Violence Disclaimer: some. Nothing super-gross. Don't read, if it offends you. There is reference to a suicide in here; if you are badly affected by that, please don't read this story.
Sex Disclaimer: Yep. (Oh, goody!!) Contains references to two women in a love relationship. Nothing blatantly graphic, though, just some warm and fuzzy stuff. (Aww!) If offensive, or illegal where ya live, don't read. You know the rules, folks.
Comments, questions, suggestions etc.: Legit feedback can be sent to me at email@example.com. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I loved writing it. I realize that I probably took a few liberties with the details of the characters, and that avid Xenites will spot them in a second. Please don't get too upset with me; writing fiction gives one license to slaughter detail. Also, if anyone reading this is actually into archaeology, they were probably gnashing their teeth the whole time. Sorry. Made for a good story, though, huh?
Timeline: This story takes place after (a long time after!) the grand finale of the sixth season, and is the result of a question lingering in my feeble mind concerning what happened after we saw Gabrielle sailing away, holding Xena's ashes. Who better to figure it out than their alter-ego/descendants from the 20th Century, Janice and Melinda (with a bit of help from their friends)? Get ready for mystery and adventure! -DJB.
Archaeological dig about 40 miles northwest of Athens, Greece, 1946.
Mack emerged from his tent, pulled his worn fedora hat low over his eyes, and surveyed the low Grecian foothills. It was, to his estimation, another perfect day. The sun was warm, the coffee fresh, and the feel of ancient Greece was so close about him that he could literally reach out and touch it. He had always loved ancient Grecian history, and had earned a doctorate in that field of study.
The recent war, however, had interrupted his career. With his three-year hiatus from academic life , he found that landing a professorship had been harder than he had expected. Were it not for his old friend and colleague, Janice Covington, hiring him to assist with background and historical research on her present dig, he would probably be in dire straits indeed.
Yes, he reflected, Janice was always there in a pinch. They had known each other for a long time now, ever since the early years of graduate school. Even back then she was an odd duck, very unconventional about her personal appearance and habits. Janice seemed a contradiction of sorts, a study in extremes. She was an attractive woman, but never used makeup and would die before wearing a dress. She actually seemed to prefer men's clothes. Her form was petite, but athletic and full of strength. She was also a lot of fun to pal around with, as she had a taste for booze and excitement that was unknown in the majority of their fellow students. Whenever they would escape the confines of the university to drink a bit at a local bar, or hike and ride horses in the country, or sail the bays, her companionship was always an unpredictable pleasure. Talented students of archaeology and history, the two of them had often fortified each other's study habits with late night cramming sessions during exam week and drinking binges immediately afterwards. Yes sir, she was a different kind of gal.
Mack smiled wanly as he also recalled that, sometime during all that youthful whirlwind of activity, he had developed a tremendous infatuation for Janice. It nearly crushed him at first when she didn't reciprocate. He couldn't understand why. After all, hadn't they even..... what was the expression..... "rolled in the hay"..... once or twice? It wasn't until he had stupidly burst in upon Jan's room one day, only to find her tangled together with another female student beneath the covers of her bunk, that the full implications of her being "a different kind of gal" really hit home. The incident had definitely preserved their friendship, though, as Mack finally understood that her hesitation to become romantically linked with him wasn't really personal. He just didn't possess the right......curves?
Mack fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, lit it, took a deep drag, and began his daily stroll towards the activity of the dig. Although Janice was in charge of the project, she was in Athens consulting the curator of the museum for a couple of days, and meeting a friend who was traveling in from stateside. Mack had agreed to "mind the store" while she was away, and insure that the work proceeded smoothly. The workers, led by several able graduate students, were excavating some tombs that had recently been discovered in the hillsides. While many of the tombs had been vandalized at some past time, a few had not. Those few were yielding fascinating information now, and were the site of the present work.
As Mack approached the last tomb, he stubbed out his smoke and crouched down to enter the tomb door. There were several people in the tomb itself, cataloging pottery urns. "Where's Sallie?" he called to one of the graduate students inside.
"She went down to the river for a minute. She'll be right back, Doctor MacKenzie."
As Mack stood to look towards the river, he heard footsteps running towards him, and a familiar voice. "Mack, uh, Doctor MacKenzie, I'm glad I found you!"
"Hey, Sallie, is everything okay here?"
"Yeah, going just fine, but I need to talk to you. It's important." Sallie waved him over to her, and away from the tomb.
"What's up? You should be in there, not out here. This tomb is your responsibility."
Sallie huffed, and blew a lock of unruly brown hair out of her face. "I just went around the hill to wash my face in the river. I'm friggin' filthy here. And don't give me that artillery captain's voice of yours, 'cause you might just kiss me when you see what I found."
"What's that? More important than here?" Mack was doing his best, and failing miserably, to chastise Sallie. She was a bit less disciplined than some of the other graduate students, but so full of infectious enthusiasm for life in general and archeology in particular that he could never contain irritation with her for very long. Besides, he admitted to himself, he had a weakness for big brown eyes, and Sallie had two of the biggest brown eyes that he had ever seen.
"You tell me! The inscription is in Greek, and I only read Latin. C'mon, this way." Sallie grabbed his shirt sleeve, and pulled him down the path towards the river. After a few minutes' walk, she stopped and pointed to the rocky bluff that the path paralleled.
"Right here, Mack. I slipped on the path...you know how clumsy I can be sometimes....and hit my shoulder on the bluff here. Must have knocked some dirt away. When I looked, I saw Greek script." Sallie's eyes were aglow, and her small form was fairly bouncing as she spoke and gestured with her hands. "What do ya think?"
Mack stared at the bluff and whistled softly. There was definitely Greek script under the dirt. "Sallie, let's clear this rascal off, and see what it says. Got a brush?" She produced the ever-present soft brush from her back pocket, as Mack did the same, and they began to brush the dirt from the writing. Within a few minutes, they had cleaned the script of dirt and vines. Mack took a step backwards and silently translated the ancient inscription in his mind's eye. As he did, his jaw dropped. The implication of the writing hit him in the chest with the force of a closed fist.
"What is it?" He was vaguely aware of Sallie's voice near him. Mack slowly turned and stared at her, his mouth moving but unable to form coherent sounds. Sallie bounced up and down a couple of times and gesticulated with her hands. "Well? What do ya think?"
"Holy Mary, Mother of God!" was all that Mack could say. Then, after a couple of seconds, he finished his thought. "Do you have any idea what you've found here?"
Sallie's eyes were absolutely sparkling. "I've found another tomb, right?"
Mack's lined face broke into a beaming grin. "Not just another tomb, Sallie. You've found the mother-lode here. Christ, I can't believe it!"
"What?? What?? What the hell is it, Mack?" Sallie punched Mack in the arm, and again blew the shock of unruly hair from her face.
"I'll tell you in a minute. Right now, go and get some paper. We've got to make a rubbing of this. And, I've gotta telegraph Janice to come look at this. Go! Get some paper for the rubbing!" Sallie turned on her heels and began to run up the path. "And Sallie." She turned about, and looked at Mack. "Don't tell anyone about this. Nobody. Got it?"
Sallie's look was puzzled, but she nodded. "Sure, Mack, but why?"
"Because I want Janice here to crack this one. Jeez, let me tell you, if this is what it says, you've just made your boss, Doctor Covington, one very happy woman!"
Athens, later that afternoon.
Janice Covington entered the lobby of the hotel and stubbed out the end of the small cigar in an ashtray. She knew that her friend, Melinda, hated the things, and she was waiting for her in the room that they shared on the second floor. As she approached the elevator, she noticed the clerk wave to her from behind the desk. "Doctor Covington," he called in his thick accent. "Come, please. Here is telegram for you. Says, ' Important!'" He waved the brown paper in his hand. Janice's eyebrow arched in question, and she approached the desk.
After receiving the paper, she tore it open, perused it, and bolted for the elevator trailing a string of colorful expressions culminating in "Holy crap. I don't believe it. Write up our tab, 'cause we're checking out right away!" The clerk merely smiled and nodded. Janice was a frequent guest there, and he had long ago learned that nothing was beyond expectation from this unusual American lady.
Melinda Pappas sat at the small writing desk, poring over a translation of ancient Greek scrolls, as the door burst open and an exuberant Janice bounced into the room. "Get yer shit together, Mel, we're heading back to the dig right now! Gotta catch the train!"
"Goodness, Jan, you fairly gave me a heart attack. Just what has happened?" Mel's smooth southern accent and manner was a stark contrast to the brash personality of her dear friend.
"Read this, and then start packing," Jan said, as she tossed the telegram onto the desk. Mel studied her friend for a moment. Janice was bursting with excitement; her eyes were ablaze, and her body radiated energy. Whenever Mel saw those clues, she knew instinctively that any rational conversation was useless. Jan was on to something big. Mel picked up the telegram and unfolded it. It read:
HAVE FOUND TOMB OF X AND G STOP GET YOUR FANNY
BACK HERE NOW STOP SEE YOU AT STATION
Mel bolted from the chair and enveloped Jan in a bear hug as the two women shrieked exuberantly and danced in the middle of the room. "Damn that Mack," Jan shouted. "I can't believe he did it." Jan then looked hard at Mel, and said, "C'mon....let's get packing. Train leaves in an hour. Gotta get back before tonight!" The two women began throwing their belongings into their bags, and in a couple of minutes they were on the street in front of the hotel, hailing a cab.
Melinda spoke. "Jan, ah really find it almost unbelievable that their tomb actually exists. Just imagine, after all these years, after all your father's research, and yours as well, finally...."
Jan finished the sentence for her. "Yeah. The tomb of Xena and Gabrielle. This vindicates those of us who believed that they were real historical figures, and not just legend. Not just the product of some overactive bardic imagination. Oh, yeah, those bastards at the university who loved to laugh at me are gonna have to eat their words over this." Jan's eyes twinkled at the thought, for she had endured years of their pompous sarcasm for her devout conviction that they were, indeed, real. Mel began to laugh out loud. Jan was right . This was going to be sweet.
A battered cab stopped in front of the women, and they threw their bags into the back seat. As they climbed in, Jan gave instruction to the driver, and the cab lurched away from the corner in a cloud of smoke and the noise of grinding gears, to the disinterested glances of passersby.
All except one, that is, who watched intently from a shady doorway. As the cab pulled away from the street corner, the darkened figure emitted a deep sigh, began to glow slightly, and then seemingly disappeared into thin air, within the depths of the shadows.
Train station, at the village near the dig.
As Jan and Mel emerged from the station, they glanced about, squinting in the late afternoon sun until they caught sight of the familiar battered truck. Mack was leaning against the fender, arms folded across his chest, and started as he caught sight of the women. "Hey, Jan, over here." Mack approached them, and held out his hands. "Here. Let me help you with your things."
Jan fairly ran towards him, with Mel easily keeping pace with her longer legs. "Mack! How...what...where...?"
Mack grinned and waved his hand. "I'll explain it all on the way. But right now, how's about an introduction?"
Jan winced. "Oh, yeah, Jeez, where's my manners? Mack MacKenzie, this is Melinda Pappas." Mel rested her bag on the ground and extended her hand.
"Very pleased to meet you. Jan has told me so much about you." Mel's cultured southern accent was instantly charming to Mack, who suddenly felt a bit like a peasant in her presence.
"Well, don't believe all of it," Mack responded, smiling. "Anyhow, the pleasure's all mine. Gee, Jan, you never told me you had such elegant friends."
And, elegant she was, thought Mack, as they shook hands. Mel was fully a head taller than the petite Janice, and strikingly attractive. Dark hair, olive skin, and the most piercing blue eyes he had seen in a while, she certainly was a strange juxtaposition to Janice's rumpled outdoorsy appearance, lighter complexion, and blond hair.
Jan broke the silence as they walked to the back of the truck. "So, Mack, what makes you think you've found Xena and Gabrielle's tomb? Hey, this better not be another of your practical jokes."
Mack produced a folded paper from his shirt pocket, held it out to Jan, and assumed his best Humphrey Bogart imitation. "Read it and weep, sweetheart. Yer gonna love it."
Jan opened the paper and spread it out on the tailgate of the truck. It was a rubbing of ancient Greek script. As she studied it, her hand shook slightly. "Oh, yeah." was all that she could say. Mel pulled the paper towards her, and began to slowly translate the Greek out loud.
OF THE WARRIOR-BARD
GABRIELLE OF POTADIEA
WITH THE REMAINS
OF HER BELOVED XENA
Jan turned and playfully punched Mack in the chest with a fist. "Hot damn! You really did it!"
"Hold on, Jan, I didn't find this.....your graduate student, Sallie, did."
"Sallie? That...ditzo..... found THIS?" Jan was incredulous. Mack threw back his head in a resounding laugh.
"Yeah, she did. Literally stumbled onto it. And you don't give her enough credit. She's got a lot more on the ball than you think," Mack replied with a grin.
"Harrumph. Obviously, she does," was all Jan could say, and then she began to pace back and forth in front of the other two. "Oh, yeah, we've gotta crack this thing open as soon as we can. The other work can stop. I want all this painstakingly documented. Every bit of this has to be photographed and recorded. Oh, yeah. Hot damn." Jan stuck a small cigar in the corner of her mouth and clacked her zippo open to light it. Mack and Mel just stared at her silently, and then cast each other a knowing look. They had both seen Janice look like this before, and when she got in this state, there was no stopping her. Her eyes were ablaze, and her small body literally quivered with energy. When these signs were alight on Jan, it meant that they were in for one hell of a next few days. If they wanted to share the adventure, they had best scramble to keep up.
Jan stopped in mid drag on her smoke, and looked towards her two friends. "Well? What are ya doing? Don't just stand there....throw that stuff into the truck and let's get going! C'mon, times' a-wasting! Get yer butts into the truck and let's go! I'm driving!"
With that, Jan took off towards the truck cab. Mack and Mel once again glanced at each other, shrugged their shoulders, threw the bags into the back of the truck, and scrambled to the front of the cab, as the engine coughed into life and the back wheels spun gravel and dust.
The dig, early evening.
A magnificent sunset was displaying itself in the western sky as the truck rolled to a stop near the tents at the edge of the dig. The workers, mostly American college students, were eating, relaxing, and washing after their daily labors on the dig site. Almost before the truck had stopped moving, Janice dropped from the cab and strode towards the tents, calling for Sallie. Melinda and Mack retrieved the bags from the truck bed and followed at a distance. By the time they had caught up with Janice, she had found Sallie.
"Oh, Hey, Doctor Covington. How was Athens?" they heard Sallie say.
"Terrific, Sallie, but not as terrific as this." Janice pulled the paper from her shirt pocket and waved it at Sallie. "Doctor MacKenzie here tells me that you found this. Sallie's face brightened, and she nodded. "Take me down there and show me. I gotta see this for myself before it gets dark. Damn, Sallie, you really came through for me with this one!"
Sallie blushed slightly at the unexpected praise from Janice. "Yes, this way. Down by the river."
They both turned and began their walk down the path. Mel and Mack left the bags at the tents and followed behind, listening to Sallie recount the accidental discovery to Janice as they walked. After a couple of minutes, they rounded the bluff and reached the tomb site. As Janice peered at the rocks and dirt, she could see the script in the deepening shadows. It was true! Janice could hear her heart pounding in her ears, and felt positively giddy. She reached out a slightly shaky hand and caressed the script with her fingertips. "Oh, yeah," was all that she could say. Janice then turned and looked at the other three, who had been silently watching her reaction. Nobody moved for a moment, and then Janice reached out and grabbed Sallie in a tremendous bear hug, actually lifting the her off of her feet. "Sallie, I love ya. You stick with me on this one, girl. You're gonna get some terrific research credit out of this. And, by God, when we publish this, your name is going right at the top!" Jan dropped the student, and then waggled her finger at her as a tremendous grin broke out on her face. "And I take back every bad thing I ever said about ya." Sallie merely hung her head and blushed, as peals of laughter broke out from the other three. Janice turned to Mack and gave him a resounding hug as well. "Thanks, Mack. You did the right thing. And, Mel...". Janice turned to face her friend. "I'm sure glad you're here. Thanks for coming." Janice reached out and hugged Mel, a bit more gently than the other two, and then turned serious as she stepped back. "Who else knows about this?"
