, but this was -- new. "The what?"
"Oh -- I mean, how the sword is, like" -- Carrie made quote marks in the air -- "phallic... And the chakram is, um..." She wrinkled her forehead. "You know, like a ... female anatomy symbol?"
"A female anatomy symbol," Lynn repeated slowly. Her eyes drifted to the window, but out there was only a grey and bloated sky, more November than April. Three more weeks, she thought; the spring term would be over and she'd have all summer to focus on the book. "I don't think there's any part of the female anatomy that looks like that."
"Hey -- I didn't come up with that myself." Carrie examined the writing inked in blue on her pale thin arm. "It came up, like, in my psych class -- 'Feminism and Freud'? I mean -- "
"Carrie, this is history, not psychology."
"Oh." Deflated, Carrie twirled a strand of ash-blond hair around her finger. "Okay -- I, um -- I guess I'll just think of another topic."
"The paper's due in three weeks," Lynn said patiently. "Want me to suggest some topics?"
"No, thanks -- I want to be, like -- creative? Anyway, I'll see you in class Monday. Oh and -- what's the reading? I forgot."
"Tacitus' Annals chapter fourteen, and Suetonius' 'Life of Augustus.' We'll be discussing how they differ in their account of Xena's return to Rome and Livia's conversion."
"Oh okay." Carrie stared helplessly at the poster on the wall; then she turned back to Lynn, suddenly animated. "Hey -- can I write a paper that has, like, something to do with the musical?"
Lynn sighed. "No, you can't."
"Okay... I'll think of something else then." Carrie rose dejectedly from the chair. "See you in class."
It was starting to drizzle outside, the first droplets streaking the windowpane.
Three more weeks.
x x x
The faculty cafeteria was too crowded, and Lynn took a steak sandwich and a Coke back to her office where she could eat in peace and catch up on the latest Journal of Ancient History; there was a short but interesting article on the cult of Ares in Thrace. Halfway through the article and the sandwich, someone knocked on the door and pushed it open.
She turned and found herself staring at Peter Erickson from the political science department -- tall, fair-haired and rather handsome in a boyish way, wearing a casual brown corduroy jacket. He had a slightly crooked, nervous grin on his pleasant face.
"Hi, Peter," she said in a carefully neutral tone.
As always, the sight of him made her feel irritated, less at him than at herself, and vaguely guilty. Their short-lived relationship had started about a year before, after she had broken her ankle while running. She and Peter had barely known each other until then, except for a few brief conversations at faculty gatherings; and then, there he was, helping her up a flight of stairs, carrying a box of papers for her, volunteering to move some books from the office to her apartment and even to do the shopping. It was definitely a change of pace. She ribbed him about his gallantry, feeling a bit uneasy and the tiniest bit flattered; he responded with self-effacing good humor. To her surprise, it turned out they had something in common: Peter was an ancient history buff. She enjoyed talking to him about the Greeks and the Romans, and sharing stories of trips to ancient sites; he was the only other person she knew who had read an obscure, badly translated Polish historical novel about the Amazons, Daughters of Artemis. He had been kind and gentle and considerate, and Lynn had found herself wondering what it would be like to settle down with a man like that. She thought of it now as her walk on the tame side.
"How's it going?" she asked.
"Good, good... Hey, I was going to invite you to lunch but I see you're already -- " He gestured in the direction of her food. "This is very unhealthy, you know."
Lynn's mouth tightened. This brought back memories; bad ones. Like having lunch with Peter at the college cafeteria and being gently nagged to load up her plate at the salad bar. She should have been on to him right away when he brought her skim milk from the supermarket. When he told her she wasted too much time watching kung fu movies, that did it. It would have been mildly embarrassing to tell people what had precipitated their breakup, except that she didn't talk to people about such things.
"Come on in," she said reluctantly.
"Thanks." Peter slouched against a bookshelf, sliding his hands into his trouser pockets. "So, how's it going with the book?"
"Good ... thanks."
"Yeah? You know, I could get you in touch with my agent -- "
"I have an agent. I also have a publisher. Knopf."
"Good." Peter shuffled his feet and cleared his throat and repeated, "Good," and she knew what was coming next. "So, uh -- are you doing anything tonight? Or tomorrow night?"
She looked away. "Peter..."
"Come on, Lynn. Have you even had a single date since we broke up?"
He wore an expression of such genuine concern that she wanted to throw him out and slam the door in his face. Instead, she said, "I don't owe you an account of my love life."
"What love life? With Xena?" Peter waved at the poster. "I mean, that's pretty much your whole life. All you ever do is -- " He shook his head.
"You know we weren't right for each other."
"Well -- is anyone right for you, Lynn?" Peter rubbed his chin and sighed. "At some point you have to face the fact that this has to do with your commitment issues. It all goes back to your mother leaving and -- "
"Peter." There was nothing like attempted psychoanalysis to turn her voice to ice; sharp ice. "Don't go there again."
The phone picked a good time to ring. She grabbed it abruptly, like a weapon.
"Oh hi, Jackie." Belatedly, she hoped Jackie wouldn't be taken aback by the sheer enthusiasm in her voice. She wasn't.
"Listen, I was thinking -- if you're not doing anything tonight, I could come over with that DVD, you know, Love and War with Terfel and Vaness -- maybe get some takeout -- "
"Sure. Six o'clock?"
"Wow, really?" Jackie laughed, obviously delighted by her unexpected success. She had never been to Lynn's place before. "That's great. I'll be there at six ... well, six-ish."
"It's the corner of fourteenth and -- "
"I know the building, the gray brick one with the blue overhang -- I met you once in the lobby, remember? Apartment 8A, right?"
"Right. See you then."
Lynn hung up and turned to Peter.
"There," she said. "I do have a date."
x x x
On the screen, a bearded man with a face a bit too pudgy for the God of War stood facing a tall woman in some costume designer's idea of Xena's armor; the real Xena, Lynn was convinced, would never have had golden roses on her breastplate. The cluttered stage set around them represented the gods' palace on Mount Olympus, with a bit of wear and tear to suggest the Twilight of the Gods. Xena and Ares -- who, in this opera, was stuck with the ridiculous name Marte, the Italian version of Mars -- were singing their final duet, "Quel sacrifizio d'amore" ("This sacrifice for love"); an ominous burst of sound from the orchestra was Ares' cue to collapse into Xena's arms and start his very long death scene. As the sappy romantic he was, Verdi had used an obscure version of the Xena legend in which Ares gave up not just his godhood but his life to revive Eve and Gabrielle. While Xena vocalized her grief and gratitude, the dying Ares continued to sing with remarkable vigor; Gabrielle and Eve joined in, also singing surprisingly well for people just back from the brink of death. The only one not singing was Athena, who was dead and doing a good job of it except for a visible twitch in her right arm.
Lynn tossed her head slightly and shifted her eyes to the window. It was now completely dark, and as the music ebbed for a moment she could hear the drip of rain and the distant sounds of traffic drifting up from Sixth Avenue. She glanced at Jackie, who sat next to her on the black leather couch in her living room, and almost asked if she wanted any more mineral water; then she noticed that the girl actually had tears in her eyes, silly thing. It was best to wait until the end. About five minutes and one awkward kiss later, Ares expired in Xena's arms, which Xena found to be the right time to tell him at last, on a piercingly high note, that she loved him. The final chords surged tragically and the heavy folds of the curtain came down, and Jackie said in a hushed tone, "Wasn't that beautiful?"
"It was ... interesting," Lynn said cautiously. The tightness she felt in her chest at the opera’s final moments, when the stage gradually turned completely dark except for one spot where Xena stood alone, had taken her by surprise.
She reached over and turned on the lamp, one of a matching pair that Jackie had oohed and aahed over earlier. They were genuine antiques, with bronze statuettes of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo, that stood out among Lynn's otherwise boring functional décor. She would have never bought anything like this herself, of course; the lamps were a gift from her colleagues for her thirtieth birthday, three years ago.
