Email the Author
In The Kingdom of Horses
She is dreaming the dream. She does so most nights. The dream of the
beginning. In daylight, when all court her, all obey her, she denies to
herself that this is the beginning. Why this moment and not that? Why
this event and not another? Why what she did and not what was done to
her? In the night, though, and especially now, in this unnatural heat,
when the air is still and stifling, this is the dream which torments
She stands in the cavern again. It is hot in its darkness, but she
wears a thick cloak. The guards who came with her have gone, leaving
their torches behind. She is holding the shed skin of a snake, a comb
from her palace’s hives, a mole’s mummified paw. Something from
those creatures which crawl on the earth, something from those which fly
above it, something from those which burrow under its surface. Things
dear to this power, brought to invoke and petition. Scales tickle the
skin of her palm, claws scratch it, honey coats it with sweetness.
She sets these things down on a rough slab of stone which serves as
an altar, then takes out some others. Chanting, she lays these down too.
A small pile of salt. A skein of dark, tangled hair, too coarse to be
human. A vial blown from glass the colour of oil, containing a few drops
of fluid she knows to be pale. A signet ring, heavy and golden, bearing
this crest: a horse reared on its hind legs, so that its forelegs can
pummel the air. A sheet of blank parchment. She keeps up her chanting.
As she watches, the hair seems to knot and unknot, the glass bloats and
wanes, the horse stretches and shrinks, but the parchment stays blank,
though stains seem to cross it. The light has turned fitful, for the
torches have started to smoke, their flames leaping and flaring.
Sometimes she wakes at this point. She calls hoarsely for light and
for water, throat raw from the chanting, as it was then. Just the words,
she believes, just the weight of the words does the damage. She works
after that, until morning, dousing the dream in state papers. Tonight
she dreams on. She sees herself waiting. Only one sound can be heard. It
comes from the torches, which sizzle and flap. She watches the shadows
they cast crawl over the floor and the walls of the cave, slide through
niches and cracks. She grows hotter and hotter. Sweat coats her skin,
soaks her clothing.
Then the flames gutter. Wreathes of thick smoke emerge from the
cressets, wind down the poles which support them, snake over the floor
till they come to the altar, coil themselves round it. The light dims
still further, the shadows begin to turn red. Tongues sprout from the
smoke, climb onto the altar, lick over the parchment. Marks form on its
blankness, build letter by letter till they make words. The woman moans
in her dreaming, hearing again the voice which spoke to her then. A
voice which is female, deep-toned and smoky, saying, "Yes."
The woman wakes now. She is covered with sweat. She tries to get up
but feels herself bound to her bed. Her sweat chills, but she swallows
her scream. After a moment she summons her slaves, who bring water and
light, making no comment. When they have gone, she frees her legs from
the tangle of bedding, walks to her desk and its papers. Before she can
settle, a door slams in the palace, someone runs down a passageway
yelling and laughing. He never sleeps now, she believes.
She sits at the desk, trying to focus, hearing the voice in the cave
saying, "Yes." She admits there was more in its tone. Hints of
regret and of warning. At the time she ignored them, intent as she was
on taking the paper. Now she remembers, and the words she heard next.
"Speak this when you do it. Keep the scroll after that. Lose it,
and you’ll lose what you make."
She groans. She can’t do this thing. She cannot. Some other must do
it. She stands, so abruptly she tips over her chair. It falls with a
clatter. A slave opens the door, his face white with fear. She waves him
away and strides to the window. The sky at the horizon is pale; day is
near. With it will come the woman she summoned. Her mouth thins and
twists as she battles her feelings, surprised at their strength,
surprised at the effort it takes to subdue them. By the time she is
calm, the day has arrived, as has Xena.
Hesiod is sulking. The Queen has left his place, beside her at the
high table, unoccupied, but he cannot bring himself to take it. His
pride will not let him. Is he not the Kingdom’s chief bard? Is he not
its chronicler? How then can he sit in front of the court when he will
not be speaking at this banquet, when the bard will be some other
person? He feels that to rise, to take a step forward, will snap him in
half, so intense is his sense of having been wounded. His eyes sting
with tears of self-pity, and he squeezes them tight, willing back the
moisture, refusing to raise a hand to his cheek and draw attention to
his plight. You stupid old man. Weeping in public. Like any granddad
in his dotage. Instead he plants one fist on each of his knees and
stares straight forward, jutting his jaw so that the curly white beard
looks like a prow. He will not show weakness. Not he.
But that another bard will speak tonight. And that bard a woman. A
woman. He cannot bear it, this shame. He sucks in a breath and rams down
the thoughts, tries to stifle their nagging. Are you a child? he
rails at himself. This will pass. Everything passes. Yes, this
will pass soon. He smiles in anticipation. How the howls of scorn
will ring out; he cannot wait to hear them. It would happen anyway, of
course, whatever tale she told, but he has made sure that the woman bard’s
humiliation will be complete.
"What tale shall I ask her to tell, Hesiod?" the Queen
asked, barely an hour ago. Wanting to placate him, he knew. Some stupid,
female thought like, "Let us all be friends," in her head, no
doubt. The Queen must, he admits, have something of a man in her to be
able to rule as she does, yet in the end she is only a woman. And a
woman whose action has brought the kingdom to this pass. The blasphemy
of it, to defy the Fates and their decree in so crass a way. Oh yes, he
guesses only, but he does not need to know. He is sure.
Xanthippe is Queen, however, and the mother of the Kingdom’s heir.
He knows his duty, he has all his life. He’ll do that duty, in honour
of Zeus’ daughter, the goddess of doing what’s right. He basks in
the thought of his virtue.
"The story of how our Kingdom came to be, Majesty," he
answered her, having considered and swiftly discarded the notion of
suggesting the story of the oracle which hangs over them all. She will
not know of it. None outside the Kingdom do.
"So be it," the Queen replied, though with a trace of doubt
in her voice.
Probably aware her visitor’s pet will be out of her depth, Hesiod
thinks now. It will embarrass Xanthippe too, a voice prods at his
conscience. Let it. This is her fault really.
And so it is. After all, wasn’t it Xanthippe who invited that still
greater abomination, that female warrior, back to the Kingdom? He
remembers her arrival. How she strode up the road which leads from the
town into the palace without glancing to right or to left, how she
declared to the Queen, "Xanthippe, my greetings." No title.
Just "Xanthippe". Like an equal, in front of the whole court.
The Queen bore it without even a frown. "Xena," she said to
the woman, "you are most welcome. It is good of you to come here
and offer us your help." As though this woman, this warlord and
pirate, had not, two decades ago, half murdered her husband and driven
the land to its knees.
"Such help as I can give is yours," the warrior returned to
that, though one eyebrow was quirked, just a little, and her tone was
"Rest first and bathe. Then eat with us this evening. We will
talk more in the morning," Xanthippe said, concluding the
courtesies. "Send your slave to the kitchen: we will find work for
her there. My slaves are yours while you are here."
And that was the error for which Hesiod is paying. In the silence
that followed, the air seemed to grow colder and the daylight to fade.
"My friend, Gabrielle," the warrior said, leaning on every
word, "is a bard. If you are very lucky, she may share one of her
stories with you later."
It was only then, Hesiod thinks, that anyone looked at the person who
stood in the warrior’s shadow. Small, is all he really recalls. A
small woman, who flushed at this point and stepped closer to Xena,
laying a hand on the warrior’s arm.
"Tonight," Xanthippe said, with barely a pause. "We
will be honoured if she will do so tonight." And so now he must sit
here and hear this female bard slaughter the tale of their Kingdom.
Perhaps after all he should have suggested a different subject,
something less likely to offend should it be mangled. No. Let her be put
in her place as quickly as possible. In the kitchen, as the Queen
At least Pelagos isn’t here. The thought catches Hesiod
off-guard, he has been so absorbed by his anger. But he should be.
Tomorrow the Prince will come of age. Tomorrow he will become King.
However, it is always a relief when the boy is not present – so
perhaps he should wish him in the female bard’s audience. Hesiod tries
to imagine the result. Knowing Pelagos, nothing he might expect. If
only Polybos had lived. This is what happens when a woman raises a child
on her own.
Now the eating has finished, and the woman has risen, has moved so
she can be seen and heard by everyone. "I sing," she says, and
Hesiod winces loftily at the crude provincialism, outmoded even before
he left Greece, "of Hippios, son of Midas, King of Lydia." He
closes his eyes and prepares to endure.
"When he came of age, Hippios went to his father and asked him
for his birthright." The little bard’s voice is strong and quite
deep. Hesiod finds it does not grate on him as he thought it would.
"He was the King’s fourth son, and never his favourite, for he
preferred the stables and the company of the horse-trainers and grooms
to the palace and the courtiers who flocked there. So Hippios was not
very surprised when Midas showed him the door to his Hall, and said, ‘Go
through there and the world is yours, or what you can take of it. That
is your birthright.’
"Hippios left his father’s lands that very day, saying no more
to anyone. His eldest brother, whose name was also Midas, was in Athens,
learning statesmanship. His other brothers were with the army, guarding
the frontiers of their father’s realm. As for his mother, he had
already bidden her goodbye. Last night, while the moon was high, he had
gone down to the headland where her tomb looked out over the sea, and
there bade her farewell. Strangely, of all his family it was only his
mother that Hippios felt close to, and she had died when he was born.
