Janice Covington tapped her foot a couple of times on the hotel room's hardwood floor and looked at her watch for the third time in as many minutes. "Come on, Mel, shake a leg. We're gonna be late."
Mel's smooth, cultured southern accent drifted from the bathroom. "I'm ready now, darlin'. My, you're as antsy as a cat, aren't you?" Footsteps followed, and Melinda Pappas appeared around the corner, a picture of elegance. Tall, dark-haired, blue eyes which seemed to shimmer from behind wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suit impeccable, she presented a picture of all that seemed right in the world to the petite blonde who stood by the door. At the sight, Jan's irritation melted and she felt a broad smile creep across her features.
"And you just get more beautiful every day. How do you do that, Mel?"
"Feminine wiles, my dear, and judicious application of just the right amount of make-up. You know, you might try it. I could teach you."
"Yeah, right, Mel. Me, with make-up? Maybe when I'm dead and stuck in a box."
Mel laughed. "Oh, Jan, that's awful. Honestly, a bit wouldn't hurt you. You're as cute as a kitten, you know. Just a touch of makeup would bring that out even more."
"Maybe it would, at that. Then, I could get 'hit on' even more than I do now."
Mel eyed her love skeptically. "Hmmm. Then again, perhaps I'm a bit hasty. You just stay like you are."
Jan twirled the hotel room's key in her hand and leaned up slightly to kiss the tall southerner. "Thought you'd see things my way."
Mel flashed her best lopsided grin. "Only because you fight dirty, Janice Covington."
"Yeah, but I win. Shall we?" At the invitation, they stepped out into the hallway, locked the door, and headed toward the elevator. As they awaited its arrival, Mel gave voice to her excitement.
"It will be wonderful to see Mack and Sallie again, Jan. What's it been now, the better part of a year?"
Jan nodded. "Eventful year, too. Sallie graduated. Guess we'll have to call her Doctor Sallie now." She shook her head slightly, and swept her shoulder-length blonde hair back with a hand. "Hell, I remember when she first worked on that dig with me in Greece. I had her pegged as a total ditzo. Boy, was I wrong! She turned out to be one helluva gal."
"Yes, Mack thought so, as well. I still remember their marriage in Paris, in that law clerk's office. We were their only witnesses, and then all four of us went to that charming street-side café and indulged ourselves in some of the best wine I've ever tasted." At the memory, Jan chuckled and Mel continued, "You indulged yourself quite a bit, if memory serves. My goodness, I don't think I've seen you that drunk in years."
"Gee, Mel, I don't remember a thing about that part of it." The elevator's bell dinged, and the car stopped at their floor. The operator opened the sliding wire cage door, and several people emerged. As Mel and Jan stepped inside, the operator clanked the cage door shut and pulled the lever on the wall, and the elevator lurched downward toward the lobby. Mel cast a glance at the crowd of well-dressed people around them, and her blue eyes twinkled mischievously. She patted Jan on the shoulder, and whispered the next statement in a loud stage whisper.
"That's understandable, darlin'. I can forgive you bein' so drunk. After all, we had just sprung you from that French jail." The ensuing silence in the elevator car was so thick that one could cut it with a knife, and Mel could see the beginnings of a bright red blush work its way up and over Jan's white shirt collar. She glanced over at the elevator operator and smiled innocently. "Lobby, please, sir." He nodded slowly, then cast a cautious glance toward Jan, who said nothing, but blushed even more brightly and shoved her hands into the pockets of her suit pants. The agonizingly slow ride to the lobby finally ended and the cage door slid open. As Mel and Jan emerged, a crowd of people walked past them. It seemed to Jan as if they cast occasional glances at her and gave her wide berth. Mel's eyes were absolutely sparkling, and Jan thought that she could hear an audible chuckle erupt from her companion. Just as she was about to speak, a rather distinguished voice from behind them called her name.
"Janice Covington, is that you?" Jan turned and found herself face-to-face with an older, very proper-looking gentleman. He bowed slightly and extended his hand. "Forgive me for my boldness, but I thought I recognized you. It's been years. Douglas Chandler."
Jan smiled and took the hand enthusiastically. "Of course, Doctor Chandler. It's good to see you again. How on earth have you been? Oh, jeez, where's my manners? Doctor Chandler, this is Melinda Pappas." Doctor Chandler bowed slightly and shook Mel's hand.
"Charmed. Any relation to Melvin Pappas, the noted archaeologist?"
"Why, yes. He is my father."
"Ah, of course. A most delightful fellow. I read of his death, a few years ago. Terribly sorry." He released Mel's hand and smiled warmly at Jan. "And Janice was my most talented and promising student of archaeology." His eyes seemed to twinkle at his next thought. "I must also add that she was perhaps the most, ah, unrestrained of them, as well. I must confess that I never knew what escapade to expect of her next. I'm glad to know that you're still as adventurous." At Jan's quizzical expression, he continued. "I was on the elevator behind you. I couldn't help but overhear."
Jan scratched her head. "Um, yeah. It's a long story."
Doctor Chandler laughed brightly. "I'm quite sure. I would absolutely love to hear it. Perhaps the two of you can join me for a drink? I would be honored."
"We'd love to, but we're late for a dinner date. Maybe later this evening?"
"Of course. Ring me when you get in, won't you? Room 700." He bowed once again, just slightly, then took his leave with a smile and the parting comment, "I simply have to hear this story."
The maitre d' led Janice and Melinda into the dining area of the upscale restaurant, indicating a table. It was empty, but set for four. "Oh, Jan, they're not here yet. See? Our timing is fine."
Jan just shrugged. "After all these years, Mel, you'd think I'd learn from you to relax." She pulled out a chair for Mel, then seated herself.
Mel considered Jan with a knowing eye. "You'll never learn to relax. You're an absolute bundle of energy. It's one of the first things I noticed about you when I met you."
Jan leaned her forearms on the table and gazed at Mel. "Yeah? What else did you notice?"
"That you were rude, gruff, arrogant and uncouth. A woman totally out of control."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Gosh, Mel. I thought it was my cuteness that got you interested in me."
Mel smiled a brilliant, lopsided grin. "You do have that, as well. I must say that you have mellowed considerably over the years."
"Well, that's something, anyhow. You can take credit for that, y' know. Hey, there they are." Jan pointed, and Mel looked up to see Sallie and Mack approach the table. As they stood, Sallie squealed with delight and ran forward to greet each of them with an enthusiastic hug. Mack, for his part, just grinned widely, his hands thrust into the pockets of his double-breasted suit, and sauntered over to the table to accept his greetings. After they were seated and a bottle of wine delivered and poured out, Jan raised a glass. "First things first. A toast, to Doctor Sallie Rosen MacKenzie."
The evening was a marvelous one, the companionship and conversation delightful and the food first-rate. Sallie was her usual irrepressible self, large brown eyes sparkling and mop of unruly hair bobbing as she spoke or listened, and Mack seemed more relaxed and at ease than Jan had ever remembered him. After much reminiscing and laughter, the conversation turned toward the future, led by Mel's question.
"So, Sallie dear, what's next for you?"
She leaned forward. "A job, I guess. Got to find one."
Jan joined in the conversation. "Speaking of which, I have something for you." She pulled an envelope out of the inner pocket of her suit-coat and handed it across the table. "An open letter of recommendation. That oughta help." Sallie accepted it gratefully and with thanks, and perused it quickly.
"Wow. I didn't know that I was that good, Doctor Covington."
Jan smiled. "Jan, remember? And you are. Say, you interested in a dig?"
"I'm an honest-to-God archaeologist now. I'm always interested in a dig. Whatcha got going?"
"Next summer. Sappho's home on the island of Lesbos."
"I thought that you would do that this summer."
"Takes time to organize these things and get them approved. What the hell, it's been there for two millennia It'll wait one more year."
Sallie laughed a bit at that. "Guess I'll learn that for myself. Anyhow, I've got a summer fellowship in England. There's an excavation there that I'm going to help on."
"Sounds interesting. That's up your alley, anyway. European history. What period?"
"Roman. Mack, why don't you fill them in? You're the historian among us."
All eyes turned to Mack, who sat back slightly in his chair and sipped his wine. "Sure. Buddy of mine out of London hired us on to assist with exploring and documenting a find which he's very excited about. It seems to date from Roman or even slightly pre-Roman times, and has every indication of being a big find."
"Big? In what way?"
"Well, you guys remember your history?" He looked at Jan and Mel. Mel shrugged, and Jan just smiled.
"Greek, yeah. English, not so much."
"At the time that Caesar invaded the British Isles, that area was populated by various Celtic tribes. In fact, they were quite widespread throughout Europe. Well, they were a warrior culture, much as the various Germanic cultures were, but much more developed in many ways. For instance, their music, art, metalworking, medicine and such were far superior to others'."
Sallie laid a hand on Mack's arm. "The meat, Mack."
Mack's eyes twinkled toward Sallie. "Right. She keeps me on track. I can get long-winded, otherwise."
Sallie added, "Yeah. I recognize that look. It's the same one he gets when he lectures his students."
"Anyhow, Celtic religion was very highly defined. Their vision of their own place in the universe was connected deeply to nature. They existed in profound harmony with the elements around them, and that sense of spirituality suffused everything they did. As with every culture, their religion pervaded their social order and was the structure around which that order was built."
Jan snapped her fingers. "Weren't they guided by a priesthood of druids?"
"See? It's coming back to you. Yeah. They ran the society. Priests, judges, teachers, healers, and such were druids. They were extremely learned in herbal healing, astrology, astronomy, mythology, sorcery, that sort of thing. They often performed rituals which were said to be laden with magic, and these took place at stone altars or subterranean chambers."
Sallie added, "Right. You can still see these things scattered around England. Dolmens, they're called."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "You mean, like Stonehenge?"
Mack shook his head. "There's controversy about that. Many think it predates even the druids. Anyway, my pal in England has unearthed chambers beneath an extremely early castle. He thinks it dates from Roman times, and that the chambers are connected to these druids' ceremonies somehow."
Jan was fascinated. "England, huh? What part?"
"Outside London a way. In a part of England that was known then as Britannia." Mack eyed Jan closely. "Say, wasn't Xena there?"
Jan nodded. "Sure was. According to the Xena scrolls, she and Gabrielle traveled north to fight Caesar. They assisted a queen named, I think it was Boadicia."
Sallie brightened. "No kidding? Queen Boadicia almost annihilated many of Caesar's legions."
Jan just smiled. "Gee. Must have had some Greek help, huh?"
Mel offered a thought. "I have recently re-translated that scroll, Jan. As I recall, it was not a pleasant time for Xena and Gabrielle."
"Yeah. According to the scrolls, Gabrielle ran afoul of some followers of an evil deity called Dahak, if you believe in that sort of thing. Caused them quite some sorrow, so the story goes."
Mack eyed Jan. "You think it's baloney? That she was just spinning stories or recounting legend?"
Jan scratched her head. "I dunno, Mack. Even though I've seen a lot of weird shit in my life, it's a bit hard to swallow. Still, we've found that her stuff is consistently more accurate than I ever first imagined, even as outlandish as the story sounds."
Sallie grinned. "Well, if we find any reference to Xena in our excavations, we'll let you know right away. After all, you are the foremost Xena scholar in the world."
Jan nodded her thanks. "I'd appreciate it." She then looked around the table. "Say, my sweet tooth is screaming. Who wants dessert?"
The next day, Jan and Mel hopped the train home and quickly settled back into their routine, Jan beginning the summer term at the university where she held a professorship and Mel immersing herself in her free-lance translations of a couple of old Greek documents. Perhaps a week had spun by, when Mel answered a knock at the door to receive a telegram from a delivery messenger. She tore it open as she stood in the sunlit kitchen of their cottage, and her heart skipped a beat as she perused its content. It read:
DEAR JAN MEL:
I NEED YOU ASAP. SALLIE MISSING IN ACCIDENT AT EXCAVATION.
POLICE STYMIED. I AM FRANTIC. FOR MORE INFO RING LONDON 573321 AND
ASK FOR CLAIRE. PLEASE. SIGNED MACK
Mel stood silently, stunned by the import of the brown paper's message. She briefly considered the best course of action, then, locking the door of the cottage, was soon backing their nondescript little convertible sedan out into the street and heading toward the buildings of the university several blocks away. In short order, she found the secretary of the Department of History and Archaeology, sitting at her desk and typing rapidly as her jaw kept its own pace smacking a wad of chewing gum. The young lady looked up and smiled.
"Oh, hey. Melinda, right? You lookin' for Doc Covington?"
"Yes, Virginia. It's rather important. Do you know where she is?"
"Yeah. Class. Oughta be out any minute now. Want to wait in her office?"
"If it's not too much trouble."
Virginia rose from her desk. "Sure. No problem. I'll unlock it for you." She picked up a key ring from her desk and waved Mel down a hall, stopping to unlock a door labeled with the placard "J. Covington, PhD". The amiable secretary allowed the door to creak open, then gestured with a hand. "Make yourself at home. She'll be here any minute now."
"Thank you." As the secretary left to return to her desk, Mel clicked the light switch on and took a seat, glancing around her lover's cramped office space. A large wooden desk dominated the room, with a worn office chair just behind it. Piles of books and artifacts lined the walls. Predominant on one wall was a glass-fronted wooden case containing an ancient parchment, the dark scrawls of old Greek blazing out from the frayed brown background. Mel eyed it as she sat in one of the chairs in front of Jan's desk, and her mind recognized the hand which had penned it almost two millennia before. Gabrielle. That was her last scroll. She wrote it just before she died by her own hand. How heartbreaking it was. I remember the first time I read it, almost like it was yesterday. What a testament of her love for Xena!
Her thoughts were interrupted by Jan's voice. "Hey, gorgeous! Odd seeing you here. What's up?" Mel turned and looked at Jan, whose hazel eyes flashed and grew serious at the tall southerner's expression. "Something wrong?" In answer, Mel just held out the telegram. Jan approached and took the paper, laying her book and notes on the desk, and flipped it open. After a quick perusal, she looked down at Mel, an expression of shock evident. "When did you get this?"
"About twenty minutes ago."
Jan nodded, then wordlessly walked around the desk and sat in her chair. She lifted the receiver on the heavy black telephone on her desk and dialed "0". After a pause, she spoke.
"Yeah, I need an overseas operator. London, England. The number is 573321. Person-to-person, to Claire. Yeah, I'll wait." In the ensuing few minutes, neither Mel nor Jan spoke. Finally, Jan perked up and clasped the receiver more tightly to her ear. "Hello, is this Claire? Janice Covington here. Mack MacKenzie telegraphed me to call you. What's this about Sallie? Uh-huh." Jan listened for a few minutes, then replied, "Tell him we're on the next plane. Pan-American Airlines. Let you know when we have flight number and arrival time. Where do we go? Someone will meet us at the airport? Thanks much, Claire. Talk to you then. Good-bye." Jan placed the receiver down, then looked across the table at Mel. "Excavation had a cave-in. Sallie was inside. When they cleared the door, she was nowhere to be found. Vanished. Damnedest thing."
"They have no idea where she is?"
"Nope. No Sallie, no body, no nothing. It's like she vanished from the face of the earth. The local cops are baffled."
"I do hope that she is all right."
Jan nodded, her expression severe. "Yeah. Me, too. Well, time's a-wastin'. You'd best get home and pack, Mel. I've got some arrangements to make." Mel nodded, and rose from her chair. As she left the office, she heard Jan's voice behind her, speaking into the telephone. "Virginia? Find me the number of the travel agency we use, will ya? Oh, and see if you can round up that graduate student of mine, and tell her to get her butt into my office now. She's got some classes to teach over the next week or so."
Janice and Melinda emerged from the customs area at the London airport, tired but animated at the new surroundings in which they found themselves. As they scanned the crowds awaiting the arriving passengers, Mel quickly caught sight of a young lady holding a white cardboard reading "Covington/Pappas". In a moment, they had approached her and introductions were made. The young lady seemed relieved to find them.
"Oh, good day to you both. I'm Claire. Doctor MacKenzie sent me to meet you. If you'll come with me, I'll drive you." As they walked toward the exits, Jan questioned their host.
"So, Claire, what's the story here? Any word on Sallie?"
"No, Doctor Covington. It would seem that she simply vanished. The excavation was thoroughly searched. We're at a loss to explain it."
"The local police are involved?"
"Yes, but they can do nothing more, so they say."
Mel asked, "How's Mack taking all this?"
Claire sighed. "He's devastated, of course. Extremely distraught. I do hope that you can help. He places great faith in both of you."
"We'll do what we can. Say, how far is it to the site?"