The curtain rose again on the screen, and the actors came out to take their bows, Xena and Athena peaceably holding hands and smiling as the clapping became a thick wave of applause. Lynn picked up the remote and stopped the playback, and Jackie flinched at the loud voice of a newswoman talking about gang violence in Los Angeles. Lynn quickly silenced the television. As the screen faded to coal grey, Jackie gave her a disappointed look.
"You didn't like it."
"It's not that... You want to finish this?" Lynn motioned to the cartons of Chinese food on the coffee table.
"No thanks; I'll just have some more Seltzer."
"The thing is" -- Lynn scooped some barely warm lumps of orange beef on her plate -- "this is just the kind of romantic mythology that makes my job so difficult. Do you know how many of my students are convinced that Xena and Gabrielle really slept in an ice cave for twenty-five years? I wouldn’t be surprised if some them think, deep down, that Ares actually put them there."
"You don't think it's possible?"
Lynn stopped chewing and gave her a scandalized look.
"I mean -- I mean that they slept -- were frozen in an ice cave," Jackie explained hastily. "They -- well, they did disappear for twenty-five years and they didn't age..."
"Or so people said. It's not like we have pictures. Obviously, they went into hiding with all those temple armies on their trail, all worked up about some stupid little prophecy. Then they resurfaced some time later, well-rested and in pretty good shape."
"But -- not a day older?"
"For all we know, they could have been missing for five years, maybe ten -- the twenty-five years was just poetic license. You can't take everything so literally."
"But Livia was twenty-six when -- "
"We don't even know for sure that Livia was Xena's daughter. See, that's the problem -- we're dealing with so much conflicting information, mostly from second-hand sources... " Lynn put down the plate and took a sip of Coke. "Or maybe -- who knows, among her many skills Xena could have invented a miracle anti-aging cream."
Jackie smiled wistfully. "Yeah, you're probably right..."
"Look, I deal with this all the time. A student came to me today asking if she could write her term paper on Xena, the musical."
"What did you say?"
“Well, I could have asked her what she was smoking. Problem is, she might have actually told me.”
“You said no?”
"Of course I said no. What was I supposed to say?"
"Well..." Jackie looked up at her with a guilty little grin, smoothing the skirt of her long dress. "Maybe you could have told her to write a paper comparing the musical with the actual history... You know -- that way she could write about something that she can relate to personally, and still have it be a serious paper and everything -- "
Lynn gave her a thoughtful look, twisting the glass in her hand. Then she shrugged slightly and looked away.
"Maybe you're on to something."
"Really?" Jackie beamed with pride. "See, I've always thought that all these things can really enrich scholarship -- fantasy, the creative spirit..." -- she looked up dreamily -- "the imagination..."
Lynn put down the glass and got up. "Now you're scaring me."
"Sorry... Here, let me help you with that," Jackie added as Lynn picked up the empty plates. "Hey, if it's your book you're worried about -- don't worry. It's your book, I'm just the -- ha-ha -- the humble ghostwriter."
They were in the cramped stuffy kitchen, putting the dishes down on the counter, when the phone burst into a shrill ring. Something about the way it rang made Lynn shiver with anticipation, or maybe it only seemed that way later. She looked around, trying to remember where she'd put down the phone; it rang again, angry and insistent. Finally, there it was on the dressing table in the small hallway across from the kitchen, half-hidden by Jackie's umbrella. She snatched it in mid-ring.
The brief silence at the other end filled with a low buzz. Then a sonorous velvet baritone said, "Lynn?" She knew the voice instantly, and felt a quick stab of excitement. "It is Mario Angelotti -- "
Her grip on the phone tightened. Mario was on an archeological dig in Macedonia. It had to be -- what, four o'clock in the morning for him?
"What's up?" She tried to sound casual.
"We found something."
"A temple of Arreez." Mario's voice rolled over the sounds. "Over the ground, you understand, it is just a few stones -- it's, how do you say -- no wonder nobody found this before -- but the chambers undergrrround -- bellissimo! Mm -- beautiful!" The phone hissed and gurgled faintly as he paused. "It has something to do with your girl."
"Well? What did you find?" She turned and saw Jackie -- she'd almost forgotten about Jackie! -- staring at her with avid curiosity.
"We maybe found -- some of Gabriela's original scrolls."
Lynn held back a gasp. "No!"
She heard Mario's rich chuckle. "Maybe no. Maybe yes. You want to come look, eh?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." She tried to ignore the pounding in her temples. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
"I send a car to meet you at the Thessaloniki airport -- there is a bus, but not reliable. Just let me know when you arrive, okay? Here -- write down the number..." Lynn strode over to the desk to grab a pen and a notepad; in her excitement, she knocked over the pen holder and the damned things clattered all over the desk.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Thank you, Mario -- I really appreciate it. I'll be there -- first flight -- and Mario? Don't move anything, okay?"
"No problem. Oh -- Lynn?"
"We found something else. Round metallic thing -- "
After a speechless, breathless moment, she could muster only a feeble, "You're kidding."
"No, no -- we found it. It could be just a decoration, you understand. It is, uh -- fixed to the wall -- we haven't taken it down yet. Have to be very careful. But it looks exactly like the chakram of Xena."
After she hung up, Lynn swept aside the spilled pens and pencils, sat down and turned on the screen of her computer. As she waited to get online, inwardly cursing the slow connection, she thought she should call her father and tell him. Then it hit her that she'd forgotten about Jackie again. She turned around abruptly, just as Jackie asked, "What are you doing?"
"Booking a flight to Greece."
"To Greece?" Jackie stepped closer into the lamplight, her eyes sparkling, as excited as she had been when she first walked into Lynn's office. "They found something that has to do with Xena, right? Something important?"
"Maybe." Lynn paused and added, "It could always be a fake." Damn Jackie's contagious enthusiasm; she was having a hard enough time keeping her own agitation in check, to steel herself against possible disappointment -- the way it had turned out before.
"Well, what is it?"
She sighed. "It may be a stash of Gabrielle's original scrolls."
Jackie raised her hands to her mouth and uttered a muffled "Oh my God."
Lynn turned back to the screen and clicked on the link to a travel website. As she typed in her query -- New York to Thessaloniki -- Jackie came up and stood over her shoulder. "So you're going over there? When?"
"Tomorrow if I can get a flight."
"Oh my God, Lynn." She was silent for a moment. Then she blurted out, "Can I come too?"
"Don’t be ridiculous.” The search results came up; a United Airlines flight with a Milan connection, leaving at half past six. Seats available.
"You've got to take me with you. We're writing this book together, right? I mean, okay -- I'm just your ghostwriter -- but you know how important it is -- "
"What are you going to do on an archeological dig?"
"Whatever you're going to do. You're not an archeologist either."
"No, but -- "
"You can use an assistant, can't you? Please." She leaned down on the desk, peering into Lynn's face. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me. Look, I know I can write a much better book if I can see all this with my own eyes -- if I can get a feel for it -- don't you understand?"
"Jackie -- on such short notice, it's two thousand dollars for a round trip."
"I've got money -- I just got paid for the diet book."
"What diet book?"
"Oh you know -- this diet book I co-wrote -- it doesn't matter really, it's not like you'll ever need it." Jackie faltered and added, unsure that Lynn had gotten the joke, “You know, because you’re in such good…” She trailed off and swept back her hair with the nervous little laugh she always had when she was worried that her attempt at humor had been offensive. "Lynn, I can pay for the ticket, don't worry about it, okay?"
She still offered a feeble, mostly token resistance. "I -- I don't even know if they have tickets on that flight."
"Well, would you check?"
Lynn sighed and turned to the computer. What the hell, at least she’d have company on her trip. As if she'd need company when she had this kind of discovery waiting for her. Her body was taut with excitement. Searching ... please wait, the computer told her. Over her shoulder, she could feel Jackie holding her breath. Then the blue letters winked out and the search results scrolled over the screen.