"Having the choice of walking eastwards to the Kingdom of Persia
and beyond, or sailing west towards the Greek mainland, Hippios chose
the latter, for he had always loved the sea, almost as much as he loved
horses. He took the first ship to set sail, and stayed with it as it
traded from island to island on its way back to its home-port, Piraeus.
Each time they docked, Hippios would ask himself if this place were to
be his new home. But each time he was sure it was not, and so when the
ship set sail again he would be back on board again, working his passage
as a simple deckhand.
"After many months, the Prince began to despair of ever finding
a destination. By now the ship had begun a new voyage. It filled its
sails with a southerly wind and made its way North, only pausing when it
came to Thrace. There the Captain met mariners who said that they had by
chance been swept into the dark, Euxinian sea. They told stories of a
rich kingdom there, and of profitable markets for those with the courage
to find them. The southerly wind was still blowing strong, and the
Captain, who was eager for profit and fame, took this as a good omen.
Thus he decided to continue his voyage. He set a course straight through
the Hellespont, and so reached the unknown waters stretching beyond.
"For day after day, the ship worked its way still further
Northwards, hugging the coastline. Then, on the seventeenth night of
this daring venture, a great storm arose, and blew their vessel into the
very centre of that uncharted sea. There, while he and his crewmates
fought to keep the ship aright, a great wave crashed down upon the deck,
and swept Hippios off it and straight into the furious depths."
The little bard stops talking, just for a moment. Hesiod is aware
that the hall is silent. He opens his eyes for a moment. He looks across
the breadth of the hall, through air which is heavy with heat and
thickened with sweet-scented smoke from fine, beeswax candles. The
woman, Gabrielle, seems to be looking back at him, but her eyes are
unfocused. There is a small smile on her lips, and her colour is
heightened. She is as rapt as her audience, he realises. And so, he is
astonished to admit, is he. She begins again.
"Hippios was not ready to give up his life. He struck out for
the surface and there battled the waters. For hours he struggled. Time
and again he was tossed to the crest of mountainous waves, time and
again he plunged into the bottomless gulfs of their troughs. The sea
raged like an unbroken stallion, and he clung to its back. However, no
horse had ever resisted his will, and now, it appeared, the sea was
tamed too. At least, in the end it bore him to land. There, soaked and
exhausted, he plunged into sleep. When he awoke, he saw that he lay on a
beach. It was a broad beach of firm sand. "A perfect place for a
gallop," Hippios thought to himself. When he looked landwards,
there stretched a vast, rolling prairie, thick with lush grass. "A
perfect place to rear horses," Hippios thought to himself. He knew
at that moment where he had come. He had come home.
"Just as Hippios thought this, he heard the sea boil behind him.
There was Poseidon himself, dark-maned, the earth-shaker. He rose from
the heart of the whirlpool, his face as black as a squall. His voice
roared as a hurricane roars. ‘What are you doing here, human? This is
my private realm. This is where I raise the horses which draw my
chariot. Don’t think you can steal them. No mortal can try to ride one
and live.’ The god raised his right arm and aimed his terrible trident
straight at Hippios’ heart.
"To his surprise, Hippios was not petrified by fear. Indeed he
was less afraid than he had often been with his own father. He threw
back his head and addressed Poseidon directly and boldly. ‘Great God
of the Sea,’ the Prince said, ‘forgive me. You yourself brought me
here, when you had your waves save me and carry me onto this shore. Now
I wish only to serve you. How may I do so?’
"Poseidon’s expression brightened a little. ‘I do not need
any mortal’s help. When I wish to summon a horse to draw my chariot, I
have only to summon the herd and they will come to me.’
"So saying, Poseidon loosed the huge conch which hung from a
strap slung over his shoulder and blew three notes through it. Almost at
once, the beach began to tremble and then to quake, sand and small
pebbles simmering as if they were being lapped by the surf. Soon, the
shaking had grown so great that Hippios lost his balance and found
himself on all fours, barely able to prevent himself from sprawling face
down on the ground. When at last he felt steady enough to look up, it
was to see himself surrounded by a great herd of black horses, milling
and swirling like the whirlpool from which Poseidon had appeared. Their
eyes gleamed like pearls in the sunlight, while their tails were the
colour of milk and moved like fast-moving river as it flows through a
" ‘See,’ Poseidon said, and made to approach one of the
beasts. But the horse was very young. It shook its head and pranced
backwards, bumping into another behind it and that into a third, making
them draw away from the Sea God as well. It had been, Hippios realised,
a very long time since the Lord of the Seas had wanted a new steed for
" ‘My lord,’ the Prince said, gathering his courage again,
‘this is no task for a God.’
"Poseidon, whose face was now crimson with fury, remembered that
he had an audience. He turned back to the man who had witnessed this
" ‘My Lord,’ Hippios tried again, and quickly, before the
Sea God could say or do anything in response, "Let me tame you a
horse. It is fit work for us men. No God should stoop to the chores of a
"Poseidon replied, ‘Well then, do so, if you can. Tame me that
stallion and give him to me seven days from now. If you have gentled the
beast, I will let you live.’"
Gabrielle pauses again, this time for longer. She reaches out her
hand towards the table, but before she can take her cup, Xena has leaned
forwards and placed her own in it. The little bard takes a sip, then
another, smiling at her friend, and hands the cup back. She draws a deep
breath and continues. Not another person in the Hall has moved while
this has gone on.
"Seven days later, the stallion was tamed, and Poseidon was
pleased. He was about to tell Hippios that he might leave with his life,
when the young man spoke up once again.
"’My lord, you may need another horse sooner than you think,
and, truth to tell, horses do better when they are tended. Give me that
"Poseidon appeared to consider the offer. ‘Human, I am no
fool. I would like to know what’s in it for you.’
"Hippios found himself smiling up at the face of the God. He
could not believe what he was about to say, still less what he was about
to do. But he went ahead anyway. ‘My Lord, I am the younger son of a
King. My mother died when I was born, and my father never loved me. I
want to prove my royal blood and make a kingdom for myself. I want you
to give me, for that kingdom, the land that the horses I tame in the
next seven days will require for their keep.’
"Poseidon looked back at the Prince. ‘Very well,’ he agreed
and went on his way.
"When he returned, as the sun sank on the seventh day, he saw a
huge, sturdy corral had been built. Each upright was made from the
entire trunk of a pine. It was filled with horses, all in their prime.
They swirled like a whirlpool. In front of it was Hippios, his head
bowed respectfully, kneeling. ‘These horses have all been tamed, my
Lord. Choose whichever you will, it will draw your chariot.’
"Poseidon surveyed the scene. His face was still as a mill pond.
No sign of a thought, no sign of a feeling, passed across it. ‘These
are all the horses in my herd, I suppose,’ he said at last, wryly. ‘Well,
I will honour my bargain. All the lands they roam on are yours. The
horses are mine, but you, and your descendants, may breed them and break
them and trade them as you choose, so long as the best are kept always
for me. This is your birthright, and you have earned it, my son.’
"Then he turned and strode back to the sea.
Hesiod blinks. The story is done. Of course, it lacks a fit ending.
He always closes by listing the name of each King descended from Hippios,
the Son of the Sea. Nevertheless, he cannot hold this against the young
bard. He has seen every scene of the tale in his head, as clearly as if
he has witnessed what happened himself. He looks about him. The spell of
her telling still holds the court silent. Yes, he concedes, this
was well done. A fair man, he cannot deny it. She has made a very
old story seem like one which is new.
In a moment, he realises, the silence will have lasted too long. The
small woman will not know if she has pleased or offended her audience.
He glances at Xanthippe. She is impressed, he can see, though few others
could do so. The Queen never makes a display of her feelings. She is
like Xena in this. The warrior also wears her face like a mask.
A pang stabs his heart. How long has it been since he held the court
so entranced? Has he ever? Perhaps long ago, when he was young, when he
tended his sheep high on Mount Helikon, and was blessed by the Muses.
Yes, he remembers telling tales to his friends in the Inn, during long
winter evenings. He created such silences then, but it has been a long
time since those days. And he has had more to do than merely spin
stories. Teaching good farming practice and recording the birth of each
God, such things are much more important. Are they not? They have earned
him respect, anyway.
Then why does he wish they had earned him one second of silence?
Now someone is clapping. It is Xanthippe. The court follows suit.
Gabrielle has flushed to the roots of her hair, has retreated a little.
She stands with her back pressed close against Xena. Hesiod wishes she
was smirking and waving her arms, or shrieking with glee at her triumph,
but no. She is modest. He cannot despise and dislike her, though he
wishes he could. She is a woman and has taken his place, but he can’t
hate her. Instead she has baffled his wits and set him off balance.
Hesiod rises at last and joins in with the clapping. He fixes his eyes
on the bard and applies the full force of his will. In a mere moment,
she turns and looks back. When he is sure she can see, he nods, just
once, in approval.
Xena is not sorry that the banquet has finished. Now she and
Gabrielle are free to return to the suite they have been given. She can
see her partner is tired. After the journey, after the excitement of the
evening, this is hardly surprising. They walk from the Hall along
corridors that lead through a succession of enclosed courtyards. They
are following a slave who bows and is gone as soon as he brings them to
their destination. Out of old habit, she pauses before entering, making
Gabrielle stand behind her as she pushes the doors open and looks
inside. There is a woman inside, a girl really. She wears a long white
robe trimmed with gold. A slave of some value, and therefore a mark of
respect. She stands and waits, head bowed, for Xena to give her an
"You can go," is all that Xena says.
"The Queen has commanded me…"
"To do whatever I say. I’m telling you to go." Xena’s
voice is curt.