"Perhaps an hour by motor-car. I've lodgings for the two of you there, with a most delightful lady in the nearby village who rents out her rooms. The locals consider her quite an odd duck, but I think that you will find her a wonderful hostess."
"Thanks. I'm sure we will." As they emerged into the afternoon sun, Jan squinted at the sky. "How much daylight do we have left?"
"Oh, a few hours yet. I assume that you'll want to go directly to the site?"
"Let's swing by the room first. Need to change. Liable to be dirty work."
Mack MacKenzie clicked off his flashlight and bent down slightly to emerge into the sun from the excavation's doorway. He pushed his fedora hat back on his head, then sighed deeply and rummaged in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, lighting it and squatting back against the remains of the ancient castle's thick stone wall. He exhaled a cloud of smoke and leaned his head back against the stones, noting the lush green of the fields and the thick wilderness in the distance as his weary thoughts nagged at him. Sallie. Where are you? I've looked over every inch of that damned chamber, time and again. She couldn't have simply vanished, and yet...... she has. It's impossible, but there it is. Got to be an explanation. Got to be something I'm missing. Passageway, or hidden door, or something. If Sallie found one just before the cave-in, she might have poked that adventurous little nose of hers into it, and become trapped. Jan will find it. He rubbed his reddened eyes. No one better in places like this than Jan. I remember that time in Macedonia, her in those tunnels. She's like a bloodhound. Wish she'd hurry up and get here. If Sallie's hurt, time is of the essence. It's been going on two days now, damn it all.
"Mack." He looked up to see his English colleague approach with two tin cups. "Tea's hot. Have some. You haven't eaten since yesterday." The man squatted down next to him and offered one cup out.
"Thanks, Paul. Not hungry, but tea will do." They both sipped their drinks silently for a moment, and then Paul attempted to soothe his friend.
"Your friends will be here any time. We'll get started again, and we'll find her."
"Yeah." He flipped his cigarette away and stared at the tea. A familiar voice roused him out of his exhausted lethargy.
"Damned right we'll find her. Lead the way, Mack." He glanced up at the sound, and for the first time in two days, cracked a broad grin.
"Jan! Mel! Thank God you two are here." Both men stood, and Mack was quick to welcome them both with embraces. As he stepped back and made introductions, Paul greeted them enthusiastically.
"Miss Pappas? Your translation of Alcaeus was simply magnificent." He eyed Jan. "So this is the famous Doctor Covington? I am honored. I've read your work, and heard much about you from Mack. I say, you look as rough-and-tumble as they come. I'll bet you're just the ticket we need."
Mel raised an eyebrow, but Jan just smiled broadly and placed her hands on her hips. Worn dark-green fedora on her head, battered leather jacket hanging open, rucksack over one shoulder, she seemed exactly as the stories had described her: adventuress and archaeologist extraordinaire, exuding energy from her petite form and an air of self-confidence which those about her found infectious. She stuck a small, cigarette-sized cigar in one corner of her mouth and clacked her Zippo open to light it.
"Thanks, Paul. I'll do my damnedest." She lit the smoke, and then turned her eyes toward the door. "Now let's get crackin' here. Got a couple of hours of daylight left."
Mel glanced over at Jan, and couldn't help but smile. Spittin' image of the gal I fell in love with, all those years ago in Macedonia. That's exactly what she looked like then. God, look at her. I'd follow her anywhere. "I'm right beside you, Jan."
Jan just smiled. "That's what keeps me going, Mel. Lead the way, Mack."
Very shortly, they were inside the excavation's door. Jan noted the walls and mentioned aloud that the architecture seemed neither Roman nor medieval English. Paul concurred, adding that it was already in existence at the time Caesar had stormed his legions across this area of Britannia. Jan reached into her rucksack and produced a flashlight, scanning the walls and the floor of the large chamber and asking the occasional question about the progress of the excavation. An initial examination of the chamber yielded nothing out of the ordinary. Jan moved closer to the walls and walked slowly as she studied the stones from an angle. After a bit, she stopped. Holding the flashlight close to the wall, she rubbed slightly on a stone, then produced a small, soft brush from her jacket pocket and brushed the centuries of dust away. Lettering appeared underneath her light's beam. She looked up, and waved the men over.
"What's this? I don't recognize the script. Do you guys?"
Mack leaned in. "Celtic. Can't read it. Paul?"
"Yes, definitely Celtic. Hard to translate, though. They had a very difficult alphabet. It would take time."
Jan handed her rucksack to Mel. "Make a rubbing of it, will ya, Mel? We'll look at it later." Mel nodded, and produced and unfolded a piece of thin paper from the bag. As she carefully began her rubbing, Jan continued around the walls. Mack followed her, speaking softly.
"Been over every inch of this place, Jan. I'm at a loss."
Jan stopped. "Mack?"
"What was Sallie wearing when she disappeared?"
Mack seemed puzzled at the question, but he squinted in thought and attempted to recall her clothing. "Oh, the usual. Boots, dungaree pants, a sweater."
Mack was stunned. "Yeah. Light canvas jacket. Why?" Jan didn't answer right away, but just pointed her flashlight's beam toward a point where the floor and wall met. Protruding from the wall was the partial cuff of a jacket, blue in color. "What the hell?"
Jan bent low and reached out, pulling on the cuff. It moved, and the sleeve of Sallie's jacket seemed to slide from between the stones of the wall. Her explanation was brief. "Door." She shone the light up the wall slowly, and then brushed at the crevice between the stones with her brush. "Tight. Well-built. There's probably a trigger on the wall around here somewhere. Stand back, you two." The two men stepped back a few paces, and Jan ran her hand along the wall, stopping at an oxidized iron ring imbedded in the stones. She studied it, then gave a pull on it. A rumbling began, and a section of the wall began moving. It slowly opened a couple of feet, then stopped, displaying a blackness beyond. Jan eyed it with satisfaction, then turned toward the two men. "Bingo."
Mack bent down and picked up the blue jacket which lay in the doorway. "Sallie. She's got to be in there. Let's go." He started for the door, but Jan stopped him with a hand on his chest.
"Let me go first. You follow. Mack, got your pistol?"
"In the car."
"Get it. Get some more flashlights, as well. Hey, Mel, toss me the rucksack, honey."
Mel handed over the rucksack and Jan reached inside, pulling out her pistol belt. She strapped the pistol onto her waist, settling the handle of the .38-special over her right hip. She then tossed a second flashlight to Mel, who tested it and slung the rucksack over her shoulder. Mack reappeared, his own pistol evident on his side and two more flashlights under his arm. Paul took one, and then they prepared to enter the tunnel. Jan turned back toward her companions as she stepped through the door. "Be careful in here. Sometimes these things have traps to discourage unwanted visitors. Stay behind me, and be ready for anything."
Slowly, cautiously, the four entered the tunnel. Jan walked forward slowly, scanning the walls and floor with her light, and stopped. "Hey, shine your lights on the floor." Four beams lit the ancient floor, heavy with dust. Jan growled, "Footprints. Several sets, not just one. Someone's been here recently."
Mack stepped forward. "Sallie's?"
Jan reached out her booted foot and compared the length of the footprint to her own. "They're too big, some of them. I would say that Sallie had company. Anyone else with her when she disappeared?"
Mack responded with a shake of the head. "All accounted for but her." He and Jan looked at each other, saying nothing. Paul was more inquisitive.
"Then who's footprints are these?"
Jan grinned in the dim light. "I think we're about to find out. Forward march, guys."
The foursome resumed their slow walk through the pitch-black corridor, casting the beams of their flashlights about the walls and floors. The footprints continued ahead of them, and Jan followed their trail cautiously until they came to an intersection with another corridor. She shined her light first left, then right, into the darkness of the intersection, then rummaged in her rucksack and produced a piece of chalk. "Mel, make a mark on the wall showing us the way back out." Mel scratched an arrow on the stones, pointing back toward the way they had come. Mack's voice broke the silence.
"Which way do the footprints travel?"
Jan directed her light to the floor. "Both ways. Let's split up. You two take the right-hand corridor. Mel and I will go left. Mark your way, and we'll meet back at the entrance." Mel broke the chalk in half and handed a piece to Paul, who scrawled a mark on the wall. The two guys headed off into the darkness to the right, and Mel and Jan proceeded alone. They did not go far, however, before they came to a dead end. Jan stood for some time, examining the wall, as Mel scratched her head and spoke softly in the darkness.
"Jan, I imagine that we've come as far as we can."
"Nope. Footprints continue right up to the wall. There's a way to get through. Got to be a trigger around here somewhere."
"Here's more writing. It looks Celtic."
Jan growled, "Then it doesn't do us any good. Feel the walls for something uneven, something which looks ornamental or unusual." She ran her hand over the stones, and stopped at one about chest-high. "Here. This one moves. Stand back, Mel. No telling what will happen when I press this." With pressure, the stone slid into the wall, and a rumbling echoed through the musty hall. A portion of the wall moved, and an opening just big enough to duck through opened. The two women knelt and shone their lights' beams into the darkness. It appeared, in the dim light, to be a large chamber. After a few moments' inspection, Jan looked over at Mel in the dim light. "You ready?" Mel nodded. "Stay behind me. Let's go." Jan crouched low and moved forward, Mel just behind and keeping a hand on Jan's back. They emerged from the passageway into the chamber and stood up, their flashlights' beams in constant motion scanning the room.
A click of Jan's Zippo lighter sounded, and a bright flame erupted as Jan lit a torch on the wall. It's light illumined the chamber, and Jan pulled the torch from the wall as she looked about her. The chamber was broad but sparsely furnished. Predominant in the center of the room was a large table, round in shape, with perhaps a dozen ornate wooden chairs about it. The wood appeared quite old and gray from long disuse. Mel's voice caught Jan's attention.
"Jan? The floor's clear of dust here. No footprints to follow."
"Damn. Guess we're at the end of the trail for the moment. Let's get back to the entrance, and see how the guys have done."
In the late afternoon sun, Paul and Mack stood by the entrance to the excavation. As Mel and Jan emerged, squinting slightly in the sun, Mack greeted them. "Hey, found anything?"
"Yeah. Large chamber, empty. Ran out of footprints, though. You?"
"Dead end. Footprints go right up to the wall, though, so I think it's a door, but we couldn't open the thing. Oh, yeah. Paul found something." At Jan's questioning glance, their English colleague pulled a cloth from his pocket and opened it. Inside was a palm-sized ornament, looking quite old. Jan examined it closely, then looked at Paul.
"Well, congratulations. What in the hell is it?"
Paul, his face serious, held it aloft for all to see. "Talisman. Sign of a very old order of warriors, long thought to be just legend." The ornament was in the shape of a heart with a dagger imbedded in it.
Jan shook her head. "I'm a bit out of my element here, Paul. What order?"
Mack answered for his colleague. "The Order of the Pierced Heart."
Paul added, "An order which existed at the time of Caesar's invasion of Britannia. It's adherents were said to be advocates of a philosophy describing the world as a constant contest between good and evil, and ruled by powerful gods. They had some rather fanciful notions about prophecies concerning a time of darkness which would cover the earth, or some such thing. They saw their purpose as delaying or preventing that time."
Mel joined the conversation. "A time of darkness brought about by what?"
Mack finished the thought. "Dahak." Then he looked at Jan and added, "If you believe in that sort of thing, I think you said."
Jan was stunned. Her mind raced as she attempted to recall the details of the story chronicled in the Xena scrolls. She walked a few steps away from the others, and lit a small cigar as she thought. Order of the Pierced Heart. Dahak. It's all true. It wasn't baloney. Gabrielle was right on the money, once again. Sorry I doubted ya, kiddo. As the implications of the find became evident to her, she thrilled. Her skin tingled, and her hair seemed to bristle. Gabrielle. Xena. You were here, weren't you? You walked this ground, two thousand years ago. Hot damn. With any luck, we'll find something of them here. Some evidence to corroborate the scrolls' story. Then we'll let those bastards at the university who love to make so much fun of Xena eat their hats. But first things first. She threw down the remnant of the small cigar and turned back toward the three others, her eyes ablaze. "Show me that door, Mack. Sallie's waiting for us in there somewhere."
The trip back through the dark corridors didn't take long, and Jan was soon concentrating on the details of the wall at the end of the cross-tunnel which Mack and Paul had explored. After a bit, she paused and pressed a stone. The floor gave way, and the four explorers tumbled down an incline into the darkness below.
Sallie sat on the stone floor in the darkness of a small room, shining her small pocket flashlight about her. She shivered slightly at the coolness and wrapped her arms about herself in an attempt to ward of the slight chill. Her head pounded with a resounding ache, and her stomach knotted with a dull sensation which she recognized as hunger. How long have I been here? I must have passed out or something. I don't remember getting here, wherever 'here' is. She looked at her wristwatch and noted the time. Five-fifteen? Crap. Evening? Morning? Impossible to tell. I must have been out for some time. Finally, she rose somewhat unsteadily to her feet and paced, once again examining her surroundings for any clue as to where she was. Stone is old. Door is, as well, but solid and thick. Iron fastenings. Could be medieval, but could be a lot earlier, as well. No sign of a latch from inside. No key opens the door. How in the hell did I get in here? Don't remember a thing, since the ceiling started caving in. Her hand went to her head, and she felt a lump. Hit on the head? Must have been a falling rock. Her fingers felt slightly sticky, and she held them in front of the flashlight's beam and examined them. Blood. Not much, though. Must not be bleeding too badly. That's something, anyway. Now, how in the hell do I get out of here? Think, Sallie. I got in; I can get out. She turned her light upward. Didn't fall from above; no openings in the ceiling. No windows, either. Damn. She noted the hinges, and deduced that the door opened toward the inside of the room. No handle, no latch. How do I get this thing open? She bent down and shone her light into the crevice between the door and its jamb, peering into the space between stone and wood. What's this? A small bar of iron across the space. Bolt? I wonder if it slides, or if it lifts? She squinted her eyes shut and attempted to remember the design of some of the period iron door latches which she had, in the past, excavated from digs. They lifted. Oh, yeah. It lifts up. Need something to worm in there. Damn, my head hurts. She trailed the flashlight's beam around the room, but saw nothing useful. With a snort, she leaned against the wall. Something, anything. Her eyes rolled upward in her head, and she let out an exasperated sigh. Sallie, you goof, your pocketknife. It's a monster. It oughta reach. She rummaged in a deep pocket of her dungaree pants and produced a large folding knife. Mack, you're a sweetheart. Got me this huge damn thing. I laughed at the time. I'm glad now. She clicked the long blade open and slid it into the space between the door and jamb, lifting up. She heard a scrape from the other side of the door, and felt it give slightly. Again. Harder. Placing the flashlight under her arm, she grasped the knife handle with both hands and grunted as she pulled up with all her force. The latch flew upward, and she staggered back slightly. The door eased slightly open, just an inch or so, but it was enough to get a grip on the wood. She clicked the knife shut and dropped it back into her pocket, then grasped the wood with her fingertips. It creaked open, and she slipped through the door and into the darkened hall beyond.
"Shit! I should have seen that comin'. Must be getting soft." Jan's voice echoed in the darkness and dust, resounding through the chamber lit by the beams of four flashlights. "Hey, Mel. You okay?"
"I'm fine, Jan. Mack? Paul?"
"Yeah. What the hell just happened?"
Jan's voice was chagrined. "Oldest trick in the book. Trap door. Damn, I don't bounce as good as I used to." Mel picked up her flashlight and shone it toward Jan's voice, to see her sitting on the stone floor, rubbing her elbow. She worked it a few times, then shrugged. "Guess I do, at that. Come on, you guys, up and at 'em." She stood, found her flashlight and searched for her hat as the others slowly picked themselves up and off the floor.
Mack's voice broke the silence. "That's a steep incline. Think we can get back up there?"
Jan chuckled. "Why bother? We're down here. Let's go forward." The other three exchanged shrugs and glances, then fell in line behind Jan as she pressed forward, her footsteps cautious and her flashlight beam in constant motion in front of her. Their trek was not a long one, however, as they found that their path ended at a wooden door, rotten with age. A small latched window was centered in the door, and Jan attempted to open it. The latch was rusted shut. She cursed softly, and banged it with the heel of her light. It broke, and Jan pulled the window open. Earth and roots peered back at them. "Well, this way's a bust. This must be an outer door. It's covered with centuries of dirt. Guess it's back up the incline for us."