She looked up at Jackie. "All right. But I get the aisle seat."
x x x
It hit her when she walked up Broadway from the subway stop, sidestepping the shimmery puddles on the sidewalk, only half-aware of the cars sloshing by and the din of the crowd; after ten, the Upper West Side and its restaurants and bars were still bustling with life.
Tomorrow, she was going to Greece. Jackie stopped and shook her head, and found herself smiling at a total stranger, an elegant platinum blonde who gave her an odd look.
What would it be like, she wondered as she walked on. Cypress groves, and sheep grazing in fields, and somewhere amidst sloping green hills, the still-forbidding ruins of Ares' temple -- and there, in some dark and mysterious ancient chamber, Gabrielle's scrolls. Jackie shivered in the bracing chill that had set into the evening air after the rain had ended.
Turning the corner, she walked into the denser gray of the night away from Broadway's brightness. It occurred to her that she hadn't even asked Lynn what clothes to pack. Gabrielle's scrolls... she tried to imagine holding them in her hands -- brittle yellow papyrus, or maybe smooth, rich leather ... would they have the unique, magical smell of old books? Would she feel, when she touched them, that in some way she had made contact with Gabrielle herself? Would they turn out to be the real thing?
Jackie reached into her purse for her keys. For the first time, she consciously realized that a part of the thrill she felt was at the thought of taking a trip with Lynn. It was weird, the way she'd only known Lynn for about a month but it felt as if they'd been friends forever. Of course, most of her friends were back in Massachusetts; after a year in New York, the only person she really knew here was Artie, and Artie was --
Artie was right in front of her, waving to her with an excited "Hey!" as he tried to restrain a yelping Jasper, who was straining at the leash and looking up at her with his goofy golden retriever grin.
"Hi, Jasper!" Jackie leaned down to scratch behind the dog's warm ear. "Hi, Artie."
Artie was her next-door neighbor who had taken her under his wing almost from the day she'd moved in. Sometimes she suspected that he was working up the courage to ask her out. Artie was a software engineer and looked the part.
"Hi, Jackie." He cleared his throat and gave her a sweet Jasper-like grin. "What are you, like, back from a date?"
"Not exactly. I had dinner with Lynn -- you know, Lynn Doyle, the one I'm co-writing the book with -- " She patted Jasper's muzzle as he nudged wetly at her palm.
"Oh yeah, yeah." Artie nodded cheerfully. "The book. About your friend the, umm, barbarian queen."
She chuckled, stepping back to dodge Jasper's attempt to paw at her. "Warrior Princess."
"Yeah, well -- whatever... Jasper, you stop that!" Artie tugged half-heartedly at the leash. "Ahem -- say, Mom was coming to town and I was going to take her to the Philharmonic on Monday, but what do you know, she had to cancel. I got the spare ticket, so I thought maybe you wanted to -- to -- "
"Oh -- thanks, Artie, but -- " He stared expectantly, and she fidgeted with excitement and a kind of embarrassment. "Guess what -- I'm going to be in Greece."
"I'm going to Greece. Tomorrow."
Jasper woofed softly in response. Artie took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, squinting at Jackie. "Huh. You didn't tell me you were going away -- what, like -- on vacation?"
"No, no. I'm going with Lynn -- I only just found out tonight -- Artie, you're not going to believe this, I was over at Lynn's place tonight and then all of a sudden we're going to Greece." She paused for breath, then exhaled with a nervous laugh -- "I'm not making much sense, am I?" Before Artie had a chance to answer that, she continued, "See, they found something really important … something that has to do with Xena. Some sort of archeological find. Can you imagine? I've always wanted to go on an archeological dig!"
"Really?" Artie put his glasses back on and furrowed his brow, ignoring Jasper's fretting. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah, sure -- why?"
"You know -- nice middle-class girl from Massachusetts, out in the middle of nowhere -- you could get some kind of rare virus, or -- Jasper, down! --or food poisoning -- the toilet facilities are totally unsanitary -- "
"Artie, I'm a big girl."
"Well -- they could have some pretty big viruses, you know?"
"Uh-huh." Never knowing quite how to react to Artie's humor, she smiled and patted his arm. "Look, I really appreciate that you're looking out for me… but honestly, I'll be okay."
"Well, what do I know. I've never even been to a foreign country. Unless of course" -- Artie gave a self-conscious little laugh, telegraphing the joke -- "you count New York. You know? My folks in Ohio -- they think New York is a foreign country."
"Um, right." Jackie smiled uncertainly and fumbled again for her keys. "Well, look -- I really should be going in, I have to pack and everything…"
"How long are you going for?"
"Just ten days. Lynn has to be back for the end of the semester."
"Oh okay. Well, have a good trip … I guess I'll, uh -- I'll see you when you get back."
"Of course." Jackie squatted to say good-bye to Jasper, wincing a little and giggling when he licked her face; then she rose, reached up and awkwardly pressed her lips to Artie's cheek. "Take care, okay?"
"Um -- s-sure." He bent down to adjust Jasper's collar. "You take care."
Jackie was already going up the front steps, keys in hand, when she heard Artie's voice behind her. "Hey -- how are you getting to the airport?"
She turned. Artie stood before her in a spot of yellowish street light, looking even taller and lankier than usual, with Jasper straining at the leash and whimpering, his tail wagging wildly.
"Cab, I guess."
"Well" -- Artie squirmed a little and adjusted his glasses -- "I, uh -- I could give you a ride."
x x x
"Do you ever worry about plane crashes and stuff?"
Lynn leaned back, sipping her beer as she caught the first dubious whiff of airline food. "No," she said.
It was a minor miracle, or maybe not so minor, that they were on the plane at all. Lynn had planned to call a cab, of course; and then Jackie called to say that some friend of hers, Archie … no, Artie … had volunteered to give them a ride. Artie turned out to be a sweet guy, in a nerdy kind of way; he wore a plaid shirt and looked like he should have been wearing huge thick-rimmed glasses. He arrived in a beige Chevrolet that wasn't quite as old as it looked, with Jackie in the front passenger seat -- excited and very summery in her light green dress with small blue flowers -- and a shaggy, grinning golden retriever in the back. "What's that?" Lynn asked warily as Artie clambered out of the car to help with the luggage, and he chuckled awkwardly and explained that Jasper had to come with them because, well, he couldn't just sit at home alone. While they were hauling Lynn's suitcase into the trunk, the lid of the trunk safely between them and Jackie, Artie paused to stare at Lynn and said, in a suddenly challenging though slightly sheepish tone, "You're going to make sure she's okay, right?" "Yes, of course," she said, a bit taken aback and a bit amused. He nodded earnestly and said, "Let's go."
On the way to the airport, Jackie chattered happily and Artie occasionally cast longing glances at her at he drove, and the dog made puppy eyes at Lynn and tried to cuddle up to her; and after a while they got stuck in a horrific traffic jam on the Belt Parkway. With the cars barely crawling, Artie insisted on going off the highway and taking the roundabout way, and they found themselves circling around some neighborhood where an air of dreariness clung to the stocky brick buildings and the people outside. It was taking forever, and Jackie kept saying "Oh no -- we'll never make it" and craning her neck as if she could see a way out, and Lynn sat still but inwardly wanted to bite her nails, tear out her hair, and kill Artie and his little dog too. Jasper, at least, stayed blithely oblivious to all their human troubles -- an occasional pat on the head from Lynn was enough to keep him happy.
At last Jackie remembered that she had her cell phone with her and frantically called the airline, and wonder of wonders -- "Saved by flight delays!" Jackie exclaimed, laughing incredulously, and Lynn was finally able to relax and laugh with her. The flight was two hours late; their layover in Milan was long enough for them not to worry about making the flight to Thessalonica. The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful. Once at the airport, they found the terminal easily; Artie helped unload the luggage, got a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek from Jackie, and stammered a good-bye, and Jasper wagged his tail at his new best friend Lynn.
And now, here they were.
