|Disclaimer: the characters Xena and
Gabrielle belong to MCA Universal and Renaissance. There is a little
violence, of the sort often encountered in Greek mythology and Xena,
The Judgment of the Gods
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Gabrielle focused her eyes on the boulder opposite and waited grimly
for the ground under her feet to stop heaving. In time, it started to.
"Mother Earth," she thought with gratitude. "Dearest Gaia.
Stable, supportive, comforting, embracing, first and last resting
place." The little spurt of words began to form itself into
something more. "I should write an ode to the Earth," she
thought. A rhythm was insinuating itself into her thoughts, fluid and
sinuous. She responded to it, feeling herself dissolve into the moment.
A small smile began to curl her lips, part pure enjoyment, part wry
self-knowledge. "Everything alive moves and changes like the
sea," she acknowledged to herself. "I wish we were better
Confident, now, that she could move without stumbling, or without
losing what was left in her stomach, Gabrielle began to look around.
They were in a little cove, fringed with a shallow beach of fine, white
sand. The tide was coming in. Already it had washed away the marks left
by the small boat which had brought them ashore from the merchantman on
which they had sailed from the mainland. The cove would have been
pretty, but for the black cliffs looming over it. In the morning, she
guessed, they must cast a deep shadow. Now, however, it was mid
afternoon, and the bay basked in warm sunlight. She looked out to sea,
and blinked at the brightness of the dazzling horizon. Gabrielle
stretched, relaxed. "All I need is a bath," she thought.
"And something to eat."
As she thought this, she realised that for some time she had been
smelling freshly grilled fish. Her mouth watered. "How does she do
it?" she remarked to herself appreciatively. The small smile still
tugging her lips widened and she looked over towards her companion.
"That smells really good," she called. The other woman looked
towards her and their eyes met briefly. Gabrielleís face lit up
briefly with a delighted grin. Then she remembered, and her mood sobered
Xena had settled herself with her back against the sun-warmed rock of
the cliffs. Her gaze was outwards. It might have been on the flames of
her small, driftwood fire, on the fish grilling over it, on the horizon,
or perhaps on the bard. Gabrielle couldnít tell. She hadnít been
able to since all this had started. She half-raised a hand to wave, then
thought better of it, and started back towards the impassive warrior.
Her boots sank at every step, the sand slowing her down, making the
muscles in her legs strain to keep up a decent pace. She did not want to
look completely incompetent in front of Xena, even though, now she had
started moving, she realised just how tired she was. Sleepless nights
and wretched days at sea did that to her. Twin lines appeared between
her eyebrows as her mobile face reflected her determination, spurred on
by the slight darkening she detected in the warriorís countenance.
Xena sighed almost imperceptibly as her eyes tracked Gabrielleís
progress. When the bard was a few paces away, she shifted her position
and reached out to grasp one of the fish by the spit on which it had
cooked, turning it to check that it was properly done. By this time,
Gabrielle was settling on the blanket which Xena had spread for them
both. "Here," Xena said, handing her the fish. She waited
while the bard picked her way tidily through its flesh, then passed her
another, her eyes warming briefly as she did so. Then she ducked her
head, avoiding Gabrielleís quick glance of thanks, and began her own
"That was good," the bard said after her fourth fish,
licking her fingers clean. Now she felt full, she also felt brave enough
to try once more to breach the silence. It was worse than ever here.
Even the birds had fallen silent. Come to think of it, she hadnít seen
a single gull. She cast around for a neutral opening gambit, and finally
settled for, "What are they?"
"The islanders call them Gold Fins," Xena replied
impassively. Gabrielleís brows rose inquiringly. "They seem to
thrive here, and no where else. Perhaps itís because the water in this
area is always a little warmer than anywhere else." Gabrielleís
look turned even more inquisitive, but Xena volunteered no further
information. Gabrielle deduced that she had no idea why this should be
"Anyway, theyíre great. Thanks!" The bard was aware that
she was sounding too enthusiastic, aware too that she had just
suppressed a further question. She was doing that all the time, now. It
made her feel truly uncomfortable. Silence was not her natural medium.
The fish suddenly sat heavily on her stomach as she contemplated these
facts. It had taken just two weeks to return their relationship to the
awkwardness of its earliest stages. Two weeks, together with the warriorís
total refusal to discuss her reasons for coming to this island.
"Returning to this island," Gabrielle amended in her head. For
it was obvious that Xena had been there before.
She wondered if she could risk another question in that area.
"Why not? Things could hardly be worse," she said to herself.
She looked out to sea for a minute, turning words over in her head.
Nothing sounded very promising, so in the end she simply turned and
asked, "When were you here last?"
"A few years ago." Xena meet her gaze levelly, then stood
up and kicked sand over the fire. Gabrielle sighed, trying to decide
whether she was more irritated than baffled. No, she decided. Mostly she
was worried. If she had one settled belief, it was that things were best
out in the open. Bottling them up did nothing but harm. Nasty things
grew in the dark, she knew this instinctively. Things like guilt,
remorse and self-contempt. "Um," she said, standing up herself
and staring miserably at the warrior. The trouble was, reticence seemed
to be catching. She was afraid to push any further.
Now Xena spoke. "The tide will soon be in, and I want to be
under shelter by nightfall. Itís time to move on."
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle commented to herself. "Shelter.
As if you need shelter. This is a warm season in a warm climate, my
friend. You arenít thinking about protection from the elements. Youíre
thinking about staying out of sight. And thatís why you took passage
in a smugglerís ship, or at least someone eager to avoid paying
harbour dues and import duties. Someone who wouldnít ask questions if
you wanted to sneak ashore in an isolated cove. Why wonít you tell me
whatís going on, huh?"
In her heart, Gabrielle feared she knew part of the answer. Xenaís
silences were connected with her dark moods, and her dark moods
connected with remembrances of her past. Remembrances like the shabby,
eye-patched mercenary they had encountered in a bar in Piraeus.
Privately, Gabrielle cursed the mischance which had taken them there.
"Why didnít I chose the Inn just along the street?" she
But she hadnít, and the mercenary had bolted the moment he spotted
Xena, with the warrior in hot pursuit. By the time she had caught up,
the warrior was standing staring silently seawards, her features already
locked into the mask which still immobilised them. There had been a
bleakness in her expression which was so profound that Gabrielle had
wanted to wrap her arms around her, and never let her go. She still
wanted to, but the stiffness also apparent in the warriorís posture
warded her off.
The man had been curled into a foetal position at her feet, moaning
softly to himself, his face so drained of colour that the dirt on it
stood out in charcoal streaks. The neck pinch, Gabrielle had diagnosed,
released only at the very last instant. As she realised this, she had
felt the first stirring of a fear which now overshadowed her every
waking moment. It had made her stick as close to Xena as resin to a
tree, determined to coax the truth out of her, determined to help in
whatever way she could, and constantly worried that the warrior would
grow tired and leave her behind.
So far, she hadnít. A circumstance which Gabrielle found as
unaccountable as all the rest. Oh, she had tried, in Piraeus at first.
"Why donít you go on into Athens," she had said, not meeting
Gabrielleís eyes. "You could visit Homer. You could shop. Iíll
meet you there. You know you hate the sea."
"Oh no," Gabrielle had said, thinking fast. The words had
been so toneless, so indifferently uttered. It had almost been as if
Xena had been speaking them only for show. There was none of the
impatience and snap of command she remembered from her first months with
the warrior. "Iím not being left behind anymore. Weíve talked
about that: where you go, I go." She had planted her feet on the
ground and her hands round her staff and done her best to look as
implacable and determined as the warrior. When that hadnít earned her
a laugh she had worried still more, but at least there was no renewal of
the proposal that Xena travel alone, or none for a time. For three days
Xena had paced their room in the inn, honed her sword, polished her
armour, drilled relentlessly, almost ignored the bard. Then she
discovered that a ship was finally departing in the direction she
wanted, and Xena re-opened the discussion. But her arguments had lacked
conviction, and Gabrielleís sorely tried determination had carried the
While Xena finished folding and packing the cloak, Gabrielle took one
last look around the cove. She caught sight of her boulder. It was a
little like a herm, she thought. Which was appropriate, since they were
certainly crossing boundaries of all kinds here. "Just so long as
we donít end up in the Underworld. Again," she said to herself,
trying for a cheerful note. She failed, and had to suppress a shudder.
"I just never know when the stop talking," she commented,
"even to myself."
"Over there," Xena was saying. She strode off straight
away, heading westwards along the base of the cliffs. Then she stopped,
seemed to check her bearings, and turned abruptly to her right,
beginning to climb at once. Gabrielle could just make out a faint
pathway, zigzagging its way up between jagged flakes of rock. She
swallowed. "I hate heights," she thought, looking upwards.
Then she took a deep breath, another one, gripped her staff and pushed
off up the path. "No looking down, Gabrielle," she thought to
herself. "You want to get there in one piece!"
Fifteen minutes of climbing? More? Gabrielle had lost count. Just
gaining height had taxed her to the limit of her strength. The portions
of the trail where she had had to scramble and even scrabble for foot
and hand holds had nearly finished her. If Xena had not paused at these
sections, helped her over them, she would never have made it. For the
past few feet she had kept going only because she had focused her
attention on Xena, was timing her steps to Xenaís steps, keeping the
rhythm with nonsense words which she recited in her head. Her eyes
ached, her face ached, her chest felt as though it was on fire, she
could feel the sourness of nausea in her mouth, her flesh was slick with
sweat. But Xena was keeping on, so she kept on. She did so until they
reached the top. Xena, of course, she thought wryly, would hardly be
She collapsed on to short springy grass which felt as soft as
thistle-down against her over-heated skin. Up here, she could feel the
gentle whisper of a breeze against her face. Gabrielle concentrated on
steadying her breathing, calming her heart, focusing her eyes. In time,
she could see beyond the dim tunnel of exhaustion and pay some attention
to her surroundings. She was alone. She felt her heart beat pick up in
panic. Xena had got tired of her, had gone on, was committed to some
dark path without her to pull her back from it. She looked around,
desperately. But there she was, jogging up the slope which fell gently
away from the clifftop and led inland, carrying a water skin in her
hand. When she saw Gabrielleís gaze on her she raised her other hand
in greeting. Gabrielle coaxed one hand up and tiredly returned the wave.
Then she looked further, and got her first clear impressions of the
island. It took her breath away once more. "Xena," she
whispered to the warrior, who was now beside her. "Itís so
beautiful!" It was all slopes, some gentle, most steep. Every inch
was terraced, was green with groves of olive, or fig trees or with
vines. Some of the carefully tended levels were grassed over. Goats,
sheep or cattle grazed on them. Here and there tall trees grew,
cypresses and cedars, mostly, shading cottages plastered in pastel
shades, pink and blue and green. In the clear evening light the pattern
the terraces made looked as though it had been worked by a master
jeweller, a filigree constructed to bind a rich assortment of
semi-precious stones. Enamelled by the glowing light of evening, the
island shone emerald and purple and gold. A mountain towered above it
all, as perfectly proportioned as any Gabrielle had seen. Uniquely, in
her experience, its summit was graced with a plume of white smoke.