Mack answered. "Just the four of us, as far as I know. I didn't tell anyone in the dig about it. Did you, Sallie?"
"No, Mack...uh, Doctor MacKenzie. You told me not to, remember?"
Janice spoke again. "Well, we can't be absolutely sure about the secrecy of this. Somebody else may have seen it, and anyway, I need to brief everybody on what we're going to do here tomorrow. Word travels fast, and this appears to never have been vandalized. I don't want any locals sneaking down here tonight messing with this, and looking for gold or whatever. We need to post a guard tonight."
Mack spoke up. "I'll take the guard duty. You guys are gonna be busy enough tomorrow. You're going to need your sleep. Just let me get some coffee first."
"Are you going to stay down here all night? It looks a dreadful place." Melinda looked concerned.
"Yeah. Don't worry about me, Melinda. After three years in the war, this will be a piece of cake."
"It's getting dark. Let's get back up to the tents. I want to brief everybody." Jan led the group back up the footpath towards the camp. "Mack, I want ya to be careful tonight. Bring your gun. Sallie, go and gather everybody together now. I want to talk to them. And Mel..."
"Yes, general?" Was Mel's teasing response.
Janice shot Mel a guilty look. "Am I getting that bad?" she queried. Mel simply raised her eyebrows and flashed Janice a crooked grin. "And Mel, your job will be.......just to keep me from getting too far out of line."
"Good luck, Melinda," Mack interjected from behind them. "Sounds like you've got the roughest job of all." Sallie giggled and poked Mack in the ribs with her elbow.
"Oh, ah think ah'm up to it, darlin'. Ah haven't failed so far, now have I?"
"Janice," Mack said, "I think you've finally met your match. I really do."
Sallie trotted on ahead to assemble the workers, as Mack parted company with the two women and headed towards his tent. Behind him, he could hear the buzz of excitement as people began to gather near the fire. Jan's voice carried as she called for order, and began to describe the next day's activities. As Mack entered his tent, he sat heavily on his bunk and began to rummage in his rucksack. After a few moments, out came a metal flashlight and his pistol belt. He clicked the flashlight on to test it, and the beam seemed strong enough. Better not to take chances, though, Mack thought, and pulled a couple of extra batteries out of the bag. These, he dropped into the pocket of his jacket as he pulled it on. He next turned his attention to his pistol, drawing it from the worn leather holster. Its feel was cool and reassuring. Yeah, heavy and accurate. A good basic pistol. Thirty-eight special. Mack began to pull cartridges off the belt, loaded six into the cylinder, and clicked the revolver shut with a flick of his wrist. Christ, Mack thought, how ironic that an historian would have to carry one of these things. Good to have out here, though. Plenty of varmits about in the night....both the two and four-legged varieties. He had gotten the habit from Janice, who never went on a dig without hers. Their pistols had come in handy in certain instances on previous digs, and neither one of them was afraid to use it. Mack reflected that he certainly wasn't........he had undoubtedly been responsible for a fair number of deaths in Italy, and a couple more in the future won't matter.
Mack stood, stuffed the flashlight into his back pocket, and headed towards the kitchen tent as he strapped his pistol belt onto his waist. The assembly was breaking up, and Sallie approached him. "Looking for that coffee?" she asked, as she eyed the pistol apprehensively.
"Yeah. Any left?"
"Got your thermos right here."
"Thanks, Sallie. Always looking out for me, eh?"
"Always, Mack. Be careful. Um, do you want me to visit you later?"
Mack reached out and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "Nah. That path might be dangerous in the dark. You get some sleep. I have a feeling you're going to need it tomorrow." Sallie glanced furtively about, assuring herself that no one was looking, and then leaned forward and gave Mack a quick kiss.
"Gonna miss you tonight."
"Yeah. Me, too. Go on, and rest well."
As they parted, Sallie trotting off towards her tent, and Mack striding down the path towards the river, Melinda watched them from the flap of the tent that she and Jan shared. She turned to Jan, who was pulling the battered boots from her feet, and spoke softly. "Ah had no idea that Mack and......now, what's her name......Sallie......have something going on between them, did you?"
Janice dropped a boot heavily to the ground, and looked over to Mel. "What? That's crazy, Mel. Where'd you get that idea?"
Mel just chuckled as she drew the blanket over her shoulders. "Honestly, Janice Covington, you can be so blind sometimes. Well, g'night, dear. Ah'll be asleep in about two seconds." Mel settled down on the cot, and sighed deeply. Within five minutes, she was breathing in the slow, luxurious manner of one deeply asleep. Jan sat motionless on the side of the cot with a puzzled look on her face, wondering just exactly what else was going on around the dig that she was oblivious to. After a bit, she shook her head, slipped out of her shirt and pants, and wiggled down into the cot, relishing the warm, familiar feel of Mel's sleeping form as she, too, faded into a deep slumber.
The tomb, that night.
Mack approached the tomb site carefully, as the darkness had almost completely fallen and the moon had not yet made its appearance. He looked about the path and nearby trees for a vantage point from which he could see both the path and the tomb door at the same time. Finally, he selected a site at the base of the tree near the tomb. After settling himself comfortably at the foot of the tree, he popped the cork stopper off of the thermos and poured a cup of coffee. Oh, yeah, he thought, warm and just the right amount of sugar. Sallie never misses a trick. Mack suddenly felt an unfamiliar tug of affection taking hold of him, as her name crossed his thoughts. Yeah.....one in a million, that one is. Real sweetheart. Really am crazy about her. Gotta try not to screw up with this one. Mack shook his head, and tried to clear his thoughts. Gotta concentrate. I'm on guard duty here. Keep eyes and ears open. Don't let the thoughts stray too much. He shivered as a sudden wave of memory swept over him: the war, the Italian mud, the constant filth and exhaustion, and the ever-present fear of impending death from a nearby, unseen enemy. To him, the war wasn't a grand crusade; it was a grinding, brutal, endless job. A bad dream from which there was no escape. It was simply an application of physics and geometry by which he and his men lobbed high explosives across valley or foothills in an effort to kill people and destroy things. He could almost feel the concussion of the guns, smell the acrid smoke from the howitzer discharges, and hear the swearing and shouting of the gunners. He still got ringing in his ears upon occasion, an after-effect of the constant noise. Mack shivered and pulled his jacket tightly about him. Yeah, he had never expected to live through that one. Almost didn't, one time. A German tank had found their range, and disintegrated one of the trucks near where he was standing. That son of a bitch was a good shot, he mused. Mack had been knocked to the ground, deafened and stunned by the concussion. A few seconds later, hot needles of pain had stabbed through his side as he tried to move and realized that he had taken some shrapnel from the explosion. By God, he had never felt a hurt like that before or since in his life. It wasn't all bad, though, as it got him back to the base hospital in Salerno. A month of good food and hot showers.....even though it wasn't the "million dollar wound" that most of the guys had hoped for. One of those wouldn't cripple a fellow badly, but it would send him back to the states. Mack went back to the front, instead, carrying the scars and a bit of the retained shrapnel. Story of my life, Mack thought. Day late and a dollar short. Always catchin' the wrong train.
Mack took another sip of the coffee, and glanced skywards. Good. The moon was up, and it was full. Got some light to see by. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree trunk. Got to shake the war......the memories don't do anybody any good. Nightmares come regularly, but they're less frequent. Can't remember the last time that a night of undisturbed sleep came along. Maybe it hasn't been long enough. Maybe that's why the booze is such a comfort every now and then. Maybe, with time, all this will be so distant that it won't haunt the thoughts anymore. Maybe, I can get a good night's sleep again someday. Maybe.
Suddenly, Mack felt all his senses tense and sharpen. The hair literally stood up on the back of his neck, and his skin crawled. His hand instinctively went to his pistol, as he looked about him. What the hell? Something's close....instincts don't lie. Mack looked left, and studied the path up from the river intently. Nothing. He strained his hearing, to detect the slightest sound of the movement of a living thing. Nothing. Then, he swung his head slowly to the right, and the thermos lid fell from his hand. A band of inexplicable fear tightened across his chest. Standing near the entrance to the tomb, about five or six feet from him, was a figure. Silent, iridescent, unmoving. "What the...." was all that Mack could say. The figure held a finger to its lips. They stayed that way for what seemed an eternity, studying each other. Mack shook his head, and looked again. The figure was still there, peering at him. It was strangely beautiful, and its appearance fascinated him. A woman of indeterminate age, dressed very oddly. Her hair was light, and not quite shoulder length. Her garb was brownish through the hue that she projected. She wore a short skirt, some kind of half-top, and had high boots with something projecting from the tops of each one. They looked like....knife handles, perhaps? In one hand she carried a staff as high as she was. Wide metal bracelets adorned both wrists. She moved her mouth as to speak, but the voice seemed to come from inside Mack's head.
"Please," the voice said, "Do not fear me." The language was Greek, but the accent was strange and musical. Mack sat frozen, unmoving, as the figure slowly approached him. It knelt in front of him, and placed the staff on the ground next to its knee. It spoke in Greek again, a velvet, lilting voice that played through his head. "MacKenzie, war is hard on the soul. I know this, as you do. Be at peace with it. You have seen much death. Now see life." The figure was now only two feet from him. Mack kept his eyes fixed on the strange sight. It had the kindest and saddest eyes that he had ever seen. The figure reached its hand towards Mack and lightly touched his forehead. The touch was cold, but at that instant Mack felt a wave of emotion wash over him and he erupted in an unstoppable flood of tears. God, what's the matter with me, Mack thought, as the sobs shook him. Crying like a baby. Gotta pull it together. Get a grip, for Christ's sake. With great effort, Mack gained control of himself and raised his head. The figure was still there, studying him.
Mack wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands, and tried to speak. "Who are you? How do you know my name?" he whispered, and then repeated the questions in Greek.
"Not important. You will know of me soon enough. Listen now to what I say to you." The figure paused for a moment, and the voice then rang through this head once more. "MacKenzie, you and your friends are of good heart. You have come to honor our ancient memories. You will find the answers you seek here. But, beware the God of War."
"The God of...you mean...?"
The figure held up its hand. "Do not speak his name." It looked towards the sky. "There is no more time. The moon is low. I must leave you." The figure grasped the staff and stood before him.
"Wait. Don't go...who.....what....?"
"Remember my warning. Beware the God of War. Be at peace. Farewell."
Mack blinked, and the figure was gone from before him. Mack leapt to his feet. "Crap!! What the hell was that all about?" he exclaimed out loud. His hands were shaking, and he felt his heart pound hard. "Was that a dream? I gotta lay off that cheap booze. Holy hell, what just happened to me?" He stepped into the path, and looked around him. All was quiet. He studied the tomb site again. Nothing was disturbed.
Mack took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Gotta calm down. Just a dream. No, it wasn't. Too real for that. Maybe I'm losing my marbles, he thought. See a shrink? Naa. He would never believe it. I'd end up in a padded room, cutting out paper dolls. He looked at the sky, and noticed a beautiful red sunrise beginning to light the east. Morning already? That was a short night. Drink some coffee....that will settle me down. Mack picked up the thermos, and took a swallow. Ugh, the stuff was cold. How could it have gotten cold so quickly? Get control of yourself, MacKenzie, you dumb-ass. Think straight. The sun is rising. It's gotta be morning. You must have had a hallucination or something. Is this what they mean by shell-shock? Christ, I'm going back up to the tents. Get the hell outta here. They'll be up by now. Janice won't let anyone sleep late this morning.
Mack picked up the thermos lid and his hat, and trudged back up the path towards camp. On the way, he reached up and touched his cheek. He could still feel the wetness of some tears. Mack MacKenzie, he thought to himself, what the hell is happening to you? As he passed by the kitchen tent, Melinda greeted him. "Sun's up," Mack called to her. "All's well at the tomb. Tell Janice I'm gonna get some shut-eye, and I'll see her later." Melinda nodded her understanding, and Mack entered his tent. God, but he was tired. He undressed quickly and lay on his cot, pulling a blanket over him. Within a moment, he was deeply asleep.
For the first time in years, Mack slept like a child; a deep, restful sleep undisturbed by visions of the past, and anxious to awaken to a new day.
Janice stood at the entrance to the tomb, surrounded by her assistants. Under her rapidly barked instructions, they began to clear the dirt and vines away from the bluff wall, searching for the edges of the door. Within an hour, the door and its framework were clear and they began the careful process of chipping away the plaster that covered the stones and mortar of the tomb door. Oh, yeah, Janice thought, this is it. We'll enter this thing today. When we do, we'll need lighting inside. She instructed one of the students to bring some lamps from the other tombs, and to run a power cable down from the generator to power them. She then assured herself that the student assigned the photography duties was getting documentation of the entire process.
By late morning, the plaster was gone, and they were working on loosening the stones of the door itself. They had to be careful here, as Janice wanted the stones pulled outwards, not knocked into the tomb. Janice cajoled, instructed, and complemented continually; after what seemed an eternity, a large stone near the top of the chest-high door was loose and ready to be extracted. Janice and Sallie slipped long, slender hooks into the door on either side of the stone, and pulled in unison. With a scrape, the stone slid out and fell to the ground at their feet. Janice grabbed a flashlight, and clicked the beam on. She put her face to the large hole, and shone the beam into the tomb. The air smelled musty, and very dry. That was good, Janice thought. Dry means things haven't rotted. Artifacts might be in better shape. Her eye followed the circle of light as it traveled around the darkness of the tomb. There were several large pottery jars lined against the far wall, and that wall also appeared very smooth. As she concentrated the light upon it, she realized that it was a large mural, with much script and painted with scenes. The light traveled farther to the right, and came to rest upon a rectangular stone structure. That would be the sarcophagus itself, Janice thought. She could barely discern something on top of the lid which appeared metallic, but couldn't make it out in the dim beam of the light. Janice clicked the light off and straightened up from the hole. She stood silently for a moment, apparently lost in thought, then became dimly aware that no one was speaking or moving. All eyes were on her. "Come on, you guys. What're you waiting for? Let's get our butts in gear and get this door cleared out!" Janice hollered cheerfully, and a unanimous hurrah arose from all the students present. They set to work with a vengeance, pulling rectangular stones from the door and stacking them up in order across the path from the tomb. In no time, the door was completely clear.
The lights had arrived from the other tombs, and Janice called instruction to start the generator. She heard the motor cough a few times and then sputter into action. The light in her hands flickered, and then shone brightly. She looked about her until her eyes lit upon Sallie. "Grab that other light, Sallie, and come with me. You found this thing. You get the honors." Sallie's eyes sparkled through the dirt and sweat on her face as she held the second light. The two women knelt down and shone their lights forward into the tomb as they slowly crept inside. "Watch your step and go slowly," Janice instructed. "This is the first time in two thousand years anyone has been in here." Sallie stuck by Janice's elbow as they scanned the interior of the tomb with their lights and crept forward. Once inside, they found the interior ceiling high enough that they could stand up. They extended the tripod stands on the lights, and placed them on the floor. The lights afforded both women a much clearer inspection of the tomb. The mural wall was now well lit, and it was a breathtaking sight. The colors were still bright and vibrant. The quality of the artist's work was impressive. The mural consisted of a fair amount of Greek script, dotted with large pictures of figures in action. Two women were depicted in various scenes of heroics. In the center of the mural was a large portrait, perhaps four feet tall, of these same two figures. Janice moved closer and studied the pictures for several moments. Janice turned and looked at Sallie, who stood transfixed by the sight. "Sallie," Janice said softly, "Meet Xena and Gabrielle."
"Doctor Covington, this is fantastic. This is more than anything I ever expected." A tear ran down her face, and Sallie quickly wiped it off with a dusty hand. "I'm sorry for getting so emotional, but this is incredible. I've never done anything this exciting before. God, what a feeling. Do you ever get used to this?"