Jackie closed her book, a paperback of the popular but, in Lynn's opinion, much too romantic Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archeology, and turned away to stare into the solid darkness of the window. "You know" -- there was a bemused note in her voice -- "sometimes I'm on a plane and I look at how normal everything is… the drinks, the dinner, and people reading books and magazines and watching movies and everything -- and it's just hard to believe that anything bad could happen. And then I think -- you know, every time a plane crashed it was just like this too, people doing all these normal things and then -- "
"Do you always spread cheer like this when you fly?"
"Oh God, am I being morbid? Sorry." Jackie turned to her with a sheepish smile, fingering a corner of the book's cover. "Sometimes I just -- think about things like that."
"No, no -- you know, like …matters of life and death."
"I try not to." Then, for some reason, she added, "When I was twelve I almost died." Her own words startled her; it was something she hardly ever talked about.
"Oh my God," Jackie whispered. "What happened?"
"I went to the beach with my cousin and her boyfriend. We swam out too far and -- I almost drowned."
"God." Jackie shook her head, her eyes wide. "How awful."
"Well, not that awful. I'm still here."
But it was that awful. For years, she had even kept it from her father, mainly because she didn't want to get Sally in trouble. Sally was seventeen then, a swimmer on her high school team; and she had been too proud to tell Sally and Jeff that she was tired and wanted to turn back. And then there was the horror of salt water burning her mouth and nose and throat, choking her -- the panicked flailing, the water closing over her head, daylight and air all gone -- and the humiliation of being carried out of the water by Jeff, half-aware, and flopped down on a blanket like a wet rag doll while the people around her shouted and fussed. There was another memory too, but that one had to be a hallucination: a memory of being submerged in bone-chillingly cold water that filled her mouth and nostrils, her fists pounding helplessly at a sheet of ice.
Suppressing a shiver, Lynn poured the rest of her beer into the foam-flecked plastic cup and turned to Jackie, who was saying something about -- Gabrielle's scrolls.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Are you going to know right away if they're really Gabrielle's scrolls?"
"Well, not exactly. I've seen samples of Gabrielle's writing, so I'll have a pretty good idea. But they'll have to do tests -- the age of the parchment, that kind of thing."
"I just know -- " Jackie started to say with a dreamy smile, but Lynn cut her off.
"You just know that this is the real deal? Please don't say that."
"What, are you afraid I'll jinx it?"
"No, it's just…" She shook her head and looked away. "Jackie, I want so badly to believe that it's the real deal. I've been through something like this before and -- "
"You're afraid you'll have your heart broken," Jackie said quietly, and Lynn suddenly felt embarrassed -- she had said too much, shown too much. She shifted in her seat, tension prickling at her skin. The awkward little silence between them filled with the mundane noises of dinner service.
"Well," Lynn said. "That's a little too strong."
x x x
Jackie threw her head back and let the warm fragrant wind rush over her face and her hair. The Greek countryside, the dazzling sky spotted with a few small fluffy clouds -- the olive trees by the highway, just like two thousand years ago when Xena and Gabrielle themselves might have traveled on these roads… life couldn't be better. No, it would be better once they got to the site. She couldn't hear what Lynn and Mario were talking about in the front of the jeep but it was something about the dig, of course. Closing her eyes, Jackie tried to imagine what the temple would be like: the murky air heavy with the weight of the ages, the crumbled columns perhaps more majestic in ruins than when they stood tall and proud; friezes of battle scenes -- it was a Temple of War, after all -- with the warriors' faces blurred by time.
She opened her eyes, smiling at the sun-drenched day and at the indifferent sheep milling by the roadside. What would it be like, wandering around that temple? Would she feel like she was in a place marked by the touch of the gods? The gods … well, they were real enough to the people back then. Gabrielle's scrolls were full of stories about meeting the gods face to face, about Ares and Xena, about her own friendship with Aphrodite … was it a bit like the imaginary friends one had in childhood? Lynn wanted to explore a new theory in her book -- that maybe it wasn't all fantasy, maybe Xena and Gabrielle knew some priests who believed themselves to be earthly vessels of the gods here on earth, and were convincing enough to pull off such an act. Lynn always had a rational explanation for everything. Or tried to have one.
Even without gods, this was going to be a great adventure. It was such an honor that Lynn had asked her to come along … all right, it was more like she had invited herself … but even so, they were going to work as a team, and she knew she was not going to disappoint Lynn. They wouldn't just be a team, they were going to be friends … maybe not yet, but some day. And so far, the trip had been wonderful -- well, except for the almost-missing-the-flight part … Artie could be such a klutz sometimes -- but everything else was already more exciting than she had expected. The quick stopover in Milan where they had sandwiches and cappuccino -- the Thessalonica airport, which bustled with shouting, hurrying, gesticulating people -- being met by the ebullient Mario, a stocky, suntanned middle-aged man with a peppery beard and an operatic voice... Jackie squinted and swept her hair away from her eyes.
As she stared at the back of Mario's sun-reddened leathery neck, she heard him say, "Like I told you, the disc is fixed or, how do you say, mounted in the wall…"
It was real. Jackie was gripped by a quick, violent surge of excitement, as if she had only just now realized that this adventure was real, that they really were in Greece, really on their way to an ancient temple of Ares. Maybe her whole life had been a prelude to this: a quiet, fantasy-rich childhood in a well-tended, well-mannered New England town; an adolescence of reading books and dating the nice boy next door (two doors away, to be exact); four uneventful years in the liberal arts program at Wellesley and her sudden whim to sign up for ancient Greek; the start of a successful if low-key writing career; the much-anticipated move to New York. All of it, a road leading here. Wait a minute, that sounded crazy -- talk about getting carried away. She had never really stopped believing that something very special was going to happen to her some day -- but then again, maybe everyone believed that, deep down...
Over the whooshing of the wind, she heard Lynn say, "The whole scroll?" and Mario reply something that she couldn’t make out, except for "twilight" and "Ares" and "the usual version." Smiling to herself, she held out a hand to feel the wind splash against her palm and flow through her fingers. In the distance, a fairy-tale village huddled at the foot of an emerald hill, and a row of cypresses stood tall and graceful on the hilltop, their slender shapes etched in black into the bright blue sky. If something special ever did happen to her, it would be here.
x x x
"Oh, my God."
I knew she was going to say that -- the thought echoed dimly in Lynn's mind and faded before it was fully formed; she herself was almost as stunned as Jackie.
Outside, the temple hadn’t looked like much -- just some nondescript piles of grey rocks, once overgrown with lush grass and shrubbery; no wonder archeological digs had bypassed it until now. There was nothing left of the ground-level floor of the temple, except for a few mosaic tiles, too worn-out and too fragmented to make out what they were. But Mario's team had found a passage leading to a vast underground chamber, and that was where they stood now.
The four large lamps installed by the workers weren't enough to light the whole chamber, and parts of the walls and the floor were sunk into deep shadows; but what they could see in the harsh yellow-tinted light was nothing short of stunning, and Lynn liked to think that she wasn't easily stunned. The wall paintings alone -- the bright colors, the clear lines … they looked like they could have been finished last month. They depicted battles, not surprisingly since this was a temple of the God of War; one of them in particular, the central panel on the back wall, caught Lynn's eye. She came closer to get a good look. There was Xena -- black leather armor, jet black hair and blue eyes, chakram in hand -- battling Romans under the grey walls of a city. There was another, smaller woman with short blond hair, in a red top and a short skirt, riding through the battlefield on a white horse clutching a sword.
"Gabrielle," Jackie whispered behind her.
"Yes, we think that is Gabriella." Mario's voice reverberated under the low ceiling. "Very rare -- wonderful -- not many portraits of Gabriella at all."