Sallie wound her way softly down a corridor, illuminated only by her flashlight beam. As she did, she pulled her bandanna out of her pocket with her free hand and pressed it over the back of her head. God, that hurts. Going to have a headache for a week. Wait, what's that? She noted a soft light ahead of her, trailing out from underneath a door. Light? Must lead to outside. Finally! She clicked off the flashlight as she grasped the door handle and gave a push. It opened, and she stepped through the door, blinking a bit at the unaccustomed light which met her eyes. Instead of the sunlight which she had anticipated, however, she squinted at the light of a large fire blazing in the center of a chamber. A voice broke the silence, gruff and commanding.
"Her! How did she get out of the room? Don't just stand there, you idiots! Get her!"
Sallie looked to her left, and witnessed two men shaking off their surprise and starting toward her with a menacing countenance. They were robed in scarlet and black, and were being berated by a figure near the fire. Sallie, shocked, stared for a split second and then backed through the door. "Sorry, guys. Wrong room." She slammed the door, then looked up and down the darkened corridor. As the door's latch began to turn, she looked first left, then right down the hall, then made her decision. She sprinted down the hall toward her right, hearing the footsteps of two men gaining on her from behind.
Jan and her companions had retraced their steps up the steep incline and gained access to the door which had previously eluded them. As they cautiously paced the corridor beyond it, Jan held up a hand. The others stopped in their places. Someone began to speak, and Jan shushed them. "Listen. Someone's coming." They all strained their hearing, and soft, rapid footsteps became ever more evident, echoing just ahead of them and to their right. "Turn your lights off. Stand to one side of the corridor." The flashlight beams clicked off, and they pressed themselves against the cool stone walls. Jan leaned out slightly and peered around the corner, attempting to see into the darkness of the corridor to her right. A form in the darkness collided solidly with her, and they both tumbled onto the floor, tangled in a heap. Jan could feel the form struggle to free itself from her, and she grasped its throat with her left hand. Her right produced her pistol, and she pressed the barrel into the dark form's throat and growled, "Don't move. I have a gun at your throat." The form ceased its struggle, and Jan commanded, "Let's have a light here." Three flashlights clicked on, and Jan found herself staring into two of the widest brown eyes that she had ever seen. "Sallie! Jesus Christ! You scared the crap out of me!"
Sallie coughed and waved a hand. "You? I almost peed my pants. Let's get the hell out of here."
Mack was by her side. "Sallie! You okay? Where have you been?" Jan backed off of Sallie, and she was sitting up and held tightly in Mack's bear-hug embrace in a moment.
"Oh, Mack. I've been down here, I guess. I was so frightened. Some guys were chasing me."
"I don't know who. They were chasing me down this hall." Jan stood and shone her light down the hall, her pistol still in her hand. After a moment, she holstered the gun and looked down at Sallie.
"No one there."
"They were. I wasn't imagining it. There were two guys."
Jan's expression softened. "I believe you, Sallie. They're not there now. Stay put. I'm going for a look."
Mack looked up from Sallie. "You want some company?"
"Nah. You stay and look after Sallie. I'll be back in a minute." With that, she walked slowly forward, shining her light at the floor in front of her. It did not take her long to notice two other pairs of widely-spaced footprints in the dusty floor, larger than Sallie's diminutive footprints. They had stopped, and retraced their paths back down the hall. Jan paced slowly backwards toward the group, her light's beam illuminating the hall and her hand on her pistol. When she felt the others behind her, she spoke without taking her eyes off the corridor. "She's right. Two other sets of footprints in the hall. They must have chickened out when they saw us. Let's get out of here. Mack, take Sallie. Mel, lead the way. I'll watch our backs."
In the chamber illumined by the large fire, the two men stood before their leader. "She got away. Ran into her bloody bunch of friends before we could catch her."
"That's unfortunate. We'll just have to get her back, then. Full moon's almost here. Oh, and see if you can find out about her friends. One of them might suit our purpose better than her."
In the kitchen of the nearby village's boarding-house, Sallie sat at the table while Mel dabbed at the back of her head with a wad of bandage tinted with iodine. "Quite a goose-egg you have there, dear. Not bleeding, though."
"Got a headache that won't quit. I sure could use some aspirin."
"This will work better than aspirin, child. Drink this, and I think that your headache will leave soon enough." A cup of light-green tea was set before her by the owner of the boarding-house, a delightfully animated lady of perhaps sixty. Sallie raised the cup and cautiously sniffed it.
"Smells good, Mrs. Lowdon. What is it?"
"Herbal remedy. I learned it from my Mum. She was quite skilled with such things. And please, call me Grace."
As Sallie sipped the tea, Jan sat back in her chair and watched their hostess closely, deciding immediately that she liked the woman. Grace exuded energy and charm, and her light eyes twinkled merrily from a face lined with age. She dressed rather simply, khaki pants and a turtle-neck sweater covering her slender frame, and house-slippers adorned her feet when they weren't shoved into the rubber farm boots which she wore when she worked in the extensive gardens behind her large, sprawling stone house. Her hair was a fascinating shade of silver, waist-length and pulled back in a pony-tail which trailed down her back. After some inspection, Jan decided to engage her in conversation.
"So, Grace, you've lived here all your life?"
"Oh, most of it, my dear. I worked and lived in London for a bit, but found the city just too stifling. My father died in the Great War, you know, and when my Mum died, I inherited the house, so I was very glad to return to the country. It has a soul, don't you think, that the city can't offer."
"I know what you mean. So, you are familiar with the old castle where the excavations are taking place?"
"Why, yes, to an extent. As a girl, my friends and I used to explore it. I remember that we loved to scare each other silly with ghost stories about the place."
"Did you go into the tunnels beneath the castle?"
"Oh, goodness no. We didn't know that they existed. Your friend, Paul, and some of the lads from the university only recently discovered them."
"Hmm. What do the local folks here say about the place? You know, legends and such?"
Grace laughed as she seated herself at the table and poured a cup of tea. "I say, Doctor Covington! A scholar of your reputation interested in local legend?"
Jan grinned. "The mysteries of the past are what all of us here do for a living. I've found, over the years, that legend often provides deep insight into current archaeological problems."
"Ah. Fact, imbedded in fancy, Doctor Covington?"
"Exactly. And please, call me Jan."
"Well, all right, Jan. I remember the stories from my childhood. It seems that many of the locals here avoided the place. There were fanciful tales of dark rituals, trolls and forest folk. There were also stories of children gone missing or such, but those, I imagine, were stressed just to frighten us schoolgirls away from the wilderness which surrounds it." She sipped her tea and continued, "It is said that the nearby wilderness contains many inhabitants."
Grace's light eyes twinkled. "Trolls, faeries, elves, dryads, the Wee Folk, and such. They are said to live in the forests, and are very shy around people."
"And they are the source of the 'dark rituals'?"
"Oh, no. Such forest folk can be mischievous upon occasion, but helpful as well if they feel that they can trust you. The dark rituals are said to be the results of humans, followers of Arawn. He was a dark god, you see, god of revenge, terror, war."
"Arawn? I'm not familiar with the deity."
"Only those versed in Celtic legend would be. He was known by another name to those who were not druid. Let's see now, what was it?" She pursed her lips as she thought, raising the cup of tea.
Jan felt the hair on the back of her neck and her arms bristle. "Dahak?"
The merry, light eyes glanced over toward Jan, and suddenly took on a serious bent. "Why, yes, I believe that's it. You know of him?"
"Legends, really. The Xena scrolls speak of an encounter with him, two thousand years ago and in this same area."
"Well. Small world, isn't it?" Grace's eyes resumed their merry twinkle. "Like bad half-pennies, evil deities just seem to keep popping up."
Jan laughed. "That, they do. Say, you seem to know quite a lot about Celtic myth and legend."
Grace demurred, "A particular, ah, interest of mine. Here in the country, I have a bit of time to read."
"Do you have something I could read on the subject? I'm kind of sparse on Celtic legend."
"Why, certainly, dear. I'll find you something from my library." She excused herself and rose, her slippers slapping down the hallway. Jan looked back over at Sallie and Mel.
"How's the doctoring going? Headache still there?"
Sallie looked up from the remains of her teacup. "Gone. This herb tea is amazing."
Mel added, "Our hostess is quite a lady, isn't she, Jan?"
Jan nodded. "Yup." To herself, she finished her thought. I have a feeling that we don't know the half of it. There's a lot more to her than meets the eye. She just might hold the key to this little mystery. Her thoughts were interrupted by footsteps in the hallway, and the sight of Mack and Paul shaking hands with a local constable.
"Thanks for coming out. I hope we haven't kept you too late."
"Not at all. I'm relieved that your wife has returned safely, Doctor MacKenzie. Regarding your, um, experiences of today in the tunnels under that castle, though......."
Paul raised an eyebrow. "I imagine that it does sound a bit outlandish."
"Well, rather, if you'll forgive me saying so. I don't know what we police can do, until a definite crime has been committed. It is public land, you understand." Both men nodded. "But if you have knowledge of a crime, you'll ring us?" Again, both men nodded, and the constable donned his hat. "I'll take my leave now. Good-night." With that, he left, quietly closing the door behind him.
Mack looked over at Paul and offered a skeptical look and the muttered comment, "Flatfoots. Not a lot of help, are they?"
A pleasant laugh echoed from behind them. "They can be rather bureaucratic. I suppose they're the same in America?" The voice came from Grace. Mack turned, and nodded.
"You know what they say. Seen one cop, seen 'em all."
"I daresay. Jan, dear, this will do for you nicely, I think." She handed a worn book to Jan, who received it and carefully opened it. She noted the binding, the texture of the paper, the printing, and whistled softly.
"This is quite old. Nineteenth century?"
"Eighteenth, actually. It's rather strong, though. You're welcome to keep it bedside and read it, if you wish."
"Thanks, Grace. I'll treat it very carefully."
"I know you will, dear. Now, Sallie, I imagine you'd best get some rest. Have you had enough to eat?"
"You bet. I'm bursting."
A soft rap at the door sounded, and Paul opened it to see Claire. She stepped inside, and smiled greetings to the group. "Paul, I'll drive you to the hotel."
"Yes, thank you." As he slipped his jacket on, he looked over at the group around the kitchen table. "We'll come by tomorrow. Give you a bit of time to sleep in, what with your ordeal today. Shall I knock you up in the morning?"
Sallie's eyes grew wide, and Mel's mouth dropped as she raised an eyebrow almost to her hairline. "I beg your pardon?" Jan squeaked with a stifled laugh and cast a look over to Mack, who just covered his mouth with his hand to hide a grin, then turned toward Paul.
"Nah, that's okay, but thanks anyway. We'll be up when you get here." Puzzled, Paul nodded good-night and exited the door. Grace took Claire by the elbow and walked out with her into the evening of the front steps, talking softly.
Mel looked over at Jan. "Did he say what I think he said?"
Jan grinned. "British expression. Means 'to wake someone up'."
Mel nodded slowly. "Oh. I see."
Sallie just rolled her wide, dark eyes and sipped the last of her tea, chuckling aloud. "That sure ain't what it means in Brooklyn."
On the steps, Grace whispered with Claire. "Dear, there may be a problem here."
Claire watched Paul enter the cab of the small truck, and nodded. "I fear so, as well. Shall we convene a meeting of the Council of Cerridwen?"
Grace shook her head. "Not yet. Let me watch the situation. If I see danger from the followers of Arawn, I'll let you know." Claire, worried expression evident, nodded. Grace kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Now go on, dear. We've contained Arawn before; we shall do so again." She watched Claire walk out to the truck and settle in, then turned her eyes toward the rising moon. Close to being a full moon. If danger haunts us, it is soon. I fear for Sallie's safety. She was taken once; she'll be taken again. I will keep watch and prepare the proper magic. With that, she turned and entered the house, locking the door behind her.
The following morning found the group back at the excavation, preparing, once again, to enter the tunnels underneath the crumbling castle walls. At Jan's insistence, both she and Mack were armed. Mel slung the rucksack over her shoulder, and everyone tested their flashlights. As Jan prepared to lead the way, she turned toward Sallie. "Sure you're up for this? You can hang back if you want."
Sallie was insistent. "Not on your life, Jan. I'm over being scared. I'm just pissed now. Let's find out what happened in there yesterday." Mack grinned broadly, and looked over at Jan.
"She reminds me of someone else here."
Jan was puzzled. "Yeah? Who would that be?" At the chuckles which erupted from the group, she noted that all eyes were upon her. "Oh. Yeah. Ahem. Well, time to punch the clock. Follow me." At that, the group entered the first chamber and wormed through the still open door, trailing single-file down the darkened corridor, flashlight beams illuminating the dark.
As they slowly paced forward, Jan called out in a loud whisper, "Hey, Paul. Did you get a chance to look at that rubbing from yesterday?"
He took his place near Jan. "Yes. Just a rough translation. It marks the castle as a place forbidden to the forest folk, except by permission of the Warriors of the Pierced Heart."
Jan looked around. "None of you guys are trolls, are you?"
A couple of laughs resounded, and Mel replied, "You are, darlin', before your morning coffee."
More laughter echoed through the dark corridor, and Jan, smiling, just shook her head and muttered softly, "Jeez. No respect. I get no respect." At the end of the corridor, Jan spoke back toward the group. "We stick together. Mack, keep a hand on Sallie, and don't let her out of your sight."
"You bet, Jan." A second later, a soft squeal erupted from Sallie.
"Mack! What are you doing?"
"Keeping a hand on you, like Jan said."
"Well, I'm quite sure she didn't mean there!"
"It's okay. We're married."
Jan stopped and flashed her light back toward the group. Grins were evident all around. Jan just shook her head. "Great. I'm in an excavation with Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp." At the joke, a chorus of 'nyuk-nyuk-nyuks' echoed through the ancient stone tunnels, augmented by Sallie's irrepressible giggle.
Jan once again shook her head and paced forward, turning down the right-hand corridor. After a moment, she intoned, "Spread out, you knuckleheads, and follow me."
They paced the corridor past the still-opened trap door and slipped through the door beyond, intent on exploring the hallway where they had encountered Sallie the day before. Answers to the mystery of Sallie's disappearance should lay down that hall, Jan felt. As they slowly walked the dim halls, Jan could feel the hair on the back of her neck rise and her skin tingle. All the warning signs were there. Something was close, as she had felt the sensation many times before. Her hand went to the handle of her pistol and her whispered warning sounded in the hallway. "Something just ahead, guys. Watch it. Mack, keep Sallie close."
Sallie's voice replied, "That's the door where those men were, just ahead."
Jan placed a hand on the door latch. "Then let's introduce ourselves." She turned the latch, and the door squeaked open. Light from the room illuminated the hall as Jan slipped through the door and into the room, followed by the others.
Grace rose to a standing position from where she had been kneeling in her gardens. She blinked a couple of times, then sighed deeply. "Oh, my. It starts. I'd best ring Claire." She took a step toward the house, then stopped and turned, bending down again. She reached out a hand and pulled some leaves aside, then smiled a bit as she spoke. "I fear that I will have need of the forest folk, my dear. Can you carry the message for me?" At the question, an ethereal, pale faerie of about a foot in height flitted forth from the well-tended bushes and perched on Grace's knee. Her membranous wings still flapping slightly, she studied the lined face carefully and then nodded. "We will convene in the wilderness, this afternoon." At that, the faerie stood to depart. "Oh, wait, dear. It is daylight yet. We don't want you seen now, do we?" The faerie shook her head, and waited patiently as Grace glanced about. "Now, which way is east?" The faerie pointed. "Oh, thank you." Grace faced them both about toward the east, then closed her eyes. She held her hands out in front of her, palms upward, and the faerie climbed up to kneel in her open palms. Softly but ever so clearly, she began speaking in an ancient dialect of the Celtic tongue, then switched to English.
"Sylphs and Zephrys, rulers of air,
Mask our faerie friend so fair.
Let her glide with utmost haste
Unseen by any mortal's face."
At that, the faerie bent her knees slightly and sprung from Grace's hands, her almost transparent wings beating furiously. As she rose into the air, she seemed to shimmer and then disappeared from sight. Grace picked up her gnarled wooden staff from its place against the garden wall and slowly paced toward the house, her mind abuzz with details and her light eyes lined with worry as she contemplated the night's work ahead of her.
Janice clicked her flashlight off and jammed it in her rear pants pocket as she looked about the chamber. It appeared unoccupied, but was dominated by a stone pit from which a bright light emanated, a tongue of flame occasionally leaping up to slash the air and light the room ever brighter. Her companions spread out and slowly walked around the edge of the chamber, their eyes roaming over the stone walls. Melinda's voice caught Jan's attention.
"Look at these writings, Jan. I believe there's Latin here, as well as Greek." She gestured toward some shelves, leather-bound volumes present next to rolled parchments. "Yes, this one's in old Greek." As she lifted it off the shelf and unrolled it, her eyes became wide. "This is incredible. Look at this. From the texture of the parchment and the style, I would say that it is perhaps two thousand years old."