Gabrielle steps forward. "It’s okay. We’ll explain if need
be. And this is what Xena wants, you know."
The girl looks confused.
"Go get a good night’s sleep. We want you to," Gabrielle
The girl examines this order. She still looks doubtful, but then she
shrugs. "Well, thanks…I think." She leaves, closing the door
"Goodness knows what they’ll be saying about us,"
Gabrielle says, grinning.
"That we don’t want a slave." Xena is already stripping
off her armour. She has her back turned to Gabrielle; she is testing her
feelings. Better, she thinks with relief. The odd awkwardness
which has arisen between herself and the bard has mellowed, for now at
least. She cannot guarantee that it will not return, since she never
knows what brings it into being. But it has gone for the moment. A
truce? Between two sides of her own nature? She suspects there is
more to it than this.
"If we’re lucky. More likely that we are a pair of uncivilised
bar…" Gabrielle’s voice trails off. She is looking about her
for the first time. Xena watches her covertly. She is not disappointed.
"Wow!" the bard says. She has shaken off her tiredness for a
while and has gone to one of the walls, is examining closely the scene
painted on it. "Hippios’ first meeting with Poseidon." She
turns and smiles delightedly at Xena. "Can’t you just see how
surprised he is not to have been petrified? I knew that must have been
how he felt. I knew that at some level he must have sensed Poseidon was
really his father."
She paces the room, looking at scene after scene. Then she turns from
its walls and takes in its contents. There is a table and chairs, the
legs gilded and carved into paws, the arms into lions’ heads, roaring.
The bed is huge and crafted from the same wood, cedar of Lebanon. Its
fragrance hangs in the air. On every surface there are soft throws which
glow crimson and turquoise in the light of the candles. Beeswax of
course, for Xanthippe will have only the best in her palace. "This
"Not bad," Xena returns. She shrugs her shoulders, pleased
to be free of bronze and leather, at least for a time.
"This is a big hearth." Gabrielle has stopped beside it. It
is laid with logs and tinder, topped off with fir cones. "Do they
think we’re going to get cold tonight?" She raises her eyebrows
"It’s normally cold here at night. At this time of year,
anyway. And the winters are bitter, they say." Xena smiles back at
her partner. "Hard to believe, I know."
"Phew. You can almost cut this air with a knife. Half the time I
feel I’m being smothered in hot blankets!" Gabrielle is still
smiling, but cannot quite hide her distaste for the climate.
"It has to break soon. No one can remember a hot spell which has
lasted so long so early in the year." Xena shrugs. She herself is
indifferent to climate, and to landscape. Gabrielle, she knows, is not.
"My heart was in my mouth this evening." Gabrielle has gone
back to look at another of the paintings. She reaches out a hand and,
delicately, runs it along the back of an ebony stallion. She shakes her
head, smiling a little. "I mean, they must have heard that one
thousands of times. But I think it went off okay." Her voice rises
as she says this. It is really a question.
"Yeah." Xena is careful to sound off-hand, to keep her
pride in the bard out of her voice. She is curious, though, so she adds,
"You aren’t usually so anxious."
"Didn’t you see him?" Xena quirks the eyebrow. "At
the back of the room," Gabrielle goes on. "The old man with
the beard. That was Hesiod himself."
"I thought he was dead," Xena says dryly. She waits for an
instant, then adds, in unison with her bard, "The rumours of his
death are greatly exaggerated." It is an old joke, rooted in less
happy times. But they have survived, and are together. Their eyes meet
and they laugh.
Xena settles in one of the chairs, stretching pleasurably.
"Well, he seemed to like you."
"You think so? I was scared silly. Hesiod was the only poet my
father approved of, you know." Gabrielle finishes her second
circuit of the room and comes to sit down beside her. "I’d get in
from a day’s work, lambing, shearing, standing wolf-watch, whatever,
all blisters and strains, and he’d recite some bloody passage about
what we’d have to do tomorrow." Her eyes half close, partly in
memory, partly because sleep is not far from her.
"’Plough right through, whatever the weather, wet or dry,
Rising at dawn to get a good start, so your fields
Will brim with grain.’"
Gabrielle shakes her head ruefully. "Works and Days was
the first poem I learned by heart. And I have to say, when I got in, too
tired even to want to eat, Hesiod’s blasted to-do list was the last
thing I wanted to hear."
"I can imagine," Xena says. And she can. She has seen what
it’s like, for the peasants who spent their hoarded, greasy coppers in
her mother’s tavern. Whose stores of grain and oil and wine she looted
often enough in her past. Whose livestock she slaughtered to feed her
troops, though she knew the farmers’ families might starve because of
Gabrielle nods. Her featured have softened and flushed with
sleepiness so that she looks once more like the girl Xena first met.
Tears sting Xena’s eyes, but she blinks them back so that she can go
on watching the bard, whose voice is dreamy. "There was just us,
Mum and Father, Lila and me. Mum and Father tried till it made her too
ill. So there were no sons to help do the work, and lots to be done.
Hesiod was right about that. It’s a struggle, earning a living from
Greek land. Well," she admits, "he was right about most
things." Gabrielle swallows a yawn.
"That it is," Xena agrees. Gabrielle has never talked so
much about her childhood before. ‘Boring,’ is usually the most she
will say when asked, so it must be the old man. He must have sparked the
memories. The warrior can see why Gabrielle would not normally dwell on
them. Some childhood. Some father. How did she survive it? She
thinks how much easier she had it, with a mother who ran an Inn, two
brothers, and most of the work which got allotted to her indoors and out
of the sun and the rain. Not that she did it. Almost all of her
childhood memories are of being outside, in the sun, playing, fishing,
beating up the village boys. It was fun. She suspects Gabrielle rarely
Gabrielle’s voice breaks into her thoughts. "Hey, don’t look
like that." She reaches out a hand. After an instant’s
hesitation, so slight only Xena could notice it, she touches Xena’s
arm. It grieves the warrior, though Xena knows Gabrielle is just
honouring her own edgy desire for more distance, and so is grateful as
well. "It wasn’t that bad. Hesiod included holidays in the
schedule, and Father observed those as well." Gabrielle lifts her
eyebrows and grins. "And he let me study what I wanted and grill
wandering bards for their stories and philosophers for their thoughts.
Yeah, he thought it was a waste of time, but he never denied it was my
time to waste."
"I just wish I had been there," Xena hears herself say.
"You’d have had a lot more fun." Guilty, she realises.
I feel guilty, and angry, and I want to make it up to her.
Gabrielle smiles at her. "If I missed anything," she says,
"you’ve made it up to me, and more."
They smile at one another, saying nothing for a time. Xena feels her
breathing quicken, watches Gabrielle’s do the same, watches the bard
swallow, lean towards her a little. Her own mouth waters, and she
swallows as well. She nearly reaches out for her partner. She misses her
so. Her Gabrielle. Even her skin craves their familiar contact. But
something restrains her.
A small line puckers the fair skin between the bard’s brows. Xena
tries to decipher her look. Angry? Disappointed? Resigned? Yes, all
that, and hurt, too. It is gone in a moment. Gabrielle sits straighter,
gives her head a small shake. "Anyway," she goes on, "Hesiod
was a really big deal in our house, as you can see. His was the voice of
authority, so to speak." Her own voice is not quite steady. Xena
suspects she has made herself speak solely to dispel the awkwardness.
I’m sorry, Xena wants to say. I don’t know what’s making
me act this way. It hurts me too. But she says nothing, of course.
She drags her mind back to the subject of their conversation.
"Yeah. He’s a bit dour. And he doesn’t stop to notice the
flowers. Not like a certain other bard of my acquaintance." Xena
lets both apology and affection colour her tone, watches a smile shape
Gabrielle’s lips fondly.
"It drove Father so mad. ‘Wasting your time on looking at
things. Woman’s nonsense, girl.’ That’s what he’d say, when he
wasn’t telling me that women couldn’t be bards, and even if they
could, they shouldn’t be, because they’d just waste good paper on
romantic rubbish. That my job was to do my duty and get him a son by
marriage to a man he picked out. And then grandsons."
She smothers another yawn. Then her attention is distracted by the
table, or rather by the bowl of fruit it supports. "Apricots!"
she says in surprise, taking one and sniffing at it. "However did
they get them ripe this early? Didn’t you say it’s normally cold at
night at this time of year round here?"
Xena shakes her head. "The stables," she adds helpfully,
"lots of horses." She keeps her face straight, watching the
bard freeze, look again at the fruit, then direct a shocked glance
straight at her.
"That’s the nobility for you," Gabrielle says, surprising
Xena as usual. "We slaved just to put bread on our table, and they
waste labour and manure on this sort of thing." She rubs the fruit’s
skin, and takes a bite, looking thoughtful. "At least he didn’t
walk out on me," she says softly. Then she yawns once more.
She’s really tired, Xena thinks. Worn out. "He was
enjoying himself," she assures Gabrielle aloud. "Trust
me." She sometimes forgets how easily her partner can lose self
"He’s a great bard," Gabrielle tells her. "Perhaps
the greatest. But he really doesn’t have a good word to say about
women." She smiles ruefully. "I could have done without him in
"You should have said something," Xena teases her. "I’d
have made sure he was otherwise engaged."
Gabrielle chuckles at this. "Next time, perhaps," she says.
Her eyelids are drooping, but there is obviously something else on her
mind. She is fighting off sleep. Xena waits for Gabrielle’s next
question. She must be wondering about Xanthippe. However, the question
which comes isn’t the one she expected.