Janice just smiled. "Sallie, this is what archeologists live for. This is the incredible intoxication that keeps us grubbin' in the damn dirt. We never forget it. Now, let's get crackin' here. Enough stalling. Don't touch anything yet. We gotta document everything just as it is." Janice went to the tomb door and called out to the students huddled around the entrance. "Get that camera in here. Bring the flash. I want pictures of everything. And you." She pointed at one of the students. "You know who Melinda Pappas is?" The student nodded. "Go up to the tents and tell her that we've got some Greek that needs to be translated. Pronto." The student nodded and took off at a run. Janice stood and turned her attention to the rest of the tomb. A few pottery jars sat against the wall. The sarcophagus occupied the center of the room. She approached it, and the metallic objects atop the lid became clear. Weapons. Two knifelike instruments, and a large ornate circular weapon with a sharp edge. Just then Sallie's voice pulled her attention away from the weapons.
"Doctor Covington? This face. It looks just like you."
"Huh?" Janice turned to look at the mural again. Sallie was pointing to the shorter of the two figures depicted in the mural. Janice stepped forward to study the figures again, and felt an almost electric shock run through her. She was looking into her own face. The figure's eyes looked straight out at her from the painting. Good God, I'm looking into a mirror, Janice thought.
Sallie's voice echoed softly in the room again. "And this one looks like your friend, Miss Pappas." Janice's eyes shifted to the taller of the two painted figures, and her jaw dropped. It was the spitting image of Melinda. Same hair, same eyes, same.....everything. Janice and Sallie turned their heads towards each other and locked eyes. For a moment, neither of them said anything. Janice could see the questions in Sallie's face.
"I can't explain it." Was all that Janice could say. "This is getting weird." Finally, Janice broke away from the mural, and went to the door . She crouched down, and shouted out to the others, "Goddamn it, where is that camera? And, where's Melinda?" The graduate student with the camera began crawling in through the door, his arms loaded with equipment.
"She's on her way, Doctor Covington. Where do you want me to start?" He stood erect in the tomb, and his eyes widened. "Wow," was all he could say.
"Start with the mural. Get it all. Get everything, sweeping from left to right. Take your time, don't skimp on the film, and make 'em as perfect as you can. You got both print and slide film? Good. Shoot it all. Don't miss a thing." She gave him a friendly slap on the back, and then continued. "You got enough light?" The student fished a light-meter out of his pocket, held it aloft, and nodded.
"I should have, with the flash."
"Great. Get to work. As soon as you finish, go develop the prints. Can you print 'em big?"
"Got plenty of eight by ten paper, Doctor Covington."
"Good. Knock yerself out. Hey, Sallie, let's get out of here for a bit, and let Al do his job, eh?"
Melinda sat at the outside table where people took their meals, finishing her tea and enjoyng the warm noon sun. She had heard the cheering and clapping from the bluff, and when the generator began popping and sputtering, she knew that Janice had opened the tomb and was probably now inside. As much as she wanted to join them, she willed herself to sit still and wait. There wasn't much she could do right now. That was Janice's element, not hers.
She looked up as footsteps approached, and a voice hailed her. It was one of the students. "Miss Pappas," he said breathlessly, "Doctor Covington needs you down at the tomb. She says there's Greek to be translated in there."
Melinda leapt from her seat. Yes, finally. As she accompanied the student back towards the bluff, she made conversation. "So you all have opened it?"
"Yup. Doctor Covington and Sallie are inside now."
"Have you seen it?"
"No. They're the only two so far. We have to photograph and catalogue everything before we touch stuff. Say, can I ask you a question?" Melinda nodded. "Doctor Covington is pretty good at Greek, but she asked for you. Is that your expertise?"
"Well, yes. She seems to trust mah translations more than her own. Mah father was an archaeologist, and ah began learning greek at an early age."
"THE Doctor Pappas? I know him. I took some courses from him at Duke. How is he?"
"Ah'm afraid he died several years ago."
"Oh. I'm sorry, Miss Pappas. I really liked him."
"That's quite alright, dear. And please, call me Melinda."
"He had done some research on the Xena legends with Doctor Covington's father, hadn't he?"
"Why, yes, he had. It does seem to run in the family."
"Your families were about the only people who actually believed that they were not myth. I must confess, up until now I always thought they were myth, too. But," he added with a grin, "I think I'm about to become a big believer."
They rounded the corner of the bluff, and encountered a small crowd of people standing at the open tomb door. Large blocks stood stacked against the bluff wall, and the crowd was talking animatedly. At the center of the gathering stood Janice, dirty, beaming, and puffing on her small cigar. Sallie stood next to her, equally dirty, equally beaming, and seemingly the object of newfound respect from the other students. Janice's face crinkled into a large, toothy grin as she saw Melinda. "Hey, Mel. Got some work for ya."
"So ah hear. My, you all look positively filthy. And, ah might add, very happy."
"It's fabulous, Mel. In exquisite condition. We'll go in as soon as Al gets finished photographing everything." Janice bent down at the door. "Hey, Al. How's it going?" A muffled affirmative response came from inside the tomb. As Janice straightened up, she heard Sallie speaking with Melinda.
"Miss Pappas, uh...Melinda?"
" This inscription over the door. Can you translate it for us?"
Melinda read the inscription out loud, in English. As she finished, Sallie spoke again. "Maybe it's nothing, but the wording strikes me as odd, doesn't it you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I always understood that Xena was the major person in the legends, but the way this is written, it seems to name Gabrielle first. Xena is mentioned only as an afterthought."
Melinda studied the inscription again. "Why, yes, you're quite right. That's certainly the way ah read it. Isn't that odd?" Janice looked at the inscription for a moment, then spoke.
"Jesus. I never noticed that. I wonder why? Crap, I'm racking up more unanswered questions here than I can handle. Well, maybe the script inside will fill us in. Is Al going to take all day? Damn, I know I told him to take his time, but we need to get back in there. Got shit to do, ya know?"
Melinda attempted to sooth Janice's impatience. "Now, Jan, they've been here for two thousand years. They'll wait for you a bit more. Let the lad work, and relax." Nervous laughter erupted from the surrounding students as they saw their precocious boss gently chastised. Janice just shot a sheepish grin at Melinda, and said nothing else.
After what seemed an eternity, Al crawled from the tomb, camera bags in hand. "Okay, Doctor Covington, I've shot everything. Have the prints for you in a couple of hours."
Janice waved to Melinda. "C'mon, Mel, time for you to read. Sallie, you're with us. Where's the team that's going to sketch and document?" Several of the students waved their hands. "Let's go, guys." Janice led the group into the tomb, crouching as they entered.
As the band stood up inside the tomb, they went to work with hushed voices and determined precision, tagging, sketching, and documenting the location of every loose item in the room. Janice and Sallie led Melinda to the mural. Melinda softly whistled as she perused the magnificent murals. "Good Lord, Janice, there's a lot here. Why, it appears to be a......history? No, more of a......testimonial towards them. A eulogy, perhaps. Why, yes, that's it. A eulogy." Melinda slowly scanned the murals, and stopped dead in her tracks at the large portraits of the two women in the center of the wall. "This is what they looked like?"
"It's reasonable to assume that it was painted shortly after their deaths."
"It is simply breathtaking, Jan. So lifelike. So...."
"Familiar?" Janice finished her sentence for her, and then pointed to the two faces. Melinda stared at the portraits, and then at Janice. "Yeah, I know. Don't say it. It's giving me the creeps. We need answers here....let's start reading. Where do you want to start?"
"Ah'll start here, this looks like the beginning." Mel scanned the script, keeping place with her finger, and slowly progressing, often hesitating until she chose just the right word. She described their humble origins, their early lives, their steadfast friendship and their known accomplishments. The stuff jived perfectly with what was known of the existing Xena scrolls. Several of the students paused occasionally in their work to listen as Melinda's soft southern drawl gave life to the ancient words. Finally, Janice, who had been standing silently and listening, touched Melinda on the shoulder.
"Mel, the students have done everything they could here today. Let's knock off and get back up the hill. C'mon."
Melinda nodded, relieved to be given a respite. She looked around the room, and realized that they were the only two left inside. As they were about to crouch down and exit the tomb, Melinda stopped Janice with a hand on her forearm. "Jan?"
"Are they....in there?" She pointed at the sarcophagus.
"Are you going to open that?"
"Yeah. Tomorrow. Why?"
"Sure. Gotta examine the remains, Mel."
"You'll be......careful with them?"
Janice studied Melinda's face. She looked deeply concerned, and even sad. "Yeah. I'll be careful with them. It's strange, but they're like family to me, after all these years."
"It's not strange at all, Jan. You have always believed in them. What is strange is that ah somehow feel as though ah've....we've..... come home."
"I was just thinking the same, Mel. There's a sense of peace in here that I haven't felt in any other tomb." Janice snaked her arm around Melinda's waist and gave her a squeeze. "Now let's get out of here, before you start getting really weird."
Melinda gave Janice a playful push towards the tomb door. "Janice Covington, have you ever been serious in your entire life?" They were both laughing as they exited the tomb and emerged into the late afternoon sun. As they walked up the path toward the tents, a couple of the students were placing a canvas tarp over the tomb entrance. Janice scanned the bustle of activity in front of her with satisfaction. Oh, yeah, she thought. This is a good dig. A happy dig. My dig. She felt her chest swell a bit with pride, and thought to herself, oh yeah. Dad would have been proud of me today. And, somewhere deep in her soul, she felt an affirmative reply.
The dig, later that afternoon.
Mack was sitting at the meal tables, listening to the excited chatter of the students as they ate and described the day's events. He sipped a cup of coffee, and cast an eye about for Sallie. She must be at the shower, he thought. Doesn't like to eat when she's filthy, and she probably got that way today trying to keep up with Jan. He constructed a mental image of the scene, and chuckled a bit at the whirlwind of activity that Janice must have been. His ruminations were interrupted by Janice's voice.
"Hey, stranger, mind if we join you?"
Mack looked about, to see Janice and Melinda approach with their trays of food. "Naw, come on. Glad to see you. Wondered how things went today." The two women placed their trays on the table across from him, and sat down.
"Incredible, Mack. We got inside. It's magnificent. Very little deterioration."
Melinda spoke. "We got some wonderful photographs. Just developed. Would you care to see them?"
"Would I? Absolutely. Hand 'em over." Mack began to peruse a couple of the photographs, and whistled softly. "Neat stuff. Can't wait to see it myself."
Janice spoke, this time. "Well, come on down, tomorrow morning. We're gonna remove the artifacts inside, and open the sarcophagus."
Mack suddenly shivered slightly, as the vision from the night before swept through his mind. Should he mention it? He looked at the two women, and decided not to. They probably wouldn't believe him, anyway. He glanced again at the photograph, and then back at Janice's face. Of course! MacKenzie, you idiot, that was it! Mack began laughing out loud, and pointed a finger at Janice from across the table. "I gotta hand it to you, Covington. That was one hell of a practical joke you pulled on me last night. You sure got me back for all that shit I did to you in college!"
Janice blinked at Mack. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, come on. That was great. I don't know how you did it, but you scared the crap out of me. I nearly peed my pants."
"What?" Janice and Melinda exchanged glances. Melinda shot Janice an accusatory look, and Janice shrugged her shoulders.
"You know. The get-up and the glowing stuff. The weird Greek accent. 'Beware the God of War.' All that. How did you do that?"
"Mack, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I was in my tent all night last night."
"Come on, Jan. It was you. I saw your face."
Janice became slightly exasperated. "Mack," she repeated, "I did not leave my tent last night."
Mack stopped smiling as he looked at Janice's expression. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Janice nodded. Mack then turned his gaze towards Melinda, who spoke.
"She's right, Mack. She was in the tent all night."
Mack suddenly felt very cold. He glanced down at his coffee, and rubbed one hand through his hair.
"What the hell is this all about, Mack?"
Mack took a deep breath, exhaled, and leaned forward across the table to the two women, who were casting each other puzzled looks. Here goes nothing, he thought to himself. "Can I tell you two something.......in confidence?" Both women nodded, and bent forward to listen. Mack then slowly, carefully, haltingly, began to describe his experience from the night before. Both Janice and Melinda listened carefully. When Mack finished, nobody said anything for a moment. They just stared at each other. Finally, Melinda broke the silence.
"Mack, would you please describe the clothing, the appearance, of whoever you saw?"
"Yeah, sure. Woman, short light colored hair. Had a short skirt on. Kinda brownish, and boots which reached almost to her knees. Had big silver-looking bracelets on each wrist. And, she had a long staff."
"And, she had Janice's face?"
"Yeah. Spittin' image."
Melinda shuffled through the photographs, and then slid one across the table to Mack.
"Did she look like that?" Melinda pointed to the shorter of the two figures depicted in the photograph of the tomb mural.
Mack literally felt all the color drain from his face. Melinda observed his ashen look, and chuckled softly. "Why, Mack MacKenzie," Melinda drawled. "Ah would say that you look as though you'd seen a ghost."
Mack picked up his coffee cup with a shaking hand. "Jesus Christ."
"No, Mack. Gabrielle," Janice responded.
Mack looked at Janice and Melinda, each in turn, and then said, "Then you don't think I'm crazy?"
"No, ah don't think so, Mack. We southerners have a long tradition of believing in ghosts. It's very possible that that's exactly what you saw last night."
Janice waved her hand, and said, "Look. Let's go at this logically. Now, Mack, you have not been inside the tomb, right?" Mack nodded. "So, there's no way that you could have seen these paintings before now, right?" Mack nodded again. "Yet you described Gabrielle to a "T", down to her jewellery and boots. How did you do that?" Mack shrugged his shoulders.
"Logically, I couldn't have."
"Right. There's no way. Which means that, logically, it is reasonable to assume that you did see a ghost."
"Then you believe me?"
Janice continued. "Mack, we've known each other for a long time. You're not a nut. You're a rational guy. Now, I've seen a lot of weird shit in my life, and nothing much surprises me anymore. To me, the evidence indicates that you saw what you describe."
"Jan, do you recall ever having this happen before when you opened a tomb?"
Janice considered the question for a moment. "Nope."
"Well, then, why now? Why here?"
Melinda, who had been listening to the conversation, interceded. "Mack, you said that she spoke to you. What was it again that she said?"
"Well, first, she told me to forget the war."
"Has your experience in the war been bothering you, Mack?"
"Well, yeah, to tell the truth. I still get nightmares all the time, and stuff like that. Cold sweats. Bad memories. Don't sleep well. Haven't, in a couple of years."
"Was that what you were thinking of, when she appeared?"
"Yeah, it was. Just invades my mind sometimes. Can't stop it."
"That was when she touched you?"
"Right. And, when she did, I was......literally overwhelmed with emotion."
"So, how did you sleep this morning?"
Mack thought for a moment. "Like a baby. Yeah, I slept great. Say, you don't suppose...."
Janice and Melinda each cocked an eyebrow at Mack, in unison, as if to say, 'What do YOU think?' Then Melinda continued. "Then what did she say?"
"She said......to listen. And then, she told me .....that we were good people who had come to honor their memories."
"Then she gave me the warning about the God of War, and there was something strange about that, now that I think about it. When I was about to name the Greek God of War, she stopped me. Told me not to say his name."
Janice spoke now. "That could be the product of ancient Greek religious belief. That culture was very superstitious. They believed that the gods could hear their names called. What else did she say?"
"That was when she said that she had to leave. Wait, here's something else that's strange. She mentioned that the moon was low. Almost as if she could only be there if the moon was up or something. Then she repeated the warning, and disappeared."
They sat silently at the table for several minutes, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Janice broke the silence. "I don't know about you two, but I have no friggin' idea of what to make of this. Do you, Mel?"
"Me neither. Ah am at a loss here. Mack?"
"Hey, don't look at me. I'm new at this spook stuff. All I know is, I don't wanna go down there again tonight."