Mack's voice was next. "Latin, here. Sallie, can you read this for us? Your Latin is much better than mine." Sallie leaned in close to Mack's shoulder, and she scanned the script.
"Yes. It is some sort of invocation, of prayer perhaps. It speaks of..... sacrifice."
Jan turned. "Sacrifice? Just what kind are we talkin', here? Spiritual sacrifice, or.....?"
"Human." The voice which answered Jan's question did not belong to any of her group. At the resonant voice, five heads turned. A figure, robed in scarlet and black, emerged from a darkened corner of the chamber and approached them. "Dahak requires it, you see. Rejuvenates him, it does." He waved a hand toward the fire. "He feeds not only on the body, but on the soul, as well. It is that which replenishes his strength."
Sallie looked over at Mack. "Dahak?"
Mack placed a hand on the handle of his pistol as he whispered a reply. "Arawn."
The robed figure nodded slowly. "Yes. Arawn, to the druids." There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as the room's occupants stared at each other, then Jan's voice, dripping sarcasm, broke the silence.
"You guys are a little old to be playing with fire, aren't you?" She bristled, then approached the robed figure, offering her best menacing countenance. "You've got some explaining to do here, pal. You the one responsible for Sallie's disappearance?"
He regarded her dispassionately. "Yes. How nice of you to return her to us."
Jan snorted. "You've got it wrong, Jake. Explain it to the cops." She produced her pistol and cocked it. "In case you can't count, you're outnumbered five to one."
The robed man just regarded Jan's pistol with a wry little smile, then gestured behind her. "Look again."
Mel's voice sounded next. "Ah, Janice, you might look." Jan's eyes widened a bit, and she moved toward the fire so that she could keep the robed one in her sight as she looked back toward her friends. Her jaw dropped as her eyes beheld several men, similarly clothed and standing behind the four explorers, swords at the necks of her companions. One reached out and pulled the pistol from Mack's holster, shoving it into the cloth waistband around his robes. The leader approached Jan and held out his hand.
"Your gun, if you please."
"I'll give it to you, all right." She held it up, pointed toward the man's head, and directed her next comment toward the armed men. "If any of my people get so much as a scratch, your boss gets it." The robed man halted in his tracks. "Now tell 'em to lose the swords. Do it."
"Not a chance."
Jan squeezed the trigger, and the pistol's discharge resounded through the chamber, it's report a deafening roar which caused her ears to ring. The robed man flinched, and then straightened back up. "Next one is through your head. Now tell 'em to lose the swords."
"No." The robed leader looked toward the group, then back to Jan. "I believe we're at somewhat of an impasse."
"A 'Mexican standoff', where I come from."
"Ah. Then I shall break it." He looked toward his men. "Kill one of them." Paul uttered a cry and staggered slightly as the tip of a sword jutted through his chest, his shirt reddening around it. He fell to his knees, then face down on the floor as the robed man behind him withdrew the sword. Jan swung her arm around, the pistol clicking as she cocked it, and a second gunshot resounded. The man fell back heavily and hit the floor with a thud. Mack used the moment of shock to whirl and attempt his own attack on the men behind him, swinging a roundhouse punch which caused the nearest one to stagger backward and away from him. Mel grabbed Sallie by the front of her sweater, attempting to pull her away from the man behind them. He reached out and grasped Sallie by the hair, yanking her back toward him and causing her to utter a cry of pain. In a moment, Mack was on her assailant's back, an arm around his neck, the other hand on the man's sword arm. As they struggled, the man retained his grip on Sallie's hair until Mel produced her heavy metal flashlight and cracked him on the wrist. The blow caused him to release Sallie, who whirled, a determined expression on her face, and dealt him such an impassioned kick in the abdomen that he crumpled in Mack's arms and ceased resistance. As Mack released him and turned to meet the next attacker, a voice resounded through the chamber with such force that all froze in their tracks.
"That's ENOUGH!" The combatants slowly turned to look toward the voice. It had come from the robed leader. He pointed toward Jan. "One more act of resistance, and Dahak will kill her." Mel, Mack and Sallie looked toward the fire. Jan was enveloped in tendrils of flame which snaked forth from the pit, their swirling, glowing tentacles pinning her to the stones at the base of the fire's origin. The robed leader slowly walked toward Jan, bending down and lifting her pistol from where it lay on the stone floor. Studying it, he paced and mused, "Unless, of course, I do it now." At that, he held the gun to Jan's head. She attempted to struggle, but her efforts were unsuccessful. The hammer clicked back on the pistol. Mel watched in horror as the scene played out in front of her, seemingly in slow motion. She took a step forward, but found a sword at her chest, brandished by one of the robed men who had recovered from the attack. Others joined him, Mack and Sallie also threatened by the remnants of the armed followers of Dahak. Mel's eyes began to sting with desperate tears as she watched, helpless and scarcely daring to breathe. The robed leader held the gun to Jan's head, the finger closing around the trigger. For a few horrible, timeless moments, he stood so, then closed his eyes. He remained that way for several seconds, then lowered the gun. "Dahak has other plans for her." He slowly eased the hammer of the pistol back to its closed position, then allowed the hand containing the pistol to drop to his side. "Our lord has spoken. His will be done. Confine them, and this time......" He looked at his men. "Don't let them escape. The moon is right this night. Then, they will meet their destiny in Dahak's glory."
"Great. Religious nuts. That's all we need."
"Jan, I don't think this is a good time for a joke." Mel's voice was softly reprimanding.
"Who the hell's joking? They're serious. They killed Paul."
Sallie added her own thoughts. "Yeah, and we're gonna end up a midnight snack for some evil deity."
"Not if I can help it." Mack stood, pacing the small room. He looked about him at the stone walls, then cast his eyes up toward a small window near the ceiling. "If we could just reach that window."
Mel cracked a joke in her slow, languorous southern accent. "Just a minute. I think I've got a ladder in my pocket."
Sallie snickered, then offered her best Mae West imitation. "Hey, sweetie, is that a ladder in your pocket, or are you just happy ta see me?"
Mack chuckled at the joke, but Mel just smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. Jan shook her head, a grin evident in spite of her irritated frame of mind. "That's pretty good, Sallie. If you can't find a job in archaeology, lemme be your agent."
Mel studied the small window. "It's too small for us to squeeze through, anyway."
Mack responded, "Not too small for one of us." At that, Mel, Janice and Sallie all looked at Mack. His eyes were fixed on Sallie. She noted the look, and raised a hand.
"Now wait a minute, Mack."
Jan sat up, suddenly animated. "Yeah. Sallie or I could maybe squeeze through it, if we could get up there."
Mel was doubtful. "Jan, it's a bit high."
"You're tall. We'll stand on your shoulders or something. Look, it's worth a try." Jan looked around the room at the other three, and they all nodded agreement. "Then we're all agreed?"
Mel stood. "Let's do this, Jan. Bring the police back as quickly as you can."
Jan shook her head. "No. Sallie goes. They seemed most interested in her. If she can get away, perhaps it will buy us some time." She looked over at Sallie. "You up for this?"
Sallie stood, determination evident on her features. "Damned right. Give me a boost, will you?" At that, all four gathered at the foot of the wall underneath the window. Mack and Mel, being tallest, bent low and offered their shoulders to Sallie. She climbed up on their backs, and, grunting, they stood and raised her up toward the window. She reached toward the sill, but found her fingertips just short of it. "Can't quite reach it. Look, you guys, bend down a bit and shove me up toward it."
Jan, worry in her voice, asked, "Sallie? Sure that you can do this?"
"Yeah, sure. I was a gymnast in school. Give me a fling, will ya?" Mack and Mel bent their knees slightly, and on the count of three, grunted and raised their arms. Her feet left their hands, and she grasped the edge of the sill. With a pull-up motion, she raised her head above the sill and looked out, her feet dangling above their heads.
Jan peered up. "What can you see?"
"Daylight. Fields. Woods." Then, after a second, "Damn."
"There's some sort of grating over the thing."
Collective groans resounded below Sallie. Jan added, "What's it look to be made of?"
"Iron. Looks quite old."
"Bang on it. It's probably oxidized. It'll come apart without too much trouble, I bet."
"Sure. Got something I can hit it with?"
Mack, Mel and Jan all looked around the small room. "Nothing. They took the rucksack, the flashlights, everything."
"Wait a minute. I've got something." Sallie wormed one arm over the sill, then let go with her other hand and fished in her pocket. After a second, she brought forth her large, folded knife. "This might work." She placed it on the sill, then grasped the cool stones with both hands and pulled herself up and into the window sill. It was narrow, but she could just fit inside. With her torso lying on the sill and her legs dangling, the three below her heard her bang on the grating. After a few minutes, she began crawling up into the sill. Her voice, somewhat muffled, echoed. "Yeah, got it. See you guys in a bit. I'll bring the cavalry."
Mack called, "Be careful, Sallie. Get back here before the moon is at its peak, will ya?"
"Right." With that, her legs and feet disappeared from sight. They watched until they could see no more trace of her, and then looked at each other. Mel's voice next broke the silence.
"So, what now? We just wait?"
Jan reached out and slid an arm around Mel's waist. "I'm not much one for waiting, Mel."
Mel responded with an arm across Jan's shoulder and a kiss on her forehead. "I know. Perhaps we should have a plan. After all, they will come for us this evening, sometime."
Mack, back against the wall, slid down into a squat on the floor. "Come here, you two. Let's put our heads together and see what we know about this."
Mel and Jan joined him, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and Jan voiced her thoughts, summarizing their situation aloud. At the conclusion, she remarked, "That's what is evident here. What we need is what's not so evident. Rack your brains, guys. What are we missing? What are we overlooking?"
Mel looked at Mack. "You're the historian, Mack. What in your knowledge of Celtic religion seems to match this?"
Mack shook his head. "Not much, actually. These guys aren't druids, that's for sure. This isn't the Celtic religion that I'm familiar with. Human sacrifices? Nah. These are a bunch of nuts wearing robes and waving their arms around a hole in the ground. A god, my ass. How can a barbecue pit be a god?"
Jan looked at him. "Then how do you explain the fact that I'm not burned? You saw what happened in there. The fire restrained me, but didn't hurt me."
"You're not buying this stuff, are you, Jan?" Mack eyed his old friend very closely.
Jan sighed. "Look, Mack, we've been around the block quite a bit. We've all seen some pretty weird stuff. You remember when you saw Gabrielle's..... ghost, or whatever you call it? Hell, she spoke to you. Took your nightmares away. Touched you. You still had trouble believing that she existed. You remember that?"
Mack thought back to a couple of years before, in the rolling hills of Greece. He had been sitting on guard before the tomb which they had identified as belonging to Xena and Gabrielle. In the night, as he wrestled with the psychic agony of the aftermath of war, her spirit had appeared to warn of danger and sooth his unseen wounds from the mud and violence of the recently-ended conflict. She actually touched his forehead. He recalled the touch; cold, but somehow warm and reassuring at the same time. That simple act seemed to have purged his soul of the demons of war which lingered there. He pondered the memory for a moment, then looked up at Jan. "Yeah. I remember. What's your point, specifically?"
"My point is that I'm treating this Arawn, or Dahak, or whatever, with the assumption that he's real."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "Real, Jan?"
"Yeah, real. Look, Mel, you've seen it all before. Hell, we had a run-in with Ares, god of war, for Christ's sake. We were guests of a nice lady who turned out to be Aphrodite. They're real. This one is, as well. What did the scrolls say about him? And why do they need us?"
Mel considered the question. "Dahak feeds on souls, Jan. That's what that priest said."
Mel placed a hand on Jan's arm. "No. Not just any souls. Just those in which goodness, an innocence predominates. He feeds on the innocence within them."
Mack cast a quizzical eye toward Mel. "What do you mean?"
"Well, consider the experience that Gabrielle wrote about. What was it that Dahak wanted from her? Just her soul? No, he wanted the goodness, the innocence that she contained. 'Blood innocence', I think she called it. That was why his followers, so long ago, placed her in a position where she would have to kill. That act of killing another person fed on her innocence. Then, according to her, he planted his child within her, knowing that her innate goodness would protect it."
Jan stared at Mel. "And you think that he wants the same thing here?"
Mel nodded. "Why else would they be so interested in Sallie?" She looked at Mack. "Mack, has Sallie ever killed anyone?"
"Of course not. Where would she do that?"
"My point exactly. She hasn't. She's a good soul, as gentle as they come. There's an innocence about her. To a good soul, the act of killing is a terrible burden. But then, you've wrestled with that. You've killed, haven't you, Mack?"
He studied the stones on the floor in front of him. "Sure. Three years in the war as an artillery captain. I'm responsible for a lot of bodies, I guess. I can't count 'em, exactly, but...... yeah." He sighed, then continued. "You're right about it all. The first one is the hardest. I still see it in my sleep, occasionally. It was in North Africa. The Germans had attacked through the Kasserine Pass, and scattered much of the infantry. We artillerymen found ourselves almost hand-to-hand with them. I shot a guy in the face with my pistol. First time I had ever killed so up-close and personal. It will be with me until the day I die. If it weren't for Gabrielle, I still wouldn't be able to sleep at night."
Mel looked at Jan. "Jan?"
"Yeah, Mel. You know I have. Tomb-robbers, crooks and such. Maybe a half-dozen or more, over the years. Hell, I shot someone today. It gets easier with each time. I hate to admit it, but I kinda enjoyed drillin' that guy today." She looked at Mel. "But you haven't taken a life, have you?"
Mel hesitated, then whispered, "No, Jan. I've never killed anyone."
Mack added, "Well, then. When they discover that Sallie's gone, I'll bet they'll turn their attention to you."
Mel rolled her eyes. "Well. That reassures me greatly. I feel ever so much better."
"Sorry, Mel, but it seems logical. Look, there must be some way that we can turn this to our advantage."
"I don't really see how. We're locked in a room until they let us out. When they do, you can bet the moon will be full and we, or perhaps just I, will be breakfast for that thing."
Mack held up a hand. "Wait a minute. You said, 'full moon'."
"Yes. That's what the priest said, before they threw us in here. He said the moon would be right tonight. I remember the almanac, Jan. It's full tonight."
Jan added, "Right. Full moons were essential for ritual in many of the earlier religions. It held special significance, special power."
Mack nodded. "It holds special significance for druids, as well. But, if I remember correctly, it was essential for someone else."
Jan glanced toward Mack. "Oh? Who?"
"The appearance of you guys' illustrious predecessors."
Jan and Mel glanced at each other, then back at Mack. "You mean.....?"
Mack nodded. "Mel, you're a direct descendant of Xena, is that right?" Mel nodded. "Jan, you descend from Gabrielle, correct?" Jan nodded, as well. "Now, what was it that, Alais, or rather, Aphrodite, said about that?"
Mel answered softly, "That the ancestors will always protect the descendants."
"Bingo. You remember Greece? They appeared at the full moon. I think we'll have some help tonight."
Jan scratched her head. "I dunno, Mack. This is getting weird. Are you suggesting that we just sit here quietly and hope that the ghosts of our ancestors rescue us?"
"Nope. Action breeds action. Inaction breeds inaction. Buddhists have taught that for centuries. Xena and Gabrielle only helped before when we took action."
Jan chuckled. "What's this, Mack? You going Zen on us all of a sudden?"
Mack grinned. "There are no atheists in foxholes, Jan. We're in a pretty muddy foxhole right now."
"Okay, wise one. So, what action do we take? I suggest that we just bust some heads when they come through that door."
Mel rested her hand on Jan's leg. "Normally, I am a bit shy on 'busting heads', as you put it. This time, however, I agree with you totally. Not here, though."
"Oh? Where, then?"
"Where the light of the full moon helps us."
Jan waved a hand. "So we wait until we see a moon, then bust some heads? What if we don't see a moon? Their chamber, or whatever, was underground."
Mack nodded. "Jan's right. We can't take the chance. I say that as soon as they come through the door, we start swinging, then make a run for it to the outside."
Jan grinned. "Now you're talkin' my language, Mack. Mel, you agreed?"
Mel slowly nodded. "I can see no other way, Jan. I'm with you both on this."
Jan replied, "All agreed. Now, we should get some rest. Be ready when they open the door."