"Where was Pelagos, do you think?"
Xena blinks. Is Gabrielle being subtle? She’s concerned. I
should tell her everything. She knows I’m keeping something from her.
Apart from myself, that is. It’s back. That need to push Gabrielle
away. Even to hurt her, to make her stay away. Why? What’s going on
with me? Xena tries to rationalise. She hates not feeling sure of
herself. She hates being evasive. But she hates the sense that
she owes the bard an explanation. It makes her feel – cramped. Yes,
that’s it. It’s a passing thing. But for now, I need my space. Though
she hates this too, because she knows how it hurts Gabrielle, as well as
herself. Isn’t this what she hates most of all, however? This tie
between them which she cannot control, which provokes feelings which she
A little too late, she replies, "He’s a young man. He must be,
what, 16 by now. I daresay he had better things to do."
"So Xanthippe really does rule here, still?" Gabrielle’s
voice is indistinct. Xena guesses she is stifling yawns by sheer force
of will. Perhaps she has missed the lack of candour in the warrior’s
"Evidently." Xena is afraid she has been too abrupt. She
makes herself go on. "He must be almost of age, though." In
fact, now she thinks of it, she suspects this must be about to happen.
Perhaps it is even one of the reasons for her presence.
"But when you first met her, she wasn’t the ruler then, was
she? I mean, her husband was still alive."
Ah. We’re getting there. "Yes, Polybos was still alive.
But he was ill." He’d been badly wounded. I wounded him. "Xanthippe
was really in charge, anyway. She was the Queen, the descent of Hippios.
Polybos was her consort." Unbidden, an image of Xanthippe strides
into her mind, eighteen years younger, tall, outrageous in garments
woven with gold, cascades of black hair gleaming blue. Her eyes. Yes,
she remembers her eyes. Black again, and voracious.
Xena waits for Gabrielle’s next question. When it doesn’t come,
she thinks that perhaps she has escaped for now, that perhaps the bard
is asleep. But no. When she looks over at her partner, it is to meet a
steady, considering gaze. What’s she thinking? Come on, Gabrielle,
it’s not like you to keep quiet. Though in fact this is no longer
true. Gabrielle has been keeping some of her thoughts to herself for
quite a long time now. Especially recently, over the weeks of their
journey to this place. My fault. I’ve done this to us.
After a while, Gabrielle blinks, and then shakes herself. She gives
Xena a smile. And takes her by surprise again. "Okay, I’ll let
you off the hook. For now. But I want all the answers, tomorrow."
Perversely, Xena feels slightly let down. She nods, filled with that
mixture of chagrin and gratitude she has become very familiar with since
she first met the bard. I don’t know how it is, but I swear she can
read me like a book. Thank the gods.
Gabrielle is yawning once more. She tries to get out of her chair,
but gives up half way. "Woo. It’s not as though I drank much…"
She looks at Xena owlishly as she says this, with both an apology and a
plea behind her words.
"Up you come." Xena grins as she hoists Gabrielle up,
hitches her more securely in her grasp, and carries her over to the bed.
"You’ve had a big day."
"Yeah. That I have. Fancy me telling a story to Hesiod. Fancy
But the bard sobers again. There is a fleeting shadow in the look she
gives Xena. She’s giving me space. Unexpectedly pierced, Xena
leans close. She sweeps a wisp of reddish gold hair from Gabrielle’s
forehead and whispers her promise again: "Tomorrow, my bard."
Xanthippe is in her private chambers. The shutters are open, in the
hope that some breath of air will be tempted within. She hates this
weather. She finds it distastefully perverse. Here they are, in a Palace
built by the sea, yet all their weather comes from the land. Has done
for months, or so it seems. Hot and heavy and humid with the foul mists
from the low-lying marshes round the estuary to the west, with the baked
dust of the steppes which stretch on for league after league to the
north. She has been told they stop only when they come to vast forests
of black pine which swallow them whole. As they disgorge the broad,
The Queen is standing in front of the long, polished shield which
serves as her mirror. It is almost as tall as she is. She examines her
reflection as it floats in the coppery burnish. Her hair has faded a
little. It no longer has indigo tints. She knows this, as she knows that
the planes of her face are less smooth than they were, and that her skin
is webbed with fine lines. But she is a good-looking woman still,
well-featured, her body enticingly rounded. Her lovers always tell her
so, and it would be false modesty to doubt them.
So it’s Xena who’s changed, the Queen thinks. Now it is Xena’s
face which floats in the metal before her. She appears hardly to have
aged in terms of her face and her body. The changes lie elsewhere.
Xanthippe recalls the woman she knew, all ambition and pride, wilful,
demanding, quick to arouse. Someone who took all she was offered, then
wanted more, whether in bed or in battle. Not stupid, however. Xanthippe
almost made that mistake at the time, assuming the woman was driven by
greed and planning to use it against her. The Queen remembers the chill
that she felt when Xena’s eyes sharpened, sensing a trap, how her
long, rangy frame gathered itself, ready to pounce. She knows what would
have befallen herself and the kingdom had she not altered course at that
moment, abandoned seduction and offered alliance instead.
The Queen’s gaze goes inward. As is her habit, she begins pacing.
The folds of her night-robe hiss in time with her steps. She is intent
on her problem. Such an old one. She remembers when it began, when she
first heard the oracle. During her wedding. The priest swallowed the
potion, asked how fortune would favour this man and his wife, got that
impossible answer. She scorned it in public, but it nagged her in
private. She sensed it meant Xena as soon as the warrior’s ship sailed
into view. The woman’s rout of the army, her maiming of Polybos only
confirmed it. Since then, every thought has been framed, every deed
undertaken in order to thwart it.
Yet that fate is still here, and about to engulf them. She will not
permit it. Xanthippe is fixed in her aim. Her mind turns to Xena;
how can she ensure that the warrior woman will do what might need to be
done? I must succeed. Failure would mean not just death but the
loss of the Kingdom. Hence her summons to Xena – who can act where she
cannot, who has the strength and the will, but who no longer desires
How then can Xena be bent to the purpose?
By different means than before. She still senses raw need in the
woman, but now it has focus and aim. And there is more. Something has
changed deep inside her. Perhaps it is simply the discipline needed to
keep such desires under control. Xanthippe senses a greatness. She’s
learned better. She’s learned the greatest rewards come from different
choices. She wants other things now. Unknown to the Queen, her right
hand has lifted, and is cupping her jaw. She is close to an insight. I
wonder what happened. What made her a hero? Now Xanthippe stops. She
is back at the mirror. Or rather, who happened?
She is close to the answer, she knows it, but at this moment someone
knocks at her door. It is Iopus, her steward. She stills the rebuke on
her lips, but waits with blatant impatience. Iopus swallows, then says,
"Majesty, you wanted to know…"
"He’s back," she says flatly. In an instant, she changes.
Her head droops, as do her shoulders. Something dulls in her eyes, her
"Just now. He’s," Iopus pauses, hunting for words,
"not as wild as he can be."
Xanthippe snorts. "Then, wherever he’s been, the wine must
have been mixed with poppy juice."
Iopus shuffles, spreads his hands. Not fair, Xanthippe thinks
to herself. He’s out of his depth, and embarrassed. Aren’t
we all. "Thank you," she says, "you can go now."
She smiles a sour smile as he leaves. Just a bit faster and he’d be
running. She wishes she could deal with the problem this way.
Pelagos. My handsome, strong son. Looking, everyone says,
exactly as Polybos did at his age, though he is just a bit taller than
Polybos, her husband, had been. Black hair, blacker eyes. Graceful, well
muscled. Let him throw on a tunic, a peasant’s rough, hessian tunic,
and it will settle over his shoulders as if tailored to fit him. So
clever, and such a musician, though no art is beyond him. A superlative
swordsman as well, no guard in the army can match him. Surely Pelagos is
just what is needed. Polybos perfected; a prince without peer, a fit
heir to the throne.
Where has he been this time? Xanthippe suppresses a shudder,
straightens her spine, hearing footsteps approaching. She goes to the
room’s centre, seats herself in the ebony chair which is placed there.
She takes a deep breath, settles herself, raises her head, and waits for
the door to re-open. I’m not afraid, she answers a taunt deep
inside her, he’s my son.
Though this is the root of the problem.
Pelagos enters the room like a dancer, wearing no more than a tunic,
a wreath of wild olive askew on his head. Every movement he makes is so
graceful, it almost disguises his insolent rudeness. She swallows her
sarcastic, "Why don’t you knock, just for a change?" He will
smile if she says it, bat his impossibly long lashes, and not bother to
answer. What does he want? He has come to a halt, no more than
two paces distant. Now he is standing. Other boys of his age would be
shuffling their feet, looking shifty, even if all they were hiding were
shame-faced embarrassment. Not Pelagos. When the silence has stretched
to more than a minute, he still looks at his ease. Perhaps he thinks
time should say sorry for passing, Xanthippe thinks wryly.
Then she thinks, He looks old. Calmer now, she looks at her
son. His hair is still black as the night, his skin is still smooth, but
there’s something about him…What is it? This impression of
age. Or rather, this feeling that time has run out.
"Where have you been?" she asks, knowing her son will not
tell her. He always wins at this game, she always speaks first. She hasn’t
the steel to tough out the silence. Not facing Pelagos.
"You didn’t need me tonight, Mother," Pelagos answers,
shifting his pose just a little. He rubs his right thumb over each nail
of his left hand, then repeats the same thing in reverse.