"Which brings us to another problem," Janice said. "The tomb is now open, and there's still stuff inside. We've had a whole day for word to get out about this. We have locals working in the kitchen. If anyone is going to try to steal something, tonight's the night to try. There's good money in the black market for this kind of stuff. I hate to ask this of you, Mack, but I need you down there again tonight. Look, I'll go down there with you. You won't be alone. I'll be by your side the whole time. You don't mind, do ya, Mel?"
"Of course not, Jan. In fact, ah think ah should be there, too."
"No, Mel. Could be dangerous."
"Jan, Mack said she spoke in Greek. Mah Greek is fluent, while yours and Mack's is conversational. Ah can be a great help, if she reappears tonight."
Mack started. "Do you think she will?"
Janice shrugged. "Who knows? Will you go, Mack?"
Mack sighed. "Yeah, I'll go. I'll be okay."
Janice nodded approvingly. "Good. That's the spirit. I'll come get you at dusk. Bring your gun."
Mack nodded, and rose to leave. "See you then." Mack cast the remnants of his coffee on the ground as he walked away, and dropped the cup in the barrel of soapy dish water as he passed by it on the way towards his tent.
On the way, he encountered Sallie. She had been to the shower tent, and her dark hair was still damp. Mack's face creased in a broad grin as he greeted her. "Hey, good-lookin'. Goin' my way?"
Sallie's eyes twinkled in reply. "You betcha, mister." She took hold of Mack's arm, and they walked together.
"Aren't you worried that someone will see us?" Mack teased.
"I don't care. I miss you. We haven't been able to steal any time together lately," Sallie said.
"Well, whatcha doing right now?"
"Walking to your tent with you?"
"Sounds like a plan to me." They continued, talking and laughing, until they entered Mack's tent. He pulled the flap down, and they embraced and shared a long kiss.
"Wow," Mack said, as they finally drew apart slightly. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Lookin' for you."
"Well, now that you've found me, what are you gonna do about it?"
"Give me half an hour, and I'll show you." With that, she kissed Mack again, and they sank down onto Mack's cot, still in an intoxicating embrace.
Janice and Melinda entered their tent, and Janice threw her hat on the edge of the cot. Melinda spoke first. "Jan, if you really don't want me down there tonight, ah'll understand. Ah won't like it, but ah'll understand."
"Mel, it could be dangerous. If anything happened to you, I'd never forgive myself." Jan then turned, and put her hands gently on Melinda's shoulders. "I......don't know what I'd do if you got hurt. Or worse."
Melinda's eyes grew warm. "Janice Covington. Are you tryin' to say that you love me as much as ah love you?"
Janice smiled, and allowed herself to be drawn into Melinda's gaze. "That, and more. You're a part of me. No one else has ever been where you've been. Here." Janice touched her own chest, over her heart. "I don't know how you did it, but you did. It's almost as if......"
Melinda finished her thought. "....as if we'd always been together."
"Yeah. That's it, exactly. When we make love, I feel as if....our souls touch. It never gets old."
"You win, you smooth talker. Ah stay here. Now shut up and seduce me."
And, Janice did exactly that.
Janice approached Mack's tent, and called his name. After a moment, she heard Mack's voice respond. "Hey. Come on in." Janice entered the tent, to see Mack lacing up his boot.
Mack looked up. "Yeah." He picked up his pistol belt, strapped it on, grabbed his hat and flashlight, and walked to the front tent flap. Janice was standing in the center of the tent, holding her battered leather jacket. She, also, had a pistol strapped to her right hip, and carried a canteen. As she turned to follow Mack out of the tent, she suddenly flashed an impish smile, leaned over towards his cot, and gave a playful spank to a lump under the tangle of blankets.
"Get some sleep, will ya, Sallie?" Janice said. "We're gonna be busy tomorrow." A low groan came from the blankets. They began to move, and then sit up. The blanket fell away to reveal Sallie's unruly hair, large brown eyes, and a bare shoulder.
"Doctor Covington. Oh, my God. I am so embarrassed."
"For what? Being human? Relax.......I'm your professor, not your mother. By the way, you did one helluva job today. Keep up the good work."
"Er.....thanks, Doctor Covington. It was a blast, wasn't it?"
As Janice turned to leave, she shot back a grin over her shoulder. "Yeah. See you in the morning."
Mack and Janice walked down the path towards the bluff, Janice chuckling to herself, and Mack in an embarrassed silence. Finally, Mack spoke. "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Aw, come on, Mack. Don't worry about it."
"Then you're not upset?"
"Nah. You're not her professor. I am. Its only unethical if I sleep with her, damn it."
"I'm sure glad you changed your mind about Sallie, Jan."
"Me, too. Have to admit I was wrong about her. She's okay. Gonna make one good archaeologist. You should have seen her today, Mack. You'd have been proud."
"Glad you think so. Well, here we are."
Mack and Janice stood at the entrance to the tomb. The canvas tarp was in place over the entrance. They looked at the sunset, and discussed the best place to position themselves. Finally, they placed themselves directly across the path from the tomb door, settling down at the base of a tree. From here, they could keep eyes on the path in both directions. Jan leaned back, and gave a deep sigh. Mack studied her for a moment, then lit a final cigarette before the darkness fell completely.
"You tired?" Mack asked, softly.
"Exhausted. Been a long day." Janice rubbed her eyes wearily.
"Get some sleep. I'll wake you if I hear anything. No, its okay. Go ahead."
"Can't sleep sitting up."
"Baloney. I saw you sleep in class plenty of times."
"I was younger then. Good thing I had you to cheat off of."
"You never did that. You knew what a dumb-ass I was."
They both laughed, and then Mack changed the subject. "Melinda.......she's a remarkable woman. Is she.....?"
"My lover? Yeah. We've been together for some time now."
"Is she going to be.......the one......for you?"
"She is the one. Don't want anyone else, now that I know her. Funny to hear me say that, isn't it?"
"Sure is. As I recall, you had more women in college than I did. Better ones, too."
"That's just because you dated some dogs."
"None of 'em ever held a candle to you, that's for sure."
Janice reached over and squeezed Mack's arm gently. "It never would have worked, Mack. You know that."
Mack stubbed out his smoke on the ground, and flipped the butt away. "Yeah, I know. What the hell. Hate to have ruined a great friendship by getting involved, eh?" Janice laughed, and then yawned. "Lay down. Put your head here." He patted his leg. "Honestly, I'll wake you if anything happens."
Janice shifted her position, and rested her head on Mack's leg. "Okay. Just for twenty winks." She lay still for a bit, as Mack watched the moon begin to rise. Finally, he heard Janice's voice again, soft in the night. "Mack?"
"Was the war............. really that bad for you?"
Mack didn't answer for a moment. Finally, he whispered, "It affected some guys harder than others. I'm sure I'll get over it, though........thanks to Gabrielle." He felt Janice pat his leg, and then they resumed their silent vigil in the soft white light of the rising moon.
After a bit, Mack suddenly snapped out of his thoughts. He turned his head towards the section of the path leading towards the river, and strained his eyes and ears. A subdued voice muttered something in the darkness, and he thought he discerned a dim light bouncing in the distance. Mack shook Janice awake, and held his finger to his lips as her eyes opened and turned towards him. Silently, she sat erect, and followed his finger as he pointed. They looked at each other for a moment, and then back down the path. Definitely someone coming. Mack quietly stood, and Janice followed his lead. They moved slowly onto the path in front of the tomb, and drew their guns as Mack readied his flashlight. A voice, speaking in Greek. He could just barely make out three, no......four figures coming their way, the front one holding a lantern.
Mack and Janice waited until the figures were about fifteen feet away, then Mack challenged them, in Greek. "Stop. You, there. Stop. Come no closer. What are you doing here?"
The figures stopped in their tracks. They said nothing. Mack again challenged them. "What do you want here? Who are you?"
The lead figure spoke. Greek. "We are just passing by. Let us."
Janice spoke now. "It is forbidden to come here by the Bureau of Antiquities. This is an historical site. You must leave."
"Yes, we know, lady. That is what we have come for. If you do not want to be hurt, you will run away." Some laughter came from the other figures.
"We have guns. We will shoot, if you come closer. You must leave NOW!"
"You lie." Still, the figures hesitated slightly.
Mack whispered out of the side of his mouth, "You ready for this, Jan?" Mack could feel his heart pounding in his ears.
"Shoot the lead guy. On three." Both Mack and Janice leveled their pistols, at arm's length.
The figures began to advance again. Mack cocked his pistol, and Janice followed suit. The loud metallic clicks caused the figures to halt, again. Then the lead one spoke. "You will not shoot. Get out of our way. There are four of us. Two of you. We take what we want."
They began to advance again. "One..........two.................three." At that, both pistols discharged .
The muzzle flashes lit up the night, the sound was deafening, and their ears rang from the effect. The lead figure fell backwards, and the lantern clattered to the ground. The other three figures rushed forward, and were now only a couple of feet away. What happened next was an adrenalin-induced blur of activity.
Mack brought his heavy metal flashlight down on the head of the nearest figure with an audible, hollow crack, and out of the corner of his eye, registered Janice as she kicked a figure in the groin, and stepped back a pace or two. Mack aimed his pistol at each of the two stunned figures and fired into them. They fell to the ground, and lay still. The fourth figure hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran back down the path towards the river.
"Let him go!" Janice shouted, as Mack made a motion to give chase. He stood silent for a minute, and then Janice noticed his shoulders slump slightly. The skirmish was over.
"Mack, you okay?"
Mack clicked his revolver open, and extracted the spent brass casings with a shaking hand. As he loaded new ones, he remarked, "Better reload. They might be back."
"I only fired once. Why did you shoot those two guys? They were down."
"No, they weren't. Now, they are." Mack leveled his eyes at Janice. "Damn. You fight dirty, Janice."
"Got to. I'm little." Janice looked at the three forms. "Shit. Are they dead?"
"Let's hope so. Christ, how are we gonna explain this to the local cops?"
"Let me do that. I know the police chief."
Mack stuck the toe of his boot under the shoulder of the nearest form, and rolled him over onto his back. He clicked the flashlight on, and shone it into his face. "Dead." He then went to each of the other two, and looked at them in turn. "Dead. Dead." He clicked off the light.
"Trust me. I know what dead looks like." He walked back towards Janice, and wordlessly, they held each other for a long moment in the moonlit night. As they parted, a soft glow began to make itself known about six feet away. They turned around, and Janice started visibly. Somehow, Mack wasn't surprised at the sight. There stood the iridescent form from the night before. It studied Mack and Janice for a few seconds. "Janice, meet Gabrielle," Mack said simply. Janice just stared, wordlessly. The figure began to move its mouth, but the words echoed through their heads, in Greek.
"You have shown courage. You have protected our memories. Thank you."
Mack spoke, in Greek, an amazon reply remembered from an ancient epic. "The honor is ours."
The figure nodded its head in response, and spoke again. "I fear the God of War is at work here. He is unhappy with your discovery."
"Why? What must we do?"
The figure gestured with a hand towards the tomb entrance. "Read the scrolls. Carefully. Take us to Athens."
Now, Janice found her voice. "To....the museum?"
The figure nodded, again. "They will honor Xena's nobility, goodness....... for all time, there. That is what the God of War hates."
Janice spoke, again. "Gabrielle........where is Xena?"
The figure cast sad eyes towards the ground, and then returned its gaze to Janice. "She serves in another....... realm........ just now. Another......mission. The separation is hard for us. But, she will come if I call upon her. If I need her." It looked back over its shoulder, and then spoke again. "I must go. Your friends come even now. I will help you with this." The figure waved its hand, and the three bodies began to shimmer. After a moment, they disappeared. Then, it spoke again. "Janice, protect Melinda. She is the last seed of Xena. Be at peace. Farewell." With that, the figure disappeared, leaving Janice and Mack alone.
Melinda heard the shots ring out from the bluff. She leapt from the cot, dressed quickly, grabbed a flashlight, and ran towards the bluff in the moonlight. On the way, she encountered a couple of the students who had also been awakened by the noise. As she rounded the corner of the bluff, the others trailing behind, she stopped as quickly as if she had hit a brick wall. There, in the waning moonlight, she saw Mack and Janice standing with a strange, pale figure. She saw the figure wave its hand, and three dark shapes on the ground disappear. Then, after a few seconds, the figure itself vanished from sight. Melinda began walking forward again, and called out to her friends. "Jan. Mack. What happened? Are you all right?" As she neared them, she saw them slipping their revolvers back into their holsters.
"Mel. Yeah, We're okay. Some guys tried to rob the tomb. They're, uh,....gone now."
"Ah saw the last few seconds from the bluff. Who was that here with you? Was it..."
Mack spoke. "Yup. You guessed it. She got rid of the bodies for us."
"There were bodies? You shot someone?" Melinda was speaking softly, so that the students on the bluff wouldn't overhear.
Janice was matter-of-fact. "We shot three someones. You-know-who got rid of the evidence so that we wouldn't have police problems. She told us something else, too." Melinda listened intently, as Jan and Mack filled her in on the conversation that they had with Gabrielle.
"Oh, my. Then, that is what we must do, and we must be careful. Someone may try something again."
"You read my thoughts, Mel. Tomorrow, we empty this tomb and take all the contents to Athens. Remains included. This thing can't sit open another night."
Mack spoke now. "I agree. That stuff won't be safe until it's under lock and key in the museum."
Janice agreed. "Neither will we. Can't have more trouble. We have students here that don't need to be put in harm's way."
"Sounds like we have a plan, then," Mack said. He looked at Janice. "Oh, hey. Doctor Pangalos will be at the museum. He can look at the remains with us."
"Who?" Melinda queried.
Mack explained. "Doctor Pangalos. He's great with ancient remains. Reads a lot of history out of 'em."
Janice joined in. "Yeah, a regular Einstein with old bones. His opinion will be terrific. Maybe he can tell us how they died. Well, let's settle back down here. The one that got away might come back."
"Nah, somehow I don't think so," said Mack. "He saw what happened to his buddies. We're probably safe for tonight. Just the same, we need to stay."
Melinda spoke, with concern in her voice. "Are you two going to be able to get any rest tonight? Why don't ah take over for you?"
Janice looked at Melinda. "I've got a better idea. Why don't you stay with us, and we'll take turns sleeping. With three, it will go easier for us. One sleeps, two watch. Keep each other awake."
Melinda brightened at the prospect of staying with Janice, and nodded. "Ah'm with you. Ah'll just go send those students back to bed."
"Tell the guys to keep an eye out. Varmits in the bushes tonight. Hurry back."
Melinda returned shortly, and sat down by Janice and Mack. They decided that Janice should sleep first, and she lay down with her head in Melinda's lap. Soon, she was in a deep slumber, as Melinda and Mack talked quietly.
"So, Mack, ah see that you are now a believer in ghosts," Melinda teased.
"Yeah. Who'd have thought it?" Mack smiled, and leaned back to rest against the bluff wall.
"What's Gabrielle like?"
"Fascinating, is the only word I can use. Very pretty in appearance. But Mel, the neatest thing about her is her eyes."
"Well, they're extremely intelligent looking. Piercing. Look right into and through you. But, they're also........the kindest, and ...........saddest, yeah, that's it......the saddest eyes I've ever seen."
"She's seen two thousand years of life. Ah suppose that's enough to make anyone sad."
"And, right now she's separated from Xena."
Mack recounted the part of the conversation with Gabrielle that concerned her separation from Xena. Melinda listened and nodded, as her hand lightly rested on Janice's head. Finally, she said, "Ah can certainly understand that she's sad at the separation. Ah know how ah feel when Jan is away. Ah wonder if there's anything we can do for her, in that regard."
Mack looked puzzled. "Us? What can we do? She's a ghost, for cryin' out loud."
"You'd be surprised, Mack. Sometimes we can do a lot for them. Sometimes, that's why they're hanging about."