"Funny," Jackie said, "she's not wearing any armor. Well -- she's known as poet, not a warrior --"
"She has a sword." Lynn cocked her head, thinking. "I think that's supposed to be the battle at Salonae -- remember, when Xena wanted Gabrielle to stay behind as her scribe -- "
"Oh God, yes -- and then the Romans laid a trap for them and Gabrielle defied Xena's orders and went out on the battlefield to save her…"
Lynn turned around, scanning the room. The decorations here were sparse: four columns of black stone with weaponry and skulls carved into their sides, two wall niches with bronze statuettes of Amazons, a few swords and shields and battle-axes on the walls … and there, brightly lit and mounted into a large slab of bare, flat rock, was a gleaming metallic circle with a curved handle in the middle.
"The chakram…" It was strange to hear herself speak in this underground chamber of a ruined temple. She walked up to the wall and stopped, the dull echo of Jackie's steps trailing behind her. "So you haven't tried to remove it yet?"
"We have to do, um" -- Mario paused, searching for words -- "to be very careful. It would be terrible to do damage…"
Lynn reached out toward the chakram but didn't touch it, not yet. She ran her hand over the stone. "Is that a door?"
"Looks like the door, yes?" Mario touched the hair-thin crack in the wall. "Maybe one other secret chamber. We not know how to open yet."
"What do you think is in there?" Jackie asked.
"Hmm -- perhaps the gold, silver -- tesori -- the treasures of the temple…"
"Or maybe scrolls," Jackie said.
"The scrolls -- oh, the scrolls we have found in this chamber." Mario motioned to a large, dark chest standing by a wall. "There."
Jackie took a few steps toward the chest, then stopped and looked sheepishly from Mario to Lynn.
"Oh, they are not there now," Mario chuckled, his dark eyes twinkling merrily. "All ready for you -- in the cabin."
"Can we see them?" Lynn hoped that her voice would hold steady even though her heart was beating too fast.
"Yes, yes -- I show you now." Mario waved his hand, indicating the outside of the temple. "Come."
"Great," Lynn said. "Mario …" She wasn't quite sure what to say, and finally managed an awkward "grazie."
"De niente." He grinned and patted her on the shoulder. "I could not -- what is the expression, huh? -- I would not want you to miss this -- for the world."
x x x
I’m still thinking about what happened at the inn last night. As Xena and I sat down to dinner, someone told the innkeeper who we were. Suddenly, she was at our table, screaming at us and telling us to get out…
"Hmm -- this one looks like a diary," Lynn muttered. “Or just some notes…”
"Amazing," Jackie said. "Amazing…"
She wasn't sure how long they had been here in the cabin just off the dig, poring over the scrolls which they handled with protective cotton gloves. Glancing at the small window, she saw that it was getting dark outside. The parchments were laid out on a large wooden table, under the steady yellowish light of an overhead lamp; there were stools, but Jackie and Lynn had to stand to read the scrolls placed further away from the table's edges. Some of these were familiar, with intact copies surviving to this day (was this really written in Gabrielle's hand?); others, such as the one about the death of Eli and about the final Twilight of the Gods, had been lost except for passages quoted by contemporary historians. To see them like this in their entirety, actually reading the text surrounding those recognizable fragments, should have been thrilling; but the thrill was oddly dulled. Dimly, Jackie knew that the full force of it wouldn't hit her until some time later.
She imagined Gabrielle hunched over a wooden table in a room at the inn, in the light of a sputtering oil lamp, writing this.
She shouted that she didn’t want our money and she didn’t want us in her inn. She looked straight at Xena and screamed “murderer,” and I wondered in shock how this woman could be connected to something from Xena’s past. But she wasn’t. Turns out her husband had served in the Roman legion in North Africa, where Xena and I helped the nomad tribes defeat the Romans. He was killed there. She kept shouting and Xena got up from the table, her face frozen, and walked to the door. It must hurt her terribly, to know that not all the pain she has caused innocent people was in the past – the past she left behind long ago. I wish she’d talk to me about it, but I know she won’t. We have another battle to prepare for; we’re going up against a raider named Orcan, whose army has attacked several villages in the Parthian province – villages no one will protect because they lie on land disputed by two cities. Another day, another fight.
And there was something else that happened today. We were riding past a small village at the bottom of a hill. I noticed that Xena had a strange, absent look on her face, and I worked up the courage to ask what was wrong. She finally told me. That was the village where, many, many years ago, she saved a child from death at the hand of her own soldiers, survived a gauntlet, and then joined Hercules to defeat her former army and began a life of fighting for good. I told her it should be a good thing, being back here; it’s where she was born to a new life. She shrugged and muttered, “I guess,” but I could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. I didn’t pry anymore. I should find a way to work all this into my next scroll after we’ve put a stop to Orcan. I’ve never written about that part of Xena’s past – how she turned her life around and became the person I know. This is a good chance to do that.
"Well, that’s it,” Lynn said. “It just breaks off here.”
Something about Jackie's silence made her look up. Jackie was staring ahead, a distant, almost dazed look on her face.
"What?" After another moment, Lynn reached out and poked Jackie in the arm. "What is it?"
With a start, Jackie looked at her and blinked, her mouth half-open.
"That’s when she died," she said in a thick near-whisper.
Jackie coughed and stood up straight. "Xena."
For some reason Lynn shivered a little. "What do you mean?"
"I think she died in that battle. I don't know, it's like -- "
"Well -- I know, you're going to laugh but I just -- " She shook her head and trailed off.
"Cue Twilight Zone music," Lynn said wryly. The irritating thing was that Jackie's silliness was catching; right now, she herself felt a bit spooked.
"Well, it could be true -- couldn't it? I mean, no one knows how she died. All we know is that it was some time after the siege of Ariminum -- "
"For all we know, it could have been at Ariminum."
"But this was written later." Jackie gestured quickly toward the scroll.
Jackie's look turned sheepish. "Well, I -- I guess I was getting a little ahead of myself."
Lynn sighed and glanced at her watch. "I think we've done enough reading for tonight."
"I'm sorry." Jackie looked down, then gave a small nervous laugh. "You're probably already sorry you took me along…"
"Nah, not yet." Lynn could hear the fake nonchalance in her own voice. The truth was, she still couldn't shake off that uneasy feeling. "Come on, let's see what they've got to eat around here. I'm starved."
x x x
She was alone in a clearing, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree a dying fire, hunched over, her head buried in her hands. She wasn't crying but her eyes ached with tears.
She lifted her head and stared at the moonless sky.
I love you, Xena.
The night was quiet, not even a gust of wind. Quiet as death.
Her best friend was dead. She had just left Xena's ashes in an urn of black stone in the family crypt in Amphipolis, the same crypt where, years ago, she had watched Xena talk to her dead brother. It's hard to be alone. -- You're not alone...
And now, she was so alone…
Or maybe not.
She tensed, and then knew who it was. Half-turning her head, she saw him sit down beside her on the log; saw his face, flickers of firelight reflected in his dark eyes. The last time she had seen him was when he carried Xena's body to the pyre and put her down awkwardly -- touching her cheek as if still hoping to wake her, lifting up her hand, and finally letting go, the look on his face bewildered and helpless. She wasn't sure how soon he had disappeared once the flames leaped up and billowed around the dry branches; she knew only that she glanced in his direction once, half-blind with tears and smoke and grief, and he was gone.
He was here now, next to her, looking at her. After a moment she turned away, then moved closer to him and sighed and rested her head on his shoulder. No one else had known her as they did, loved her as they did. He didn't move; they stayed like that, silent and still, until without warning the tears nearly choked her and she gasped and started sobbing. How am I supposed to go on? The thought of it clawed at her soul, and the worst thing of all was the knowledge that there was nothing she or anyone else could do to stop this. She heard him mutter, "You'll be all right..." and his words momentarily yanked her out of her despair, turning the pain to a surge of anger.
"You should have been there!" she screamed hoarsely, whipping around to face him. "You should have been there, you bastard -- you let it happen – you let it happen -- "
She shouted it again and again, pummeling him with her fists, striking at his chest and his face; he made no attempt to parry her blows. Finally her fury was spent, and her tears too; she let her arms fall limply by her side and stared down, breathing hard.