"Where are we?" she breathed.
"Santorini," Xena replied. And offered her the water skin.
The island was beautiful, some small part of Xenaís mind agreed, as
she watched the colour come back into Gabrielleís pale face. It was a
relief to see that face radiating delight again. Gabrielle had become so
wary over the past days, uncharacteristically cautious and restrained.
Xena knew it was her own fault. She blamed herself for it, and blamed
herself also for bringing Gabrielle along with her. The exhausting
ordeal she had just put the bard through was only the beginning, she
knew. She wished she could send her away, keep her safe, but she had
tried to do so, back in Piraeus, and failed. Gabrielle would not be
left, and some part of Xena would not let her leave the bard behind.
Doing that would be to abandon herself entirely to the rage which had
governed her actions since she had run down Antinous in that narrow
alley, and listened to what he had, so reluctantly, to tell her.
That anger stirred again, now that Gabrielle looked somewhat
recovered, and Xena pulled back again, asking her curtly,
"Better?" The bard nodded, her gaze clear, green and without
accusation. "Tell her," a voice said in Xenaís heart.
"Gabrielle," she began, then found her tongue paralysed yet
again. "Go on. Donít let her just find out." But the words
would not come. "Letís get going," was all she could say.
She reached out to help the bard to her feet, releasing her grasp as
soon as Gabrielle was upright and striding off down the path which
followed a rocky spine leading away from the coast and towards the
centre of the island. Almost all her energies now were focused on the
task ahead. Just a small thread of attention wound itself backwards and
listened for the sound of Gabrielleís footsteps. When she detected
them, just for a moment Xenaís heart nearly broke with gratitude.
"Still there," she thought. "Still there."
Not long after that, the ground before her feet apparently began to
simmer with vibrations which at first merely agitated the smallest
pebbles, but soon began to slide and shake much bigger ones. She could
hear a distant rumble, which grew deeper and louder.
"Gabrielle!" she shouted, meaning to run back to the bard. But
then the ground was bucking and heaving, throwing boulders about so that
they rained around her, bouncing back viciously off the ground in every
direction. The sound had swollen, seemed to have become trapped in some
vast metallic drum. She could barely keep her footing, and had to fight
to stay upright at all. Abruptly, it stopped. "Gabrielle!" she
yelled again, turning round in panic. Where was the girl? Couldnít she
keep up? "With you?" that small part of her consciousness
which still evaded the darkness asked. "When youíre this
angry?" She blanched with shame, and flung herself back along the
path, looking desperately for Gabrielle.
She almost missed her. The force of the earthquake had thrown the
bard off the path, and she lay sprawled face down some way below her,
still clutching her staff. Xena hurtled downhill, sliding to a stop by
her side. She knelt, and had to clasp her hands to stop their shaking.
"Gabrielle," she asked, keeping her voice soft and calm with
an enormous effort. "Gabrielle?" Xena reached out a hand and
gently swept back the reddish gold hair, slipping her fingers down to
find the pulse point in her neck. She felt it, fast and light. Then she
leaned forward to study her companionís face. A smear of blood snaked
down from her nose, but she could see no other injury.
Xena ran both hands carefully along Gabrielleís limbs, then her
sides, and finding nothing amiss judged it safe to turn the bard over,
lifting her at the same time so that she was supporting her in her arms.
"Gabrielle," she said a third time, hearing a note of pleading
in her voice. The bardís eyelids fluttered and she whispered weakly,
"Xena?" in response.
"Open your eyes, Gabrielle," the warrior ordered. Gabrielle
did so, and Xena stared into them, trying to see whether her pupils were
dilated or not. It was too dark. The day was nearly over, she realised.
Instead she held a clenched fist in front of Gabrielleís face.
"How many fingers?" she asked her.
"Three?" Gabrielleís was a little stronger, but shriller
too. Xena could feel the fear stringing her friendís body into a
painful tension. She rocked her towards her shoulder and began to gently
probe the back of Gabrielleís head, finding two large lumps, one of
which was bleeding slightly.
"Relax. Youíre all right, Iíve got you. That was just a
little earth quake. Itís over now. Letís find us a cave for the
night." Xena kept talking as she reached out, secured the staff,
dismantled it and stowed it safely in her pack. Then she stood up,
carrying Gabrielle with her.
"No, put me down. I can walk. You donít have to carry
me," Gabrielle protested, but her voice was very weak.
Xena scowled worriedly down at her. "No, you canít. Save your
strength for staying awake, Gabrielle," she commanded. She looked
around, searching her extensive memory for details of this part of the
island. The colour was fading fast from the land, and shadows were
pooling beneath every crag and spilling out of every niche and crack and
opening. Yes, there was a cave, just a little way in that direction.
Hitching Gabrielle higher in her arms, she began to climb towards it.
"Stay with me, now," she told her. "Donít fall
"Iíll try not to." Gabrielleís voice was muzzy.
"Make sure you donít, or you wonít hear about the first time
I came to the island." Xena tried to keep her voice light and even.
"It was three years after Cortese. Iíd been raiding round the
coast of Crete and was heading back for the Peleponnese. We just sailed
up to Santoriniís harbour and there they were. The Princeís
spokesman and the townís headman, bobbing about in little boats,
thrusting flowers and sweetmeats and trinkets at me, begging me to take
the tribute theyíd brought with them and leave the island alone. So I
did, after Iíd sent my men ashore to double the take." Rabbits,
Xena had thought at the time, and when she had learned later that the
islanders had replaced their prince sheíd even felt glad for them.
Until she learned their new Princeís name.
They were near the cave now, and it was almost full dark. She could
tell by the clench of Gabrielleís hand on her shoulder that the bard
was still conscious, just. Now she wanted her under cover, wrapped up
before a warm fire against the chill of shock. She ducked inside the
caveís entrance, and laid Gabrielle briefly down so that she could
spread the cloak. She settled her friend down on her side so that she
would not hurt her head. Then she lit a fire, of olive branches this
time, and set about preparing an infusion of herbs for the bard.
Gabrielle was very nearly unconscious by the time it was ready, and Xena
had to shake her back into fuller wakefulness, anxiety making her
rougher than she wanted to be. "Sorry," she said more gently,
pushing the bardís hair from her forehead and smiling at her for a
moment. Then she lifted her up again and coaxed her to drink the
Gabrielle was aware enough to make a face at the taste and murmur,
"I guess it must be very good for me," stressing the word
very, and raising another small smile on Xenaís face. She settled the
bard down once more, lapping the edges of the cloak around her. Then the
warrior finished arranging their camp, ate a little dried meat and a few
dates, piled some more wood in easy reach, finally sat down close beside
Gabrielle. It would be a long night.
The fire crackled quietly to itself as she watched the, bard who was
watching the fire through almost closed eyes. "Itís a different
colour," the younger woman murmured drowsily. The other fire had
been full of little flares of white and green and blue. She had thought
it very beautiful.
"The salt, I think," Xena answered, her hand rubbing the
bardís back gently. "That wood had been in the sea,
"Yeah. The sea." Gabrielle paused and fell silent,
remembering confusedly her thoughts earlier that day. So the earth had
storms, was fluid too?
Xena waited for her to go on. When she didnít, the warrior grew
afraid that she had fallen asleep, and bent closer over her. Firelight
reflected off her pallid skin, lending it a little warm colour, and
showing up the droplets of moisture which clung to her brow. Her eyes
were open, if slightly unfocussed. She was gazing at the flames.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior said.
The bard drew a sudden, deep breath. "I was thinking, after we
landed, how much I preferred the land. Because it didnít move under my
feet." Her eyes opened a little wider and she looked up at Xena,
her lips crooking wryly. She gathered her strength and after a few
moments went on. "I guess thatíll teach me." The bard
studied Xenaís face a while, smiling faintly when one of the warriorís
eyebrows raised in inquiry. She made one more effort and explained,
"The first chance it got, it bucked me off like a horse, didnít
it?" Gabrielleís voice had faded by the time she said this. Xena
had to lower her ear close to the bardís mouth to hear her next words.
"I suppose we donít know as much about this world as we think
we do." Gabrielleís breath now was so weak it could not even stir
Xenaís hair .
"Stay awake, Gabrielle. You gotta stay awake a while
"Tired," she whispered. "Very tired." But she
fought valiantly to keep her eyes open a little longer.
"Gabrielle, Iím so sorry." Xena cupped her friendís
cheek in her hand. Her voice was husky with self disgust. It was strong
enough to register with the bard, who laboriously raised her own hand
towards the warriorís face.
"Hey. Iím still here," she said, her eyes closing
nevertheless. The effort had exhausted her.
Xena caught the hand before it could fall. She held it for a moment,
memorising its shape, its feel, then laid it gently down. Perhaps
Gabrielle had stayed awake long enough. Perhaps she had counteracted the
effects of shock in time. Perhaps. Perhaps. She suppressed an almost
overwhelming urge to hug the bard close and stared past the fire, out
into the night.
The words she had wanted to speak to Gabrielle marched through her
mind. "I should have told you. I suppose Iím afraid to. Afraid of
what youíll think. I hadnít thought of it for a long time. He used
me. He made me part of it. And I let him. I thought Ė I donít know
what I thought. That I was using him, I guess." Scenes from the
past played themselves out in front of her eyes. Sometimes she spoke,
sometimes she wept, just letting the tears drop, not bothering to dry
His name was Strates. She had met him not far from Thebes, where she
was resting her army after a seasonís hard campaigning and he was
visiting the Tyrant. He was a handsome man, and flatteringly impressed
by the warrior princess. He played court to her everywhere. Then he came
to her armyís encampment, to her tent and asked her for a favour. He
had a half brother, he told her. Thraxos. There had been bad blood
between them, but now he wanted to make up. And he wanted Xena to
persuade Thraxos to be reconciled. Heíd heard that Thraxos was a
friend of hers, he had said. Xena had slitted her eyes and smiled
inscrutably. He was right, up to a point. She knew Thraxos: he supplied
her with strings of fresh horses every spring for the past four years.
That made him as much a friend as anyone. Then she had raised an eyebrow
and allowed her expression to become sceptical.
Strates had grinned, boyishly open. As easy to read as a scroll she
had thought. "Well, yes," he had admitted, "youíre
right. Thereís more to it." His grin had become ingratiating.
"Itís the Tyrantís idea. Pylae being allied to Thebes and all.
He doesnít want Thraxos going to someone else to support his claim.