Sallie emerged from a low stone wall near the road and stood, glancing first left, then right. The village. Which way is the village? She made her decision, then began walking along the country lane. Her pace was rapid, but she was still frustrated at the slow progress she was making, and decided to attempt to hitch a ride with the first car which she encountered. No traffic was forthcoming, however, and she was left with her worries and the steady tread of her boots along the dusty road as she traveled afoot. Hell of a situation, she mused. Dahak? A bunch of weirdos, if you ask me. Dangerous, though. Religious nuts are always the worst kind. I hope to God that nothing happens until I can get the cops back here. At this rate, it will take forever. And what am I going to tell them when I see them? They'll never believe me. Hell, that constable didn't believe Mack and Paul. She shook her head in disbelief. Paul. I can't believe that they killed him. I really have a hard time believing any of this. And what the hell did they want with me, particularly?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the distant sound of a motor. She glanced behind her, and nothing was apparent. As she turned around to look ahead, a small truck trundled over the crest of a hill and approached her. Going the wrong way. Oh, what the hell, try it anyway. She stuck out her hand, thumb up, and gave a wave. The truck rolled to a stop in front of her, and Sallie approached the driver's door. "Hey, pal, can you give me a lift to the nearest town?"
A head emerged from the driver's door window. It was Claire. "Sallie, dear. What are you doing out here?"
Sallie trotted up to the truck. "Claire! God, you don't know how glad I am to see you. We ran into trouble at the excavation. Need your help."
"Get in, get in. We'll see to it."
Sallie ran around to the other side of the truck and hefted herself up and into the seat, closing the door. At Claire's concerned and questioning expression, Sallie poured out the situation in a torrent of words. Claire listened, motor idling, truck still on the country road. When Sallie finished, Claire said nothing, just nodded and put the truck into gear. As she accelerated and shifted gears, Sallie pointed back in the direction from which she had come. "The village is back there. We need the cops."
Claire shook her head. "No. They won't be of any use. The help we need is ahead."
"What? Are you crazy? I witnessed a murder this afternoon."
"And there will be more, unless we get to Grace. She's ahead, just a bit. She'll know just what to do."
Sallie was incredulous. "Grace? What can she do?"
Claire smiled. "She's the only one who can set this right. You'll just have to trust me for a while, dear." Claire looked over at Sallie. "Please. It's hard to explain, but you'll understand in good time."
Claire swerved the small truck down the country roads, slowing down and pulling off onto a track leading toward the tangled woods just beyond the meadow through which they drove. In the distance, Sallie could just see the jagged remains of the ancient castle. The truck bounced and jolted over the tracks, and eventually entered the woods. As they slowly drove through the forest, Sallie noted the tangled trees and mossy ground. Looks like something from The Brothers Grimm, she thought. All we need now is a gingerbread house and a wicked witch. Her thoughts focused again when she felt the truck pull off the track and stop. Claire reached under the seat and pulled forth a bag, then looked at Sallie.
"We go on foot from here. Look, from here on out, stick close to me. Whatever you see, just try to accept for the moment. I'll explain later. Agreed?"
Sallie knitted her eyebrows in a puzzled expression, then slowly nodded. "Agreed." Claire smiled satisfactorily, then opened the door and stepped out. Sallie followed, quickly catching up to Claire as she shouldered her bag and began her soft tread through the tangled woods. They strode that way for a short time, mostly in silence, until they happened upon a small clearing in the midst of the thick forest. It was lit by shafts of sunlight, in stark contrast to the deep shade of the woods surrounding it. In the center stood a flat-topped rock, about waist high. Spread out on top of the rock were cups, small batches of herbs, and, most predominantly, a sword. Sallie's eyes widened as she beheld the weapon. Its design was quite old. She recognized the craftsmanship as heralding from a Celtic hand, judging by the intricate interwoven designs upon the hilt and blade. She watched Claire place her bag on the ground, then asked, "Claire? Exactly what is this place?"
Claire turned, and placed a finger to her lips. "Shh. Don't speak loudly. I imagine that your presence has already alarmed the forest folk."
Sallie opened her mouth to respond, then caught herself and whispered, "Forest folk?"
Eyes twinkling, Claire nodded. In a whisper, she replied, "Yes, dear. They're quite shy around those they don't know. Remember, just watch. Don't speak. Why don't you sit over there?" Sallie glanced in the direction Claire had pointed, then perched on a tangled tree root. She watched Claire rummage in her bag and withdraw a green tunic which she wiggled over her head. It was short, reaching to just past her waist. When she had smoothed it with her hands, she stood by the flat rock, hands folded, eyes closed. Sallie, her curiosity bursting, cleared her throat in an attempt to attract Claire's attention. At the sound, Claire just smiled and glanced over to Sallie. Once again, she put her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. Sallie nodded, then wiggled slightly as she resigned herself to her bumpy seat on the gnarled tree root as her mind raced in thought.
I can't believe I'm doing this. This is weird beyond belief. I should be going for the cops or something. God, I'm so worried about Mack and the others. If anything happens to them, I'll never forgive myself. She smiled slightly at the next thought. Mack. I miss him so much, right now. He's the finest man I've ever known. I can't let anything happen to him. Sallie's thoughts wandered until her mind was brought back to the present by a slight motion which she noted out of the corner of one eye. What the hell was that? She glanced to her left, and her jaw dropped. Her normally wide, dark eyes expanded, it seemed to her, to the size of dinner plates. She found herself staring into a diminutive, pale face about three feet from her, whose owner was perched on the same root as she was.
The face's owner was about a foot tall, pale and with an ethereal presence about her. She almost seemed to shimmer in the light as she squatted, peering back at Sallie with an intensely questioning, curious expression. The small face was beautiful, Sallie noted, and the hair loose and flowing almost to her waist. A small wreath of some sort wrapped itself around her head. She was clothed in some exquisite, filmy material, and large wings occasionally flapped behind her. They had a transparent, gossamer quality. The two figures just sat for some seemingly endless moments, studying each other, not speaking, until Sallie could restrain herself no longer. She whispered, "Wh....who are you? Are you an.....angel?"
The figure smiled prettily at this and even offered out a soft giggle, holding one delicate hand over her mouth, then shook her head in reply. She stood and pranced slightly, her soft voice sounding almost like the tinkling of tiny glass bells. "Angel? I like that. Do I seem like such a thing to you?" Sallie nodded. "You are kind." She bowed proudly, and introduced herself. "No, I am Demue, of the Britannic faeries. I have sister-folk in Erin-lands and Scot-lands. Are you of those lands?" Sallie shook her head, scarcely daring to speak. "You are a human of darker skin and eyes than those I know. From where do you herald?"
Sallie found her voice, however shaky. "Um, America."
Demue tilted her head. "I am not familiar with that place. Is it far? Do you all look so?"
"Yes, very far. My family is descended from Hebrews, however."
"Ah? A Jewess? How marvelous. Of such a noble race, you must be a princess, no?"
Sallie actually smiled at that. "No. Do I seem like a princess to you?"
The faerie nodded. "I think you must be. You are very pretty."
"Thank you. You are, too." At that, the faerie giggled once again and bowed slightly. A soft voice joined the conversation from just in front of Sallie. It was Claire's.
"Well, Demue. I see that you have met our friend. This is Doctor Sallie MacKenzie."
The faerie nodded quizzically. "Your name is of the Scot-lands clans. Doctor? You are a healer?"
Sallie found herself smiling. "It's a long story. I'm more of a scholar."
"Ah, a bard? You are not a druid-lady."
"I am now quite confused, dear Claire and Princess Sallie. You will explain these things to me?"
Claire responded, "Yes, but later, Demue. Right now, we seek the druid-mother. Have you seen her?"
Demue nodded. "She meditates in the forest. Shall I fetch her forth?"
"If you would be so kind." At that, the faerie sprung from the root and, wings flapping, ascended into the air and buzzed toward the edge of the clearing. Sallie just watched her go, a totally incredulous expression on her face, then turned toward Claire.
"Did I just have a conversation with a faerie, or am I losing my friggin' marbles?"
Claire laughed aloud, then sat on the root next to Sallie. "You must forgive Demue. She is extremely inquisitive, curious. She took to you quite rapidly, you know. They don't usually do that with humans, even those among us who are druid."
"She had a rather....... childlike quality about her. Is she a child?"
"No. She is, I believe, several centuries old. Faeries retain a childlike innocence about them, however, that I find quite refreshing."
"Are there many of them here in these woods?"
"Perhaps a couple of dozen that I know of. Their numbers have dwindled in the last few centuries."
"Are they in danger of becoming extinct?"
"No, they are not yet to that point. The forests in which they hide and thrive, however, have become smaller. That affects their numbers." Claire stood and motioned to Sallie to follow her. "The druid-mother. You must tell her what you told me. Come, quickly. She will know what to do."
Sallie stood and followed Claire as they walked across the open, grassy space toward a figure standing near the altar. The figure was clothed in a single white robe which reached her ankles. A hood covered her head. In one hand, she held a gnarled wooden staff. She stood quietly, facing the altar, a presence about her which seemed serene and at the same time, intensely alert. When Claire and Sallie were about six feet from her, Claire addressed her.
"High Priestess of the Grove, we have bad news."
A cultured female voice responded, "I already know. Arawn seeks to re-enter the world. His followers have captives. One of them will be their key."
"What can we do?"
"Contain him, as we have before. Tonight, when the moon rises, the struggle will play out."
Sallie nudged Claire with an elbow. Claire glanced toward her and saw the imploring, worried look in her dark eyes. She turned back toward the high priestess and voiced another question. "What about the captives? We have to rescue them."
"The captives are safe until the moon rises."
Sallie broke in, her voice soft with dreaded anticipation. "And then?" The High Priestess of the Grove turned toward them and lifted the hood away from her head. Sallie stared, shocked, and then sputtered, "Grace?" The animated, lined face and sparkling, light eyes framed in silver hair took in her startled reaction, then smiled.
"Yes, dear. I know that you're deeply worried about your husband and your friends. They will, as I said, be safe until the moon reaches a prescribed height. We will be ready."
Mack was asleep, a soft snore matching the soft rising and falling of his chest, his fedora hat over his face. Several feet away, Mel and Jan sat on the cool stone floor, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Jan reached out and laid a hand on Mel's arm. "Look, Mel, I'm sorry that I got you into this. You always seem to get a bum deal when you hang with me."
Mel lifted the hand and interlaced her fingers with Jan's. "You got me into nothing, Janice Covington. I 'hang' with you, as you put it, because I love to. I love you, and anywhere that you are, I want to be, as well. I'd much rather be sitting here with you right now than half a world away, in relative safety and missing you."
"I'm not sure that I can protect you this time. I have a really bad feeling about all this."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "Now there you go again, Jan. Worried about your 'bad karma'? Well, don't. We have been through quite worse things than this over the last several years. We've always triumphed, and we will again. And by the way, we protect each other, don't we?"
Jan smiled wistfully. "Yeah, we do at that." She chuckled, and continued, "You remember that first dig, the one in Macedonia?"
"Do I ever. You nearly threw me out of it in the first ten minutes."
"Yeah, dumb me. You saved our cans, though."
"No. We saved each others' cans." Mel laughed softly. "You, the brash one and me, the southern belle. What a pair. I think that it was right then that I fell in love with you." Jan just nodded, smiling wistfully at the memory, and Mel teased, "So exactly when did you fall in love with me?"
"Oh, I think that it was in that first ten minutes."
"Really? Then why were you so rude to me?"
"I was an asshole to everybody back then. Had a chip on my shoulder a mile wide. You sure knocked it off, though. Nicest thing anybody ever did for me."
"Well, you're welcome, love. I somehow knew that I could tame you a bit. You know, you clean up pretty well, for a Yankee."
Jan grinned. "And you tolerate us Yankees pretty well, for a southern belle."
"Not at all. Once I got you housebroken, you became an absolute sweetheart."
"Well, at least I've got something redeeming about me. I'll just never figure out what in hell you see in me, though. You could have anyone you want. Why have you stuck with me all these years?"
Mel studied Jan's face closely, and could see that she was not joking. Her expressive hazel eyes had become intensely sad, searching. Such a lost soul, Mel mused. That childlike quality in her, that constant need to be loved, reassured. Underneath all that brash bravado, she is so vulnerable. I could see that from the start, and I can see it now. Mel scooted nearer to Jan, placed a hand on her cheek and spoke softly. "I have the one I want. I don't want anyone else, ever. What do I see in you? Do you really need to ask, after all these years? Haven't I told you, countless times? Do you really not know?"
Jan's eyes smiled slightly. "Guess I just wanted to hear it one more time."
"You'll never believe that you're so lovable, will you? Well, you are. You may not believe it, but I've always known it. Can't you just take it on faith?"
"I'm not much one on faith, except for my faith in you."
"And mine, in you. We'll get out of this, you'll see, and we'll be together always." Mel glanced away, suddenly melancholy. "If...... that's what you want."
Jan blinked a couple of times, and stared at Mel. Does she doubt that I want that with her? Jan, you jackass, when's the last time you told her that you wanted that? She turned her head slightly, grasped the hand which still lingered on her cheek, and kissed the palm gently. "I've never wanted anything so much in my whole life. I live for you and because of you, Mel. If it weren't for you, I probably would have checked out long ago." Mel's blue eyes caught Jan's, and they studied each other for a quiet moment. "I know I'm not very good at speaking of what's in my heart, Mel, but I love you more than I can say. Always have, always will."
Mel smiled. "Oh, I don't know, Jan. I think that you do just fine. Now shut up and kiss me."
Jan grinned an ear-to-ear grin, then leaned forward to kiss Mel. Softly, sweetly, was the kiss, a reassurance that, in the midst of such an uncertain evening which awaited them, they would indeed somehow triumph and endure. And in that kiss, Jan vowed silently to herself that she would never again doubt that she was worthy of love.
A bit later, Jan rose from an uneasy nap as a hand tapped her leg. It was Mack's. "Jan, wake up. It's dusk. Things should start happening soon. We'd best be ready."
"Uh, yeah, sure. Mel, you up?"
"I'm here, Jan."
"So, how soon after sunset does the moon rise?"
"Hell if I know." Mack scratched his head as he thought. "We'll just have to expect them any time."
Jan stood, found her hat, and dusted it off. "Right. Remember, when they come through the door, we start kickin' butt."
Mel cocked her head. "I hear some voices in the hallway, Jan. What if it's Sallie and the police?"
"Can't take the chance. Everybody behind the door. When it opens, they'll have to come in to the room. We'll take 'em then." The three stood against the wall behind the door, scarcely daring to breathe, listening to the approaching voices and the scrape of the latch on the door's face being lifted.
"Xena? I felt your call."
"I have a bad feeling about this."
"Don't. I'll be close the whole time. What scares you so?"
"It's Dahak, Xena. Why does it have to be Dahak?"
"Because you must conquer your fear of him."
"I know. You're right. If I fail this trial, it will only return to me at another time."
"The centuries have taught you well. Shall we?"
"I'm with you, love."
In the deep dusk of the glade inside the forest, Sallie sat and watched as Grace, assuming her exalted station as High Priestess of the Grove, lifted the hood over her head, leaving her face bare to shine in the dwindling light. Claire paced around the altar, thrusting four unlit torches in the ground in a circle about the altar, one to each direction of the compass, then stood slightly away from the scene. As Sallie sat quietly, she felt a rustle of brush and noted Demue perch near her, also intent on the impending ceremony. At that, Sallie smiled slightly through her worry and uncertainty, remembering what Claire had said about their shyness and the rapidity with which the diminutive faerie seemed to take to her. Princess? I like that. Her attention turned toward the glade, however, when she perceived other motion at the edge of the clearing. The brush rustled ever so slightly, and a gathering of faeries appeared from the leaves, flitting and prancing forth to take their silent place near one of the torches. Sallie stared, amazed, at their soundless acrobatics and noted that they seemed almost to sparkle with their own light. She found herself slightly shaking her head in wonder, and heard her own mind ask, Is this all for real? A sudden thrill energized her as she realized that she was probably one of the few humans in the world to have actually seen this sight, and she pondered it with a renewed awe.
One of the faeries, standing a bit more proudly than the others, announced in a voice sounding musical and tinkling, "I, Titania, Queen of the Faeries, gather my brood to lend strength to you."
At another voice, Sallie turned her head. Several small, willowy forms gathered near another of the torches. They appeared perhaps three feet or so tall, and seemed almost to blend with the trees from which they emerged. One among them announced themselves. "We dryads of the oaks have heard your call." Sallie's eyes then traveled a bit further, noting a shimmering form tread into the center of the glade. All eyes turned to her, and faeries, dryads, and Claire bowed slightly in deference to the appearance of the specter. It was a woman of indeterminate age, regal in bearing and demeanor, who seemed of offer her own light from her body. At the sight, Grace raised her arms and welcomed the newcomer.