"You are the Prince. Soon you’ll be King. Just a few hours
from now. Greeting high-ranking visitors is something you need to do.
They need to know you, and know how to treat you. As their equal."
Xanthippe has said this before.
"I know all this. I know it already. When the time comes, they
will treat me just as they treated my Father. Believe me." Pelagos
is still absorbed in his nails. "Would he have been proud of me,
Xanthippe shrinks from the scorn his voice. She snatches a sentence
to say. Any sentence. "I wish he could have seen you." Why
not yes? Why can’t I say yes? Xanthippe rails at herself. But she
"Poor mother." Suddenly he is close beside her, moving with
that swiftness which has always been his. He lifts a hand, runs it
parallel to the sweep of her hair. "Don’t worry. I’ll be here
when you need me." Now his hand touches her cheek. "Tomorrow
night. When you give Poseidon his horse. When the moon is full. When I
am 16. When I become King. Just like my Father."
He puts a strange stress on the word, leans closer to say it. His
breath stirs the hair over Xanthippe’s ears. She looks into his eyes.
In this light, she cannot tell iris from pupil. It is as though he has
no eyes. It is as though she is looking at the vacant sockets of a
skull. She grows cold and shivers with terror.
"The moon’s a bit like a skull, isn’t it, Mother?"
Pelagos leans in still closer. They share the same air. He lets the back
of one finger smooth her lips, very gently. She can feel each hair as it
passes over the sensitised skin. "Dear Mother," he says,
dreamily smiling. Now she grows warm, but still trembles.
Then he steps away, and begins to pace the room. He makes one
circuit, another, then another. Like a caged beast protesting the bars
which confine it. She has closed her eyes, is calming herself, is
listening to his steps become more and more rapid. When she can stand it
no longer, she says, "Stop it!" But she has kept her voice
quiet and low, filled it with the resonant tone which still, sometimes,
works with the man she calls son.
He stops. He is standing behind her. She opens her eyes, watches his
shadow dance on her wall. Even his shadow is graceful. "What will
happen, Mother?" His voice sounds much younger. "Do you think
my giving Poseidon his gift will break the curse on the Kingdom?"
"Yes, yes. Of course." She says this quickly, because she
wishes to think it. But she does not.
Pelagos knows it. They share too many of the same thoughts. He speaks
her next one. "The elders say that I am the curse."
"That’s superstition. Who says it? I’ll show them. I’ll
"Will whipping them bloody take the words back?" Pelagos’
voice is soft now. Almost gentle. He comes back to face her, kneels down
before her, like the child he has never, really, been. After a while he
says, softer still, "Well then. I’m having fun, you see. Enjoying
myself while I can. You can’t blame me for that. Not when time’s
Then he has risen and gone. Xanthippe stays in her chair, strangely
shrunken. Her shoulders are bowed, her face is covered by her hands.
Tears slip through her fingers.
Gabrielle is angry with herself. She has slept too long, yet again.
She awoke alone, the sun already high. Now she is hurrying through the
rooms of the palace, trying to find the stable yard, having deduced that
Xena must be there. But she is lost. How can the place be this big? She
turns another corner, finds herself in a room identical to one she left
only minutes before. I'm going in circles. But how is this
possible? The palace is a single storey affair, with the stables at the
back. She should be there now.
It’s a maze, she thinks in despair. Like the country. She hates
it. Not just the heat, but the heaviness of the air, the dampness, the
way she can never see as far as the horizon because of the haze. She
loathes the limp expanses of grassland, baked to one shade of
slime-green. She longs for Greece, for its mountains and steep valleys,
for its groves of wild olive and carpets of wildflowers. There’ll
be violets everywhere now. Then there’s the shore. What sort of
coast line is this? she thought in disdain, when she first saw it.
She will have nightmares, she knows, of meandering waterways heavy with
silt, snaking through reed beds higher than Xena’s head. Just a
maze. She shivers but keeps going, almost at a run.
Eventually she arrives back at their rooms. She stands in the
doorway, observing their bed, the neat stack of Xena’s armour, which
she has left behind today. Oh Xena. Where are you? I can’t find
you. Her hands clench and she grips the wood of the door frame as
hard as she can. Calm down. Calm down. Don’t lose it. She
heaves a shuddering sigh, turns round, carefully works out the lay-out
of the palace again, starts walking. Slowly, take it slowly. You’ll
But instead she is found. She turns a corner and there is a tall,
dark haired, youngish-looking man. He reacts to her arrival calmly, as
if he has been waiting for her. "Ah, so you’re Gabrielle."
"Excuse me, but I’m late," she answers. She wants to edge
by him, to get away as fast as she can. She wants to reach Xena. But
this is stupid. He must live in the palace; he can tell her how to get
to the stables. And yes, perhaps Xena sent him to fetch her. She wants
to ask this, but the words stick in her throat. There is something about
him which makes her afraid. Something which makes her want to run away
from him. Instead, she cannot even move back a step.
"Very nice," he says. He seems to press even closer. His
head tilts to the left, and he looks her all over, taking his time.
"Very nice indeed," he repeats. Suddenly he snakes out one
hand and tips up her chin. "You’ve the sea in your eyes." He
dips his head, looks straight into them.
Sweat springs out on her forehead, gathers on her upper lip. She
feels hot and then cold. What is it with this guy? There is a
sort of haze around him, bending the very air they breathe, like heat
rising on a hot summer’s day. Her skin burns where his hand touches
it. In spite of this, she can see every detail of the ring on his middle
finger, of the rearing horse emblazoned on it, very clearly. She
wrenches her jaw out of her grasp and manages to step back at last.
"Leave me alone," she demands.
"But I can give you whatever you want, Gabrielle," he says.
He looks at her, then leans forward, nostrils flared, inhaling deeply.
"Whatever you’re missing from Xena," he whispers, after a
moment. He smiles knowingly.
She feels herself blush with embarrassment, but says, steadily,
"No, you can’t give me that."
He does not seem abashed. Instead, his smile broadens, becomes
blinding with charm. "Perhaps. But what about the Queen? Aren’t
you afraid Xena’s with her now? At this very moment? Shouldn’t you
be thinking about getting your own back?"
Gabrielle shakes her head. No, she thinks fiercely. She is
sure Xena is not. But she cannot say it. She backs off some more, begins
to run away down the passageway. Stops to collect herself when she
realises he isn’t following her. She hears him laughing and looks
back. The man’s head is reared back. His hair flows in snaky black
locks, like the mane of a galloping horse. His eyes flash black as a
stallion’s. Even from here she can smell his arousal. "Very wise,
little bard," he says between chuckles. "I’m a monster, you
know. Your friend’s here to kill me."
Gabrielle wakes. She is drenched in cold sweat, entangled in
bedclothes. She has no idea where she is, but she knows she’s alone.
"Xena!" she cries. No one answers. She makes herself breathe. You
were dreaming. Calm down, Gabrielle. The sun is already quite high
and she sees that, in one way at least, her dream has come true. She’s
slept far too deeply and now she is late. She drags herself up, pours
water into a ewer, washes the sleep from her eyes. Slightly calmer, she
looks round the room, spies a note propped on the pile of her clothes.
"Xanthippe’s an early bird. I’ll be in the stables."
Xena’s hand, black and firm. Gabrielle dresses, tucks the note into
her belt, and sets out to join her. The route is easy enough to work
out. It was only a dream, she says to herself. But there was
truth in the dream, she cannot deny this. After all this time, I’m
still scared she’ll leave me behind; I’m still scared I’ll lose
her. In fact the fear has grown again recently. Which is why she’s
been giving Xena more space, is trying not to get on her nerves. It has
seemed a wise move, given the warrior’s tenseness of late, and the
feeling Gabrielle has that she is withdrawing from her in some way,
withdrawing within herself. She’s bound to get like this sometimes;
I just have to be careful. Especially with Xanthippe around. An
early bird? What in Hades is that supposed to mean, Xena?
Gabrielle rounds a corner, comes to a halt. Someone is standing
there. She has almost run into a tall, dark-haired shape. She catches
the trace of a scent; sandalwood. Xanthippe wears it, she smelled it
last night. The shape, clad in a tunic and breeches, turns and looks
back at her. "There you are," Xena says. Her voice, her face,
both are void of expression. "I thought you’d got yourself lost.
The stable’s this way." She strides off. After a moment,
Hesiod is exercising his prerogative as Chronicler of the Kingdom.
Actually, he thinks he may simply be exercising his prerogative as
grumpy old man; few care to try stopping him do what he wants, which is
one of the compensations for his age. His reputation helps too, and he
does not scruple to take advantage of it. No one wants to spend eternity
recorded in his chronicle as a fool, or worse. Which, he has hinted,
will be the fate of anyone who crosses him. In any case, he finds
himself curious. He wants to see what Xena will make of the horses, and
of the curse which besets them.
And, he admits to himself, he wants to see Gabrielle again. He has
had her voice in his head all night, and without making the least effort
can recall every shade of expression as it crossed her face while she
told her story.
The younger bard is standing a little to one side, in the shade of
the stables’ east wing. She is watching her friend, who stands square
in the middle of the great, granite-floored quadrangle. Both are ablaze
with the mid-morning sun. Gabrielle however, Hesiod thinks, has
something on her mind. Her face is pale, and there is a crease in the
smooth skin between her dark eyebrows. Her gaze never leaves Xena, who
is listening to Xanthippe’s Master of Horse. The warrior has spread
her feet and bent her head, but she still towers over him.