Corinth, Mycenae, whatever. He doesnít want to have to fight a war to
keep me on the throne." Xena was not surprised. It was more or less
what she had guessed; just part of the game of power she had learned to
play. Which, she believed, she had mastered.
So she had tossed a coin, noted which side came up, laughed and did
it anyway. She persuaded Thraxos to uproot his family, two small sons,
and go home to Pylae. Strates greeted him with wreaths and wine and a
grand banquet, to which Xena was invited. She remembered the occasion
vividly. Her memories of it seemed to glimmer, as if coated in a sheen
of fat, or sweat, or grease. Headily scented, waxy-petalled white
flowers had floated in bowls of water. Amber flames had danced in dishes
of aromatic oil. Rich materials had been draped everywhere, and glowed
in shades reminiscent of blood, of the sea just before nightfall, of
autumnal gardens, rank and dripping after rain.
She sat there through the preliminaries, smiling ripely to herself.
Outside, she knew, her army was gathering silently, ready to sweep down
when the feasters were flushed with wine and bloated with food. Xena
herself drank only sparingly, but the luscious fumes which hung about
the room and the insistent rhythms of the minstrels were intoxicating in
themselves. She had stretched on the couch in lazy anticipation,
thinking "I hold them in the palm of my hands. And when Iím
ready, Iíll let them know it." Sheíd demand an annual tribute
from Strates, in a friendly sort of way. Thraxos could collect it for
her, and Thebes was obviously disinclined to put up a fight.
But, after the main dish had been served, Strates told Thraxos what
was in it. She could not forget his face. Smiling, his face calm and
smooth, his eyes screwed up, brilliant with mad little glitters. His
sons, he told Thraxos. Heíd been eating his sons.
Sheíd had a bite or two of that dish as well. She remembered how
her gorge had risen, partly at the thought of what was in it, but mostly
in self-disgust. She had been manipulated. Strates must have been
laughing at her all evening, while she lounged and purred and
congratulated herself on her cleverness. She had blinded herself to what
should have been obvious, what would have been obvious if she had not
been so glutted with self-satisfaction.
She didnít wait to be sick, but grabbed the stricken father by the
back of his tunic and dragged him out of that slaughter house with her.
When she got back to the encampment, Xena roused her army and unleashed
it. They swept down on Pylae and wiped the Princeís palace from the
face of the earth. Xena led them, as she always did, but she left
Strates to his half brother, detailing two trusted men, Antinous and
Creon, to help him track the monster down and despatch him. When none of
them returned, she hoped it was because they had all died in the
fighting. She searched the ruins later, but very little had survived the
fire which raged afterwards. She took nothing from Pylae: Thebes
benefited in the end, annexing the principality while condemning her.
To some extent, the sacking of the palace had served her purpose.
Xena would far rather be remembered as the author of this devastation,
as a destroyer of nations. She thought it better than being thought the
dupe of a madman. That accomplished, she put the matter out of her mind
with ruthless determination. However, she never quite succeeded in
banishing it from her dreams, and for years she had avoided friendship
like the plague.
Then she saw Antinous. Who told her that Strates had thrust gold and
jewels in their faces, and that they had accepted the bribe, killed
Thraxos, and fled. He had argued that they should live in hiding,
convinced she would hunt them down in the end, and had hired his sword
to traders voyaging to barbarian destinations. Creon had thought
differently. He had gone with Strates to Santorini, which they now
It was nearly morning when the fit of memory passed. It left her limp
and trembling. She rubbed a hand over her face, then looked down to
check on Gabrielle. The bardís eyes were open, and tears clung to her
lashes. Her misty green gaze was clear. "Oh, Xena," she said,
very softly, and her hand tightened on the warriorís. Then her eyes
grew cloudy again and she slipped back into a troubled sleep.
Shock jerked Xena fully awake. She sat watching the bardís gentle
face for some time. How much had she said? How much had Gabrielle heard?
Perhaps, she allowed herself to hope, the bard did not condemn her. As
usual. She began to relax, fed the fire, took a swallow of water, found
herself unable to resist the need for sleep which now asserted itself.
When she eventually awoke, she judged from the colour of the light which
filtered into the cave that it must be mid morning. She looked out and
saw blue sky beyond the cave. Light shone into the cave, strong and
pure, and fell on bardís face. She felt the Gabrielleís forehead. It
was hot, like her hands. Her breathing sounded a little laboured. Xena
broke camp worriedly, and picked up the unconscious bard. She settled
her in her arms as comfortably as she could, then regained the path,
aiming for a small cluster of buildings she had spotted ahead of her,
near the centre of the island, on a shoulder of the mountain. She moved
at a steady lope which ate up the distance, but the need to carry
Gabrielle without jarring her meant that it was past noon before she
reached her destination.
Once she was near, she could see the quake had caused some damage to
the buildings. As was the custom of the island, they had been plastered
and then painted over in delicate shades of blue and pink, but their
smooth sides were now crazed with networks of black lines. One
out-building had partially collapsed and the roof of another had fallen
in. There were some animals, milling about in their enclosures. They
were oddly silent, Xena noticed. For the first time she registered the
fact that the whole island seemed unnaturally quiet.
She arrived at what she deduced was the main door and kicked on it
twice, then twice more. It opened just a little, stopped moving, then
was swung wide. A young woman was standing behind it, while a small girl
peeped out from behind her full skirts. "Oh dear," the woman
said, "What happened? Is she badly hurt? Come right in."
Much though Xena disapproved of her lack of caution in theory, in
practice she was grateful for it. That did not completely explain the
warmth of her smile as she said, "Thank you," however. The
real reason for this was the fact that the womanís rush of words had
reminded her strongly of the bard. Xena was missing very badly Gabrielleís
kindly concern for her fellow creatures, and her frank curiosity about
them. She followed the woman to a couch beside the main roomís hearth.
"Put her down here," the woman said, moving to fetch water
and some clean rags. Xena settled Gabrielle on the couch, then stood
beside her. Reluctant to break contact, she rested the knuckles of one
hand against the bardís cheek, but could not settle till she had
scanned the room. She noted some promising herbs, drying in one corner
and scenting the air pleasantly. The room, she was reassured to see, was
large and well-aired, neat and tidy. There were colourful rugs on the
floor, good quality terra cotta jugs and dishes on the table. Shelves
held other utensils, crocks which she guessed would be filled with oil
and honey and milk. One shelf bore a collection of shells and small
pieces of coral. A fisherman in the family, Xena guessed.
Then the woman was back. Xena knelt beside the bard, checking her
pulse, listening to her breathing. Beads of perspiration had gathered on
Gabrielleís upper lip and she held one hand to her forehead, sweeping
back sweat-dampened hair to do so. The bard was still a little hot, but
no worse than in the morning. No better either, Xena thought. She wet a
cloth, wrung it out carefully, and gently wiped her companionís face.
She was so pale, she thought uneasily. She had hoped Gabrielle would be
awake by now, but she had been exhausted before the accident. That, Xena
guiltily acknowledged, would slow things down.
"My name is Helena," the woman was saying. "This
little one," the girl was still shyly in hiding, and she twisted
round to dart a smile down at her, "is Ino. My mother-in-law is
over there. Her nameís Erinye." Xena looked over in the direction
Helena was pointing. There was a clot of shadows on the opposite side of
the hearth to Gabrielle, and from it, she realised now, a low and
monotonous mumbling was emerging. She found herself putting an arm over
the bard, instinctively warding off whatever might be there. "Donít
worry. My mother hasnít been herself since my husband was drowned,
thirteen moons ago. She just sits in one place and mutters." Xena
could hear the strain in Helenaís light voice, now, and make out a
shape in the darkness. Pale eyes flashed suddenly, and she felt that she
was being watched.
Keeping her eyes on Erinye, she said, "This is Gabrielle. She
hit her head in the last quake. I think she just needs to rest, if thatís
all right with you."
"These quakes." The tension in Helenaís voice was even
stronger, and Xena turned round to look at her properly for the first
time. She was older than she sounded, the warrior judged, of middle
height and with eyes as richly brown as her hair. Ino, who had blue eyes
and fair, curly hair, presumably took after her father. Xena raised one
eyebrow in inquiry, and thus encouraged the woman went on: "Theyíve
been going on since solstice, getting worse and worse. And the mountain
is acting strange too. Ten days ago, a whole chunk broke away from its
summit and it keeps shooting out ash and cinders and stones and strange
clouds. People in the town go around with pillows tied to their heads
and with towels tied around their faces when it does that."
Xena found she had taken one of the bardís hands in her own and
that their fingers were now interlaced. A reaction, she supposed, to
Helenaís fear. After all, what did she expect? Santoriniís mountain
was a volcano. Volcanoes did that kind of thing. She said as much.
"Thatís what the Prince says. He says volcanoes have active
times and then go back to sleep again. I know heís right, but our
mountain has always been quiet. We canít get used to all this noise
and movement, I suppose."
She looked a little reassured when Xena, throttling her own disgust
at the thought of the man whose opinion she was endorsing, said,
"Your Prince is right. Iíve seen volcanoes. Thatís how they
behave. Then they go quiet again."
It became quiet in the room. Erinye had stopped muttering. Helena was
smilingly trustingly. The sunlight was turning richer as the afternoon
passed by. Gabrielleís breathing sounded more peaceful. Xena relaxed
for an instant, and at once her feeling of impatient rage was back.
Gabrielle was safe enough now, and there was nothing more she could do
for the time being. She needed to be active again, closing on her prey.
She glanced down at the bard, gently disengaging their hands. She had
not foreseen this, but, now that it had happened, it seemed inevitable.
Some god had decided, perhaps. Without the bard there was nothing to
stop her pursuing her revenge. Piercingly aware that this might be the
last time she would dare to do so, she bent over and lightly brushed her
lips against Gabrielleís brow.
Then she turned back to Helena. "Can you watch her? Sheíll be
thirsty when she wakes, and then sheíll want to sleep again, but after
that she should be all right. I have business in town."
The other woman nodded. "Ino will help too, and Erinye. Sheíll
be fine. Donít worry."
"Oh yes," Xena sneered to herself. "Abandon her to an
infant, an innocent and a madwoman who all live under a volcano, and
tell yourself that everything is fine, wonít you." This time she
suppressed the voice more easily: without Gabrielle that was always the
case. She nodded once, strode to the door and passed through it.
It was very hot and very dark. She could hardly breathe: the air was
thick and had a sharp, biting tang to it. Her skin flinched as fiery
flakes scorched it and her groping hands met nothing but rough stone
which tore at her fingers. She opened her mouth to cry out "Xena!"
and choked on the noxious gases which rushed into her lungs. Dizzy,
shaking, stumbling, she tumbled into utter darkness.
The next time she became aware, she was standing on green grass and
was bathed in sunlight. A sweet-smelling wind passed over her and she
spun round and round in delight. She was surrounded by shrubs covered in
brilliantly coloured blossom and trees bearing ripened fruit. Then she
heard something move in the distance and she started to walk towards it.