"All honor to Morgan Nimue, goddess of the moon." Sallie stared; the sight was fascinating. She recognized upon the goddess a breastplate laced with intricate Celtic designs, and a sword by the left hip. As the goddess slowly swept her eyes around the glade, nodding satisfactorily, her eyes came to rest on Sallie. They seemed to dwell upon her for a moment, and Sallie found them absolutely mesmerizing, full of untapped power. Morgan Nimue then cast her gaze back to Grace.
"I, too, have heard your call. My strength is with you in this endeavor. Ask what you will; it will be delivered." With that, she turned on her heels and strode to the edge of the clearing, seeming to fade into the shadows and then exist no more to mortal eyes. Sallie found that she had been holding her breath, and exhaled softly. Her attention once again returned to Grace, who, in her capacity as High Priestess of the Grove, grasped the handle of the sword and raised it above her head. Her voice echoing clear in the soft evening, she sang out in the musical, bouncing lilt of the ancient Celtic tongue. Sallie could not determine the meaning of the words, but was nevertheless fascinated at the rising and falling of the syllables' beats as they reached her ear.
Grace fell silent, then turned toward the torch to her right and pointed the sword in its direction. The blade seemed to glow, then erupt into a silver-blue flame which, in a narrow beam, issued from the sword's tip and struck the torch. It burst into flame. The beam of flame then directed itself toward the ground, and as Grace slowly paced clockwise, drew a circle of flame around the altar. The circle progressed, lighting each torch in successive turns, until a complete circle of dancing flame several inches high surrounded the flat rock. The High Priestess of the Grove then raised her hands and the sword into the air, still pacing clockwise, and spoke again in the ancient Celtic dialect. Sallie was shocked when the language suddenly turned to recognizable English.
"I consecrate this circle of power to the Ancient Gods.
Here may they manifest and bless their child."
She stood before the altar and lay the sword down. Raising her hands once again, she intoned the musical airs of the ancient Celts, then switched to English.
"This is a time that is not a time,
In a place that is not a place,
On a day that is not a day.
I stand at the threshold between the worlds,
Before the veil of the Mysteries.
May the Ancient Ones help and protect all which is good and right."
Switching again to the strains of the ancient Celtic tongue, she held a cup above her head. As she again placed it on the flat rock, she waved her hand over it and a flame burst forth from the vessel. Grace dropped something into it, and it erupted in a puff and cloud of aromatic smoke, rising into the evening air. For several long moments, she spoke in the unintelligible Celtic language, then grasped the handle of the sword and lifted it into the air, striding away from the altar and clockwise around the circle of fire which contained her. A few more strains of the ancient dialect reached Sallie's ears, then the language once again switched to English.
"I call upon you, powers of Earth,
Air, Water, and Fire,
To witness this rite and guard this circle.
By the powers of the Ancient Gods,
I bind all power within this circle.
So mote it be."
She slashed the sword downward, across the ring of fire which burned around the altar. It blazed, then extinguished itself.
"The circle is open, yet ever
It remains a circle.
Around and through me always flows its magical power.
Many thanks, denizens of the seen and unseen realms."
With that, Grace lowered the sword to her side and reached up with her free hand to push the hood away from the back of her head, letting it fall around her shoulders. She walked over toward Sallie, who, still seemingly transfixed by the sights of the evening, just watched her approach and stand in front of her. After studying her for a moment, Grace reached out her hand and grasped Sallie's, lifting her up from her seat on the gnarled tree root. Her voice was soft, but questioning. "Are you ready to rescue your friends, Sallie?"
Sallie, shaking herself from her wonder, answered, "Been ready. What in the hell did we just do?"
Grace smiled. "Summoned the power of the seen and unseen realms. They will be with us, never doubt that. Now let's go. We'll have just enough time to get there, I imagine."
Claire joined them, and the three turned and paced rapidly toward the jagged black outline of the ancient castle outside the forest. Sallie noted that Grace still wielded the sword, and cautiously questioned them. "What do we do when we get there? Those guys looked dangerous."
"We contain Arawn, and retrieve your friends. Just follow my lead, and when the time comes, you will understand where your combat lies."
Sallie nodded. "Now you're speaking a language that I can understand."
Mack slowly awoke, blinking his eyes in confusion and trying to remember what had happened to find him on the cool stones of the floor's room. He lifted his head slowly and struggled with the clouded thoughts which rattled in his head. What the...? What happened? Last I remember, I had that guy dead to rights. He noted spatters of blood on the floor, and new drops add themselves to the small pool in front of him. Reaching up a shaky hand, he drew his fingers across his face and saw that they were bloody. Must have gotten cocked by one of those guys. Never saw it coming. As he unsteadily sat up, he looked around the room. The door was ajar, and Mel and Janice were gone. He was not alone, however; the still figures of two of Dahak's followers lay sprawled on the floor. Well, guess we got some licks in, after all. Let's see if one of them has left me a weapon of some sort. On his hands and knees, he crawled over to the nearest one and rolled him over onto his back. I remember this face. Decked him outright. Bastard. Mack searched the man, and found his own pistol in the waist-band of the man's robes. Oh, yeah. This will do nicely. Let's see if I can stand up. Slowly, he rose, pistol in hand, and stood, staggering over to the open door and looking out into the hallway. Dark. I can find my way, though. A sudden thrill of fear grabbed him within his chest. Mel. Jan. Where are they? Got to find them. Slowly shaking his head and blinking, he peered into the darkness to the left and right, then looked back into the room. Never leave the enemy at your back. He lifted the pistol, cocked it and pointed it at the prostrate form nearest him. As his finger closed around the trigger, a vision flashed through his mind of a similar scene, acted out several years before: a black automatic pistol, pointed into the face of a young, grimy German soldier in an Afrika Corps uniform. The wide eyes struck him to the soul; he still remembered them, and always would. The pistol lowered. Naah. War's over. Don't want to deal with that again. He glanced dispassionately at the still forms on the room's floor. This is your lucky day, Jack. You don't know how lucky. He backed out of the room, pulled the door shut and bolted it. Then, slowly negotiating the dark hall, he carefully paced down the corridor to his right, his hand on the wall and guiding him in the darkness.
Grace paused at the door of the excavation, noting the writing on the wall near the passageway. She turned her head slightly and gazed at the small faerie near her elbow. "You are forbidden to pass beyond here, Nimue. Return to the forest, and warn the others to take shelter until this is over." The faerie gave her a worried look, tilting her head slightly. "Go on, now, dear. It will be all right." At that, Nimue nodded, then flitted aloft into the air, returning in the direction from which they had come. Grace turned her attention to Sallie. "Are you ready?"
Sallie nodded, then looked back over her shoulder at the rumbles of thunder which echoed outside the open excavation's door. "A storm? Will it get in our way?"
Grace chuckled. "It will be our savior, I imagine. Claire, take shelter. Sallie, let's go, and stay close." They ducked into the corridor, Sallie walking close behind Grace.
"Damn, it's dark in here."
"Yes, it is. Time for some light." Grace extended her hand, closed her eyes, and a torch on the wall burst into flame with a whoosh. She removed the torch with her free hand and handed it to Sallie, who received it with wide eyes and a look of disbelief.
"Guess you save a lot of money on flashlights, huh?"
Grace just smiled at the joke. "That's nothing compared to what you're going to see tonight."
As they strode the corridor, the light of the torch proceeding them, Sallie softly inquired, "Just what am I going to see tonight that tops what I've already seen?"
"An epic struggle between good and evil. Such things often play out away from human eyes, dear. This one has happened periodically for centuries. The last time this happened, my grandmother stood in my place. It is now my turn to carry on the cycle." They wound through the corridors rather rapidly, Grace seeming to understand her direction and Sallie walking briskly to keep up, holding the torch aloft. As they tread ever deeper into the halls beneath the ruined castle, Grace striding resolutely forward, sword in hand, Sallie next to her, they suddenly stopped as a hand laid itself on Grace's shoulder and the metallic click of a pistol being cocked echoed through the hall. A low voice growled, "Don't try anything. Stand still." Grace did as requested, Sallie freezing on her other side. She scarcely dared to breathe, but glanced over toward Grace. The figure was in the deep shadows of a niche in the hall, and Sallie couldn't discern the face or voice, but had an eerie feel that thrilled her. He leaned forward and held out the torch.
"Sallie! Thank God that you're all right." Mack released the hammer on the pistol, holstered it and stepped out into the hall in front of the two women. "Grace?" He looked down at her white robe and the sword that she wielded in her right hand. "What's going on here?"
"No time to explain, Mack. We have just enough time to rescue Jan and Melinda, if we hurry."
At Mack's confused expression, Sallie stepped forward and hugged him. "Just listen to her, Mack. Let's go. God, Mack, you're bleeding. Look at your face."
"Um, looks worse than it is." He fell into place next to them, and they resumed their rapid pace through the corridors. "Say, where's the cops?"
Sallie gave his arm a squeeze and replied, "They're of no use here. Grace will do this."
"Grace?" He glanced over at her, and continued, "No offence, but what can you do?"
Sallie chuckled a bit, then answered for Grace, "I have a hunch that she can do quite a bit. Just go with it, Mack. Please." Still confused, he nodded and kept his place next to Sallie as they approached a door. At the entrance, Grace stopped, a hand upon the door, and turned toward Mack and Sallie. She spoke very authoritatively, her eyes seeming to glint as she offered instruction to her two comrades.
"Listen, now. What you're about to see will shock you. This I ask above all else, just trust me and the powers I that can command. Sallie, stick near Mack. Mack, protect Sallie at all costs. Don't let the followers of Arawn get their hands on her. Understood?"
Mack was firm. "Oh, yeah. I'm with you on that."
"Good." With that, she gave a shove to the door, and it swung open. The light of the chamber lit the hallway, and Grace entered, Mack and Sallie just behind her. She quickly peered back at Mack over her shoulder and gestured toward a corner of the room, then returned her attention toward the chamber's center. Mack took the hint and pulled Sallie toward the corner as he kept his attention riveted to the spectacle unfolding in front of him in the large room.
The low stones surrounding the pit in the center of the chamber seemed to glow with their own light as fierce flames erupted from its center and danced toward the stone ceiling. Several robed men stood around the pit, the leader among them. He held a sword aloft, facing the pit, and was speaking, it seemed, to the bright, sinister flames dancing in front of him. Mack's eyes did not have to wander far to notice that Jan and Mel were also in the room, restrained and under guard by several of the followers of Dahak. Seeming to sense the intrusion, the leader stopped his ritual and turned to face Grace. The two just eyed each other for a long moment, then the leader spoke.
"High Priestess, you are out of your element here. Leave now, and you might survive the night." In response, Grace said nothing, just held her hands aloft, raising the sword toward the ceiling over the tall flames. The sword seemed to glow, then burst into flame, a silver-blue flame which streaked to the ceiling and struck the stones overhead with a resounding bang. She stood so for several seconds, eyes closed, a study in concentration, all occupants of the room staring wordlessly. As a deep rumble sounded, the leader glanced up to the ceiling, then growled a protest and raised his sword, approaching Grace. She seemed oblivious to his demeanor and lost in her trance. As he raised his sword to strike her, Mack leveled his pistol and took aim at the man's chest. He did not have time to shoot; the ceiling began to cave in, stones raining down upon the fire pit in the center of the room. The cacophony of noise, falling stones, and dust created confusion in the chamber, its occupants scattering to protect themselves from falling debris. The leader staggered, then looked back at the fire pit. Falling stones, dirt and rubble piled up within it, diminishing the flames. The large hole in the ceiling exposed the chamber to the night above the castle, stars occasionally twinkling above them now and the soft illumination of the moon becoming more evident within the room as the intensity of the flame in the pit sputtered and fell, attempting to lick around the stones and free itself. The leader stared at the sight, then turned and swung his sword at Grace. She was ready for the attack, however, and parried his swing with her own blade, a blade which still glowed with flickers of the silver-blue flame.
At the confusion of the collapsing ceiling, Jan whirled and viciously attacked the man nearest her. She struck him in the stomach with her fist, and he doubled over with a grunt. Mel grabbed his hand, attempting to wrestle Jan's pistol from his grip, as Jan dealt him a blow with her right hand which snapped his head back. He released the pistol, and it fell to the floor with a clatter. He collapsed heavily to the floor, and Jan watched him fall, then turned her attention to Mel.
She was in the grip of two of Dahak's followers, struggling to release herself. One had her about the waist, and the other grabbed her hair and pulled back hard, causing her to utter a cry. Jan reacted on instinct; she charged, plowing into the three, and her hands gripped a throat as her knee found an abdomen. The man bent over, and Jan again kneed him, this time in the face. He staggered away, hands over his nose and blood pouring out between his fingers. As Mel struggled with the other man, Jan desperately looked for her pistol on the floor. Not seeing it, she turned to attack Mel's assailant with her bare hands, but stopped short when she saw the knife at Mel's throat.
Mack stood in one corner of the room, Sallie just behind him and peering around his arm at the scene in front of them. About ten feet away, Grace and the leader were engaged in a furious sword-play, blades flashing and clanging. She seemed well able to parry his attacks, but was backing up slightly as his somewhat superior strength told upon her. Her speed, however, was quite good, and she managed to swipe her blade across his arm. At the cut, he cried out and backed away from her, retreating toward the fire pit. Grace followed carefully, slowly, then once again raised her arms, an exclamation in the ancient Celtic tongue on her lips. At the words, several tremendous claps of thunder sounded and a wind began to whirl through the chamber, raindrops, leaves and dust carried with it. It quickly built to a whirling, blustery storm which seemed to enter through the large hole in the ceiling and pelt all occupants with stinging raindrops. Its fury became blinding; the wind shrieked and howled around the large room, and all within it were forced to cower before its sheer strength.
All except Grace, that is. She stood, seemingly unaffected by the maelstrom within the room, hair and robe whipped by the storm. Mack bent low, pulling Sallie with him as the two huddled in the corner, attempting to protect their faces from the violent weather.
Jan squinted through the stinging, swirling gusts of wind and rain, calling aloud for Mel. She did not answer. Jan could not see more than a few feet in front of her, and felt herself staggering in the wind and pouring wetness. She fell to her knees and crawled toward the spot where she last saw Mel, but could not find her or her captor there. Her hand, however, felt something fragile under it, and she lifted it to her face. Shit, Mel's eyeglasses. She's got to be here somewhere. She folded them and shoved them into her shirt pocket under her leather jacket, continuing her slow crawl forward.
The wind and rain now were reaching a crescendo; the rain soaked her, and the howling gusts of wind ripped the words from her mouth as she called Mel's name. She felt herself grow panicked, and attempted to peer around her for some sight of her lover, but to no avail. As she felt the floor in front of her, littered with stones and debris, something grabbed her ankle and pulled her backwards slightly. She looked back; a tendril of flame had snaked out from the stones covering the fire pit, and had wrapped itself around her foot. She kicked at it, but it held fast. Another tentacle of fire wrapped itself around her arm, and she felt herself pulled across the hard floor toward the pit. She struggled to free herself, but the grip was strong, even painful. As she slid across the floor, pulled over stones and through wet puddles of rain, she desperately grabbed for something, anything that she could hold on to in order to stop her inexorable progress toward the pit. A third tendril of flame snaked out and grasped her around the neck. It began squeezing, and pulled her against the stone base and steps of the pit. She attempted to pry the rope-like flame from her neck, but could not break its grip. Her arms ached with the effort. She was now thoroughly pinned against the low stone wall, and was having trouble breathing. The flame about her neck was tightening, slowly, methodically, and cutting off her airway. Her vision began to redden and turn spotted, but still she struggled until she felt that her head would burst and she had to fight to attain any breath at all. She fought to concentrate, fought to keep her thoughts lucid as a sick fear of her own impending death knocked at her consciousness. In her desperate state of mind, a voice addressed her, seemingly from within her own mind but not of her own volition. Janice? Janice, relax. Give me control. Let me enter.
Her mind wondered at the voice, even as she continued struggling. It addressed her again. Janice, stop. Relax. Give me control. It won't kill me, but it will kill you. Jan blinked through the wind and rain which soaked her, but could see no one near her. The voice seemed to her, however, to be soft, reassuring, yet somehow authoritative as well. Jan stopped struggling, fought her panic down and lay still. In an instant, her whole form seemed to thrill as she felt a tingle cover her flesh, from hairline down to her very toes. The tentacle of flame about her neck loosened slightly, and she gasped for breath, panting heavily. Her chest, arms and legs, however, were still pinned by ropes of flame. She could not move, but she could now breathe.
Janice's mind whirled, and her whole body felt somehow renewed, energized. She heard herself think, Who?, and a voice answered, I will protect you. Just let me have control.