"Oh, yeah, that's right. You southerners are fond of ghosts. Well, next time we see her, let's ask her."
"Mack, you are an incorrigible tease." Melinda smiled over at Mack, and chuckled quietly. "All right, you've got a deal. Whichever of us see her next, will ask her."
Melinda and Mack sat in the dark by the tomb, talking softly, as Janice slept in Melinda's lap. Occasionally, Mack would cock his head, and hold his hand up for silence as he listened, but it would always turn out to be nothing. Finally, Melinda turned the conversation to Mack.
"Mack, have you ever been married?"
"Yeah. Once. A million years ago."
"It didn't work?"
"Same old story. She was there when I went off to the war. She wasn't there when I came back. Happened to a lot of guys."
"Ah'm sorry. Must have been difficult for you."
"Aah, just as well. I wasn't really her type, anyway."
"Nah. Weren't married all that long. You?"
Melinda chuckled again. That's what I get for being personal, she thought. "Never been married."
Melinda looked at Mack, slightly shocked. Mack grinned, and Melinda responded with a lopsided grin of her own. "Oh, ah see. It's a joke. Mack, you really are an incorrigible tease. Ah must say, ah find your sense of humor delightful. It's very much like Jan's."
"Yeah, she and I are a lot alike."
"So ah've noticed."
"Say, how long have you two been a couple?" Mack indicated Janice with a nod of his head.
"Oh, you.....understand ......about that?"
"Oh, yeah. No big deal to me. I have a sister that prefers women. I can understand that. After all, I prefer women, too." Melinda laughed at that, a marvelous, rolling chuckle.
"Why, Jan and I have been together since before the war."
"That's a long time."
"Sometimes, it seems as if we've been together forever. And, ah wouldn't trade a moment of it for anything."
"Naw, guess not. She's a terrific gal. One in a million."
"That Sallie seems a very wonderful girl, too. How long have the two of you been seeing each other?"
Mack looked over at Melinda. "Oh, you know about that?"
"Mack, ah saw her kiss you. Ah can see the way you two are together. Any fool can see it."
"Guess we haven't been as sneaky as we thought." Melinda shook her head, an impish smile on her face. "Not long. It started shortly after this dig started."
"How romantic. Fallin' in love in the Greek hills. Ah love it."
"Yeah. Me, too. And, Melinda?"
"You really are an incorrigible tease." At that, they shot each other a grin, and settled back to await the dawn, taking care not to disturb Janice's sleeping form.
The bustle of activity resumed at the tomb site shortly after the sun rose. Janice had organized her students into teams who were carefully crating the pottery urns, and padding them with straw, blankets, and anything soft so that they would survive the bumpy ride into Athens.
The weapons on top of the sarcophagus were wrapped as well, but they went into Janice's rucksack.
The major endeavor was going to be the removal of the remains. Janice knew that the stone sarcophagus was not solid; it was put together with slabs of stone, in the manner typical of Greek tombs of that era. Inside the stone, Janice anticipated that the bones themselves would be contained in a wooden casket. That would make it easier to transport, assuming that the wood was not rotten. She had found the air very dry when the tomb was opened, so she was gambling that the box would be strong enough to hold together, with support.
Mack had backed the truck up as close to the bluff as was possible, and the others were loading the pottery crates into the truck. Sallie, Janice, Mack, Al, and a couple of the other male students were standing around the sarcophagus with crowbars and wood of various lengths.
Janice took charge. "I want the top to come off first, then this side nearest us should just fall out. Be careful and watch your feet, 'cause these stones are heavy. If somebody's gonna get hurt on this dig, it will probably be here." She glanced about her to assure herself that everyone understood. All heads nodded. "Okay, let's do it. Get the crowbars under the lip." Two of the guys worked the crowbar tips under the top slab of stone, and in a few minutes, there was a space of about an inch. "Good. Shim that up." Mack and Sallie each stuck a short piece of wood into the space, and the crowbars eased out of the crack. "Let's get to the other side now."
They repeated the maneuver on the mural side of the sarcophagus, and shimmed that up as well. The top now sat about one inch or more up from the stone sides. "Slide the boards under, now. All the way through." The group did as Janice instructed. She studied the amount of room on either side of the sarcophagus, and then make her decision. "We're gonna make the lid fall towards the door. I don't want the murals accidentally damaged. Everybody on this side."
The group gathered on the side that Janice indicated, and all put their shoulders to the boards projecting from under the lid. "Now, Lift up! Hard!" With a collective grunt, the group raised the boards, angled the lid, and it slid off the top of the sarcophagus, hitting the floor with a resounding thud. They all stood for a moment, and then Janice peered over the top lip of stone. She had guessed right. There it was, a wooden coffin. She reached a hand down to feel the texture of the wood. It wasn't soft or mushy. That was a good sign. Still strong. "Let's get this side off. Don't get in front. Stand back here, and push it with the wood boards until it falls away." They did as Janice ordered, and after a few minutes of pushing and sweating, the stone slab began moving. Then, it too dropped to the earth with a heavy sound. "Here comes the delicate part, you guys. We don't know how strong the wood box is. It could come apart if we handle it roughly at all. Where's that litter?"
One of the group brought the wooden framework, resembling a ladder, forward. It had been built under Janice's order just that morning. "Good. You two. Hold the litter next to the side of the sarcophagus. It's gonna get heavy, but you have to keep it there. Right?" The two nodded their understanding. Now, you three, get on that side and on my count, start pushing the box towards me. We'll pull from this side. Slowly, and gently. Just a couple of inches at a time. If you see the box start to come apart, holler and we'll stop. Everybody ready?" The entire sweating group nodded in unison. "Now. Couple of inches. Good. Look okay? Now. Now."
This rhythmic chant went on for what seemed an eternity, until the coffin finally slid unto the ladder-like framework. "Great. Now bring it over here and rest it on the ground. As they did, Janice queried the students carrying the coffin. "Is it heavy?"
"Not really, Doctor Covington. Much lighter than I expected."
"Just bones left, after all these years. Let's crate this up, and get it in the truck." They began nailing boards to the framework to create a protective wood shell around the ancient coffin, as Janice stepped outside and lit a small cigar. She called to the group standing by the truck. "Everything secure in there? Good. We'll be out in a few minutes with the coffin." She looked at the sky. Beautiful weather for the ride to Athens. Good. Presently, she heard activity within the tomb, and look around to see the group slowly emerging with the crated coffin. She turned back to the group, and shouted, "Come on. Let's give a hand." Everyone present rushed forward, grabbed the crate, and hoisted it to their shoulders. Janice threw her smoke aside, and joined the group. They bore the precious cargo up the path, and slid it into the truck bed. Mack and Janice leapt into the truck, and tied the crate securely to the side of the bed. After assuring themselves that the other crates were firmly tied in, they dismounted and closed the tailgate.
Janice beamed at the tired, sweating group in front of her. "Good job, you guys. Helluva job. Now, go take a break. Mack. Sallie. I need to talk to you two." The three of them walked forward to the cab of the truck. "Is this truck ready to go?"
Mack spoke. "Yup. Gassed it up and checked it out this morning."
"Mack, Sallie, you two come along to Athens. Mel is coming, too. We're probably going to stay there tonight, so bring an overnight bag. The four of us should be enough. Drive the truck up to the tents, and we'll meet there in, say, fifteen minutes or so. And, Mack?"
"Bring your gun." With that, Janice walked back up towards the tents. She heard the truck motor start, and Mack drove it past her, parking it near the tents and the road. Mack and Sallie left the cab, and each went towards their tents, as Janice entered hers. Melinda was there.
"Hey, Jan. Are we ready to go?"
"Yeah. We'll probably stay there overnight. Let's pack a bag."
"Already have. Everything we need is here, in mah bag."
Janice grinned. "Should have known. You're always one step ahead of me." She reached towards the top of the bunk and pulled out her holstered pistol. After checking it and reloading the spent round, she strapped it onto her hip, as Melinda watched.
"Jan, ah hope you won't need that thing."
"Me, too. After last night, I'm not taking any chances, though."
"Ah surely will rest easier when they're inside the museum."
"We've gotta get them there, first. Shall we?"
Melinda answered with a broad grin, and said, "Ah wouldn't miss it for the world." They left the tent, arm in arm, bag in hand, and headed for the truck.
As Mack stopped the truck near the road, Sallie, sitting next to him in the cab, reached out and touched his arm. "Mack?"
"Hmm?" Mack looked over at her, and smiled gently. She was dirty and sweaty, but her eyes danced in her head.
"Was Doctor Covington serious? Are we going to stay overnight in Athens?" Mack nodded. "You mean, in a hotel?"
"Yup. Hot showers, good food, and clean sheets. Any objection?"
Sallie literally bounced up and down on the truck seat as she let out a cheer. "Oh, yeah. Hot diggity damn! This is great! I'll be ready in five minutes." She opened the truck door and jumped out, then turned around and stuck her head back into the cab. "A hotel room? Together? You and me?"
"Wouldn't have it any other way."
"Neither would I, mister." She winked at him, turned, and ran towards her tent. Mack watched her go, shaking his head and thinking to himself, what a gal. Mack, you're one lucky guy.
The road to Athens.
The truck pulled out onto the dusty road, and pointed towards Athens. Janice was behind the wheel, with Melinda at her side in the cab. Janice's rucksack, containing the ancient weapons, was on the seat. Mack and Sallie sat in the back, ensuring that the valuable cargo stayed securely within its lashings. Janice geared the truck up to speed, and they rumbled along at about forty miles per hour. At this rate, Janice figured, they should be at the museum in about an hour and a half or so. They hadn't gone very far before Janice braked the truck to a halt. In the road, in front of them, sat a cart.
"What the hell?" Janice said, and stepped down from the cab. "Hey, Mack!"
Mack stuck his head over the side of the truck. "What's up?"
"Cart in the road. Don't see anyone around. Help me move this thing, will ya?"
Mack leapt over the side of the truck, and landed on his feet next to Janice. "Nobody around? Watch your ass, Janice. I don't like this."
"Neither do I. Keep your eyes open. Hey, Mel." Melinda's face appeared through the driver's window. "Get behind the wheel. Get ready to get out of here if we have problems."
Melinda slid over behind the wheel, as Sallie watched silently from the back of the truck.
Janice and Mack began to walk towards the cart. Suddenly, a man stood up from behind a low stone wall by the roadside, holding an old military rifle. He pointed it at Janice and Mack, speaking in Greek. "Stop. Hands up." He stepped out from the wall and stood in the road. Janice and Mack froze in their tracks, and raised their hands. Damn, Janice thought, he got the drop on us. What now? The man spoke again. "I take that. You leave the truck, if you want to live. Get back!" As Janice and Mack began to step backwards, they heard something whiz past their ears. A blur shot past their eyes, ricocheted off of the rifle, cutting it in half, and whizzed back past their heads. The man dropped the halves of the rifle to the ground and stood frozen, his mouth agape. Janice and Mack turned and looked back at the truck cab. The door was open, and Melinda stood on the running board holding the ancient circular weapon in her hand, with her arm extended above her head. It almost appeared as if it was smoking slightly. Janice dropped her hands, and ran towards the man, with Mack following. They were upon him in a couple of seconds, collared him and roughly threw him to the ground. As they wrestled him into submission, a shout from the truck, in Greek, drew their attention. Standing by the truck bed was a second man, holding another rifle. He had it aimed squarely at Melinda.
"Stop. Let him up, or I shoot her." Janice and Mack hesitated, and then stood back. The rumpled man on the ground groaned, and began to get up. Sallie appeared from the truck bed, behind the second man. She leaned over the side-rails, raised a tire-iron, and brought it heavily down on the man's head with a resounding smack. The man's eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled into a pile by the rear tires of the truck.
Sallie merely looked at the collapsed form, muttered, "Asshole!" and then shrugged apologetically at the others. Mack and Janice turned in unison towards the man who was struggling to his feet in front of them. Janice gave him a roundhouse punch which sent him sprawling backwards into the dirt. Mack reached down, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him towards the truck.
"Let's interrogate this guy, and see what the hell is going on here." Mack threw the man down on the road beside the truck, knelt down beside him, drew his pistol, and put it to the man's head. The man smelled of fear, and his eyes bulged as he heard Mack cock the pistol. Mack spoke, in Greek. "Any more of you?" The man shook his head, and began rattling in frantic Greek. "He's going too fast for me. Anybody catch that?"
Melinda stood by, the ancient weapon in her hand. "He says that he was hired to steal the tomb contents, and if you won't shoot him, he promises to not bother us any more."
"Yeah, right." Mack then spoke to the man again, in Greek. "Who hires you?" For emphasis, he pressed the pistol barrel into the man's head, and the man began blabbering frantically in Greek again. Mack thought he smelled urine. He looked, and noticed that the man had wet his pants in fear. Good, Mack thought. Fear is good. We will get the truth.
Melinda translated, as the man went silent. "He doesn't know the man's name. He says that he thinks the man will kill him if he fails." Melinda looked at the man, and spoke in Greek. "Describe the man. What does he look like?" Again some more frantic jabbering, and Melinda said, "Tall. Dark-looking. Evil. Has a goatee beard. Pays good money. That's all he knows."
Mack eased the hammer off of his pistol and holstered it. He then roughly pulled the man to his feet, and shoved him towards the cart. "Move that thing," Mack said in Greek. The man ran towards the cart and pushed it into the ditch, as Mack watched from a few feet away. Janice walked towards the man, waited until he had finished, and then punched him hard in the jaw. The man fell backwards into the ditch. She picked up the two pieces of the rifle, examined the severed sections, and turned back towards Melinda.
"How the hell did you do that?"
All eyes were on Melinda. She looked at the ancient weapon, still in her grasp, and said, "Ah don't know. Ah really don't. It.........just seemed the thing to do at the time. It just seemed....natural."
Janice threw the two pieces of the rifle into the ditch. She and Mack walked back towards the truck. Sallie stood near the other man, who still lay unconscious in the road.
"What about him?" Sallie queried. Mack noticed that she still held the tire iron.
Janice responded. "To hell with him. Leave him there. Let's get to Athens, before anything else happens. Everybody on board. Let's get the show on the road." Janice slid in behind the wheel of the truck, as Melinda resumed her place in the cab. Sallie climbed up into the truck bed. Mack leaned down to the unconscious form and picked up the rifle lying in the road. British Enfield. Not very clean. He must have gotten it during the war, Mack thought. He checked to make sure the safety was on, and then tossed it to Sallie.
"Hang onto this. Might come in handy." She caught it, and put it on the floorboard as Mack climbed into the truck bed, and the truck lurched into gear to continue is journey.
As Janice brought the truck up to speed, she looked over at Melinda. She sat quietly, still holding the ancient weapon in her lap. "Mel, I still wanna know how you did that."
"Ah don't really know. Ah've translated several of the Xena scrolls. Maybe that's where ah knew about it from. It is mentioned in there. A chakram, ah believe it's called."
"I thought that was it. Damn. Really works, doesn't it? Was it hard to throw?
"No. It seemed like an extension of mah arm. Very natural."
Janice began laughing. Mel looked at her, quizzically. "What's so funny, dear?"
"The look on that guy's face when you cut his rifle in half with that thing. That was priceless!"
Melinda cast a crooked smile towards Janice, and began laughing as well, until the sounds of their laughter rocked the truck cab, and released the tension from their bodies.
Sallie and Mack heard peals of laughter coming from the truck cab, and found it absolutely infectious. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the truck bed, they grinned at each other. Finally Mack spoke.
"Damn, Sallie, you did good back there. Never knew you were such a bad-ass with a tire iron. Remind me never to piss you off."
"Well, that guy pissed me off. He had that gun pointed right at Melinda."
"He might have used it, too. You probably saved somebody's life. Which reminds me....."
Mack reached over and picked up the rifle. "Let's see what kind of shape this thing's in."