The trees grew further and further apart until she was walking through a
meadow. On the other side she could see creatures grazing, cattle, she
thought, though there was something odd about their heads, about their
faces. As she realised this she realised that they had faces and a cold
terror gripped her heart. Then she sensed a familiar presence: to her
left Xena was crouched, stringing a bow. As she looked on, Xena stood
up, drawing the bow and loosing the arrow in one easy movement.
"No!" she screamed as the arrow sped towards the nearest
"No!" she screamed, and awoke. There was a face directly
over hers. She squinted, hoping that it might be Xenaís, already sure
it was not. As her vision cleared she saw a face which was white and
deeply lined, with thin lips, a narrow, hooked hose, milky eyes.
"She must be nearly blind," her mind supplied, but it did not
allay her fear. Thin, long-nailed hands shot and shook her.
"What did you see? What did you see?"
Spittle landed on her face and she found herself staring at a
scattering of teeth which were stained and broken. Almost she answered,
but instinct stopped her, first from mentioning Xenaís name and then
anything connected with Xena. "Nothing. I donít remember,"
she gasped. The thin hands shook her again. Her head rolled limply and
she felt nauseous.
Then, thankfully, another voice broke in, a light-toned one.
"Let her alone, Mother. Sheís hurt. What are you doing to
The crazed old face withdrew to be replaced by a much younger one,
which at first looked anxious then broke into a smile of relief.
"Your friend said you would wake up soon. Are you thirsty?"
Gabrielle licked her lips. They seemed to be lined with hot felt. Her
tongue felt as large as a gourd. No wonder she couldnít articulate.
"Very," she said. The word sounded shapeless and indistinct to
her own ears. "Very thirsty," she said again, determined to be
The young woman withdrew, then returned in a moment with a cup
brimming with water which she held to Gabrielleís lips. "Slowly.
Just a few sips to start with," she cautioned. Gabrielle sucked in
a drop, felt its moistness. Her lips, her mouth, her throat ached for
water, but she controlled the longing, took small sips cautiously.
"Xena would be proud of me," she thought, then tensed.
"Where is she?" she asked, fearing she knew the answer.
"Your friend? Sheís gone into town. It isnít far Ė nothing
is on this island," the young woman said, smiling broadly. "Iím
sure sheíll be back soon."
Gabrielle groaned. "Help me up," she said, "I must get
to her." Gods knew what would happen if she did not. The woman
tried to hold her down, but Gabrielle found a small reserve of strength
and pushed upwards. She swung her legs down and had almost managed to
stand up when the dizziness intensified, she heard a roaring in her ears
and the blackness swept over her again.
She was back in the choking dark, her skin singeing, her hair alight
at the ends. She wanted to scream, but she knew this time to keep her
mouth closed. She looked up. The sun had gone from the sky. When she
looked down she saw she was standing on the lip of an immense crater.
She could see its sides, huge slabs of black rock rising like pillars.
The light by which she saw them was coming from below her. Her eyes were
watering because of the acrid smoke gushing up towards her, but beneath
it, she knew, was the sun. The crater had swallowed the sun. Now she
could see it, molten, roiling, its bright gold turned to a sulphurous
yellow. It looked like heated ore in a metal masterís crucible.
"Any moment now, it will spit itself out, like hot phlegm,"
she thought, fascinated, disgusted. And when it did, she jerked
backwards and fell endlessly into the darkness.
And awoke once more. The mad woman was shaking her again. "What
did you see?" she was muttering, again and again. This time
Gabrielle obeyed her own nature. "The sun," she gasped.
"The sun swallowed by the earth and bursting out to pour over the
land like a flood."
"Yes," the old cracked voice rasped. "Yes, I see it
too. Itís a judgment. A judgment. Weíll pay the price."
"Erinye!" The other voice again, more exasperated this
time, but still ineffectual. "Youíll frighten our guest. And youíre
terrifying Ino. Be quiet, do." The younger woman led Erinye out of
Gabrielleís eyeshot. Then she came back and lent over Gabrielle.
"Will you be sensible this time? I want to lift you a bit so you
can drink some of this soup." Gabrielleís nose twitched. She
could smell it. "But last time you struggled and wanted to do too
much and passed out again. Promise youíll do what I say."
Gabrielle smiled weakly. She remembered now. She had to get to Xena,
but there was no hope of that while she was so weak. Being
"sensible" was her only option, she realised. "Iíll be
good," she whispered.
"Thank you," she said when theyíd finished. Most of the
soup was in her, and some more water. She felt better already, though
the room still spun when she tried to sit further upright. By now she
knew that the woman she was talking too was called Helena, and knew also
that Helena was too meek to make her feel guilty about not revealing
Xenaís name. Which made her feel guilty anyway, but, well, she
reflected, that was life.
"Arenít you lonely up here?" she asked now.
"This is my land. I wonít leave it," Helena said, shaking
Gabrielleís confidence that she had understood her. On the other hand,
obstinacy was not an unusual partner to meekness.
"You certainly seem to manage very well." The room was neat
and clean and well appointed, and from what she could see of the
enclosures and terraces beyond, they were well tended.
"Thatís the Prince. He came to me when Lucius died and said,
"No one starves on my island, Helena. Youíll have food and help
on your land as long as youíre my subject." He does that. For
anyone in need. Erinye was cursing him and shouting about strangers and
the anger of the gods. But he just ignored her and sent me the
"That was kind of him," Gabrielle said. She felt hopeful
for a minute. Perhaps Antinous had lied, and Xena had no business to see
to with the Prince of the island. "Has he always been Prince."
"Oh no, he came about ten years ago, he and the captain of the
palace guard, Creon. From the mainland, I suppose. Anyway, the old
Prince was dying, and before we knew where we were, he had named Strates
his heir. Best thing that ever happened to this island. Weíve not been
bothered by raiders or pirates since, and the duties he levies on
traders go to keep the whole island prosperous."
Gabrielle nodded and smiled and wondered what she was to think of all
this. "But I should know not to be surprised by what people do; I
am a bard!" she said to herself.
By now she was tired again, and, observing her drooping eyelids,
Helena left her to herself. She lay and dozed for quite some time, while
outside the sun began its long descent towards the horizon. A little
later, a small voice asked her, "Whatís your friendís
"What?" Gabrielle struggled to sit up and found herself
looking into a pair of eyes almost as blue as Xenaís under a mop of
gold curls. "You must be Ino." She smiled as engagingly as
possible, given the childís inscrutable gaze. "Iím Gabrielle,
and Iím very pleased to meet you."
The eyes met hers so consideringly that Gabrielle felt herself begin
to blush. She hated lying, even by omission. But she was determined to
keep Xenaís name to herself. After a pause she said, rather
shamefacedly, "Itís a secret." The child still said nothing.
"Really. When she comes back, though, perhaps sheíll tell you
"Sheís Nemesis," croaked the old voice from behind her.
"Come to do justice to the defiler." Erinye lurched into view.
She had dragged an over-dress on, covering the flimsy shift she had been
wearing, and was using a stick to support herself.
"The incomers have corrupted this island with their sinful hands
and now the gods will punish us all. Our only hope is to drive them out.
Then the earth will settle and the mountain cease to vomit fire."
She turned and began to make her way across the room towards the door.
Gabrielle looked at her helplessly. "Lies, they never do any
good," she thought to herself. "Though perhaps if she knew
Xena were here sheíd think she was Nemesis anyway. Or think she was a
defiler too." Gabrielle felt a chill of fear and said to Ino,
"Go get your mother, dear."
"Sheís bringing the goats down from the mountain," the
child answered. She had been staring at her grandmother open-mouthed.
When Gabrielle attempted her Xena-look on her, she nodded, and ran out
of the door.
"Wait for Helena," she said to the old woman. "Sheíll
be worried about you."
"The gods have been speaking to me, as they have spoken to you.
Helena will not stand in my way." The old woman growing stronger by
the second, Gabrielle thought, her words coming with an intoxicated
fluency. Perhaps she had been blessed with prophecy. Or cursed. She
struggled off the couch and, holding on to the back of a chair and then
a table, managed to get closer to her.
"Wait. Itís too far." She reached a hand towards the old
But Erinye just stared through her and then left.
Gabrielle collapsed onto the chair and looked at the fire. A metal
stew pot was hanging there. She guessed Helena was slow-cooking their
evening meal. As she watched, the lid of the pot suddenly lifted a
little, then dropped back. It did it again and again, for all the world
as if it were dancing a little jig, Gabrielle thought. She wondered why
it was happening, and whether the little puffs of steam emerging in time
with the movements were connected to them in any way. She felt exhausted
and afraid and wished Helena would come, or, much better, Xena. Her head
sank to the table and she slipped back into unconsciousness.
This time she was aware that she was dreaming. She was standing on
the stew-potís lid, and struggling to keep her feet as it shook and
leaped beneath her. Sweat rolled off her, and steam made everything dim.
She was suddenly terrifyingly aware of what was beneath the lid, of the
fire and boiling matter, of its horrible power, to throw off the lid and
boil over, burning everything in sight.
When the shaking awoke her, she realised that Helena had returned and
had grasped her shoulders.
"How long since she left?" she asked.
"Iím sorry, I tried to stop her." Gabrielle squinted
through the door. The sun was hardly any lower. "Just a few
minutes, I think," she said.
"Look after Ino," Helena told her, then left.
Gabrielle transferred her attention to the little girl. "You
brought her back very quickly. Well done." She smiled. "Would
you like me to tell you a story?"
"Iíll tell you a story," said Ino, abruptly deciding that
she liked the bard. She went over to her bed and picked up a little
wooden toy, and brought it to her.
"Itís a dolphin!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "Itís
beautiful." It was. In spite of being carved from dark wood, it
leapt like a wave.
"My daddy made it. He said that whenever he went fishing the
same dolphin would meet him just beyond the bay. He said it would show
him where the best fish were, and where the currents were dangerous, and
where the rocks were near the surface of the water. He made this so I
could see what it looked like."
"Whatís its name?" Gabrielle asked.
"Dolphie," the child replied.
Gabrielle smiled. "Thatís a good name," she said.
Ino smiled back, became more confiding. "I think itís looking
after my daddy still. I think heís living with it on the bottom of the
sea. In a castle like the one in town, but made from coral and shells.
One day Iíll find him there."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms round Ino and rested her chin on the childís
head. She could see a shelf across the room. It had shells and coral
piled up on it. The childís treasures, she guessed, brought home by
her father. "Thatís a lovely story," she said. "Thank
you for telling it to me."
Helena returned perhaps two hours later. "Sheís gone to the
temple. Theyíre listening to her. They say she has been chosen by the
gods." There was bewilderment in her voice, and doubt.