Ikarios is a very short man, stocky and bearded. He is deeply upset.
Although his movements are few and controlled, his voice calm, Hesiod
reads the set of his shoulders with ease. They have both been displaced
by these strangers, these alien women. He feels for Ikarios, and wonders
what this quiet, powerful man, who loves only his horses, will do.
Xena is nodding gravely. Ikarios has told her what everyone knows.
The stallions are sterile. The youngest horse in the stables, their gift
to Poseidon, is seven years old. He is the last to be born to the
Kingdom’s famed stud, and even before that, the numbers were falling.
Things haven’t been right since Pelagos was born. Each year of his
life has seen fewer foals born. They have tried, Ikarios says, every
potion, each healing technique, but nothing has worked.
Of course not, Hesiod thinks. All of the Kingdom knows what is
wrong. It is Xanthippe, a woman who stands in the place of a man. Let
Pelagos ascend to the throne and all will be well. He thrusts out his
jaw, but a small voice nags at him quietly. Pelagos? He tries to
ignore it. He’s just young. The crown will sober him up. He
seeks for more reassurance. It runs in his blood. He’s Polybos’
son, after all. But he does not believe this. He wishes he did. He
wishes he did not suspect that the Prince is really the problem. He
wishes the facts of Pelagos’ birth had been…He seeks for a word; had
"Xanthippe’s faith in me is an honour," Xena says to
Ikarios. Hesiod smiles, and makes no attempt to conceal it. She does not
sound honoured. In the tail of his eye, he sees Gabrielle wander up
closer. "But I’m afraid she’s wasting your time; there’s
probably nothing I can tell you." Your time, Xena. That’s what
you mean. Hesiod’s smile broadens.
"The Queen has insisted." Ikarios’ tone is just short of
surly. "Said you were a healer as well. The best that she’s
seen." As far as it can, his growl hints that he does not believe
Gabrielle is standing beside Hesiod now. She is watchful. One hand
swipes at her face, a sign, he suspects, of uneasiness. He wonders why.
Xena has herself well under control. Though now the Master of Horse has
caught her attention. It was elsewhere before, the Chronicler guesses,
but this is a challenge. The warrior’s pride has been roused. He knows
he is right when Gabrielle tenses. Though all Xena has done has been
quirk one black eyebrow, let a smile twitch her lips.
Then she asks, "You’ve been letting them graze, not just
feeding them in their stables?"
Ikarios makes a sound Hesiod will record as "harrumphing".
Then he says, "Of course. Our pastures are famous throughout the
known world. Why wouldn’t we let the horses graze openly?"
"And you’ve checked what’s been growing out there? No herbs
or plants you haven’t seen before?" Xena smiles again, sweetly.
"Every year, the peasants give three days to check the pastures,
and uproot everything which shouldn’t be there. Only then do we let
the stock out." Ikarios’ temper is rising.
Xena nods approvingly. "But suppose the pasture is sick?"
"We drench the stock regularly, and examine their droppings.
There’s nothing wrong there." He almost spits the words out.
"Perhaps you let them eat too well?" Xena sounds casual,
not really much interested.
"My horses are not fat!" Ikarios is just short of anger.
"And what about their – equipment?" As Ikarios simmers,
Xena grows calmer.
Ikarios restrains himself with great effort. "We wash them
before every breeding, naturally. And check them constantly."
Xena nods again. "Suppose you let me see these wonderful
Hesiod glances at Gabrielle. He can see that she is amused, not
anxious. Something has reassured her. Just that Ikarios is still alive
and standing? She glances up and grins at him. "A draw, I
think," he says to her, and her grin widens.
"You think so?" she replies.
Together they watch as Ikarios’ hands ball into fists, then
abruptly relax. "Very well," the Master of Horse says, and
spins on his heels. He raises a hand, palm flat, fingers stiff, swipes
it down. One by one the stable doors are flung open. One by one, the
Royal Bloodstock, each beast with its groom, steps out into the
courtyard. Sparks fly from the flagstones, their hooves beat their own
drum roll. Hesiod hears Gabrielle’s gasp. He is not surprised. Not one
horse in this stud can be faulted. These steeds are perfect, and their
beauty stabs to the heart. In the mid morning sunshine they glow as if
being made at this moment from hot, supple metal. Light ebbs and flows
like the sea as it blesses their hides.
"Oh wow," the bard breathes. Her face is wet with tears.
She clutches at the sleeve closest to her and holds on tight. His
sleeve; he can feel the warmth of her palm through the cloth, feel its
touch on his skin, Something lurches inside him. He feels as though he
has been punched, as though there is not a breath in his body.
Terrified, for this is emotion, and he has denied himself emotion for a
very long time, he drags his attention away, redirects it to the centre
of the square. Xena has not moved, but he thinks her colour is higher,
her breathing more swift.
"They look," the warrior says, "in good health."
She moves now, towards the first of the horses to her left. Ikarios
tenses, seems about to block her way, then stops himself. He watches as
Xena calms the horse with practised ease, stoops, examines its genitals
carefully, then rises and pats its flank before moving to the next and
then the next, working her way steadily along the line of horses,
spending longer on some, asking a groom a question sometimes. Horse
after horse submits to her touch, seems eager to please her, blows at
her ebony hair or rubs its long, bony face gently against her.
Ikarios is her shadow each step of the way. But something has changed
in his stance by the time she has finished. "Well," she says
to him now, "they’re in perfect health. Not a nick, not a graze.
I can’t see any sign of fever, nor of old injuries. You do your work
very well, Master of Horse."
Ikarios bows his head. "I see you know horseflesh, Xena of
Amphipolis. I thank you for your compliment." Hesiod, who has
rarely seen this man smile at another human being, and never at a woman,
is amazed to see him do so now. He is still more amazed when Ikarios
holds out an arm, warrior fashion, for Xena to take. She does so,
returning the smile.
"I think that’s a win for your side," Hesiod says. With
Gabrielle, he has followed behind them, stopping to chat with some of
the grooms now and then.
"Oh, I think we can call it a draw. She likes him too, you
know." The little bard is smiling, her eyes gently amused as she
watches her partner. Hesiod stares down at her, trying to think of
something to say. Then something catches her eye and she turns to look
at the groom standing beside them.
"Hi," Gabrielle says guilelessly. "Who are you?"
The groom is very young, just a boy. Perhaps this is what has
attracted her attention. Though when he looks closer, he sees the boy’s
face is flushed, and that he is crying. He wonders why Gabrielle is not
sparing him the embarrassment of being noticed. Surely that would be
better, to let him master his feeling and suppress it? It is what he
would do. Emotions are better repressed.
"They call me Thalassos," the boy says.
Hesiod vaguely remembers why. "Sea…sea…" he mumbles, to
himself, really. The details evade him. Is this a sign of something
sinister? Is my memory deserting me? He buries the fear with the
ease of long practice, and turns his attention back to the stable yard,
to the horse and the boy who tends it. To Gabrielle.
"Do you help look after all these horses, or just this
one?" She is not much taller than Thalassos, Hesiod sees.
"This is my horse," the boy replies. He has stopped crying.
His chest has puffed itself out a little and his hand is on the beast’s
Hesiod cannot tolerate such presumption. "You mean this belongs
to the Kingdom. That they all do. Don’t you?"
Thalassos’ eyes skitter to one side. He does not look at Hesiod.
"The horses belong to the Kingdom," he repeats. There is
mutiny in his voice, however, and this irritates Hesiod still further.
"Does the horse have a name?" Gabrielle breaks in. She
moves slightly, so that her back is towards Hesiod and she stands
between him and the boy. Hesiod understands that he is being rebuked,
and is surprised to find himself slightly abashed. He is also amused.
"I call him Pegasos." The boy lays a hand on the horse’s
neck. The animal is storm grey with a black mane and tail. He is perhaps
17 hands high, but looks huge beside the young bard and the boy.
"Can he fly then?" Gabrielle’s tone invites the boy to
smile with her. He does.
"When I take him out at night," he begins to confide. Then
he recalls that Gabrielle is not alone and falls silent, looking alarmed
as well as rebellious now.
"Oh, ignore me," Hesiod huffs, actually more and more
intrigued. He is also remembering more and more about the boy. An idea
is taking shape at the back of his mind, but he cannot quite grasp it.
And Gabrielle’s curiosity and interest remind him of the days when he
herded sheep in Boeotia and talked hungrily with everyone who passed by.
"When you take him out at night?" Gabrielle prompts.
"I ride him wherever I want at night. We go down to the sea. It’s
good for him to gallop through the surf. It strengthens his legs.
Ikarios says so." Thalassos’ voice betrays that he worships the
Master of Horse. Encouraged by Gabrielle’s silence, he goes on,
"We do it during the day too, when all the horses do. But at night,
you can’t see the land, or anything except the moon and the stars. And
it’s like flying." Thalassos looks older now, almost as mature as
the horse, which is fully grown.
Yes, Hesiod thinks. Unbidden, the image has come alive in his
mind. Black and silver. The night and the sea. The stars and their
reflections. Nothing at all in between. It must be like flying.
"That sounds wonderful." Gabrielle’s eyes are not
focussed on anything at this moment. Hesiod can guess why.
"So what does the Kingdom call him?" he asks the boy,
giving the younger bard a chance to enjoy the picture in her mind’s
"Nothing." Thalassos’ voice is surly again.
"Don’t you name your horses?" Gabrielle’s voice is
"Yes." Hesiod’s eyes narrow. Oh. Now I see.