"Feel better?" he grunted.
"No." She turned away from him and rose to her feet, staring at the shimmering embers of the fire and the last flutter of the tiny flames. Aimlessly, she wandered toward the edge of the clearing. Why would it make her feel better? It wasn't his fault that as they fought the raider Orcan and his army with the help of a local militia, one arrow Xena didn’t catch hit her just above the breastplate. After that, everything happened so quickly and senselessly it still seemed like a bad dream: Two more arrows finding Xena as she reached for the one buried in her chest; Xena stumbling to her knees and managing to rise again, and being struck by one more arrow. By the time Gabrielle reached her, she was no longer moving and her eyes stared upward, unseeing, dead. Not his fault.
Maybe she’d gotten slower, or maybe that one arrow had been too fast. Maybe she’d been haunted by the thought that her new life’s journey had begun in this valley and that perhaps things had come full circle; or by other things. Or maybe her luck had simply run out. People in our line of work don’t live to be old, Xena had said once.
"What do you want here, Ares? I don't need your help."
Then he was right in front of her. She could barely see his features in the dark, just the glittering of his eyes. Finally, he said, "I need yours."
She felt sick. "What?" she whispered. "You think I'm going to -- "
"Stop it." He gripped her arm. "Come with me."
"A temple. You'll need this." Xena's chakram, which she had left attached to Argo's saddle, appeared in his hand. He stood still for a moment, staring at it; then he handed it to her. Before she could say another word, the air around them swirled and sparkled, and when the dizzying blur cleared they stood in a doorless, windowless chamber. One of the walls had a doorway in it, from floor to ceiling, but it led into another chamber, bare and dimly lit.
She looked around, baffled. In the low torchlight, she could see the paintings on the walls; one of them showed Xena and herself in the battle at Salonae. She bit her lips; she didn't want to start crying again.
"What do you -- "
"Come here." He gestured toward the doorway, and she followed him warily. "I'm going in there." She tried to peer inside but he was blocking her way. Her stomach was in knots; it surprised her that she could still feel anxiety. "Once the doorway closes" -- he pointed to two flat stone slabs on each side of the door, each with a gleaming metal semicircle in it -- "you're going to take the chakram and put it in the circle."
She looked at him. Most of his face was hidden in the shadows, and she couldn't see his expression.
"And that's going to do what?"
"Seal the doorway."
"Seal the doorway…" She stared uncomprehendingly. "What -- what are you going to do?"
He turned away to face the doorway. After a brief silence he said, "Sleep." His voice seemed to echo dully from the cavern inside.
The tears were choking her again. "Ares, I -- " She touched his arm. "I can't …"
"I loved her," he said.
She made an effort to keep her voice steady. "I know you did." She stepped away and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. The chakram slipped from her hand and rolled on the floor with a jangling sound, a doleful song that died slowly away. "We both loved her. People lose the ones they love, all the time -- and we go on -- "
"Dammit," he spat out. "Not for eternity!"
She wanted to say that maybe he'd forget some day. But he must have thought of it, too. Maybe that was worse.
When she opened her eyes, she saw his face in the reddish, quivering light of a torch. She couldn't tell if he looked scared or angry, or both. "What's the point?" he said. "Are you blaming yourself?" she asked softly. "It wasn't your fault -- it was just another fight..."
She saw him shudder in disgust. "That's right, just another fight." His mouth was twisted in what was either a grimace of pain or a bitter sneer. "Fighting, bloodshed -- death -- it's what I do, remember?"
In the stillness, she could hear the faint crackling of a torch, and another sound that sounded like the tinkling of water.
Finally, she said, "And you want to be sealed here in this tomb -- forever -- "
"Until she comes back."
She turned to him with a start. "What?"
"Comes back. When the time is right -- she can release me. She's the only one who can open the seal."
"You mean in a next life? But how will she -- "
"That's the other thing you're going to do. Write it down."
"Ares -- I don't know -- "
He stepped closer, towering over her.
"Gabrielle." He paused and swallowed hard, forcing out the next word. "Please."
She wanted to tell him that without him, she'd be even more alone. She shook her head weakly. In the half-dark, she saw his jaw clench, and his hands gripped her shoulders.
"I'm the God of War. If things get bad, what do you think I'm going to do?" Something in his eyes made her want to shrink back; something that reminded her that, despite the grief they shared, he wasn't just a man -- and that his grieving would not be like hers. "She won't be around -- to stop me. And you won't get another chance." He added quietly, "She would have wanted this."
"She would have wanted this? To have you trapped in some cave -- in some kind of -- living death? Ares, she would have wanted you to go on -- she knew you could be a better person -- "
"Right. Keep dreaming."
Her eyes watered and a painful spasm clutched at her throat. When it let go, she took a deep breath. "I'll do it."
He let go of her and stepped back, his shoulders sagging. He looked very human now, human and old and tired.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"I guess I owe you one."
"We were friends, weren't we?" She almost smiled, at a memory that hardly seemed real anymore. "Friends … Ares -- remember that time on the farm, back when you were mortal -- we were sitting by the fireplace, and she -- "
She looked away, stifling another sob. At last she said, "I'll need something to write with..." Before she had even finished saying it, a piece of parchment and a quill appeared next to the chakram on the floor.
"The scroll -- put it there." He pointed to a niche in the wall. "There's a space under the statue."
"All right," she said.
"Well -- that's it, then." He lifted a hand to her face, as if wanting to touch her; then let it fall again.
"Good-bye, Ares," she said, almost inaudibly. She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it lightly for a moment.
"Good-bye," he said.
She went to pick up the chakram. As she bent down to take it, her legs failed her and she sank down on the cool floor. She watched as he turned and walked through the doorway; she watched as the two sides of the wall began to slide toward each other, soundlessly, dreamlike, until the doorway had closed.
She got up and walked to the wall. She was nearly blinded by tears, and her hands were shaking, but somehow she still managed to press the chakram into the circle. A slight jolt stung her fingers and she jerked them away; tiny jets of blue fire danced and sparkled around the metal.
When the sparks had faded, she gingerly touched the chakram again. Nothing happened. She gave it a tug. It seemed to be welded solid into the wall.
"I'll miss you, Ares," she said. She didn't know if he could still hear her; it was better to think that he could not.
x x x
"I had the weirdest dream," Jackie said.
"Yeah?" Lynn took a bite of toast with honey and poured herself more coffee. The eating facilities at the site were pretty spartan -- a table covered with scratched oilcloth and a couple of wobbly stools -- but the food was surprisingly good ... or maybe it just that she had worked up quite an appetite. She hadn't felt so energetic, so -- alive, since she was a teenager.
Jackie smiled wistfully, sweeping her ponytail off her shoulder. "Well, I've forgotten most of it ... but it had something to do with Gabrielle -- and with Xena being dead -- "
"Oh yeah? Did you see Xena's ghost?" Lynn winced at the hot, bitter coffee.
"Ha, ha. Don't worry, I'm not going to write any dreams into the book."
"Of course you won't. I won't let you."
Jackie made a face at her. She looked so much like a kid just then, in her brownish denim shorts and her blue shirt, her bare arms and legs slender and pale.
"So -- what's the plan for today?"
"Today, we spend the whole day reading the scrolls and taking notes." Lynn rose, brushing toast crumbs off her black jeans and her T-shirt with a golden and red dragon, a souvenir from San Francisco's Chinatown. "I'm done -- come on, finish up and let's go... What?"
Jackie was staring at her, her hand was frozen halfway to her mouth, a string of honey dripping slowly down from the slice of toast.
"Scrolls," Jackie said in a strange, stifled voice. "There's another scroll."
Lynn's heart thumped and beat faster, and her own voice was a little choked up when she asked, "What? How do you know?"
"My dream." Jackie dropped the toast and got up, nearly kicking over her stool. "It was just -- amazingly vivid -- there was another scroll and I... she put it in this space under a statue..."