Gabrielle said, "Well, theyíll look after her there. We can go
into town tomorrow and speak to her then." She couldnít believe
anyone would mistake Erinye for an oracle, but she had seen stranger
"Yes." Helena looked more hopeful. Then she grabbed Ino and
hugged her fiercely. "Perhaps theyíre right. Perhaps all this
strange stuff will stop if we find out who has polluted the
island." She glanced at the bard, as if looking for reassurance.
Gabrielle raised her brows and smiled bemusedly, afraid her face
would give her away. She did not think there was any such connection,
but she didnít want to rob Helena of her crumb of comfort. Moreover,
she was aware that some gods might be capricious enough to hold a whole
island to ransom for the sake of punishing a single individual. There
were certainly enough stories based on that idea. Unable to think of
anything to say, for once, she made a non-committal noise and was glad
when Helena took it as a symptom of tiredness and made her eat her
supper and lie down.
It was an hour after moonrise when the next quake came. This time it
was so strong that even the main house was shifting on its foundations
after a few seconds. Roused from her sleep just before the quake
started, and fuelled by panic, Gabrielle grabbed her staff, lurched
across to where Helena and Ino were lying wrapped in each otherís arms
and yelled, "Come on, weíve got to get out. Itís gotta be safer
outside." Pulling them, screaming at them some more, she managed to
drag them into the open just before the roof collapsed. Huddled
together, their arms around each other, they watched dust rise in a
pearly puffball under the full moon, then settle around the ruins of the
"Well," Gabrielle said at last, observing that Helena was
too shocked to make any decisions. "Weíd be better in town, donít
you think?" As she said this, she realised why she had awoken so
opportunely. A knot of tension had gathered itself inside her and was
tightening second by second. She knew what that meant. She hauled
herself to her feet, grateful that her head was clear, that her strength
was partially restored and her staff was in her hand to support her.
Then she set off, letting instinct guide her. Xena was in trouble, and
there was only one place she wanted to be now.
By her side.
Xena stood looking down at Santoriniís harbour and only town. She
realised that, while Helena might talk almost as much as Gabrielle, she
shared none of her talent. Nothing the young woman had said had prepared
her for what she now saw. The slopes on this side of the island were
shallower, the terraces broader. Nine years ago they had been lush with
crops. Now a swathe of grey swept down from the volcano and engulfed a
good half of the town. It was as though, she thought, someone had taken
a very sharp knife and cut a triangular section of top soil away,
revealing bare rock beneath. Yet the volcano was quiet at the moment.
She looked up. From this side, the perfect symmetry of its summit was
marred by a jagged rip. She wondered how many tons of shattered rock
that represented. Just beneath the rent, a concavity suggested that the
mountain was falling in upon itself. No wonder she had found it so
difficult to find a ship sailing in Santoriniís direction. She sniffed
the air and her nose wrinkled disgustedly. Sulphur, she identified.
She felt rather uneasy, and was not sure why. As she had told Helena,
volcanoes were nothing new. This was how they behaved. Presumably, its
period of disturbance over, it would settle back into passivity again.
She should be glad of the opportunity it offered. With so much
destruction around, the Prince and his troops would be off their guard.
It would probably be very easy to get into, and out of, the Palace.
Still Ė but she shook herself. The sooner she was in, the sooner she
could get herself and Gabrielle out. And if the bard decided to leave
her after that, after she had done what she planned to do? Well, sheíd
deal with one problem at a time.
Xena took a moment longer to study the scene before her. The bay was
known throughout the civilized world, a small but almost perfect arc
with the settlement, a Cretan colony originally, nestling in its central
section. It had since spread, towards the northern end of the bay, where
rocks lifted themselves into a sort of claw. The palace was built just
below and around this, with a courtyard encompassing its highest point.
On this was built the fabled Pharos of Santorini. She could see the
sheen of its cunningly constructed brazier, which was covered with
beaten gold. It glowed in the light of late afternoon. In foul weather
and at night, a fire was lit in this to warn and guide mariners. It was
part of the reason for Santoriniís prosperity, and at the same time a
symbol of its wealth.
Despite the distance, she could see that the courtyard was more or
less empty. So were the streets in the immediate area of the Palace.
"Good," she thought. Further down a small number of people
were milling around, aimlessly, as far as she could see. Closer to the
zone of devastation, however, much larger numbers of people were
gathered, and were working in teams. It was difficult to be sure, but
they appeared to be using material salvaged from damaged houses in order
to build a sort of wall, perhaps in the hope that it would protect what
remained of the town. Xena snorted. As though such a barrier could
protect them from whatever might fall from the sky. She switched her
attention to the harbour. Two ships were moored alongside the quay, a
further three rode at anchor a little further out. "Good," she
thought again. "The sooner I get Gabrielle aboard, once this
business is over, the happier Iíll be." It occurred to her that
she was thinking more clearly than she had done in weeks. The shock of
what she was seeing, the threat it posed to the bard, seemed to have
driven back the darkness in her mind just a little. But only a little.
She launched herself from her vantage point and began to lope easily
down towards the town. At first the ground under her feet sported a
thick growth of grass, but then she reached the ash slide. Abruptly, her
boots began crunching on a thick bed of cinder and pumice stone, and she
was grateful that her soles were thick. She could feel the heat clearly,
and quickened her pace to a jog in order to avoid singeing the skin of
her feet. Her steps stirred up clouds of dust and grit and she could
feel it settling everywhere: in between her armour and her skin, in her
ears, under her finger nails. It inflamed her eyes, dried out her mouth,
clogged her nostrils. She kept on.
Before she reached the outskirts of the town, she began to come
across the bodies of animals. They lay on their sides, mostly, their
necks stretched out, and in general they looked as if they were
sleeping. But they were dead. As was a man she came across. He had been
a farmer, she guessed, middle aged and prosperous. He was on his side as
well, his back curled a little, his eyes closed, no sign of injury upon
him. She wondered at the state of the islanders, that they had left him
to lie like this in the open. She had a good idea of what must have
killed him, and the animals as well. Vapours from the mountain, black
and poisonous. She glanced behind her and up at the summit. It would not
take long for a cloud of the stuff to sweep down upon the town. She
thanked the gods the prevailing winds were towards the harbour and main
bay. Gabrielle was safe, at least for the time being.
The ash was thicker now, several feet deep. It slowed her steps and
she had to drive herself on to maintain a decent pace. She felt her
heart-rate pick up, and knew it was not entirely due to the exertion.
The next corpse upset her even more. At first she thought she was
looking at a log. When she got nearer she could see it had, once, been
human. It lay on its back, coated in ash, its clothes burned off, and
its hair. The lower part of its face was relatively undamaged however.
There was blood on the lips. She imagined him running from the rain of
ash, being overtaken, breathing in the stuff. So hot, it was roasting
his flesh as it scorched his lungs, made them burst, so that he was
choking on blood as he burned.
Now she was among the outlying houses. They were, she hoped, empty.
Most had ash piled up against them on the mountain-ward side, almost as
high as their roofs. Ash had burst in through the windows, filled the
rooms. There were signs that people had fought against it for a time.
Some of the higher dunes looked as though they had been made from stuff
swept from the streets in an attempt to keep them clear. But the whole
quarter was abandoned now. She crunched on, beginning to hear the sounds
of picks and shovels, the shouts of people. Soon she would reach the
teams labouring to throw up defences against the torrents of pumice
stone and ash.
Before this, however, she came upon a crowd of people clustered
around a house which had partially collapsed. Most were standing in
knots, silent or talking very softly. A few were close to the building,
holding back a man who was trying to run in. "Thyrza!" he was
"Itís too late, Diomedes," a middle aged man was urging
him. "The place is about to fall in. Donít throw your life away.
You have other children: they need you."
"I can hear her. She just got away from me for a moment and ran
in. Sheís calling for me."
Now Xena was upon them. She fully intended to press on, but found
herself pausing anyway. If Gabrielle had been there, she admitted, there
would have been no question. As she stood near the house, she realised
that she could hear something. A very weak voice, little more than a
vocalised breath. The father was right: she had to accept it. The child
was alive, but clearly it was just a matter of time. The house could not
stand much longer. She shouldnít really let it hold her up. She urged
her legs into motion - and found herself by the door of the house,
pushing the man back, telling him, "Wait here."
Xena had to squeeze herself under the shattered lintel to get in. She
felt it shift a little as she did so, and knew it would soon be borne
down by the weight of the roof above and seal off the house completely.
She looked around, spied a route through piles of rubble towards a
second door on the other side of the room and gingerly picked her way to
it. Little falls of dust reminded her how precarious her situation was.
She looked up. The rafters had been dislodged, had fallen in such a way
that they looked like a game of "pick-up sticks." Should just
one shift, they would all come down. Grimly, she kept moving.
The sounds were coming from this second room, which was, she
discovered, a bed chamber. The room had fallen in completely here, and
for a moment she thought she must be mistaken. No one could have
survived in this part of the house. Then she realised that some of the
dislodged bricks and tiles were piled on a bed, three of whose legs had
broken. The fourth, still intact, made a sort of cave. She went down on
both knees and looked in. Underneath, pinned by the wooden slats of the
bed frame, was a girl little older than Ino. "Lucky," Xena
thought. Any bigger and she would have been crushed.
"Thyrza," she said, fixing her eyes calmly on the child,
compelling her attention. There was no time for persuasion. "Iíve
come to get you out. Iím going to lift the bed, and when I do so I
want you to come right out."
Xena looked around, hoping to find something to act as a lever. No,
nothing but bricks. She shifted her position, got both hands under the
frame of the bed, gripped hard. She took a deep breath, coughed on the
dust, took another. Then, pushing hard with her thighs, with her calves,
she lifted. The bed might not have been heavy: the bricks and tiles on
top of it were. She felt the strain in her arms, in her back. She kept
lifting. For a time, nothing happened. Then she felt movement, just a
little. "Now," she gasped, straining to give the child a
little more space.
She felt something brush past her leg, lean against it trembling. She
did not dare just let go, though. "Hold on to me," she said,
fighting now to lower the bed gently, afraid of disturbing anything,
afraid that even the vibrations as it thudded back into place might
start a more general collapse. Panting, she settled it back. Now her
hands were free, she used one to sweep stinging sweat out of her eyes,
the other to grasp the childís shoulder. "Come on," she
said, turning both towards the bedroom door.
As they reached it, she heard something above her groan, felt a
patter of little particles on her instantly upturned face. The rafters
were sagging, she saw, were giving way, were plummeting towards her.
Moving by instinct, she got beneath the main one, caught it in her
hands, raised them up so she seemed to be supporting the whole weight of
the roof. It could not last. "Run!" she yelled, and the child
did. The moment she saw her legs clear the tiny opening, she called on
her abused muscles for one more effort, almost throwing the rafter up,
extending her body in one desperate dive towards the doorway as she did
so. Willing hands grasped her and pulled her clear just as the whole
building fell in on itself, throwing up a billowing cloud of dust.