"It’s a great honour," he says to the boy. "To be
given to the god." These horses are left for the Sea God to name.
Thalassos says nothing. His brows drop and his lip pouts, however.
Now he looks young again, just a petulant child.
"Hey, remember me? The visitor who doesn’t know what…"
Gabrielle begins, looking from one to the other.
"Pegasos is the stallion which will be given to the god
tonight." Hesiod cuts her off before she can finish her question.
He anticipates her again. "We give our finest stallion to
Poseidon once every seven years, just as you said in your story last
night. The King takes the horse down to the sea-shore and tethers it
there. In the morning, the horse is always gone. No tracks, of any kind.
Just the tether lying on the sand.
"Believe me," he insists, interrupting her objection before
she can voice it. "I’ve seen it myself. It happens."
"I’m very sorry, Thalassos." Gabrielle has turned back to
the boy. She rests a hand on his shoulder. "I can see why you’re
so upset." She looks upset herself.
"I won’t let it happen," the boy confides to her, his
voice low and intense. "Pegasos is mine. I know it."
Gabrielle sighs. "Sometimes, Thalassos, you have to let things
happen. And afterwards you see why, and understand that that’s just
how it has to be."
"You’re just like the rest of them." Thalassos sounds
disgusted. He scowls more deeply, but he doesn’t pull away. "I
know Pegasos is mine, don’t you understand?"
"Wait and see, Thalassos. Okay?" Gabrielle looks steadily
at the boy. He is dark haired and fine featured. She rubs his arm with
one hand. "Remember. A good swimmer uses the currents, he doesn’t
"I can’t swim," the boy says sulkily. But he doesn’t
pull himself away. Nor can he stop himself returning her smile.
"Okay," he concedes.
The horse swings his head slightly and nudges his boy. Thalassos
grins and punches its neck lightly. Then he excuses himself.
"Sorry, Pegasos is hungry. He wants me to see to him now." He
reaches up, takes the beast’s halter and leads him away.
Gabrielle sighs again. "Oh, Hades," she says. "I’m
glad I’m not young any more". She runs a hand through her hair.
"Okay," and now she is looking at Hesiod. "What’s
Hesiod can’t stop himself smiling. Oh yes, she’s a bard. "He
was found. Two days after the last time we gave a horse to the sea. He
was swept up on the beach, a child of about two, wrapped in rags, lashed
to a plank. He’s lucky we didn’t call him Flotsam."
"Oh my. The poor boy." Gabrielle has swung round to see
where the horse and the boy have got to, but now she turns once again.
"Xena," she says, and Hesiod becomes aware of a large, cool
presence behind him.
The warrior says, "I’ve done here. Let’s go down to the
"You? You want to go for a stroll on the beach?" Gabrielle’s
eyebrows have risen in mock amazement.
"I want to get out of this place." Xena’s tone is both
grim and impatient. Gabrielle sobers at once. The slightly distracted,
slightly anxious air which Hesiod remembers from earlier has returned.
"Then we’ll go down to the sea." Gabrielle has found a
jaunty tone somewhere. "At once." She waggles her eyebrows, a
manoeuvre intended to amuse the warrior, Hesiod deduces. And indeed Xena’s
face does soften, a little.
Hesiod watches the two women leave the stable yard. What makes
them friends? He cannot imagine two people more different than the
warrior and the bard. What’s their story?
When he can see Gabrielle no longer, he goes back into the palace.
There is a great deal to be done before this evening’s ceremony.
Xena looks out at the sea. It is a little cooler here, thank the
gods. They have been walking along the beach for quite a long time now.
The tide is on the ebb; they are following the surf as it inches farther
and farther away from the land, their feet leaving two trails of neat
boot prints behind them in the wet, black sand as they go. Gabrielle has
not said a word. Other than the soft sough of the sea and the occasional
cry of a gull, they walk in silence. Xena sneaks a glance at her friend.
The bard is looking out at the sea. She is holding a shell in her hand,
a long, narrow one, with sharp edges. She is turning it over again and
again. Say something. Xena wonders what is going on behind those
familiar, thoughtful features. Say anything.
"It’s the oracle." She has broken the silence herself.
Gabrielle is the only person who can make her do this. Now, to make
matters worse, she cannot think how to go on, and curses her own
"Yeah. Everyone is being very careful not to talk about it. What
was it about?" Gabrielle’s tone is neutral. Very unlike her usual
one. Xena sneaks another look. The smaller woman is still looking at the
"Um. The Kingdom. That’s what Xanthippe says."
Gabrielle looks at her. She raises an eyebrow in a way which Xena
recognises, but at the moment cannot tease her about. Why not? What’s
wrong with me?
"Twenty years ago. That’s when it was made."
"Before you first met." Gabrielle has switched her gaze
back to the sea. Her fingers continue to play with the long,
"Shortly before. When Xanthippe got married. They ask for an
oracle as part of the service. This one was a knock-out. It said that
the Kingdom would be reclaimed by the sea." Xena stoops suddenly
and picks up another shell, a small, fan shaped one, almost white in
colour. "Here," she adds, and takes the other from Gabrielle’s
hand before the bard can respond. "What about this one?" Safer.
Why not say it? But the concern she has been feeling lest Gabrielle
cut herself has triggered that suffocating sensation again, the sense
that she is being crushed by something she cannot control and does not
Oh, Hades! Xena rolls her shoulders, gathers her strength, hurls
the shell out after the retreating sea. A passing puff of wind diverts
it, and tosses it to the ground not far away. The feeling strengthens.
Gabrielle is studying her face. Xena makes herself return the bard’s
gentle gaze. What is she thinking? Her partner’s eyes really
are like the sea; thoughts and feelings move through them constantly.
Sometimes she can read them like a scroll. Today she cannot read them at
all. There’s an unusual distance, a caution, a reserve. It extends to
Gabrielle’s gestures. No quick pats of reassurance on her arm, no
physical contact at all. Xena knows it’s her own fault. She’s
pushing the bard away from her, hurting them both, but she can’t help
it. She doesn’t know why she does it. She hopes she will stop.
Gabrielle says, "It could mean some sort of storm. A really big
"There’s always that chance." Xena is having to work hard
to keep her tone even. She battles with contradictory impulses. She
hates feeling this way. She takes a deeper breath, imposing some order
inside. This won’t do. "But they’re used to storms, and
they’ve always survived them.
"Eighteen years ago," she continues, "they thought it
"You?" Gabrielle has come to a halt. She crouches down and
studies a pattern which stretches to either side of them. It’s made
from what look like small cones formed from coils of wet sand.
"It’s a little wormy-type creature which lives under the sand
and waits for the tide to come back," Xena tells her, distractedly.
Then she answers the question. "Well, I came from the sea, with my
raiders, ready to take whatever I could." Gabrielle nods her head
thoughtfully. Xena is not sure which statement she is acknowledging.
Perhaps both of them. "Fishermen use them for bait," she adds
helpfully. "Lug worms," she finishes.
As she does so, she remembers who told her this first. Gabrielle,
long ago, the first time she took the bard down to the sea. How young
she was then, and how filled with wonder by all that she saw. How she
pestered that pretty-faced boy that they met for all that he knew. How
closely she watched the young bard, surprised by all that she felt as
she did so. Amusement, affection, then, out of the blue, a jolt of pure
jealousy. Which withered away when the girl turned from the boy and came
back to her, eager to share what she’d learned. This hasn’t changed,
this joy of discovery. She still loves her partner’s delight. Oh,
Gabrielle. Don’t ever stop wanting to know.
Gabrielle gives a splutter of laughter. "Don’t try so hard,
Xena. It’ll come right." She strands and says firmly, "Now
tell me. Just say it. What does Xanthippe want?"
Xena sucks in a breath. There’s so much she must say to answer this
question. Some of it, she is sure, the bard has already guessed. She did
herself. But what Xanthippe told her this morning has shocked even her,
and she has sworn to tell no one. Skirting this thing, though it’s the
key to it all, Xena says, "She thinks this is the oracle’s time
to come true. That it will happen tonight. She wants me to stop
"Yes?" Gabrielle waits for a beat. "Why tonight?"
she asks helpfully.
"It’s all come together. The time to give Poseidon his gift,
Pelagos will coming of age and taking the throne. And the curse. It’s
complete now. It’s taken years to get to this point. All the herd is
affected. Not one stallion is fertile, and nor are the mares."
"Xanthippe thinks that’s no coincidence?" Gabrielle is
watching her face, discovering, Xena is sure, as much there as she
learns from the warrior’s spoken words.
Xena nods. "Xanthippe thinks Poseidon will not take the
stallion, that he will take the Kingdom back instead."
The bard nods too, showing no surprise. When the silence extends
itself once again, Gabrielle adds, "Why this curse? Why does she
think the horses are barren?" Her gaze has not wavered. Xena allows
herself to return it a little longer, lets it steady her.
"Xanthippe thinks, and her advisers think so too, that this is a
sign of Poseidon’s displeasure."
"So the real question is, why is Poseidon displeased."
Gabrielle’s tone is thoughtful. "Does the Queen have any
Xena wishes she could lie and say no, but she can’t. Not to the
bard. How much can I tell her? She begins to walk along the beach
again, paralleling the surf, her head down. No words spring to her mind.
Gabrielle keeps pace beside her. She too says nothing.
Xena remembers Xanthippe. How beautiful she was, when they first met.
It was after the battle. She was still high on the killing she’d done.