He lay the rifle across his lap, clicked the safety off, and pulled back the bolt. It was loaded, and a cartridge popped out in his lap. Mack worked the bolt back and forth several times, and four more popped out. He then looked into the breech, and satisfied himself that it was empty. He held the rifle at arm's length, stuck his thumb into the breech, and glanced down the barrel, allowing the reflection of sunlight from his thumbnail to shine up the barrel as he inspected it. Dirty, but serviceable. It will have to do. He then inspected the cartridges. British military issue. Hopefully, we won't need it, Mack thought. He then reloaded four of the rounds into the rifle, pushing them down into the breech, and shoved the fifth one up into the chamber. He clacked the bolt home, and flipped the safety on. Sallie had been watching him as he worked. He looked at Sallie, and said, "I want you to know how to use this."
"Mack, I don't know."
"Piece of cake. Look. This is the safety, see?" Sallie nodded. "Flick it off, tuck the butt under your arm like this, point it, and pull the trigger. Right?" Sallie nodded again. "The first round is in the chamber, but you must work the bolt back and forth to load a new round after each shot. It's probably got a helluva kick, so don't put it on your shoulder. Tuck it under, like I told you. You got five rounds total. Questions?"
"Gotcha covered, Mack. I can do that. But I still like my tire iron better."
Mack grinned. "Yeah. You should be in the mob. Sallie 'The Tire Iron'." Sallie laughed, as Mack returned the rifle to the floor of the truck. She then turned serious.
"Mack, I don't know if I could shoot someone with that thing."
"Oh, I think you could if you had to. But let's hope it doesn't come to that." Mack slid over to Sallie, and they sat next to each other with their backs to the truck cab. Inside, they could hear Janice and Melinda talking. Sallie leaned into Mack, and rested her head on his shoulder, as he put his arm around her.
They sat that way for a moment, and then Sallie said, "Mack? What's it like...I mean...well, you've killed, haven't you? How do you deal with that?"
"How are you handling the fact that you cracked that guy on the skull? You hit him pretty hard, you know. You may have killed him."
"Do you really think so?"
"I dunno." Mack suddenly regretted his comment. She probably hadn't thought of that. "Naw, probably not. I'm sure he's just got a bad headache."
"I just did what I had to do. I was scared. He really made me mad. He could have killed Melinda. Or you."
"Well, that's how I handle it. That's the way it is. It bothered me for a long time, but I'm at peace with it now. You should be, too. You did the right thing."
"I hope so. Mack, what's going on here? Why did those guys try to hold us up?"
Mack looked at Sallie, as she raised her eyes towards him. God, Mack thought, but I love those eyes. "It occurs to me that you may not know everything that's going on here. Let me fill you in." As the truck rolled along the country roads towards Athens, Mack began to unfold the complete tale of the last couple of days, as Sallie listened in awe.
In the truck cab, Janice and Melinda had fallen silent. They could hear Mack's voice just behind the cab. Without a word, Melinda reached over and placed her hand on Janice's leg. Janice responded by taking Melinda's hand in her own, and they drove that way into Athens, fingers interlaced except for an occasional shift of gears, sitting silently, and listening to Mack's story.
In the roadway next to the abandoned cart, a glow began to shimmer, and a form materialized in the road. A man. Tall, and swarthy, sporting a goatee beard. He put his hands on his hips and looked around with a disgusted look on his face. "Zeus' balls! What a mess! Trust the stupid mortals to do something, and they screw it up every time. I guess Aphrodite was right. If you want something done well, do it yourself. Sis wasn't a total idiot after all." He walked over to the man lying in the road, and looked down at him. The man lay still, a pool of blood behind his head. He then walked over to the cart, shaking his head. A form began to stir in the ditch beside the road. The tall man reached down, grasped the form by the neck, and lifted him up out of the ditch like a small doll.
He held him up at arm's length, looked at him with disdain, and squeezed his neck hard. The man's eyes bulged. Then, tall man spoke again. "You failed me. Failure makes me.......very.....angry!" With that, he snapped the man's neck. The form went limp, and he threw it back into the ditch. "Better get rid of the evidence," the tall man muttered, and shot his arm out towards the body in the ditch. A ball of fire left his fingers, and incinerated the form. He turned towards the figure lying in the road, and did the same. As flames leapt from the two bodies, the tall man bent down and picked up two halves of a rifle from the ditch. "What's this?" He studied the severed ends of the rifle pieces, rubbing the cut with a finger, and sniffing it. "Couldn't be. Nope. Impossible. Nah. No way. That thing hasn't been thrown in two thousand years." He dropped the rifle pieces back into the ditch, and looked around at the rolling Greek hills. "Guess I'll have to track them myself. Good help is hard to find these days. They were heading in the general direction of Athens. Guess I'll start there." With that, he emitted a deep sigh, began to glow, and disappeared into thin air.
The truck slowly passed through the winding Athenian streets, heading towards the downtown museum. Janice wound the truck back and forth through the city bustle, gearing up and down continually, and occasionally blowing the horn. Mack was standing up in the back of the truck, leaning on the top of the truck cab, enjoying a smoke. Sallie stood next to him, drinking in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells of the busy Grecian city.
Finally, they passed the museum. Janice turned the truck into an alley which ran parallel to the side of the buildings, and around the back. She stopped, ground the gears slightly, and backed the truck up to a doorway. The motor stopped, and Janice and Melinda got out of the cab. Janice looked up at Mack and Sallie. "I'm going inside to find the curator or Doctor Pangalos. You guys keep a sharp lookout. This is the door where we always bring new stuff. We'll get it unlocked in a minute." With that, Janice disappeared around the corner of the building. Mack looked about him, and rested his hand on his pistol reassuringly. Sallie must have been feeling suddenly vulnerable, too, because she perched gently on one of the wooden crates, picked up the rifle, and held it in her lap. Melinda stood beside the truck, holding Janice's rucksack. No one said anything. After a few minutes, they heard the click and sliding of a bolt, and the door opened. A beaming Janice stood alongside an older Greek gentleman.
"Guys, this is Doctor Pangalos. I believe you already know Mack Mackenzie. This is Melinda Pappas, and Sallie, one of our graduate students. Doctor Pangalos is very interested in seeing what we have. Let's get this stuff unloaded."
Janice dropped the tailgate, and the four began to unload the large crate containing the coffin. They bore it up on their shoulders, and brought it in through the door. Doctor Pangalos ran in front of them, quickly clearing off a table, and they rested the crate on the table. They returned to the truck, and carried the other crates containing the pottery jars into the room, resting them on the floor. Janice then closed the door, and shot the bolt home.
Sallie and Melinda looked about the room as Doctor Pangalos, Mack, and Janice began pulling the crate apart and exposing the coffin. The room was quite large, and was lined with artifacts of all different types. Several tables and desks lined the walls, and various sorts of tools and equipment for examining artifacts lay about.
Finally, the coffin was completely free. Everyone gathered about, as Doctor Pangalos began examining it. He studied it carefully, occasionally pulling a magnifying glass from his pocket to assist. Then, he began to speak to them in fluent English, with an extremely cultured Greek accent.
"This is magnificent, Doctor Covington. I congratulate you. Definitely of Greek design, and of a style approximating the time of the Caesars. The wood is in extraordinary condition. It must have been very dry where you found it."
Janice nodded. "Can we get this thing open? I'm really anxious to hear your opinion of the remains."
"Why, yes, of course. My, but you are just as impetuous as always." Doctor Pangalos looked at Janice with a twinkle in his eye, over the tops of his eyeglasses. The others laughed heartily at the gentle ribbing that Janice was receiving, and Janice just broke a crooked grin in reply. Doctor Pangalos then walked to a nearby table, and picked up several tools, which he returned to the coffin with. "We are going now to open this. I know that you," he indicated Janice, "have done this before, but the others of you maybe have not. We must be extremely careful not to damage the coffin too much. It is, after all, an artifact of extreme value. Now, you can see that the lid is fastened with iron nails, here, and here, and so on. You must insert the tool at the nail, and pry slowly and carefully, yes?" All present nodded their understanding. "Good. Now, let us begin." They all began working methodically at the coffin lid, and in about fifteen minutes they had pried it loose, and it sat about an inch or so up from the rest of the wooden box. "Good. Now, let us lift together. Be very careful. We shall put the lid against the wall there. Now, all lift together." They all lifted, and the coffin lid came away in their hands. They carried it to where the Greek scholar had indicated, and rested it carefully against the wall. It had held together very well. As the group turned back towards the coffin, Doctor Pangalos was already there, peering inside. "Magnificent. Well preserved. But, I thought you said that there would be two remains here, my dear."
Janice was shocked. "Yeah. Two. Xena and Gabrielle."
Doctor Pangalos was apologetic. "No, there is but one. Only one."
"What? What the hell?" Janice walked forward to the coffin and peered inside. It was true. A beautifully preserved set of remains, but only one. Janice stood frozen to the spot. She heard Melinda's voice.
"Which one of them is it, Janice?" The others had gathered around the coffin, and they all gazed inside. There lay a skeleton, on its back. The white bones were still adorned with pieces of clothing, and jewelry. The tattered remnants of brown leather boots still clung to the lower legs. Bits of brown cloth lay about the torso. On either wrist, a thick metal bracelet circled the bones. Some sort of amulet lay in the coffin at the level of the neck. The skull was intact, and still had some hair clinging to the cranium. Blonde, with some grey.
"It's Gabrielle, Mel."
Doctor Pangalos began systematically studying the figure, and thinking aloud to the group as he proceeded. "Yes. Excellent. From the pelvic bones, a woman. Rather short of stature, but solid skeletal framework. Probably very hardy. No skeletal signs of disease, such as rickets. Diet must have been quite acceptable. Ah, here. Look at the spine. Extremely good shape. You say this woman was a warrior? She must have been a good one, as I do not see but one or two healed fractures of the ribs and extremities. On some, there are many. Heh, heh, they must have been the poor ones, eh?" Doctor Pangalos' eyes twinkled at his own joke, and then he continued. "As I say, her spine is extremely good. Almost no osteoporosis, no degenerative disease. An outside, warring life can cause that very much in the later years. Hard physical life is very bad for the spine. And, look here at the skull. Remarkable. The shape of the facial bones is extremely symmetrical. She must have been very attractive. No indication of any ethnic features other than European Mediterranean heritage, from the shape of the orbits and so forth. Her teeth are in very good shape. Very few missing. Here is a space, looks as if one has been knocked out at some time. Perhaps in combat? It has healing around it. As I say, the teeth are mostly intact. Rather worn, but that was common from the diet, lack of dental care, and so on. Aah, she has hair left. Blonde, but with some grey in it. Quite a bit of grey. And her joints. They do not appear degenerated at all. Quite a marvelous physical specimen, she must have been." Doctor Pangalos paused, removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and looked at Janice as he replaced them. Janice took the opportunity to began asking questions.
"Doc, got any idea as to how she died?"
"No, unfortunately, I see nothing yet. No obvious traumatic injury, such as battle. No evidence of cancer, or leprosy, or such in the bones. Perhaps a closer examination would lend something."
"How old was she when she died, from what you see here?"
"From her remains, I would have to take a guess.....she could not have been more than about forty years of age at death."
Janice shook her head. "You sure? That doesn't correlate with all the historical research that we have on her. She was writing scrolls up until about the sixty-fifth year after her birth. We have assumed that she died at sixty-five."
"No, I am sorry, my dear. I can only tell you what I see. The forensic evidence says differently. Look here. The hair, the amount of blonde as opposed to grey. The intact teeth, the lack of osteoporosis in the spine. At sixty-five, she would have looked very different. She would have looked old. She looks young here. Not more than forty, surely."
Janice stood in puzzled silence, gazing at the remains, with questions buzzing through her mind. Doctor Pangalos spoke again. "Don't worry too much, my dear. Such discrepancies arise all the time. The answer will come to you, and often it is a simple one. Just keep studying. One must consider all the evidence. Now, what else did you bring me?"
Mack spoke up. "We found some pottery in the tomb. Haven't opened them yet. Don't know what they contain."
Sallie's voice attracted their attention. "Yes, we do. Scrolls. Look, this jar must have broken during the trip. It has scrolls in it." Everyone gathered around Sallie, who was kneeling on the floor by a crate, holding a scroll.
Doctor Pangalos pulled a pair of white cotton gloves from his pocket, and slipped them on his hands. "Let me see, my dear," he said. "One must handle these very carefully. They can be quite fragile." He accepted the scroll from Sallie's hands, and walked over to a nearby table. He clicked on a light, and carefully began to unravel the scroll. "Aah, it stays together very well. It has been well preserved. Would you like to see what it says?" He unrolled it across the table, and placed small brass weights on each corner to hold it. "You must not touch it without gloves. There are some in the drawer, here. You can spread the others out, very carefully, like this one. If they tear, then leave them. We can open them later, eh? I must go back to this fascinating remains that you brought me. Gabrielle, her name is? Oh, of course, the Xena legends. So, this is her? My, what a find. You must be very proud. Of course, a lot of people don't even believe that they ever existed. Heh, heh, and here she is, a guest in our home." With that, he got back to work examining the remains.
Janice turned her attention to the scroll. "Mel, come here. Look at this, please."
Melinda studied the parchment. "This is definitely a Xena scroll. Same handwriting, same phraseology, same occasional misspellings. This is Gabrielle's hand. She wrote this."
Melinda studied the date. "About the same rough date as the last scroll we have from her. The one written at the end of her life."
"Or so we thought," said Janice, slightly sarcastically. "Say, I'm starving. We need to get some food in here."
Doctor Pangalos turned around. "There is a most marvelous café just across the street. Cheap, and the food is wonderful. I take my meals there often. Why don't you go there and get refreshment. You must be tired. You can wash in the bathroom here. I will have my assistant lay out the other scrolls while you are gone. He must catalogue them all, anyway. Go on. Give him an hour or so. You can do no more if you are exhausted. I will be here when you get back. Then, we talk more, eh?"
Mack, Sallie, Janice, and Melinda chose a table at the outdoor portion of the café, and took their seats. They spoke to the waiter, and he returned with glasses, a bottle of wine, and some menus. After the food was ordered, they sipped the wine and relaxed in the marvelous afternoon sunshine, making small talk. Finally, Mack returned to business.
"So, Jan, what do you make of it? The age, I mean?"
Jan pushed her hat back on her head, and sighed. "I dunno. Got to be a reasonable explanation. Damned if I can figure it out, though."
"How accurate is your historical timeline? Can you trust your sources?"
"It's all in the scrolls. The ones that we have were all written by Gabrielle. You heard Mel. Same hand, same phrasing, same everything. And, she dated almost all of them."
"A mistake in figuring dates from ancient Greek calender to Gregorian?"
"Nah. Can't be. That was all carefully done. Look. She started writing scrolls shortly after she started hanging around with Xena. She says that she was eighteen years old then. The last scroll we have was dated forty-seven years later. That puts her at sixty-five. All written by the same hand. Now, if she died at forty, then she would have had to start writing scrolls years before she was born."
Sallie spoke up. "Doctor Covington, were their years the same as ours?"
"Yes. Solar years. Maybe a few days' difference, but not enough to account for that much missing time."
Mack spoke, in Greek this time. "Read the scrolls. Carefully. You will find the answers you seek."
"You remember the second night at the tomb?" Mack looked at Janice, and she nodded.
"That's what Gabrielle told us. Her.....uh, ghost, or whatever. Do you remember that?"
What does it mean, in English?" Sallie queried. Melinda responded, translating it for Sallie.
She puzzled for a moment, and then said, "So what's the problem?"
The other three looked at Sallie questioningly. She shrugged and said, "So that's what we'll do. We'll go read the scrolls. No problem. If we have questions, then we'll beat ourselves up. But right now, the food's coming, and we're all hungry, so let's eat." Janice, Mack, and Melinda all stared at each other for a moment, and then began laughing uproariously. Janice finally quit laughing enough to speak.
"That's what's gonna make you such a damn good archaeologist, Sallie. You got more common sense than all the rest of us put together." Janice held up her wine glass in a toast. "To Sallie." The others joined in the raucous toast, and then fell upon their food, talking and laughing as they ate.