"Thank you. Thank you," the father was saying, over and
over again. Someone else was thrusting a dipper at her and she drank
from it gratefully. She asked for another, and dashed it over her face.
Rubbing away the dirt, she took deep breaths, waited for her breathing
to settle. Her arms ached, her shoulders ached. "Damn," she
thought, looking at her hands. Splinters sprouted from the palms, the
insides of her fingers. "Iíll have trouble with my sword."
She ducked her head and used her teeth to pull them out.
When she looked up, most of the crowd had melted away. The father had
gone too. Three men squatted on the ground in front of her. They had the
weathered skin and steady gazes of seamen. One was still holding a
bucket of water and a dipper. He met her eyes and smiled, shyly.
"Thank you," he said for himself. Then he explained. "Thyrzaís
my niece. I can never repay you."
Xena shrugged. "Donít worry about it. Just make sure she stays
safe." She stood up, stretched. "Not too bad," she
thought to herself, feeling her muscles slide and shift with gratifying
ease. "Itís bad here, huh?"
"For a moon, and getting worse," he said.
"Thatís tough," she said. "Perhaps you should think
of sending the kids to the mainland."
"Some of us have. The Prince provided a ship and paid for their
passage. But my brother and I have no family there, no one to look after
Thyrza and her brothers."
"Take them yourself."
"Perhaps I will," the uncle said. Xena never did learn his
She stood up, and was pleased to feel herself more or less back to
normal. It was dark now, and the moon was up. She stretched, turned,
resumed her journey to the Palace. She reached the defensive wall within
a minute, climbed over it and dropped down among the labourers. There
were guards present, but they had stripped themselves of their armour
and were working with the rest. She jogged past them, and was about to
start down the main street of the town when the earth began to rock
under her feet and she realised that another earthquake was about to
happen. She turned back, shouting to the gangs of men, "Get back
into the open," and pleased to see that most of them already had.
Then the quake strengthened and she lost her footing, landing hard on
the ground and bruising her shoulder as she did so. When it was over she
stood up and looked around. The wall had been hard hit. In places it had
completely collapsed. But the men were already starting back on their
As they did so, there was a clatter of hooves and a party of riders
drew up. "All right, men?" called a familiar voice. Xena
looked up. She saw three straightforward guards, trailing an officer. As
she caught sight of his face, Xena felt the darkness well up inside her,
become a narrow, hot tunnel down which she plunged, her heart beats
hammering in her ears. She drew her sword with a single easy motion and
prepared to challenge him, Creon, her turncoat lieutenant. But the group
had already wheeled round and moved off, extending their pace to a
canter as they took a street which led back to the palace. "Just an
inspection," Xena said to herself, at the same moment resheathing
her sword and kicking off to run in their wake. He wasnít going to get
away from her that easily.
She caught up with them easily and then kept pace with the group,
shadowing them by using streets which ran parallel with theirs. The rage
had subsided a little, and she was prepared to wait for a time and place
which would serve her purpose better. They passed through the commercial
quarter of the town, then through an area of large villas. This would
have told Xena they were nearing the palace, even if she had not already
known it. Soon the streets would be begin to climb, gently at first,
then more steeply. The final approach was by way of a broad flight of
shallow steps, completely in the open. She would have to make her move
before they reached that.
Xena put on a burst of speed and got ahead of Creon and his escort.
Vaulting a wall, she found herself in the grounds of a building she
correctly identified as a temple. There were people everywhere, some in
family groups, huddled together their eyes on the portal to the inner
sanctum where three figures stood, two wearing the robes of priests, the
third vaguely familiar. An old woman with straggly white hair standing
out around her head like snakes. Erinye. What was she doing there? Xena
almost stopped to find out, but she heard hoof beats and loped on,
arriving at the street entrance of the structure just as the mounted
She bided her time, watching Creon ride past with a little, tight
smile curling her lips. "Soon, now," she promised herself. The
escort were still in formation and as the third rider passed by she
launched herself at him, sweeping him from the saddle with contemptuous
ease. The fall was enough to stun him, and within seconds she had his
helmet, breast plate and cloak on and had a hand on the bridle of the
startled horse, murmuring soothing words as she swung herself up on its
back. By the time the Creon had walked his horse up the steps to the
courtyard before the palace, there were three riders in his escort
again, following him in the prescribed order.
The area was a large one, Xena noted, her eyes weighing its potential
coolly. Santoriniís forum, and the place where its citizens met their
Prince. Not square, more a sort of curved triangle, with the entrance to
the palace at its apex. On her left was a colonnade, which supported the
roof of a loggia which ran all the way along one side of the courtyard.
On her right, the Pharos was already lit, its flames glowing smokelessly
in the dark, its light glinting on the metal of the guardís armour.
Xena peeled off from the group as soon as they had dismounted,
slipping back into the shadows and then continuing to follow her prey.
He had put on rather a lot of weight, she noticed, and looked bulkier
than ever. He kept to the open courtyard, she darted from pillar to
pillar of the colonnade. When he changed direction suddenly and entered
the loggia, she froze, holding herself very still. All the same, she was
not entirely surprised when Creon said, softly,
"Come out, Xena. I know youíre there."
"Very good, Creon, youíre learning." Xena made her voice
equally quiet, and moved as soon as she had finished speaking, closing
the distance between them noiselessly.
"Oh, I knew I had to. I knew youíd find us sooner or later. I
figured later, but I didnít take any chances. Iíve been preparing
myself for years now." His voice sounded as though it was trying to
convince itself, Xena noted. She remembered Creon as inclined to
indolence without her to drive him on.
"Hope I didnít spoil your fun." She flitted forwards
again, her sword already in her hand.
"No. In fact Iíve been looking forward to it. Life here is
very boring, actually. You gave me a purpose. But Iím disappointed in
you." Creon began to change position now, moving so that he had the
wall behind him, the open courtyard in front. "I hear youíve gone
soft. And that youíre travelling with a, now what did that trader say?
Oh yes, a slut of a peasant girl. That right, Xena?"
"Heís trying to make me mad. He wants me silhouetted against
the light," Xena told herself, breathing deeply. At the same time,
the rage flared up, then abruptly dissipated. It left behind a cold
clarity in which the world turned huge and slow. She could see every
detail, be aware of every sound, every scent, make any move she wanted
with time to spare. The sword in her hand became part of her hand, and
her whole body became the weapon with which she would work her will.
A soft scratching sound. "His back is right up against the wall.
His cloak is rubbing on its surface. Heís," she paused just a
moment longer, "there!" Effortlessly, she launched herself
into the air, flipped herself over, landed in front of Creon, slashing
with her sword as she did so. It smashed into a cross bow, loaded and
ready fire, cutting the string and smashing the mechanism. His
"preparation" she thought disgustedly. The thing fell with a
clatter, and Creon cursed, but drew his sword determinedly. His left arm
was dripping blood, but he was right handed. As cold as Xena now, he
grinned mirthlessly and whipped his blade round in a little circle,
backing into the moonlit courtyard as he did so. A flutter of movement
to his left and he watched as the shadowed side of one pillar swelled a
little, budded, then broke away to reveal itself as the warrior
princess. The moonlight caught in her eyes, on her teeth as she answered
his grin with one of her own.
"Pay back time, Creon," she said cheerfully, advancing
towards him. He rolled forwards on the balls of his feet suddenly,
rushing her, hoping to catch her unawares. She slid aside easily,
kicking out with one of her feet, catching him in the midriff and
jerking him round. He recovered quickly, though, using the momentum to
pivot towards her, his sword out and swinging in a wide, vicious arc he
hoped she would be too off balance to avoid. But Xena was already moving
in on her next attack, leaping to avoid the blow, cartwheeling in
mid-air and this time planting a solid kick on his back which threw him
forward, his head down, until it impacted with one of the pillars of the
colonnade. Moving purely out of instinct, he dodged behind this, and
heard the clash of Xena sword as it struck marble and saw sparks fly by.
Creon began to run along the loggia, ducking and weaving, trying to
avoid a shadow which now darted in on him, now merely taunted him with
the knowledge that she could have done so, but chose not to.
"Bitch," he thought. "Arrogant bitch." His breath
was coming short and fast and sweat ran down inside his armour. He could
feel his under tunic sticking to him hotly. He really should have
exercised more diligently. He would afterwards. "Get this over
with. Now," he ordered himself. He stopped suddenly, letting
instinct guide him again. Drew his dagger. Just ahead of him, as he had
hoped, Xena ran in, and stopped herself when she realised he was not
where she had expected. He flung the dagger.
At the same instant, Xena realised that he must be behind her. She
spun herself round, her skin prickling, her ears detecting a sound like
some very thin material being cut. "Dagger," her senses
screamed to her. As she turned she brought up both hands, palms
together, clapping them just in front of her face. She felt cold metal,
realised the point of the dagger was only inches from her right eye, was
already changing her grip, placing finger tips on steel, then throwing
the weapon back again.
She knew she had hit him, before she heard the soft thud of impact,
the grunt as he released his breath. But she still had something to say
to Creon. She walked over, looked down. Her eyes had adjusted to the
dark of the loggia. Enough light was filtering in for her to see that
the dagger was embedded, up to its haft, in his throat. There was a
little froth of pink at his mouth and his eyes were wide open. A quick
death, she thought disgustedly. She bent over him. "Mind your
language when you talk about my friend," she said. Then she walked
out into the courtyard.
There was someone waiting for her there. "Youíve killed my
Captain General, Xena. Iím afraid Iíll have to do something about
that," Strates said. He had a squad of guards with him, twenty men,
half with arrows aimed at her, the others with lowered spears. "Iím
sure you must see my point of view."
"Of course," Xena said. Her mind rebounded from the shock
and instantly demanded calm, instantly began considering courses of
action. While it worked, she raised her hands, smiled easily at him. She
saw the fight had brought them back to the edge of the courtyard. Behind
her back, the steps stretched back down into the suburbs of the town.
"I always admired that in you. You knew the necessities of
power." Strates was smiling too. "It almost reconciled me to
your peasant blood. I might have made you my concubine, you know, if you
hadnít spoiled things."
Xena let an eyebrow rise. "Twenty men or no," she thought,
her heart beat accelerating, "Iíll tear your heart out before Iím
"But no matter. In fact, Iíve been better off here. Santorini
is so isolated. There was no one to interfere with me at all."
Strates walked up to her, two of his men escorting him, their eyes never
leaving her face.
"I suppose," he said, when he was close, "you want to
know why I did it." He waved his men back, waited till they were
out of earshot.