Her guards, knowing her mood, were keeping their distance. Her soldiers
were looting the town. The Queen’s army was broken, its remnants
besieged in the palace. Xanthippe had spent most of the day tending her
husband, stitching his wounds. In spite of all that she strode into the
tent like a victor, trailing dazed sentries. She wore dark blue and
silver, and Polybos’ blood on her hands. It had dried in dark clots,
but her sapphires were larger. Did she know? Xena asks herself. How
that smell aroused me as no perfume could?
"She was remarkable, back then," Xena begins. Her voice is
quiet. Gabrielle moves a little closer so she can hear, accepting the
change of subject. "I had won the battle. It was just a matter of
time before I won the war, I knew that. I was impatient as well, so it
wouldn’t have been much time. I was going to knock on her palace gates
and demand she surrender. Instead she came to me. All on her own, not
even a slave. I think," Xena’s eyes slide sideways, and she
steals a look at Gabrielle’s profile, "I fell in love with her
then. As much as I could in those days. She was a powerful thing. I
loved powerful things. Well, I loved power."
When Gabrielle does not ask her anything, does not react in any way,
just keeps on walking close by her side, their arms almost touching, she
goes on. "I meant to take her as well as the Kingdom, I suppose. It
seemed the obvious thing for a victorious conqueror to do. I could see
she was trying to distract me, to seduce me, and that was a challenge as
well. I looked forward to turning the tables. But then all of a sudden,
she changed her mind. She presented me with a different proposition.
With a bargain. She promised that she would supply me with all the
horses I wanted, and ships to transport them, and that no one else would
"But Xena, you could have just taken them." Gabrielle
sounds puzzled, nothing more.
"I was young and impatient, remember? So I was going to seize
everything of value in the Kingdom and sell it. That was my grand plan.
Then I’d use the money to raise an army. I hadn’t even thought of
the horses. I’d probably have driven them off. Or killed them.
Transporting them would have been too much trouble." Xena shakes
her head slightly, curling her lip. She can’t believe what a fool she
was then. "What Xanthippe showed me was a way to make a better, an
invincible army. She was promising me an advantage. With it, my forces
would be the most powerful in Greece."
"You’ve seen them, how tall they are. Think of the horses we
breed in Greece, Gabrielle. What are they like?"
"Pretty small and scrawny, I suppose. Even the best of them,
compared with these."
"Yes. Greece is too dry and rocky. We’re better at goats than
horses. All our best ones are imported, like Argo. But look around you,
Gabrielle." Xena stops, turns landwards. "Lush prairie. And
those bushes with orange berries? See them, on those dunes? Sea
buckthorn. It grows wild here, and the oil works wonders on
"A perfect place to raise horses," Gabrielle says softly.
Xena recognises a line from her story. She nods in response.
By mutual agreement, the two women turn their backs on the sea. They
begin to walk in the direction of the dunes. These are a surprisingly
long distance away. At low tide, this beach stretches out into the bay
for miles. Xena continues. "These horses are stronger and swifter
than anything your average Greek warlord can put in the field. Mount a
wing or two of cavalry on them, and you’ve got a weapon which can turn
any battle in your favour."
"And that’s what Xanthippe offered you?"
"That among other things." Xena fixes her eyes on the crest
of the dunes. The bard will know what she means. "In the end, I
spent almost a month there. Choosing horses. Training my men. Building
the core of my army." Learning from her, she continues
silently. Learning how to rule, how to use my body to get what I
wanted, how to hide who I was behind the mask of my own face. She
glances at Gabrielle. I’ve taught you that too, she thinks with
regret, then makes herself go on. "I left about the time that
Polybos got well enough to leave his bed for a few minutes." She
flushes with unexpected shame. "I was already impatient . Tired of
her and wanting to be gone."
Gabrielle still says nothing for a time. Then she tilts her head a
little and smiles as she says, "Xanthippe must be wondering what
has happened to you, Xena."
Xena shrugs. Inside, however, something unknots itself in relief. Thank
you, Gabrielle. She always seems to be thinking this, even if she
rarely says it.
They walk on. Gabrielle prompts, after a while, "And the curse?
What’s got Poseidon so angry?"
Xena sighs. No way will Gabrielle let this subject drop. She
will just have to be careful. "I wounded Polybos pretty low in the
groin. Xanthippe told me that today. There was no way he could father a
child. Not in the normal run of things."
"But Pelagos is only sixteen…" Gabrielle’s voice tails
off. "Oh," she says. She thinks some more. "No, that can’t
be right," she says again, "Isn’t Pelagos the spitting image
"So Xanthippe says."
"Does that mean he isn’t her child? Xanthippe blames you
because the heir to the Kingdom isn’t her son? Is that it?"
"Not really. Well, in a way. My wounding Polybos is the cause of
it all. She’s right about that." Xena searches for words, picks
each one carefully. "The main thing is that she’s the descendant
of Hippios. Polybos was only her consort. The heir has to be her
"And there’s no question that Xanthippe is Pelagos’
mother?" Gabrielle sounds doubtful.
"It was the birth of the heir, Gabrielle. It was
witnessed." The bard says nothing. Xena sighs, tells half a lie,
though she hates herself for it. "And I believe her. If she says he’s
her son, he’s her son."
The two women stop. Standing midway on a beach as big as desert but
crossed here and there by splayed fans of water, they exchange a long
"Well, there are ways, I suppose," Gabrielle says finally.
"She’s a strong minded woman. I doubt she’d let anything stand
in her way." She thinks for some moments, her thumb absently
rubbing her jaw. Then she continues, "Poseidon’s angry about the
way Pelagos was born? Is that why he’s cursed them?" Gabrielle is
frowning as she turns the problem this way and that.
"Perhaps," Xena says again. "But there’s more.
Something to do with Pelagos himself. Something to do with his
nature." Xena stops. She is afraid of saying too much, of Gabrielle
guessing. She may already have gone too far.
"So? Pelagos is her son and the heir, however she worked
it." Gabrielle’s tone has sharpened. "It’s her problem.
Nothing to do with you."
"I started it all," Xena reminds her. She would smile if
she could. The bard is always looking out for her. And this seems also
to have distracted her partner. Feeling guilty, Xena encourages
the trend. "She loved Polybos. She wanted his son. I made
that, well, difficult."
"So?" Gabrielle says again. The tone of her voice is cold
and her frown has deepened.
"So, I owe her." Xena tries to say more, but feels the
words clog in her throat. This? I owe her this? The thought of
what Xanthippe actually wants her to do still appals her.
"She’s asking you to do what, Xena? What don’t you want to
tell me?" Xena can tell Gabrielle is working hard to sound calm as
she asks this.
"She wants me there tonight." It’s an evasion, but as
much as she dares say.
"She wants you to face down Poseidon?" Gabrielle has jumped
to a conclusion. The wrong one, Xena fervently hopes. The bard’s voice
is incredulous, angry. That quick temper of hers has been thoroughly
roused. Xena expected it would, but by what she did in the past. By what
lay between her and Xanthippe. Not by this. I’ll never understand
"No way, Xena. It’s her mess. Let her deal with it,"
"I can’t." Xena spreads her hands. "I am involved. I
did something and this is one of its consequences. Like I told you, I
"This is a matter of honour, then? Warrior’s honour?"
Gabrielle watches her narrowly.
"Yes. It is. And no, she’s not asking me to face down
Poseidon. It won’t come to that. If she’s right, Poseidon will be
satisfied by what we do tonight."
Xena hopes this is true. But you know that it’s not. She
starts walking again. I don’t want to do this, she thinks. I
can feel that it’s wrong. She picks up her pace. Xanthippe’s
voice rings in her ears, logical, calm, saying what she must do and why
she must do it. That she started this thing, and merely must finish the
job. An impossible task, described in the cold light of dawn.
Now she is walking so fast that it is almost a run. The bard has to
jog to keep up. What will Gabrielle think of this thing I must do? Xena
despairs at the answer. She’ll hate it. She looks at her
partner. Gabrielle is panting and her face is covered with sweat, but
her expression is dogged. Feeling ashamed, Xena slows down.
"Okay. Okay," Gabrielle says when she has recovered her
breath. "But not without me. You got that?"
I got it. Xena smiles to herself, sadly. She does not reply.
"Xena." Gabrielle’s voice is insistent. She grasps her
partner’s arm firmly and brings her to a stop. "You have to trust
me. I know who you were. I know who you are. Nothing I’ve found out,
or seen, or been told, has changed the way I feel about you. Nothing
will. So stop looking as though the world is about to come to an end.
The bard shakes her head and starts off once again. This time Xena
has to jog to catch up. They come to the edge of the beach. The dunes
loom over their heads, mounds of grey sand which are crested with brush.
Marram grass grows there in clumps, and gleams in the sun. The friends
pick up a track which leads over the dunes and into the palace. Just
before they start the short but steep climb, Xena sees Gabrielle tuck
something carefully into her belt. She knows it’s the shell.
As they get higher, the walls of the Palace and stables, of the town
which clusters around them, rise up before them. They pause at the top
and turn to look out to the sea once again. The water is now a long way
away. Much of the sand in between is still damp. Slick and gleaming, it
catches a tint from the sky, flushes lilac. The slice of sea closest to
land shines like a bar of bright silver. Farther out it is dull, more
like lead. While they were walking, clouds have gathered out there. Now
these have piled high into the sky. It has happened so quickly. Both
women shiver and press closer together. They can tell when a storm’s
in the offing.
Continue to Part
Return to Xena Archive
Return to Main Archive