"Oh, Jackie -- Jackie -- come on..." Whatever had possessed her to let Jackie come along? She should have been annoyed and little else -- but she was still ridiculously agitated.
"Lynn." Jackie was pleading in earnest. "I know, this sounds insane -- you're really going to think I'm nuts now, aren't you? But it was so real -- and it was something really important... can't we just go and look?"
Something inside Lynn was prodding her on with an urgent yes yes yes. She tried to ignore it but it was still there, still pushing her, still driving her crazy.
"All right," she said. "But we're not telling Mario that we're checking out something you saw in a dream."
They came out into the sunlight -- it was a hot day, the sky a harsh blue -- and walked, almost ran toward the temple site, fenced off by a hastily erected wire-mesh barrier. Much to Lynn's relief, Mario wasn't around. A few workers were clearing the dirt and moss off what looked like the remnants of a column. One of them, a dark-haired, sunburned young man in khaki pants and a grass-stained undershirt, waved and grinned and came over to them with an enthusiastic, "Ah -- Miss Doyle!" He was a Greek who didn't speak much English, but they were able to communicate well enough in a mix of Italian, English, and Greek. In a few moments the young man was escorting them through the gate in the barrier, and down the ladder to the underground chamber of the temple where he turned on the battery-powered lights before leaving them alone.
The moment he was gone, Jackie made a dash for a niche in the wall across from the entrance.
"Wait, don't -- " Lynn started to say, but before she could finish, "... touch anything," Jackie was already moving aside the small bronze statue of a woman warrior, reaching under it, and pulling out --
"Wait. Jackie -- " Lynn couldn't move. "You can't do that -- wait, we have to get Mario -- you can't just -- with no gloves or -- Jackie!"
As Jackie feverishly unfolded the scroll, Lynn half-expected it, for one dreadful moment, to crumble to dust in her hands.
"It's all right, it's fine," Jackie muttered in a shaky voice. "Come here -- look! I, Gabrielle of Potadeia, write this scroll on the tenth day of -- "
After the initial surge of dizziness, Lynn was able to steady her breath and walk over to Jackie. They really had to get Mario -- but for now --
I now write the words I hoped I would never write. Xena is dead. The Warrior Princess, my friend -- Xena.
She, who had defeated gods and half-gods, was killed fighting a common warlord. It was just another battle – we had been through much worse -- but this time the Fates had turned against her. I took her ashes to her family crypt in Amphipolis, just like she wanted
I am writing this at the final request of Ares, the God of War, the man you loved. He didn't want to go on without you, Xena. He missed you too much and I think he blamed himself for losing you. He was afraid -- of being alone, and of what he might become. Maybe he was afraid that someday he'd forget you.
He is asleep now, in the crypt behind the wall of this chamber. He told me that some day you can come back and free him. The chakram seals the door and I think you're the only one who can unseal it.
I don't know if you'll ever read this. Maybe it's madness to hope that you will. If you do -- I love you, Xena.
The black letters on the yellowed parchment blurred and swam before Lynn's eyes; the rising din in her ears made it as if the chamber had suddenly filled with whispers. Then the whispers stilled and her vision cleared again. Her face was bathed in cold sweat.
Later, Lynn would never quite know what force -- if it was a force other than her own will -- made her walk to the wall, raise her hand, break every rule of professional conduct on an archeological site, and lay her hand on the chakram.
It felt like an electric shock; hair-thin strings of blue flame wove around the metal disc and then flared up into a small circle of fire that didn't burn, just stung her fingers. A bright flash blinded her momentarily, and then she was somewhere else, in another temple near an altar of stone, wearing an embroidered red blouse -- the chakram clutched in her hand, her whole body charged with an exhilarating sense of physical power. She was smirking gleefully at a man who stood in front of her, a beautiful man in silver-studded black leather, with black hair and a goatee and dangerously soft brown eyes; and she felt a jolt of recognition and excitement as he smiled at her and said, "All right!" She turned around; behind her, there was a shorter young woman, a blonde in a brown-and-orange top and short skirt with a leather belt -- Gabrielle! -- and there were armored warriors rushing toward them.
She threw the chakram, and it spun in the air and knocked out some of the men and flew back toward her. She caught it easily and leaped, flipping in the air, her body strong and agile and capable of anything. The chakram came apart in her hands and she used its two sharp halves like curved blades, slicing at her enemies as she kicked and spun and yelled. "Welcome back!" Gabrielle shouted, fighting at her side, and she replied, "It's good to be back!" She took a strange joy in the fight, even when she saw the blood, even when she grabbed a sword from one of the dying warriors and drove it into another enemy behind her. Finally, she caught the chakram and leaped again, and found herself staring at the man in black ... Ares. Her chakram was at his throat but she was grinning at him, and the look he gave her was one of fondness and slight amusement.
"Lynn!" a distant voice called out, and the bright light flashed again. When it cleared and Lynn was able to see, she was back in the underground chamber on the dig; and the chakram was out of the wall and in her hand.
She glanced around her, feeling slightly disoriented, like someone just startled awake from a bizarre dream -- only this vision, or hallucination, or whatever, had been starkly real.
"Lynn?" Jackie stood frozen to one spot gaping at her. "You okay?"
There was a sound behind her, a harsh scraping sound, like stone plates grinding against one another or furniture being moved. Lynn felt the tremor under her feet. She spun around and saw that the wall was opening up, the tiny crack in the stone widening slowly. Mesmerized, she watched as the sliding doors moved apart until the opening became a doorway, and then, after one last vibration, everything was still, except for water dripping somewhere. A breath of cool air rolled over them, bringing with it a faint leathery smell. A bit of light from one of the lamps fell into the inner chamber or whatever it was, but it wasn't enough to see anything.
"What's in there?"
The voice right behind her startled her -- she hadn't heard Jackie come up.
"I -- I don't know." She licked her dry lips, trying to sort the jumble of thoughts and emotions churning inside her into some semblance of order. "Damn. I wish we had a flashlight."
Gingerly, she stepped inside, with Jackie next to her, and peered into the darkness, not sure if there was anything there -- not sure she wanted to find out. So far, all she could make out was a trickle of water dripping from a piece of rock in the cavern wall. Jackie held out a finger under the stream, then dipped it in her mouth.
"Jackie." Lynn shook her head.
Jackie scooped up a few more drops on her finger and licked it again. “It’s just water."
"In a two-thousand year old crypt."
"Yeah." Jackie gave a short, nervous laugh. "With germs from a hydra. Okay, okay, you’re right -- "
Before she could finish, there was a "whoosh," and a soft orange-tinted light flared up and spread instantly inside the chamber. Lynn gasped and shrank back, almost knocking down Jackie.
There were six torches -- torches that, somehow, had come to life all at once -- mounted into the craggy walls of a chamber, or cavern, with a low arched ceiling. The chamber was bare, except that --
"Oh -- my -- God," Jackie breathed over her shoulder.
A man lay inside, or at least a human figure, stretched out on some kind of pelt on the stone floor.
Somehow, there had to be a way to make sense of this.
"Maybe it's a statue," Lynn said shakily. "Or -- or a mummified -- "
She didn't get to finish that thought because the man stirred and sighed. The chakram slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor.
Ares, said a voice in her head.
In a moment she was inside the cavern and at his side, kneeling on the thick fur. It was him, just the way she'd seen him in her vision: the black hair, the beard, the beautiful mouth, the dagger-shaped silver earring in his left ear. His eyes were closed but she could hear his breathing, could see his eyelashes quiver. She was beyond thinking at this point, beyond wondering how this could be -- it just was -- or whether she was dreaming; she was not. She knew only that he was here, and she was here, and that voice in her head was saying, I know you.
The bright light flashed again before Lynn's eyes; once again she was elsewhere, naked and relaxed in a tub of warm water in a room full of candles and draperies -- and he was standing in front of her, his eyes intense, mesmerizing. She gasped at the sight of him. "I know you."