Close to him, Xena could smell blood so strongly that she almost
gagged. But it must be her imagination. Strates was dressed as for a
coronation, she thought. "Nice of him to make the effort for
me." His crisp curls were groomed and curled and crowned with a
wreath made from leaves made from beaten gold. He looked more handsome
than he had seemed all those years before, his skin still unlined and
taut. His simple but costly tunic, dyed purple, embroidered with gold
thread, revealed a lean and well-muscled body. "Every inch the
Prince," she sneered internally.
Xena took a deep breath, fought down the nausea, willed her
disturbance not to show in her eyes. Carefully casual, she nodded.
His words flowed easily. "I wasnít the older, I wasnít the
son of the Kingís first wife, but I was the one born for power.
Thraxos was weak and a fool. Pylae would have been enfeebled under him.
The city needed me. Look what Iíve done at Santorini. Iím a good
Prince, Xena. The people prosper under me: itís my business to see
they do. I canít do less than what becomes a Prince. It isnít in my
He wasnít repentant, she could see. At first she wasnít quite
sure why he was justifying himself to her. Then she thought, "I am
his mirror. We all are. He needs to look good in our eyes." This
was, she realised, a matter of pride. Or rather, vanity. And she
wondered also whether power had made him mad, or whether he was mad
"Anyway," he went on, "I know whatís expected of me.
That means I get to put you to death, Xena. Whether I want to or not. Itís
my duty." He grinned at her, relaxed and open-faced, plainly
enjoying himself. "The nice thing is, that I really get a kick out
of doing my duty."
Xena took two steps away from the man. She had to: she needed to
breathe fresh air. Now he was quiet, she could hear something else. A
yelling that came from the direction of the temple. She had heard such
things before. A mob. She added this to her calculations, had almost
devised a plan which would free her and kill Strates, when she found
herself on her knees, her hands clapped to her ears, her eyes streaming
"What?" She tried to understand what had happened. It
happened again. An immense detonation. Its reverberations joined with
the rolling echoes of the first. It jarred her brain, made her bones
shake, shivered through her internal organs. She forced her eyes open
and saw the wavering figures of Strates and his guards before her,
huddled on the ground. Her chance, she recognised, and she took it. As
the third explosion buffeted the air around them she threw herself
forward, seized his sword, hauled Strates to his knees and pressed the
edge to his neck. Around them, glowing cinders began to fall. Xena
ignored the discomfort. The more immediate sensation was that
transmitted through her arm from the sword blade. Just a little more
pressure and the skin would give way, the flesh part ripely and the
blood gush forth. The thought of this filled her with a red and pulsing
"Now, about that other Princely duty. Justice," she said,
breathing tenderly into his ear. She doubted Strates could hear her.
Actually she could not hear herself. But she felt a need to say it. She
looked around, fixing each of his guards, most of whom were still
huddled on the ground, in turn with her glance and freezing them in
place. She felt the muscles gather themselves in her arm, slightly
changed her grip on the hilt of the sword, settled her feet a little
more firmly. Her attention was focused so tightly on the sword, on the
neck, that she felt a shudder of pure shock when a small, white hand
suddenly appeared out of nowhere and settled itself lightly on the
shining steel. She looked up to see Gabrielle. Tears were shining in the
bardís green eyes. When their gazes met, her lips moved. Xena read
"Wait, Xena. Donít do it, please."
"Please," Gabrielle said again. Her ears were ringing and
the word sounded woodenly inside her head. She kept going, though,
spurred on by what she was sure she had seen in Xenaís eyes. Relief.
She tried to make eye-contact with the warrior again, but Xenaís eyes
were hooded now. She couldnít be sure if she had succeeded. She took
in the small smile on Xenaís face, the negligent ease with which she
held the sword, the way that the edge of the blade was denting Stratesí
neck ever so slightly. The moment was very close, she realised. A few
seconds later, and she would have been too late. She might still be too
late, but she wouldnít give up. This was too important. This was why
Xena had not made her stay behind. This was why Xena had brought her to
this place. Something inside her friend was counting on her doing this.
She was sure of it.
"This isnít justice, Xena. This is revenge." Much better,
she thought. She could hear herself now, and she believed Xena could
hear her too.
"Itís both," Xena answered, confirming her guess. She was
still smiling. "Heís a Prince who killed a rightful ruler and all
his heirs: no one else here is qualified."
"Neither are you. And thatís not why youíre doing it. Itís
personal with you Xena. Admit it. Itís yourself youíre really angry
with." Gabrielle had forgotten the terror of that night, the
explosions from the mountain, the cinders which were falling around
them. She had even forgotten the man who crouched between them. What
mattered to her was that Xena was evading the truth, and that this
evasion would hurt her in the end. They both knew it.
"So what if it is. Iím still the best qualified person in the
area." Xena kept her face stiff, her voice dispassionate. Inside,
her hatred raged to be set free.
"This is a Cretan colony, Xena. Arrest him, take him to King
Minos. Heíll see justice is done. And your hands will be clean then.
Whatever Strates made you do. Itís his guilt. All of it, Xena. Donít
let him drag you down with him. Youíve made your mistake: donít make
it again." She paused, trembling, out of breath, aware that this
was her only real argument. If it didnít work, then all that was left
was what they felt for each other. And if that failed Ė Gabrielle
shuddered. She didnít want to think of a world where that feeling no
longer existed. But she was, almost, certain that Xena was on her side
"Gabrielle." The word was little more than a sigh. The
world began to gather itself around Xena again. She could feel the sweat
on her own body now, cooling in the night breeze, a slight tension in
her left side where one of her leaps had jerked a muscle, the gold wire
wrapped around Stratesí sword hilt against the palm of her hand.
Suddenly, his death became a matter of effort and exertion and no longer
a simple completion of her will. As she realised this, she let her arm
relax, moved the sword edge ever so slightly away from his throat. Then
a burning cinder settled in Gabrielleís hair, and she changed her
stance completely, leaning forwards urgently to brush the ember away
with her free hand. The world leapt back into focus.
Xena looked up. Behind her, the Pharosí fire hissed to itself, and
above the brazier the moon hung, surrounded by a halo the colour of
mother of pearl. All around, stars stung the sky. But in front of her,
over Gabrielleís head, she saw - nothing at first. Then she realised.
The stars had gone out. She let her eyes drop a little. Snakes of fire
were coiling through the blackness, lighting with a dull umber the
undersides of billowing clouds. Steadily, the fiery serpents grew
thicker and multiplied. Further down the mountain more cracks appeared.
They glowed cherry red, and thickened to broad sheets of scarlet. By a
combination of these flames and the moonlight, she could make out a tall
cloud stretching up from the mouth of the mountain into the night sky,
shaped rather like an umbrella pine. Its top was rapidly enlarging,
spreading, consuming more and more of the stars.
The eruption was dwindling, she realised. There were fewer
explosions, and they sounded more muffled. The rain of cinders was
slackening. Now she became aware of another sound and other lights. The
mob she had heard before were much closer now. They had reached the
bottom of the steps, were beginning to mount them. She recognised the
brutish nature of the noise. The islanders were frightened as well as
angry and this made them much more dangerous. She changed her position
to one where she could watch both the approaching crowd and Stratesí
guards, at the same time sweeping Gabrielle behind her. Then she waited.
The islanders had muffled themselves in cloaks. Some whimpered when
showers of cinders fell among them, or screamed when a particularly loud
explosion was heard. Some were yammering excitedly and incoherently.
Others were grimly silent. When they were three quarters of the way up,
Xena raised her free hand and commanded them to stop. Those at the front
did, then took another, involuntary step up when the ones coming behind
failed to react as quickly. Some turned round, passing the word. The
whole mass came to a halt.
They stood surveying one another for a second. Xena had filled her
lungs and prepared herself to speak when the crowd surged again, seemed
to boil and then part into two equal halves. Along the avenue thus
created came a procession of priests, Erinye at their head. She was
walking as strongly as a woman half her age, and her voice was clear as
she proclaimed, "There he stands. The defiler. The gods are
punishing us because we have sheltered him. We knew about his crimes. We
chose to do nothing. Now we must destroy him before he destroys
The crowd listened to her, unifying as it absorbed her words. In the
slight pause, Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff, stepped forwards.
"No. There are better ways of doing thisÖ." But with a
single shout the crowd came together and then took its first step
towards them. Sighing, Xena stepped forwards as well, standing by her
bard. "Funny," she thought. "Weíre going to die
defending a monster I long to see dead."
"No," came a voice from behind her. "Stand and
listen." It was a voice rich with authority, a voice expecting to
be obeyed. So strong was its belief that it was obeyed, for a moment.
The crowd stopped. Xena ducked her head for a moment, risking taking her
eyes off the crowd. Strates had extended his arms, opened his hands
palms outward. Beginning to understand, Xena stepped towards Gabrielle
and grasped her shoulders, sweeping her to one side so that nothing
stood between the Prince and his people. She savoured the warmth of her
bardís body against her chest, feeling unexpectedly complete and at
peace with herself. She wrenched her attention back to Strates.
"My people," the Prince was saying. "I have ruled you
for ten years. In that time, I have made Santorini envied again. Envied
for its wealth, for its power, for the happiness of its people."
"Heís going to beg," Xena sneered to herself. "He
hasnít a hope." She could feel Gabrielle stiffen, her breathing
quicken, and wondered what was going through her mind.
"In all that time I have put your interests first. Did you think
I would fail you now?" He paused, dramatically. Xena had to admire
his technique. At the same time, she realised that she was mistaken.
Strates had made his own appointment with destiny. He had bathed
himself, groomed himself, dressed himself in his princely regalia with
this moment in view. She felt herself grow cold with anticipation.
Strates went on. "Father Zeus," he cried. He tilted back
his head, ignoring the few remaining cinders, addressing the sky at its
zenith, "Hear my words. I give my life for my people." He held
the gesture a moment longer then bent his head to look down on his
people, carefully assuming a new pose. When he was certain they were all
paying attention, he turned very slowly and nodded to the guards who
stood behind him. Each of the archers had strung his bow. When Strates
nodded, each drew his bow. He turned back to face his people and as he
did so, each fired. The noise of each impact was distinct, shocking.
Strates must have died at once, Xena thought, though his corpse stood
rigid for an instant. Then it toppled forward and fell head down on the
steps where his people stared, silent.
"Damn," Xena breathed. "He planned this," she
said to herself. "Staged the whole thing."
Gabrielle had gasped as the arrows thudded home, then clutched at
Xenaís arm where it encircled her midriff. "Is that it?" she
breathed, looking up at the warrior. Xena could feel muscles working in
her neck as she forced out more words. "Is this all it is? Just
vanity? Just the right gesture at the right time? Donít we care
whether our leaders are good or evil, so long as they look heroic?"
She paused, then went on, even lower. "And now Iíll play my part,
and make a story to do honour to his courage." She stressed the
word "honour" sarcastically, and then her body shook as it
released a hoarse and mirthless laugh.