She blinked in confusion, then her eyes widened as she was struck with the identity of the voice. Aloud, she gasped, "Gabrielle?" The voice, again, was insistent. Shh. Relax. I am with you now. It will not kill me.
"Mel? Where's Mel?"
Xena will see to her safety. The ancestors will protect the descendants. At the voice's persuasive quality, Jan relaxed slightly, closing her eyes and concentrating on maintaining a stillness of spirit as the gusts of wind and rain continued to assault her. She was now soaked to the skin, and shivering involuntarily. As she lay still, she wondered, Now what? The voice responded, Now, just have faith in me. Please. As long as I am within you, it will not destroy you. Janice responded in thought, Guess I can do that, huh? She thought that she actually heard a chuckle from within her own mind, and the voice answered, Faith is hard for you. It was never hard for me, until the end.
As Jan lay still, a form thudded onto the floor near her and rolled slightly. It was a robed follower of Dahak. The still body lay twisted and contorted at Jan's feet, the expression upon its face ghastly. At the twisted angle of the head, Jan instinctively guessed that the neck had been violently broken. Xena. She is near. As she squinted at the body, she felt a hand on her chest. Looking down, she recognized Mel's hand. Mel's voice was weak in the shrieking, rain-soaked whirlwind which still encompassed them. "Jan? Jan, my God, what has happened to you?"
A voice echoed in Jan's head, Don't let her touch you just now. Jan attempted to call a warning to Mel, but a tongue of flame licked out and struck the tall southerner, knocking her away from Jan and causing her to fall onto the body collapsed at Jan's feet. She's all right. We've got problems, though.
At the thought, Jan looked to her right. The leader was crawling toward Janice, his sword still in his hand. He squinted through the torrents of rain and wind at Jan, then stopped near her and studied her intently for a moment. Jan, wrapped in tendrils of flame, just gave him a disapproving scowl. Through the noise of the storm, she shouted, "What are you lookin' at, asshole?"
In response, he just grinned. "Our lord's next sacrifice. This will feed him, make him stronger. The druid cannot stop this." He raised up on his knees, and lifted the sword above his head. Jan watched him disbelievingly, then thought, Do something fast, ancestor. The voice responded, Now is the time to struggle, together. Hard. At the prompt, Jan twisted violently and attempted to free herself, but the tendrils of flame just pressed harder upon her. The wind whipped ever more ferociously, the rain pelted ever harder, and Jan saw the moment frozen in front of her, the deranged fanatic wielding his sword above her and preparing to bring it down upon her. As if in a dream, she saw the sword begin to descend, almost as if in slow motion. At the same instant, a long arm struck out with an ornate dagger and deeply pierced the man's chest. His eyes widened in shock and pain, and the sword fell harmlessly from his hand to clatter upon the stones. He stared down at the dagger, then at the face belonging to the hand that wielded it. With the muttered words, "His will be done,", the man fell sideways against the stones, lying limply against them just a foot or so from Jan's leg.
Jan looked at the dagger's handle. The hand still grasped it, and she stared in shock as she realized whose hand it was. "Mel?" She raised her voice and shouted over the din of the storm, "Mel? Mel!" Melinda did not hear her. Her attention was still riveted to the hand with which she grasped the dagger, and the face of the man she had just killed. Slowly, she withdrew the hand and stared at the palm, red with blood. Her face an expression of tragedy, she studied her palm and then turned toward Janice. Their eyes locked for a long moment, and in the pained blue eyes, Janice could see the disbelief and horror that was mirrored in Mel's very soul. Jan's heart seemed almost to burst at the sight, and tears stung her eyes as she lay enveloped in flame.
A frantic thought assailed her. The voice which, before, had seemed so reassuring was now tinged with a hint of frantic urgency. Janice? Look at your leg. Don't let it happen. Fight it. By all the gods, fight it. Jan glanced down to see a tendril of flame wrap itself around her leg and snake toward her pelvis. Not again! Don't let it touch you down there, Janice! No! Jan squirmed, fighting with all her strength, but the point of flame worked itself up slowly around her thigh and then poised itself above her pelvis, hovering almost like a snake preparing to strike. Janice felt a panic, a panic which escalated into frantic combat with the flames, but she was losing. Eyes wide with horror, she watched the snakelike flame poised above her pelvis, frantically attempting to kick it away, but to no avail. Shit! Gabrielle, help me. I can't get loose of it. At that moment, a blade tinged with silver-blue flame flashed across the air just above Janice. It severed the tendril of flame, and the amputated portion bounced across the floor, then extinguished itself. A dull roar seemed to echo above the howl of wind and rain, and the storm increased in its swirling ferocity until it overwhelmed all inside the chamber. Janice closed her eyes and struggled against the bonds of fire holding her, feeling her hand free itself. Her other arm could move, as well, and She opened her eyes just enough to see the fingers of flame which had restrained her loosen their grasp and retreat away from her toward the fire pit. Grace stood over her, somehow maintaining her stance in the face of the furious storm within the chamber, and her eyes seemed to glow with their own energy. She raised her hands one more time, and, as she stood so, the torrent of water raining down upon the room became an absolute deluge. Jan rolled down the step in front of the pit, crawling slowly away from it, and she heard the voice within her warn her, Janice? Keep your head down. It's coming.
What's coming? What now? In answer, she felt the hair on her arms seem to bristle, and the smell of acrid ozone filled the chamber. A streak of brilliant white lightning arced through the hole in the ceiling, striking the fire pit with a deafening bang. Jan pressed her face to the wet floor, feeling bits of stone and debris bounce off her back and clatter around her. Her head spun and her ears rang with the after-effect of the resounding lightning-strike. Then, almost as suddenly as it had appeared, the wind subsided and the rain stopped.
Jan lay on the floor, in the midst of a water puddle, blinking. Gabrielle? What in hell just happened? In answer, the voice responded, Janice, Dahak is contained. I must leave you now. You are safe, but my task here is not yet finished. Jan felt a thrill of regret, and thought, Wait, don't go. Gabrielle...... She felt her skin tingle, and a sudden weariness overwhelm her. As she slowly rose to her hands and knees, she knew that her ancestor had left her, and a deep sense of loss and regret consumed her for a moment. Shaking it off, she blinked and wiped the water from her face with a shaking hand. As she returned her eyes to the floor, she noted her pistol lying near her left hand. She slowly picked it up and examined it. A filthy mess. Needs a good cleaning. She reached around and holstered it in the canvas holster aside her right hip. Oh, shit! Mel! Where's Mel? Jan looked to her right, and saw Mel's form lying a few feet from her. She crawled over to the tall southerner and placed a hand on her chest, lifting her head with the other hand. "Mel? You all right? Talk to me."
Mel opened her eyes, and studied Jan's face for a long moment. Slowly, carefully reaching out with a hand, she rested it on Jan's cheek and whispered, "Oh, Jan. Thank God you're safe. I was so scared for you."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Can you sit up?" Mel stirred, and slowly sat erect, groaning slightly with the effort. She gazed around the chamber, noting the shambles around her, and then looked back at Jan, softly speaking.
"It all seems a dream. Did this really happen?" Her eyes stopped their searching when they beheld the limp body of the man she had killed a few moments before. "I....."
Jan followed the path of Mel's gaze, and then hugged her close. "You only did what you had to do, Mel. You saved my life."
"Jan, I killed that man."
"Don't think about it now. We can talk about it later. Look, try to stand up." Jan lifted her, and they both slowly stood, clinging to each other. As they rose, Grace approached them.
"Janice, Melinda, are you two quite all right?" She looked them over quickly, noting their nodded responses, then turned her attention to the rest of the chamber. Mack and Sallie emerged from the corner of the room, picking their way through the rubble and stones which dotted the floor. The five soaked, bedraggled survivors just stood quietly for several moments, gazing around them at the wreckage which littered the chamber. The storm's maelstrom had quieted, and soft moonlight beamed in through the gaping hole in the ceiling, accompanied by occasional drips of rainwater. The fire pit, still smoking, had been extinguished. No trace of the flame was to be seen. All stood in silence for some time, seemingly attempting to make sense in their own minds of what they had just experienced, when Jan broke the silence.
"Jesus. What a mess. How are we gonna explain this to the cops?"
Grace chuckled. "When the primal elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water combine, the results can be...... rather extraordinary, don't you think?" Her whimsical attempt at humor coaxed nervous laughter from the others, and Mack followed with his own observation.
"Understatement of the year. Say, what about Dahak's followers?"
Grace shrugged. "Even now getting as far away from here as they can, I suppose. We needn't worry about them. With their lord contained, they will not be of any danger to us any longer."
Sallie pointed toward the fire pit. "What about those two?" All turned, and they beheld the limp bodies of two of Dahak's followers lying twisted on the stones. The leader, knife's handle still protruding from his chest, lay crumpled against the pit, and the other, ghastly expression evident upon his features from his broken, twisted neck, was sprawled just beyond the first.
Grace nodded. "I see what you mean. How unfortunate. I suppose we will have to involve the police, after all. Explaining this to the authorities is going to be tricky." No sooner had the words left her mouth than the two bodies began to glow. In a split second, they simply disappeared from sight, leaving only a slight shadow of dried blood on the stones where they had lain just a second before. The knife which had been resting in the leader's chest clattered to the floor and lay in a puddle of water. The five stood, shocked at the sight, then Sallie broke the silence with a soft whistle.
"Whoa! Nice trick, Grace."
Grace turned toward the others, a puzzled look on her face. "I didn't do that."
Mack responded, "I bet I know who did." At the words, Jan glanced at Mack, and the two smiled a knowing smile at each other. Mack noted Grace's perplexed look, and just offered, "Long story. Tell you when we get home."
Grace raised an eyebrow, then nodded wearily. "Yes, I suppose we should do just that. Nothing more we can do tonight. Shall we?" At that, the group turned and began shuffling toward the chamber's door. As they did, Sallie cast a glance toward the others and muttered a regret.
"An historical site, and it's totally trashed.. I'll bet those books and scrolls were destroyed. What a loss."
Mack was more questioning. "Hey! What happened to the shelves? They aren't there."
The group stopped and stared toward the wall where the shelves were evident the day before. Only stone walls peered back at them. Jan approached the wall, and began examining it closely. "I'll bet they still are. Keep back, guys. There's a pattern of stones around here that is different from the rest of the floor." She scanned the walls, then placed both hands on the stones and felt along them until she felt one which moved. As she pressed it, a rumble emerged from the stones and a section of the wall began to move. It slowly turned, and as it completed its motion, shelves came into view. Most shocking to the group, however, was the presence of a figure squatting cross-legged on the floor just in front of the shelves, an ancient book open in his lap and a flashlight shining down upon the pages. Jan's rucksack sat just next to him. The figure peered up at them, surprised, and then brightened and began chattering excitedly.
"I say! Just look at these manuscripts! Most remarkable, really. I haven't seen anything like this in years. There's Greek, and Latin, and even a dialect of Celtic here. Rather hard to read, though. I simply can't wait to sit and attempt a decent translation of this. It's simply priceless, I suspect." At the blinking expressions and open mouths of the group which stood before him, he shrugged, and continued, "What? You lot look as if you've seen a ghost or something."
Sallie was first to speak. "Paul! We thought you were dead."
"Dead? I should say not. Whatever gave you that outlandish idea?" He closed the book, clicked off the flashlight, and stood. "I must confess, I have no idea how I got closed in with all this wonderful stuff, but then my memory is a bit fuzzy, it would seem. Must have fallen asleep, as well. Had the most marvelous dream. An angel or something." He gestured toward Jan, and laughed a bit as he continued. "She looked rather like you. Yes, striking resemblance, really. Aren't dreams the most amazing things?"
Mack pointed at Paul. "What happened to your shirt?"
"My shirt?" He looked down, and perceived the front of it soaked with dried blood and a tear in the center of the stain. "I say, I have no idea."
Jan just shook her head, chuckled, and muttered aloud, "Gabrielle, you've been hard at work, haven't you?"
A sultry female voice tinged with an undefinable accent echoed from behind the group. "Yes, she has. But then, I always have known her as a miracle worker."
At the new voice, the group froze, then slowly looked at each other. They turned in unison, and stared toward the still-smoking fire pit. A shaft of bright silver moonlight beamed in through the hole in the ceiling and lit the floor. In the beam, two figures stood, one rather tall, one short. They studied the group for a long, silent moment, then stepped forward several paces to stand in front of the speechless group of scholars and the silent druid. As they did, their features became evident.
The figures made an odd pair indeed. The tall one was of fearsome military appearance, dark, and clothed in leather and armor. Her bearing was straight and regal, her frame muscular and taught, her ebony hair braided at the sides and flowing almost to her waist. The handle of a sword exhibited itself over her right shoulder. She stood, arms crossed across her chest, and simply nodded a silent greeting toward the group and then smiled down at her companion, who acknowledged the gentle look by looping an arm around the tall one's waist. The shorter one seemed soft where the tall one appeared hard, seemed gentle where the tall one appeared intimidating, and seemed to radiate a perceptive understanding where her tall companion simply gazed with a practical acceptance upon the circumstances around them. She nevertheless had an appearance of military prowess as well, however; the handles of two weapons protruded from her tall boot-tops, and she held a staff in her free hand which was almost as tall as she was.
The tall one spoke again, the sultry voice clear in the night air. "High Priestess, you have done well tonight. Dahak is once again contained, thanks to you."
Grace nodded in silent thanks, then questioned the two strange figures before her. "I am not familiar with you. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?"
Jan stepped forward, and placed a hand on Grace's forearm. "Grace, meet Xena and Gabrielle."
At the statement, Grace's eyes flashed in surprise. "I did not know from our traditions that you were involved."
Xena just smiled slightly, but Gabrielle offered an explanation, gesturing toward Janice and Melinda. "Wherever our descendants are, we are there as well. They live constantly under our protection. It was them who drew us here tonight, and the blessing of Morgan Nimue which allowed us to protect them."
Xena interjected, "Many thanks to her and to you for your containment of Dahak. There is enough turmoil in this world without his interference. It would possibly have tipped the precarious balance of good and evil in your realm toward uncontrollable chaos." She looked down at Gabrielle and placed an arm around her shoulders. "We should go, love. The moon wanes, and we are needed elsewhere."
Gabrielle nodded, and looked at Grace. "Be at peace." With that, the figures shimmered, then disappeared from before the group. They stood in silence for a long moment, until Paul's voice broke the silence.
"Well, bugger me. I've seen it all now, I think." Several snickers and an outright laugh or two answered his exasperated statement, and Jan cracked a broad grin.
"You ain't seen the half of it yet, Paul. Say, you've got an interest in the Order of the Pierced Heart, don't you?" He nodded, speechless. "Well, follow me, gang. I've got something to show you that I think will knock your socks off. Hand me my rucksack, will ya?" He did so, and Jan opened it and passed flashlights around to the group. "Take these, and follow me. Mel and I found this room yesterday, but the connection didn't hit me until just now." As they headed toward the door, Jan in the lead, she paused and struck the loose brick in the wall with her hand. The section of the wall containing the manuscripts moved, and retreated into the wall. "Keep 'em dry and safe until we can get back here tomorrow. Now, this way." They filed out into the dark corridor, flashlights lighting their way, and Jan wound the group through the maze until they appeared at a dead end in one corridor. She felt along the wall, and pressed a stone. A waist-high entrance rumbled open, and the group ducked down and entered, one at a time.
Flashlight beams illuminated the chamber which Jan and Mel had entered the day before. There, in the musty air, stood the large round table which she had remembered, the wood of the table and chairs gray from passage of time. Flashlight beams arced and danced around the walls as the group slowly paced the interior of the chamber. Paul's light lit a decayed tapestry on the wall, and his voice was excited. "My God! Look at this. The symbol of the Order." At his statement, the others glanced up. Sure enough, the outline of a heart pierced vertically with a dagger shone in the beam of light. Mack's voice was the next one to attract attention.
"That's nothing. Look at this. Paul, didn't you tell me that you thought that this order was the precursor of the Knights of the Round Table?"
"Yes. Haven't been able to make the connection, however. My colleagues laugh at me. The Round Table is considered to be myth, you know."
"Like the sword Excalibur?"
"Well, come over here and be prepared to drop your teeth." At that, flashlight beams all converged on the corner of the room from which Mack's voice emanated, and lit the corner. There, next to Mack and Sallie, was a large block of stone from which the handle of a sword jutted straight up toward the ceiling. The explorers converged on the stone, and in a moment it sat brightly lit by the beams of the lights. Sallie bent forward, examining the stone. Her voice became excited.
"Anybody got a brush? There's some writing here." Jan rummaged in her jacket pocket and produced her soft brush, handing it to Sallie. She carefully brushed the accumulated dust of centuries away from the surface of the stone, then shone her light upon it at an angle. "It's in Latin."