Another flash took her back to the cavern. Maybe she was going mad. That thought really should have worried her more, but for some reason it stayed far away in the back of her mind. She was on her knees in the tomb, looking down at him -- at Ares -- and then his eyes opened and he was looking at her. His eyes were brown, just as she knew they would be.
She wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, completely still, their eyes locked on each other. He looked slightly dazed at first, like someone trying to remember where or who he is; she watched as he moved his head and slowly lifted his hand, looking it over, flexing his fingers. Then he shifted his eyes back to Lynn, a hopeful, uncertain look in his face, as if he still weren’t sure he was quite awake. She reached out impulsively to grab his hand, warm living flesh; his fingers closed around hers. He sat up, and before she could think anything, they were kissing.
This time the vision was brief -- a vision of kissing him somewhere in a moonlit field, the air filled with the smell of wildflowers and the sounds of the night -- and it merged quickly into the present, into this kiss, the soft melting glow of this kiss here and now. When she pulled back, breathless and feverish, she saw the warm, still-disbelieving joy in his face, and it struck her that she was kneeling on the floor in a crypt kissing -- whom? Someone who should have been dead for two thousand years, or wasn't supposed to exist at all -- a hallucination -- at best, a total stranger? She moved her hand away from his and covered her mouth. Then he spoke.
His deep, smooth voice made her shiver. She had heard this voice so many times, saying that name; this time she was frightened. She closed her eyes and pressed her palms to her temples.
"Lynn," she said. "I'm Lynn."
He frowned. Did he even understand English? Maybe she should try ancient Greek -- wait, did she actually believe that this was an ancient Greek god who had slept in this chamber for two thousand years or so? Her mind was reeling again; as she tried to get a grip on something that was undeniably real, she thought of Jackie. And just then, she heard Jackie's voice. "Lynn?"
Lynn whipped around and saw Jackie standing a few feet away, her feet planted apart, her body rigid, as if she was standing on the ledge over a precipice and was afraid to move. She scrambled to her feet and came up to Jackie.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm -- I don't know " -- Jackie shook her head, then clutched at Lynn's arm, as if to steady herself. "I'm … what's going on?"
Lynn realized that she had no idea what to say.
"Xena." She flinched at the sound of Ares' voice behind her; it pulled her back into this other reality, the one where anything was possible and nothing made sense. She turned to see him getting up, gingerly and a bit stiffly.
"Oh my God," Jackie said hoarsely, her grip on Lynn's arm tightening convulsively.
Ares walked up to them, the torchlight giving his black leathers a golden sheen, sparkling in the metal studs of his vest. He was very tall, or maybe it was just that the cavern’s rocky ceiling was so low.
"Jackie… it's all right." That was ridiculous, but she didn't know what else to say.
"Who is he?" Jackie asked in a plaintive half-whisper. Ares cocked his head, listening curiously.
"I -- I'm not sure." Actually, she was pretty sure, except that the answer wasn't just incredible, it was insane. Lynn turned slowly to face him; she realized now that he was only slightly taller than she was. He was close enough that she could reach out and touch him, and a part of her was yearning to do just that.
"You're back," he said. The language was ancient Greek. "You freed me."
"My God," Jackie said. "The dream... Lynn -- this is what he looked like in my dream -- Ares -- "
Ares studied her thoughtfully for a moment; in the half-dark, his eyes seemed to twinkle with mischief. Then he turned to Lynn again, with a look that somehow managed to be both cocky and tender.
“I’ve missed you.”
She didn’t know what to say to that; maybe she should have said that it wasn’t her, but she didn’t have the heart to say it, and besides -- she wasn’t sure of anything now. They stood still, the torches hissing faintly in the silence, the water still dripping on the rock. Finally, Ares said, "Let's get out of here."
When he walked out, Lynn and Jackie remained glued to the spot, staring after him. He turned back and flashed them a grin.
“Are you staying?”
Lynn started and took Jackie's arm. "Come on,” she said, “let's go."
He waited for them in the outer chamber, facing the doorway, arms folded on his chest. When they were out, he held out his hand in an almost casual gesture. By now, Lynn was beyond shock as she watched the torches in the crypt flicker out and the sliding doors close again, their movement smooth and nearly soundless this time.
When the doorway had closed, Ares turned and slowly surveyed the chamber, as if the memory of this place were just coming back to him; his gaze lingered on the Xena mural, then wandered down to the chakram on the floor at Lynn’s feet, and back to her face. His mouth creased slightly, hinting at a smile.
“You are back,” he said.
She had never spoken ancient Greek, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse with the effort. “You think I’m Xena.”
Just then, somewhere in Lynn’s mind there stirred the dim thought that maybe the whole thing was a hoax, an elaborate prank -- a fake scroll and an equally fake chakram, some kind of hidden mechanism to open the doors, a worker on the dig dressed up in black leather … it was, at least, a straw of sanity to clutch at. But Mario, pulling a stunt like that? And Jackie in on it -- and those visions? Maybe they’d drugged her food, or … No, not even so much as a straw.
Ares arched a brow at her. Then he stared at the chakram. The disc moved jerkily, with the harsh sound of metal on rock, and rose up from the floor. It hovered low at first, then spun wildly and hurtled toward the far wall of the chamber -- and back, flying straight at Lynn, a blur slicing through the air. Jackie yelped in fright. What happened next made no sense; Lynn knew only that her hand went up, by pure instinct, and clenched around the chakram’s sharp blade.
The bright flash was upon her again, and she was looking into the stern, angular face of a sword-wielding dark-haired woman in a turban and silky white robes, under the cruel blue sky of the desert. “Only the real Xena knows how to use the chakram!” the woman spat out. “Show them,” Gabrielle said, smiling a little. She unhooked the chakram from her belt and sent it flying at a piece of rock, and --
The next flash did not return her to reality, whatever reality was. Instead, she was lying on snowy ground, wet, achy, cold, gasping for breath, and Gabrielle was bending over her with a smile of relief -- there was a “whoosh” and she shot out her hand, snatching the chakram as Gabrielle flinched back. She turned to see Ares a few paces away, soaking wet and shivering, battered, miserable -- her heart hurt for him -- then that was gone too and she was in a dimly lit room that reeked of smoke. All her emotions tied into a hard knot of rage and resolve, she grabbed the chakram and hurled it at Ares as he swung his sword over a wounded girl crouched on the floor -- her child, Eve! The sword was knocked from his hand and he whipped around in shock, clutching at his bleeding arm. Another flash of white, and she was in another room in the same house, drenched from the rain, the chakram in her hand slick with blood; she watched, frozen in a nightmare, as Gabrielle swayed and started to fall.
The sharp pain in her hand made her snap out of it. Lynn blinked and shuddered and dropped the chakram; the blade had cut into her palm. Her eyes met Jackie’s bewildered stare.
“Oh, Jackie -- I’m so sorry -- ”
“Sorry about what? Lynn, are you okay? You looked like you were in some kind of a -- trance or something…”
“I -- I don’t know -- ”
Jackie gestured toward her bloodied hand. “You’ve cut yourself -- ”
“I’ll be fine.”
Trying to steady her breath, she turned to Ares. He was still there, still real, the look on his face expectant and concerned. She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Are you doing this to me?”
Slowly, he shook his head and raised his hand to her face.
“You remember,” he said, lightly stroking her cheek. His voice, his eyes, his touch were lulling her, spell-like.
Before he could say anything else, she thought she heard voices; Ares must have heard them too, because he tilted his head, listening. Then he brushed his finger over her lips, blew her a kiss and stepped back -- and, in the next instant, he was gone in a burst of blue light.
Lynn and Jackie were still staring at the spot where he had stood when Mario came in from the passage connecting the underground chamber to the temple’s upper level, two workers tagging along with him. He stopped in his tracks, looking from Lynn and Jackie to the chakram on the floor and the empty space on the wall. After a few moments of stunned silence, he muttered some Italian expression of shock -- probably quite a rude one -- and then said, “Lynn? What happened?”