"Damn," Xena said to herself again. "She thinks too
much. Sheís going to hurt herself." She said out loud, "Give
him his gesture, Gabrielle." Xena rubbed the back of the bardís
neck gently, loosening the tension she could feel there. "It was a
good way to die." Unspoken, words added themselves in Xenaís
head. "And more than I hoped for, before I met you. Not that I
could have seen it that way, if I hadnít met you."
Behind them, the guards had recovered themselves, had come forward to
collect their Princeís body. Below them, the crowd began to move
again, breaking up, drifting downwards, back to the town. Gabrielle
stirred herself as she registered this. "Where are you going?"
One of the priests turned. "To the temple. To give thanks."
"No!" Despair added force to the bardís voice, took it to
every member of the crowd, which turned back to watch her. "You
have to get out of here. It isnít over. Look!" she pointed
towards the pillar of cloud. "The mountain is still
But the detonations from the mountain had ceased, and the rain of
cinders had slackened, had almost stopped. "The gods will spare us
now," the priest said coldly, adding weightily, "so long as
they see we trust them."
Xenaís stance tautened. She renewed her grip on the sword and
stepped to Gabrielleís side. "Careful," she whispered.
"The gods are warning you," the bard went on, recklessly.
"Theyíre telling you to leave. Canít you feel it? The fire
under the ground? It hasnít gone out. Soon it will burst out, crack
the ground open and sweep over everything." These were not quite
the words the bard wanted. The terror of her dream was still with her,
and the fate she had foreseen was more violent by far. She half sobbed
with the urgency of her message, her need to make them pay heed.
They didnít. Most of the crowd simply turned away, walked on,
though a few lingered, muttering, sullen. "Blasphemer," Xena
heard some of them say. "Sheíll bring back the wrath of the
gods." There was the beginning of a movement in their direction, a
clenching of fists, a dropping of shoulders as faces set themselves into
scowls. "Itíll only take a word," Xena thought, "just a
word from one of those priests, and those good people would happily tear
her bits." Abruptly, she made up her mind, thrust Gabrielle behind
her, stepped forward with the sword up and poised, her other hand
raised, pointing towards them, her most gleefully feral smile on her
face. It was not all acting. The threat to her bard both chilled and
Before they could think twice, she grabbed Gabrielle, pushed her down
the steps. The crowd backed off. "The harbour," she was
thinking. "There may still be some ships left." She hustled
them through deserted streets. Gabrielle kept pace with her, just,
though she stumbled now and then and Xena kept one hand protectively
under the bardís left elbow. Their feet crunched on the newly fallen
cinders, some of which still glowed faintly in the dark. "Gabrielle
is right," Xena thought suddenly. She hadnít been sure before.
"Itís just about to explode. I can feel it. So can the animals.
Thatís why theyíre so quiet. Thatís why the birds have flown away.
And I brought her here." She felt the beginnings of panic clench
her jaw, her throat, her stomach, and grimly suppressed it. "That
wonít help," she snarled at herself.
They had just passed the temple when a familiar face caught Gabrielleís
attention and she stopped, forcing Xena to stop too. "Helena,"
The woman pulled up in front of them. From her usual refuge behind
her motherís skirts Ino appeared, clutching her dolphin to her chest.
"What are you doing here," Gabrielle cried. "Come with
us. Weíre going down to the harbour. You have to get away from here.
"This is my home," Helenaís voice was strained. Xena
decided that she was more afraid of what Gabrielle was saying than the
mountain. She doubted Helena understood that threat at all.
"Everyone says we must pray to the gods, and that will save
"No!" Gabrielleís voice was full of tears. "You donít
understand. This hasnít got to do anything with the gods. It has to do
with the earth, to the way itís made. You donít pray to the gods to
stop water flowing down hill, do you? And if there was a flood, youíd
run. Wouldnít you?" Gabrielle was so desperate she reached out
and shook the woman. "Well, this is a flood. The earth will melt
and turn into a flood. Come with us." The bard dropped her hands,
panting, her eyes on Helenaís face.
"No, thatís nonsense." Helena was angry now. "Youíre
just frightening Ino. Go away." She gave Gabrielle a little shove,
picked up Inoís hand and pushed by the bard towards the temple.
"No," Gabrielle said again, this time in a groan. She
staggered, recovered herself, snatched at Inoís other hand as the pair
swept by. "At least let Ino come with us. Sheíll be safe, I
I donít want to go. I want to stay with Mummy. How else will Daddy
find us?" Inoís voice was curiously calm. Her blue eyes met
Gabrielleís coolly, implacably, and the older girl stared transfixed
for a moment. The eyes were so old, so knowing.
Then she rocked back, her cheek stinging. "Let go of her,"
Helena snarled. "Let go!" She raised her hand to strike
Gabrielle again, but Xena stepped in between them. Instead she yanked at
her daughter and ran towards the temple, stopping at the doorway to talk
to a priest standing there and point back at Gabrielle.
Xena picked her bard up then, set her on her feet and got them
running towards the harbour once more. Gabrielle kept going only because
Xena was beside her, although her lungs felt as though they were one
fire and her legs felt too heavy to move. When they were clear of
houses, and people, and on the final sweep of road which ran past
warehouses and deserted taverns towards the quay, she collapsed,
sprawling face down on the road, grazing her knees and cutting her hands
when she put them out to break her fall. Xena hauled her up, getting one
arm round the bardís back, and half supported half carried her along.
Her heart ached for her bard. She had caught a glimpse of her face, and
had seen it was pale and drawn with misery and defeat.
They reached the quay a few minutes later. For a moment Xena could
see nothing, and feared they were too late. Then she realised that one
boat was still there, though a seaman was untying its mooring lines.
"Hey," she yelled. He looked up and she recognised the face of
one of the men who had waited for her to recover from her rescue of
"Glad to see you, warrior," he said, grinning broadly.
"We waited as long as we could, but the tide is going out. We have
to leave now."
Xena took in the implications of that, then clapped him on the
shoulder. "Thank you, my friend," she said. She urged
Gabrielle onto the gangplank and when she was sure the bard was safely
on board, moved to the other end of the quay and released the bow lines.
Then she leapt aboard herself, sinking to her knees beside the bard, who
lay dejectedly against a mast.
"Oh, Gabrielle," she said again. She sat back on her heels,
and took out a piece of cloth which she used to buff her sword. She spat
on it, picked up Gabrielleís hands and began to gently clean them. It
reminded both of them of Ino. "You couldnít have done any
more," Xena said, more to break the silence. It was so unlike her
bard. "You did your best." She got hold of her chin and raised
her face. There was a scrape on one cheek, and she dabbed at that too.
As she did so, she caught sight of Gabrielleís eyes. The look of loss
there was so shocking to her that it re-ignited the panic. She caught
hold of the bardís head and buried it in her chest, cursing the
wretched island for doing this to her bard, almost as much as she cursed
"Talk to me!" she hissed ferociously, rocking her.
"You could always talk to me, Gabrielle." Xena leaned her
cheek against Gabrielleís hair, feeling tears sting her eyes. She
sounded more desperate than she realised. It penetrated Gabrielleís
grief, and the bard looked up, becoming slowly aware of the grimy,
anguished face in front of her. The barriers were down again, she
realised, and with that a small seed of hope planted itself in her
heart. After all, here was the only reason she needed to go on living.
Xena. Who, unlike most princes and heroes, was so much more than she
"What did you just ask me to do?" she replied, the hint of
a smile just beginning to curl her lips. She reached out and took a very
firm hold of her warrior. There was a pause. It lasted no longer than a
beat of both their hearts. Then Xenaís rare smile swept over her tired
"Yeah. Well, you can get used to anything." They were both
smiling now. Xena took a moment longer to enjoy the fact. Then, "Up
you come, my bard," she said, and laughed softly.
So did Gabrielle, as she registered the endearment. "Iíve
missed that so much," she thought. "Okay, okay," was what
she said. She grinned lopsidedly, hoping to reassure the warrior.
"Give me time to find my feet. This is a boat, you know."
Xena felt another pang of guilt about that, but suppressed it. There
were things to do. Instead she gripped Gabrielleís upper arms and
shook her, very gently. "Suppose we help it get to safety,"
Now they had time to spare for their situation, both Xena and
Gabrielle could see the boat was crammed to the gunnels with passengers.
This cheered them somewhat more. "Not everyone, then. Not everyone,
gods willing," they thought to themselves.
Xena looked down into the hold and saw Thyrza nestled in her fatherís
lap, two older children close beside them. He caught sight of her, and
waved up. She nodded, smiling, and Gabrielle, charmed, caught her arm.
"Thatís a story I want to hear," she said, smiling
herself. The warrior was truly recovered, she could see. As the hope
grew in her heart, it allowed her to think that perhaps some of the
people here had left because they had heard her, had taken her warning
Xena automatically found herself checking the state of their ship. It
was a trader, on the small side, but well found. If they could get to
deep water before the next event, she thought. "If, if," she
mocked herself. "Better be doing something about it." She
spared a glance for the mountain. The muffled explosions still
punctuated the night, and she realised they were coming more frequently
again now. The rain of ash and cinders had picked up again, too. It
would become a danger to them if they did not get out of range.
No sooner had she realised this, than the captain yelled some orders.
On their benches, oarsmen picked up their oars, the ones on the landward
side carefully using them to push the vessel away from the quay.
"Good man, no sails," Xena thought. "These cinders would
only set them alight." The stink of burning tar told her that some
of the halyards had caught fire and were smouldering smokily above their
heads. She found a bucket, splashed water up into the rigging, caught
sight of Gabrielle doing the same, dousing coils of rope on the decks.
Once they were clear, the helmsman pulled on the tiller and the oarsmen
ran out their oars, driving the ship straight for the harbour mouth.
Xena looked around. Not all the oars were fully manned, she noticed.
She strode over to one, settled on the bench beside a rather scraggy
seaman and set herself to pull powerfully on it. Beside her, a familiar
warmth settled in, and she saw the bardís hands reach out to seize the
oar as well. She grabbed them, wrapped a rag round both. Then they bent
to their oar, picking up the beat easily, soon caught in the rhythm as
the bladed wood sliced through the dark water.
Phosphorescence burned on the crests of the waves just below the oar
locks, marked their wake as they put distance between themselves and the
island. Cool water dashed into their faces. The wind picked up when they
cleared the harbour mouth and for the first time in hours they were
clear of the stink of sulphur and could smell the seaís sweet air. At
that moment they both raised their heads and laughed. Whatever might
come, they were content that they faced it together.
My apologies (and my thanks) to Aeschylus, and to
Pliny the Younger, from whose account of the eruption of Vesuvius I have
borrowed for this story. There is, probably, no written record of the
very much earlier eruption which destroyed Santoriniís volcano,
leaving nothing but a rim of small islands around its drowned crater.
However, some people believe that Platoís description of the lost
continent of Atlantis is based upon this catastrophe.
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