Jan prompted, "Read it for us, Sallie."
She studied the script for a bit, then translated it aloud, her voice echoing in the ancient chamber. "Whosoever.... pulls this sword from the stone..... will likewise be made.... ruler of all Britannia." She stood, her dark eyes wide. "Holy crap. Have we just found what I think we've found?"
Paul was speechless. He walked forward slowly and reached out a slightly shaky hand to caress the pommel of the sword. "Excalibur."
Mel looked at Jan. "I thought that was just legend, Jan. Stories."
Mack grinned in the dim light. "Where do you think myth and legend originates, Mel? Often, the basis of myth and legend is truth. That's why the stories endure throughout the centuries."
Grace teased Mack. "Fact, from fancy?"
"Nope. Fancy, from fact."
Mack lay quite still in the darkness of the room, just relishing the feel of Sallie's slender form against him and listening to the rambling tale softly pouring out of her in a veritable torrent of words. He pondered her description of the druid-mother's ritual in the forest and the gathering of forest folk which Sallie described in her own exuberant style, her head near his ear and her hand repeatedly wiping a hank of recalcitrant, unruly hair from her eyes as she rambled on. As she paused to catch her breath, Mack interjected, "Sallie?"
"Um, yeah, Mack?"
"This faerie, Demue. Tell me again about her."
"All of it?"
"No, no. Just the part about her age."
"Oh. Well, Claire thought that she was several centuries old."
"Incredible. And the faerie queen? How old was she? Same age?"
He felt Sallie shrug in the dim light. "I suppose. Perhaps even older, since she was the queen." There was silence for a moment, then Sallie continued, "Hey, what's going on in that thick male head of yours? I know that silence. Your wheels and gears up there are turning a mile a minute."
Mack laughed softly. "You can tell that in the dark?"
"Oh, yeah. I can smell 'em burning."
"Oh, just a thought, really. Say, what was the faerie queen's name again?"
Sallie thought for a moment. "Titania. Yeah, that was it. Why?" Mack lay still for a moment, then his chest rumbled with soft laughter. Sallie huffed and blew the unruly lock of hair out of her eyes, then gently thumped her fist down on Mack's chest. "Come on, guy, out with it. What's going on?"
In answer, Mack just muttered, "You're in esteemed company, honey. I don't think you're the only one who has ever met the forest faeries."
"Don't you remember your Shakespeare, Sallie?"
"Some. What are you talking about?" In answer, Mack began to speak softly, rhythmically in the pentameter of poetry several hundred years old.
"I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I'll give thee faeries to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep....."
Sallie raised her head from the pillow of Mack's shoulder. "Wait a minute. Um.... A Midsummer Night's Dream, right, Mack?"
"Bulls-eye. Do you recall the character of the faerie queen? You know, who, under a spell, fell in love with that goofy actor with an ass's head?"
"Remember her name in the play?"
"Oh, good God, Mack. You don't think......."
"When in that moment, so it came to pass,
Titania waked....... and straightway loved an ass."
That night, Jan found herself slowly awakening, and wondered what had roused her. As she lay in the night, sleepily puzzling over the question, she noted the bed squeak slightly. She rolled over to face Mel and felt the uneasy stirring from her mate, hearing soft muttering in the night. The words were unintelligible, but their inflections were unmistakably frantic and unhappy. Jan felt herself grow fully awake, and quietly sat up in bed, watching Mel's vague form fidget and stir. What the hell? She never does that. She sleeps better than anyone I've ever known. Frustrated at the darkness in the small room, Jan slipped her legs out of the covers and hung them over her side of the bed, feeling about the bedside table for her Zippo. Finding it, she softly opened it and struck the flint, lighting the single candle which adorned their table. Its soft yellow glow offered some light to the room, and Jan used it to sit and study Mel in her uneasy slumber.
The beautiful face, usually serene in sleep, was unhappy and pained. Soft murmurs emerged from her, and she turned to one side, then to her back in her sleep. Jan just watched, amazed. This isn't like Mel. She never has bad dreams. Jan reached out a hand and placed it on Mel's chest. "Mel? Mel, honey, wake up." Melinda started, and uttered a soft cry as her eyes flashed open and she stared at the ceiling for a moment. Her form was tense, her eyes wide and her chest rose and fell heavily under Jan's hand. "Mel? You okay? You were having a bad dream or something. You worried me."
Melinda sat up in bed, taking a deep, ragged breath and letting it out slowly. She covered her face in her hands for a moment, then wiped at her eyes and looked over at Jan. "I'm sorry, darlin'. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Don't worry about it. What's going on? You never have bad dreams."
"Oh, Jan. It was so real. It was happening all over again."
"What was happening?"
"I.......killed that man, Jan. I did it. I took his life. Me. I can still see his face."
"You did the only thing you could do, Mel. He left you no choice."
"I know that. In my mind, I know, but it doesn't help. I still see it." Mel looked at Jan in the soft light, her expression imploring. "You, Jan. How did you deal with this?"
"You mean, the first time I killed anyone?" Mel nodded slowly. "I'm rather ashamed to admit this, but I don't recall that it bothered me all that much. Oh, I had some bad dreams, yeah, but just drank myself silly at night and eventually they faded away." Jan looked sheepish, then continued, "Of course, that was before I met you."
"Nah. To tell the truth, I was gettin' toasted pretty regularly up until you came along."
"Because..... of the dreams?"
"Yeah, partly. There was other stuff, but yeah, partly."
"Jan? Is this going to keep happening to me? You know, like Mack? Am I going to see this in my sleep every night from now on? Because if I am....."
Jan scooted close in the bed and wrapped her arms around Mel, who buried her head in Jan's shoulder. "Look, Mel, we'll beat this. I'm with you. I'll never leave."
"Oh, Jan. I know. I don't want to burden you with this. It's my problem."
Jan lifted Mel's head with a hand beneath her chin and locked her hazel eyes onto the misty blue ones before her. "It's our problem, Mel. Don't leave me out of this." Melinda attempted a weak smile, and wiped at one eye with her fingers. "Look, why don't you just sit here for a moment? I'll sneak down to the kitchen and make you a hot tea with a dash of whiskey or something. It'll help relax you."
"I don't want to be a bother. It's the middle of the night."
Jan flashed a reassuring grin. "No problem, Mel. Look, give me five minutes, then come down to the kitchen. I'll have it ready. Deal, gorgeous?"
Melinda actually offered a weak chuckle. "Deal, cutie."
"All right, then." Jan slipped out of bed and quietly creaked the door open, padding on bare feet down the stairs to the kitchen. She clicked on the light over the stove, then placed the water kettle on a burner and turned a knob. In a second, a soft 'whoosh' announced that the gas had ignited, and Jan watched the blue flames lick around the base of the kettle. As she rummaged in the cupboard for the tea and found a bag, she lifted a teacup and placed it on the counter. Now, where's the whiskey? I know Grace has to have a bottle stashed around here somewhere. She opened another cupboard door and found the bottle. Oh, yeah. Bingo. Hey, pretty good stuff, too. She placed the bottle next to the cup, and impatiently waited for the water to heat, her mind racing as she crossed her arms across her chest and tapped her toes on the cool floor. Damn. Poor Mel. I can't believe this shit is happening to her. She's such a good soul. Wonder why it didn't affect me so hard? Probably because I'm an asshole. Her, she's as good as they come. So's Mack. Those are the folks that get hit the hardest with this kind of thing. Hey, that's it! Maybe she can talk to Mack. I'll bet he can offer some insight of his own on this thing. She pondered the idea for a moment, then shook her head. Nah. He didn't handle it very well, either. Drank a lot, like me. With him, it lasted for a couple of years. She thought of Mel suffering like this nightly for a couple of years, and winced as a tightness gripped her throat. Mel won't make it that long. This will tear her up. Mack might not be able to help. Her eyebrows raised at her next thought, and she snapped her fingers. No, but I know who can help.
Jan noticed the water kettle hissing softly, and clicked the flame off. She poured the steaming water into the cup, allowing the tea bag to steep, and then padded over to the door leading out to the gardens. Softly opening the door, she stepped out onto the stones of the porch, gazing up into the night sky. Stars twinkled back at her, and she searched the night until she noted the moon gazing down at her with a dispassionate, detached air. Now, how the hell do I do this? Feeling a bit self-conscious, she looked out over the gardens, dark with shadows in the moonlight, and next whispered softly from her heart.
"Gabrielle? I'm not sure if this is the right way to go about this, but I have something to ask of you. I've never asked anything of you before, but I need your help. It's Mel. Can I talk to you for a moment?" Jan paused, listening quietly, unsure of just what to expect. She scarcely breathed, hoping against hope, wishing desperately to discern some sign that she was heard. As she stood in the cool night air, puzzling her mind over what, if any form the answer would take, she felt the hair stand up on her arms and her skin tingle. For a moment, she thought it was the cool air, but somehow knew differently when a soft voice seemed to soothe her from within her own soul.
I'm here, Janice.
"It's Mel. She's suffering. She's......" Suddenly, Jan felt a surge of powerful, overwhelming emotion rise within her, cutting off her words, closing her throat and bringing tears to her eyes which blurred her vision and ran down her cheeks. She wiped at her face and struggled to contain her emotions. "Sorry."
I know, Janice. I know what's in your heart. I know what Mel suffers, as well. It happened to me, so long ago. To a gentle soul, it's a torture beyond words.
"Can.....you help her? You know, like you did for Mack?"
Bring her to the gardens, Janice. Now, while the moon is still up. Bring her here.
Jan sniffed, wiped at her eyes, and smiled. "You got it." She turned and entered the door, quickly pacing to the stairs and ascending them to the room. Mel still sat up in the bed, and turned her head as Jan entered.
"Oh, Jan. I was just about to get up."
"Mel, come with me. Right now. No questions, just trust me. Please."
After a slight pause, Mel nodded. "All right, Jan. What's the matter?"
"Please, Mel, just do it. Come on." The sense of urgency in Jan's whispers prompted Mel, and she rose from the bed, walking around to the door. Jan took her hand and led her down the stairs. As Mel turned toward the kitchen, Jan pulled gently on her hand, and led her to the door leading to the gardens. Mel hesitated.
"Aren't we going to the kitchen?"
"Not yet, Mel. Look, just trust me, please? You trust me, don't you?"
Mel was mystified. "Of course I trust you. What's this about?"
"Just come out here with me." Mel allowed herself to be pulled by the hand out of the door, and into the cool night air of the stone porch. "Look, just sit here quietly for a moment. I'll sit with you." Mel, still puzzled by Jan's strange behavior, relented and perched on the steps, Jan sitting beside her. "Notice the moon. Isn't it beautiful?"
Mel gazed at the moon for a long moment, then over at Jan. "Why, yes, it is." She cocked her head and studied Jan in the soft moonlight. "Is that what you brought me out here for? Jan, I'm surprised at you. You've never done this before. It's almost...... romantic."
Jan rested a hand on Mel's arm. "It's more than that. I have a feeling that it will be.... therapeutic. Look, you just sit here for a minute. I'm going to get your hot tea. I'll be right back." With that, Jan rose and re-entered the house, leaving Mel alone on the step.
Melinda sat on the step, pondering the moon and her lover's unusual behavior. Well, I'll be. Jan, the romantic? She really is a sweetheart, but she's never wanted to moon-gaze before. I'll have to wake her up in the middle of the night, more often. She wiped at her face with a hand. Guess I'll be waking her up in the middle of the night a lot, from now on. As she returned her gaze to the gardens and the moon, a strange feeling began to envelop her, a feeling that she was not alone on the step. She knitted her eyebrows together and peered around her, a sudden thread of fear thrilling through her. As she returned her gaze to the steps in front of her, she froze and her mouth dropped open slightly in surprise. A soft, pale light lit the steps, one which was not present before. As she watched, her eyes adjusting to the night, the light took form and presented itself to her. She gasped and sat back slightly on the step, alarmed, but the voice which addressed her was soothing and somehow very gentle. It spoke softly, traced with a strange accent, but in impeccable English.
"Melinda? Please don't fear me. I have come at Janice's request."
Mel sat, dumbfounded, and finally found her voice. "Janice?" She studied the figure, and as it finished taking shape, Melinda's eyes widened in recognition. "Gabrielle."
"Yes." Gabrielle took a couple of steps toward Mel, standing about three feet in front of her. Mel's eyes were drawn to the figure, amazed and strangely attracted to the ethereal beauty of the ancient bard. Her form, shining softly, was slender and hard, but soft at the same time. Her hair just barely touched her shoulders, and her face bore a timeless, ageless beauty about it. Most entrancing to Mel, however, were the eyes which peered back at her. They were absolutely mesmerizing, piercing, full of wisdom and compassion. As Mel studied them, she heard herself think, Such eyes! Truly mirrors of the soul, aren't they? Those are the kindest, and the saddest eyes that I think I have ever seen. How sad they are, and yet how full of hope, as well. She looks so like Janice.
Gabrielle rested her staff on the steps by Mel's feet, and leaned forward until their faces were very close. Her face assumed a soft smile, and she spoke very reassuringly. "Melinda, you have seen what Xena and I had hoped you would never see. You, the gentle one. You must let go of the pain, surrender it. You have no need to suffer from this. Find peace within yourself once again." At that, she leaned forward and kissed Mel's forehead. The touch was cold, but somehow warm and thrilling all at once. Mel closed her eyes, and just allowed the touch to caress her, engulf her. Her body seemed to her to become immobile, and emotion overwhelmed her. She burst out into a veritable river of tears, weeping openly, as Gabrielle watched her purge her own soul of the dark rivers of guilt and agony which had threatened to drown her. For some time, it seemed, they remained so, Melinda weeping and Gabrielle lifting her hand to stroke the dark hair, and then, Mel quieted herself. Sniffing, she wiped at her eyes and looked up. "It didn't affect Janice so. Why is that?"
"But it did. She doesn't remember my visit. She was quite drunk, you see. Her pistol was in her hand. I arrived, it would seem, just in time."
"But..... she's killed since then."
"She has a warrior's soul, a warrior's nobility of spirit, a warrior's...... detachment. For her, it is..... acceptable."
"But not for me?"
"Not in this realm." Gabrielle lifted her staff from its place on the steps, and stood erect once again. "Not for you, gentle one. Be at peace, now." She then allowed her eyes to travel from Melinda's face toward the door. Janice stood, teacup in hand, watching quietly, her hazel eyes wide in newfound understanding. Gabrielle's gaze pierced her very soul, it seemed, and then the ancient bard nodded a farewell and vanished. Janice stood in the doorway, contemplating what she had heard, and offered out the thought, Thank you.
My love for you is my duty. The two are inseparable, my distant daughter.
Jan smiled slightly at that, and left the door to sit next to Mel on the stone steps. She offered out the teacup, and Mel took it gratefully, sipping it. They sat in silence that way for some time, just gazing at the moon and relishing each other's close presence, finding words unnecessary and somehow very inadequate as the night wrapped itself about them and caressed them with its gentle breath.
Dear Miss Pappas:
This letter furthers our correspondence concerning the documents found recently in excavations outside London, and which you have so kindly agreed to translate for our department. They are now being packed and shipped to you via insured international post. You should anticipate them in perhaps one week.
Enclosed, please find a cheque in the amount of $100, United States currency, offered as half-payment for your expert services. The remainder will be rendered, as per agreement, upon completion of your efforts.
As an additional point of interest, I am given to understand that at least one of the documents has been initially determined to have been penned by one Gabrielle, warrior-bard of Potidaea. Knowing of your familiarity with her work to date, I think that you should find this particular task a true labour of love.
Paul Franklin, PhD
Dear Dr. Covington:
Thank you for your kind inquiry on the progress of the excavations now currently being completed outside London. I am pleased to inform you that, in reference to the documents written in the old Celtic script which you helped us uncover, and whose translations are now being edited, there is a definite reference to the presence of two Greek travelers and their connection with the Order of the Pierced Heart. It would seem that one of the warriors present left written accounts of his life as a member of that order, and that the persons of Xena and Gabrielle are well-described therein.
In addition, cursory translations of the Latin documents by Dr. S. MacKenzie reveal an account of the conflict between Xena and Julius Caesar which transpired near the site of the excavations.
Knowing of your reputation as the foremost recognized authority on the Xena legends, I thought that you would be deeply fascinated by these new developments. As soon as the translations are deemed complete, a copy of all relevant ones will be forwarded to you.
Once again, I offer thanks on behalf of our department for your assistance on this excavation, and look forward to further correspondence with you.
Paul Franklin, PhD