Melinda stood in the museum workroom, reading softly from the spread-out scrolls, as Sallie stood next to her, scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad. They looked up as the door opened, and Mack and Janice sauntered in.
"We have rooms at our favorite hotel, a few doors down. We put the bags up in the rooms. How's it going?" Janice asked, as her eyes scanned the scrolls.
Melinda was excited. "Oh, Jan, we're learning so much. These scrolls chronicle adventures that we know nothing about!"
"Terrific! Tell me all about 'em."
"Well, we have eight new ones, all together. Did you know, they had traveled as far north as the Rhine River, and as far south as Egypt? And here, she speaks of the Amazon nation. Evidently, it had hit on very hard times."
Mack laughed a little at that one. "Yeah, that's another one that the scholars are arguing about. Some of 'em don't believe that the Amazons existed."
Sallie looked up at Mack from her notes. "What do you think, Mack? You're the historian. Do you think they existed?"
"Sure." He pointed at the workbench containing the wooden coffin. "There's one, right there. Seeing is believing."
Just then, Doctor Pangalos shuffled into the room, a coffee cup in his hand. "Aah, Doctor Covington, my dear. I have coffee in my office. Please have some, if you wish, all of you. And, come, see what I have found for you." He waved her over to the coffin. Janice followed, as he led the way. He picked up a long pair of forceps from the table, and used them to point. "Here. On the left scapula. A groove here, and on the ribs, here and here. There is healing around them, so this injury did not kill her. Was she, at some time, struck by a spear, or perhaps an arrow?"
Janice's eyes brightened. "Yeah, according to her. An arrow. Left shoulder. As usual, you're right on the ball, Doc."
Doctor Pangalos' eyes sparkled over his glasses. "Well, I am always learning. And, it adds some proof against those who will suggest that this is not Gabrielle."
Janice was sobered by that thought. He was right. There will still be detractors, she thought.
"But the most interesting find is here." He turned to a nearby table. "When I moved that large piece of clothing by her hip, I found this under it." He pointed to a metal jar, about the size of a small grapefruit, sitting on the table. "It was in the coffin with her."
Janice looked at it. It was dark colored, and had ornate decoration on it. Not Greek, she thought to herself. "What is it, Doc?"
"I took the liberty of opening it. I hope that you do not mind."
"No, of course not. What was in it?"
"What?" Janice's voice carried through the room.
At that, the others in the room stopped their activities and stared. Mack, Melinda, Janice, and Sallie all gathered around the table. Doctor Pangalos looked at them over the rims of his glasses, and continued. "Ashes. Human ashes. Look, here. Bits of bone. But this. A tooth, a human molar." He held it up with his forceps. "This proves that they are human ashes."
"Holy Christ!" Janice remarked. "That has to be Xena."
Sallie was next. "That explains the strange wording over the tomb door. How was it? 'Here lies Gabrielle, with the remains of her beloved Xena.'"
Janice rummaged in her shirt pocket and pulled out the paper. She spread it out on the table for Doctor Pangalos to peruse. "This was the inscription over the door."
He studied it for a minute, and then nodded. "Ah, yes. Of course. It makes sense, now. You see, my dear, just keep studying. It will come to you. What do you wish to do with Xena's ashes?"
Janice replied softly, "Let's put 'em back in the coffin with Gabrielle."
"Yes, I think so, too. I can see now that they were......how do you say it..........lovers, after all."
Mack was puzzled. "You can tell that from their remains?"
Doctor Pangalos laughed heartily, a merry, twinkling laugh. "No, Mack, oh my goodness. That's a funny joke that you have just made. No, I see from the paper here. Look, the words over the door. When you say 'beloved' in English, I do not notice. But, here, I read it, and it is plain."
Melinda interjected, "There are several words for 'love' in classical Greek. That form does denote romantic love." Mack, Sallie, and Janice looked at Melinda. She stood awkwardly for a moment, and then said, "Ah..... just thought that it was a rather....personal....thing for them, so ah didn't mention it before now. Ahem. Ah think ah'll get back to the scrolls." Melinda walked back over to the scrolls, and began reading silently, trying not to notice Janice's raised eyebrow and hands-on-the-hips stance. Mack lowered his head to hide a broad grin, and walked into Doctor Pangalos' office to get a cup of coffee. Sallie watched Doctor Pangalos replace the lid on the small urn, and gently rest it in the coffin next to Gabrielle's left hand. As she watched, she thought to herself, Sallie, you hopelessly romantic idiot, don't start crying now. Janice walked up to the coffin next to Sallie and stood, silently gazing at the skeleton and the urn. For a couple of moments, neither of them said anything. Then, Sallie glanced over at Janice and saw a tear run down her cheek. She gently reached over and put an arm around Janice's shoulder.
"Come on, Doctor Covington," Sallie whispered. "Let's go get a cup of coffee." Janice just nodded her head, and allowed Sallie to lead her to the office, blinking her tears away.
Mack sipped his coffee as he stood, reading an open scroll. His command of ancient Greek was not nearly as proficient as Melinda's, so he waded slowly through his scroll while Melinda scanned the others rapidly. She kept her place with a pencil hovering just above the parchment, and scribbled notes to herself on a legal pad. This Gabrielle could write, he thought to himself. Quite the poet and storyteller. Then, he noticed the date on the scroll next to her name. He glanced at the other scrolls in turn, noting their dates, and mentally calculated. These were all written within a very short time of each other, but describe a lot of travels. Their adventures would have taken more than a year to accomplish. She must have saved the memories and written them all down within a relatively short time span. Perhaps, as someone would do if they knew that they were going to die? He turned to Melinda.
"According to you guy's research, exactly when do you think Gabrielle died? Relative to these dates, I mean?"
"She died just a short time after these dates here, ah believe. Janice is the real expert, however. She can tell you." Melinda looked around the room. "Now, ah wonder where she went?"
They both looked around the room, and noticed Janice and Sallie emerge from the office with coffee cups, heading for the table. As they drew near, Melinda studied Janice's face, and then Sallie's. "Jan, are you quite all right? Mah goodness, have you been crying? What is wrong?"
Janice shrugged her shoulders. "It's okay, Mel, it's just a little overwhelming, that's all." Janice looked at the scrolls and perked up. "What have you found?"
Melinda began filling Janice and Sallie in on some of the scroll's contents, as Mack wandered over to Doctor Pangalos. "Hey, Doc. Gotta question for ya."
"Yes, of course, my friend. What is it?"
"What types of diseases did people of her era die from, that took about a year to kill someone?"
"Oh, there are many. As you know, leprosy, tuberculosis. Perhaps cancers. The list is very, very long."
"Would those show up on her bones?"
"Yes, yes, some of them. Not all."
"You haven't seen anything yet?"
"No. No indication yet of how she has died."
Mack stared at the coffin for a moment, and sipped his coffee. He looked at the remains of the two lovers, resting in the single coffin. One had been cremated, and the other was buried. Why? What if, Mack thought, they had died at different times? Then, his memory flashed back to Gabrielle's sad, sad eyes, and he wondered aloud, "How about poison?"
"What kinds of poisons did they have......y'know, besides hemlock?"
"Oh, perhaps many. You think she was poisoned?"
"I wonder if she poisoned herself."
"You have now gotten my interest, my friend. Please explain."
"Well, it's just speculation. We know how deeply attached to each other they were. I think the Greek term loosely translates as 'soul-mates'. That is said to be a depth of devotion that few people experience. Suppose Xena were suddenly taken by an untimely death, leaving Gabrielle alone. She carries the ashes in a small urn. Can't let go. She perseveres for some time by herself, but the grief of separation from her beloved is too much for her. She writes out all these scrolls in a hurry, and then......" Mack looked at Doctor Pangalos out of the corner of his eye, and saw the man nod his head. "Suicide wasn't held then in the same contempt that it is now, and poison was a common method," Mack continued. "But, like I said, it's all speculation. I'm probably way off base."
"You can never tell, my friend. Sometimes such 'hunches' are more accurate than you will know. But, we must have evidence. We are scientists, yes?"
"Can you see poison in the remains?"
"Some of them, perhaps. It is very difficult. I would need to know what poison to seek there."
Mack pointed at the scrolls. "Maybe, she'll tell us. Thanks, Doc."
Doctor Pangalos nodded his head pleasantly and returned his attention to the coffin, as Mack walked over to the three women standing by the scrolls. An enthusiastic discussion seemed to be taking place as he approached.
"I can't publish that!" Janice said. "I'd be laughed out of the university."
Mel was defensive. "Ah am just telling you what Gabrielle says in the scrolls, Jan. Don't get mad at me!"
Janice was exasperated. "I'm not mad at you, Mel. I'm just saying that it doesn't hold water, that's all. I'm sorry. I don't mean to take it out on you."
Mack spoke up. "What's the matter here?"
Melinda shifted her attention to Mack. "Here, in this scroll, Gabrielle tells the story of her and Xena being frozen in an ice tomb for twenty-five years."
Mack cocked his head, quizzically. "Why on earth would that happen?"
"They were battling the gods, and had taken a potion to simulate death. The God of War thought that they were actually dead, and he froze them."
Janice spoke now. "Y'see, Mack, according to the scrolls, that god had a particular obsession for Xena. Lusted after her to no end. So, when he thought they were dead....."
Mack finished. "He stuck them in the icebox to preserve them for all time."
"Right," Melinda continued. "But, after twenty-five years, it melted and they escaped."
Mack looked over at Doctor Pangalos. "Hey, Doc. What would happen to a human being who was frozen alive in ice for, say, twenty-five years?"
Doctor Pangalos looked over to the group. "I think it would be impossible to live that way. You see, the muscles atrophy, the body dehydrates. No one could survive."
Janice turned to Mack. "See what I mean? That doesn't make sense." Janice appeared quite upset. Hmmm, Mack thought, time for a break.
"Hey, Janice. Let's you and me step out for a smoke. Do ya good."
Janice looked at Mack, and nodded her head. "Yeah. Sounds good. This is really frustrating." As Janice walked towards Mack, he saw Melinda silently mouth the words, "Thank you" to him. Mack just smiled and winked at Melinda and Sallie, and turned to take Janice under wing and head for the door. On the way, he looked over his shoulder and said, "Do me a favor, will ya? Skip right to the last scroll, and tell me about that one."
Outside, Mack and Janice lit their smokes and stood in the dusk. Neither one said anything for a moment. Finally, Janice spoke. "I'm sorry to get so pissed off in there, but we're no closer to answers than we were before."
"Sure we are, Jan. It just depends on what questions you're asking, and what you're willing to accept as an answer."
"You'd better explain that one to me."
"Okay. We now have definitive proof that they existed. We know what happened to Xena's body. We are learning what they did in their later years. And, I have a hair-brained theory as to how Gabrielle died."
Janice's eyes brightened. "Lemme hear it, Mack!" Mack explained his suicide theory to Janice, and she nodded her head. "Makes some sense, but no proof."
"That's why I asked Melinda to skip to the last scroll."
"Of course! If I were going to kill myself out of grief, I would write a suicide note, last thing."
"Bingo. You ever read detective novels, Jan? The answer is always in the last chapter."
Janice laughed at that. "Mack, you're insane. That's what I love about ya." They both smoked silently for a minute, and then Jan spoke, in Greek. "Xena's path is my path."
"That's what Gabrielle kept saying, in the scrolls. About why she stuck with Xena. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense."
Just then, Doctor Pangalos emerged from the door. "I am leaving now. No more I can do today. But, you can stay as long as you wish, my dear. I have told the guards that you would be here tonight."
"Thanks, Doc. You've been a big help." They both extended their hands to the pleasant Greek, and he shook each of them warmly in turn.
"I will see you tomorrow, perhaps. I am most interested in what you discover. Remember, my friends, the answer is in more study. Well, goodnight."
"Goodnight, Doc." He turned and walked away, towards the main street. Janice watched him go, and flipped her smoke away. "Thanks, Mack. I feel a helluva lot better. Let's go in and see if your theory holds water." They both walked back inside, Mack flipping his cigarette away as they entered the door.
Melinda and Sallie were standing by the table. "Jan, ah believe we have some news for you." Janice studied Melinda's face. After all these years, she could just about read Melinda's thoughts. Melinda looked sad, and slightly apprehensive.
"Lemme guess. Gabrielle committed suicide."
Melinda's mouth dropped. "How on earth did you know that?"
"Mack told me. He guessed it."
Sallie and Melinda looked at Mack, who just shrugged. "Lucky guess. Oh, hey, does she name the poison she drank?"
"Why, yes, she does, but ah'm not familiar with it."
"I bet you that Doc Pangalos will be. Traces of it might even show up in her remains." Mack leaned over the table and studied a scroll. "Is this the last scroll?"
Melinda nodded her head. "It's very sad. Ah just scanned it, so far, but it is sad."
Mack looked at Melinda. "Would you...... be kind enough to read it for us? I'm sure that your translation would do the poetry more justice than mine."
Melinda hesitated. "Are you all sure that you want to hear this?"
Janice, Mack and Sallie nodded, and drew close to the table. Melinda looked at them for a moment, cleared her throat, and began.
"Well, all right. It reads this way.......
This song, my last, I sing to my beloved.
It is said that the dead can hear our thoughts.
Xena, hear my anguished cry, for my soul bleeds in my separation from you.
It has been many seasons since you were torn from me.
I have tried to stand bravely.
I have tried to live as you would wish me to live.
I grieve every waking moment, the pain a liquid fire that torments me.
Half of my soul is gone, ripped from me.
Once having known you, I cannot bear life without your touch.
The energy of my being is sapped. My limbs cannot carry me.
My eyes weep until they are bereft of tears, and then I weep again.
The beauty of this mortal realm has corroded into a loathsome thing for me.
The once magnificent music of nature is now a harsh, discordant scream of agony.
I ache for you, Xena.
Why did you leave me? For the Greater Good?
You stepped into the next life.
I have not. I am still a physical creature. I need you.
I hunger for your touch, your kiss.
The feel of your body against mine, as our souls connect and our limbs intertwine.
The music of your voice.
The glorious dance of our eyes, together.
The warmth, the fragrance of your body, as your arms surround me and reassure me.
I once had this. Now, I do not.
Without this, I wither and die, as surely as a flower in darkness.
You left me once before, and I followed you north, to the Rhine.
I made you promise never to leave me again.
But, you have.
I will seek you out, wherever you have gone.
For, that is the Way of Friendship.
Your path is my path.
Our lives have been chronicled. My task is done.
Aphrodite has brought to me an oil of the kunda tree, to speed me to you.
She will watch my passing.
I will break the cage of this mortal realm, to soar free and let our souls reunite.
I drink the oil, a toast to you, my beloved, my soul-mate, my friend.
My eyes grow heavy. My body fails me.
I am coming to you. Wait for me. Please. Find me.
For I am yours always. Gabrielle.
As Melinda finished her translation, no one spoke for a long time. The four friends stood, silent and humbled, lost in their own emotions.
Finally, the silence was broken as Janice softly spoke. "That was the saddest thing that I've ever heard." She paused to wipe her eyes. "And, the most magnificent translation of poetry I've ever heard, as well. Doc Pangalos will want to see this, for sure. We'll show it to him tomorrow." Then, her expression sank. "But that still doesn't explain the twenty-five year discrepancy in her age at death."
Melinda rubbed her eyes, and turned back to the scrolls. "There might be an answer here. We still have more to read." She and Sallie turned their attention back to the scrolls, as Janice watched them. Mack leaned against one of the tables, lost in thought. His mind buzzed with theories, and he considered each one of them in turn, discarding them one by one. Finally, he spoke to Janice.
"Jan, you know more about this than anyone. Let me ask you a question."
"All the Xena scrolls were written by Gabrielle, right?"
"Yeah. To be considered a Xena scroll, they have to be."
"In all that, was her information accurate? Or, was she given to flights of fancy?"
"You mean, could her stuff be considered factual? Yeah. It can be correlated with some stuff that we found in Rome, and Egypt, and by other Greeks. That's what convinced my father, and me, that it was fact and not fiction."
"What, in the scrolls, impresses you as 'bunk', if anything?"
"Well, just the parts where she talks about the Greek gods and stuff. That can't be true."
"Right. But the rest of it can be argued as fact?"
"Yeah. What are you getting at?"
"Just this." Here goes nothing again, Mack thought. "Why do we assume that the stuff she wrote about the gods is bunk? I mean, if the other stuff is true, then why not the 'gods' stuff as well?"
Sallie, Janice, and Melinda all turned their eyes towards Mack. Janice spoke. "Mack, have you lost your marbles? Everybody knows that the Greek gods were myth, legend. Not fact."
Mack began to pace, and waved his hand as he spoke. "Right. But, why do we feel that way? Is it because of science, or is it because of our culture? Our heritage, that tells us from the time that we can walk, that there is only one God. One thing I've learned as an historian is that peoples' perceptions of history are always colored by their own culture. Their belief in what is good and bad. Right and wrong. Possible and impossible. But, suppose, just for a minute, that we drop that assumption, the assumption of only one God. Then, her explanation becomes believable."
"We have no proof that the Greek gods ever really existed."
"Don't we? Our libraries are crammed full of sagas about the gods. Look. We have the opinion of a highly respected colleague that Gabrielle died at forty. We have historical evidence collected by you and your father, which shows that she died sixty-five years after she was born. We also have Gabrielle's explanation that they were frozen in time for twenty-five years by the God of War. Now, the other stuff she writes isn't bunk. Why do we assume that this is? I would submit to you that here, in front of us, we have some evidence that the God of War actually existed. We have proof of his handiwork. And if he could exist, then why not the others?"
"You heard Doctor Pangalos. She never would have been able to survive being frozen."
"Under normal circumstances, Yes. However, suppose that we had the involvement of a being who had the power to transmute the elements, and suspend the laws of natural science by which our physical world operates. Then, what?" Mack paused, and looked at the others in the room. They were silent. He took a deep breath, and continued. "A being who could do what the Greek gods could supposedly do. Appear and disappear at will. Control the winds, and the tides, and the weather. Hurl fire. Change shape, and so on. Is it so hard to believe that he could suspend them in time for twenty-five years, without the laws of nature operating on their bodies and destroying their beauty? He could control those laws."
Janice was incredulous. "Mack, you're starting to scare me."
"Why? Because I'm making sense, or because I'm not?"
"Because you're making perfect sense."
"Do you really think so, Jan?"
"Yes. I can't refute your argument. I just can't."
Melinda joined in. "Mack, Janice, mah word! Have you two lost your minds? The Greek gods real?"
Janice replied, "Yes. Real. Mel, what is it that keeps us from believing in them?"
"It goes against everything we believe. All that we've been taught."
"Exactly. What we've been taught. Look at Mack over there. A few days ago, he didn't believe in ghosts. Now, he does. Right, Mack?" Mack nodded. "Now, what changed his mind? He saw one. Twice. Spoke with it. Real as hell, right, Mack?" Mack nodded again. "You didn't think he was crazy, did you, Mel? Why not? Because you had been taught that they could exist. Mack, on the other hand, thought that he was goin' nutty. Why? Because he had been raised to not believe in them. But, he saw it. You saw it." Melinda nodded, slowly. "I saw it. It existed, in spite of Mack's belief that they didn't exist. And, so could Ares, in spite of our belief that he didn't exist."
The four stood in silence for several moments, staring at each other. No one said anything. The silence in the room was deafening. Melinda cocked her head, and got a quizzical look on her face. She began to feel the strangest sensation, a sensation that they were not alone. A vague uneasiness gripped her. Janice noticed, and said, "What's the matter, Mel?"
"Ah'm getting the oddest feeling. Almost as if......"
At that moment, a glow began to appear in the corner of the room. A form materialized out of thin air, and the sound of a solitary set of clapping hands echoed throughout the room. They stared at the specter. It was a man, tall, swarthy, and with a goatee beard. He was applauding them. He was grinning, but his eyes were cold and piercing. "So. Stupid mortals finally figured it out. Only took you guys two thousand years."
Janice spoke to him. "Who the hell are you?"
Melinda responded, "Jan, meet Ares, God of War."
Mack, Janice, and Sallie all stared at Melinda, and then back at the man.
He continued, "None other. But, I haven't gone by that name in a long, long time."
Melinda spoke again. "What is it that you want here, Ares?"
He looked at Melinda. "I've been looking for you and your friends. You could feel me in the room before I appeared, couldn't you?" Melinda nodded. "That's highly irritating. The only other person who could ever do that was Xena. Never could figure out how. Maybe it's in the blood."
Sallie whispered, "In the blood? Melinda, are you Xena's descendant?"
Janice answered. "That's what Gabrielle told us."
Ares raised his voice. "That irritating little blonde?" He looked at Janice. "You know, you look just like her. I don't like you already."
Janice was sarcastic. "Gee, I'm sorry to hear that. What do you want, Ares?"
"Hey! Is that any way to talk to the God of War? What I want....." Ares paced the room and looked at each of them in turn. "What I want is to put a stop to this little endeavor of yours. Y'see, I can't allow this. This thing has gone just too far for my comfort. I can't allow you to bring Xena to the world's attention. It would be bad for my business."
"Is she still a threat to you, after all these years?" Melinda eyed Ares, coldly.
Ares exploded. "She has never been a threat to me! I am the God of War! I do what I want!" He calmed slightly, and resumed. "What she is to me, is my greatest failure. She could have been so much. She could have ruled Greece. Her name would have gone down into history with the likes of Alexander, Caesar, Attila, Napoleon."
Mack chuckled. "Yeah, and look what happened to them. They all crashed and burned in history."
Ares turned on Mack. "What do you know of it? Books? I lived it! I was there!" He resumed pacing. "She was magnificent. What fire. What drive. She could have had it all, with my help. And, she almost did. I almost possessed her completely, body, soul, and spirit. And, then, what happened?" Ares paused for a moment, and then pointed to the coffin. "Her. That little blonde twirp came along, and everything changed for Xena. She grew a conscience. Started defending the weak, instead of oppressing them like she was born to do. Became a vagabond. Started traveling the country, trying to undo what she had accomplished so far. ' The greater good', she used to call it. What a waste. And all because she got the 'hots' for that little bard. And my half-brother Hercules didn't help, either. Well, there's not much I can do about him. His reputation is sealed in history. But hers, I can affect. I can keep her buried in obscurity, where she belongs. Where I've been able to keep her for the last two thousand years."
Ares strolled over to the coffin and peered in. He sighed deeply, and then turned cold, dark eyes back upon the occupants of the room. "And, then, you guys come along. Stumble over the tomb that I've been able to keep so carefully hidden all these years. Dig them up. Bring them here. Do you realize what you've done?"
Janice responded. "Sure, I do. We brought her back to the world's attention. They will be made famous again. They will become powerful examples of what nobility and right can accomplish. Something that is so foreign to you, so opposite to your nature, that you can't stand it. You've gotta crush it."
Melinda joined in. "And, they represent a magnificent love story. Something that you always wanted with Xena, but couldn't have. Something that Gabrielle beat you at. Imagine that, the God of War, beaten by a bard."
"That's ENOUGH!!" Ares' voice rang throughout the room. He looked at Melinda. "You are really starting to piss me off!" He paused for a moment, and continued. "Yeah. You're right. Right on all accounts. Go ahead and laugh it up. But, what you've found is even bigger than that."
Sallie cleared her throat. "We found out about you, didn't we?"
Ares looked at her, studied her for the first time. "Y'know, you're smarter than you look."
Sallie responded with a slight grin, "Yeah. I've been hearing that a lot lately."
He resumed his pacing. "When I first lost my gig as God of War, it was because people stopped believing in me. But, I found that anonymity was great. I could bounce around through human history, having a wonderful time. I could become anybody, anything I wanted to. Go anywhere I wanted to go, and build empires. It was intoxicating. I just finished my last little project. Maybe you remember me?" He started laughing, an evil, harsh laugh, and began to change shape in front of their eyes. His form melted, shortened, and changed color. When it became clear again, the vision was shocking. A short man, clothed in a brown uniform, with a swatch of brown hair and a small moustache. Melinda, Mack, Janice, and Sallie stood in shocked silence as they looked on the form of Adolf Hitler. Then, the form began to morph again, and it gained height. The brown shades of color turned black. When it came into focus, there stood Ares, the God of War, in ancient Grecian garb. Black leather armor gleamed in the dim artificial lighting. A lion-like mane of black hair flowed to his shoulders, and beyond. Ares spoke again.
"You're right, young lady. I've gotta protect my anonymity. I'm just having too much fun these days. And, since your bunch, here, has figured me out, I've gotta do something about it. Since those morons I hired couldn't do it, I guess I'll have to do it myself. Can't have you running around letting on that I exist, now can I?" He paused, and then continued. "Hey, life sucks sometimes. For mortals, anyway." He looked at Melinda. "You. You look just like her. Same tilt of the head, same grin, same everything. Since you're the last of her line, I think I'll start with you. No hard feelings." With that, Ares held out his arm, and a ball of fire began to grow in the palm of his hand. As it did, the curtains on the window jerked open as Mack pulled on the rope, and the light of the full moon flooded the room. At the same instant, the fireball left Ares' hand, headed directly for Melinda's chest. Janice stepped in front of Melinda, and took the full impact of the ball of flame. It knocked her backwards into Melinda, and they both collapsed to the ground. Sallie let out a strangled shriek, and bent over to the two of them. Melinda sat on the floor, holding Janice in her lap. A large hole was burned in the front of Janice's shirt. The edges of the cloth were still smoking. The flesh underneath was red and blistered, with bits of skin peeling away. "Oh, my God," Melinda cried. "Janice, are you all right?" No answer. Janice's eyes were rolled back in her head, and she did not move. Sallie reached out and felt for a pulse. There was one, and a strong one.
Sallie said, "She's okay, I think." She looked up at Ares, and her expression became hard. She reached to Janice's waist, and drew forth the revolver from the holster. Melinda put her hand on Sallie's wrist as she raised the pistol.
"It won't affect him," Melinda said simply. Ares began to laugh.
"What? You're gonna shoot me? I'm immortal, little girl. Go on. Give it a try. I like a display of useless courage. I like to see someone go down fighting." He raised his arm again, and another fireball began to form. A blur approached him from one side, and a staff came down hard upon his hand, knocking the fireball to the floor. It fizzled, and died. "Ow!" Ares shook his arm, and held his wrist with his other hand, his eyes darting about the room. They lit on an iridescent form standing about four feet from him. "You!" Ares and Gabrielle stared at each other, as Gabrielle paced around him, her staff at battle position. "Not you. Not that irritating little blonde. You couldn't defeat me then; what makes you think you can now?"
In reply, her lips began to move, and a voice rang through the heads of all in the room. It was Greek. Sallie leaned towards Melinda and said, "What was that?"
Melinda translated. "She said that she's not flesh and blood now."
Ares made a grab for Gabrielle's throat, and she deftly parried him with her staff. She then began to rain blows upon the God of War, causing him to raise his arms and back up slightly. One blow caught him in the stomach, causing him to double forward. The next swing of her staff snapped his head to one side. As he straightened, he began to drip blood from his nose. "I'm getting tired of this!" Ares said, and held his right hand away from his body. A sword materialized in his hand, and he took a hard swing at Gabrielle. The blade cut through Gabrielle's staff and her body at the shoulders, but she was unfazed. They both remained intact. Ares' eyes widened. "What in Zeus' Name?" he shouted, and looked at the sword. She attacked again, and rained down more blows on Ares in rapid succession. He swung repeatedly with the sword, but to no avail. Finally, Gabrielle spun around, knelt, and knocked Ares' feet out from under him. He hit the floor with a hard smack, and lay still for a moment, the sword clattering away from him. Gabrielle finished her maneuver with a flourish, swept a long, knifelike sai from her boot, and held it at Ares' throat. His eyes widened as he felt the instrument prick his neck. All stood, transfixed at the sight of the ancient combat, until a marvelous, rolling, musical laughter split the silence. A second iridescent figure stepped into the center of the room from behind Melinda . Its voice, like that of Gabrielle, rang through their heads, in Greek.
"Well done, Gabrielle. You have stayed expert, I see."
Sallie looked inquiringly at Melinda. As she cradled Janice's still form, she quickly began translating the words.
Gabrielle just smiled, not taking her eyes off of Ares, and responded, in Greek. "I had a good teacher. Thank you for hearing my call, Xena."
At the mention of Xena's name, Mack, Sallie, and Melinda all stared. She was a magnificent sight. She stood tall, with a regal bearing and demeanor. Her form was hard and muscular. Her armor, through the slight glow, was black leather and metal. She wore a large sword slung across her back, and had a chakram hanging by her hip. The front of her hair was braided, but the back flowed almost to her waist. She was impressive, indeed. She strolled over to Gabrielle and Ares, her arms folded across her chest, and again her voice rang through everyone's heads, in Greek. Melinda quickly translated for Sallie, as they spoke.
"I do not believe that you needed my help, after all. I see that you have been rat-catching."
She looked down, and continued. "Get up, Ares." Gabrielle re-sheathed her sai, and stood, taking a few paces backwards toward Xena's side. Ares groaned, and slowly rose to his feet. He stood to face Xena; two adversaries, facing each other again, after so many years.
Ares shook his head slightly, dabbed at his nose, and began speaking in the ancient dialect of Greek. "Greetings, Xena. It has been a long time."
"Not long enough. You are still the cause of much mischief. But, we will correct that soon."
"There is nothing that you can do. I am immortal, Xena. You cannot stop me. I am the God of War."
"Yes. We are now more, however, as you have seen. With our combined strength, we will assure ourselves that you will never again hold such power as you once did. We have been indulgent with you. We will not make that error again."
"This realm needs me. I find a home here, in the warring instincts of humans. You cannot change their natures."
"It is true that you are resigned to this realm for all time. But we traverse many realms. We have more power for what is noble than you will ever have for what is brutal. You may try your best, but we are of the belief that this realm will finally succeed in gaining nobility. Then, you will have no home."
Gabrielle joined in. "We have seen the progress of many civilizations, in many realms. Nobility will dominate. It may take many thousands of years, but it will come to pass."
Ares grinned at this. "You are deluded. As always. The passage of time will prove which one of us is right."
Xena spoke again. "You will leave these people alone. They are under our protection." She gestured towards the room. "And, you will not disturb our remains, ever again."
Ares sneered. "Or, you will do what?"
Xena grinned. "Or Gabrielle the Bard will give you another sound beating." At this, both Xena and Gabrielle laughed derisively. The God of War responded to the insult with a grimace, and then, in a flash of light, he was gone.
Xena turned towards the room, and Gabrielle walked over to the three women crouched by the table. She knelt, and placed her staff on the floor. She studied Janice for a moment, and then reached out her hand and touched Janice's chest. A soft glow diffused through Janice's torso, and then Gabrielle picked up her staff and stood, as Xena took her place next to her.
Mack, who had been watching from his place next to the window, joined the group. They saw Janice stir, and open her eyes. She looked down at her chest, and fingered the burned shirt. The skin of her chest was intact. Then, she looked up, and started as she saw the forms of Xena and Gabrielle, smiling down at her. Melinda helped Janice to her feet, and then spoke in Greek. "Thank you."
Gabrielle nodded her head in response. "You have treated us with honor. You have protected our remains, our ancient memories. It is the least we can do."
Xena added, "You have shown great courage and true friendship. Many thanks."
Mack and Melinda looked at each other. Mack nudged Melinda, and said, "Go on. Ask 'em."
Melinda hesitated, then began her question, in Greek. "Gabrielle says that you have been....separated. Is there anything we can do for you?"
Xena responded. "You have already done it. The separation was painful for us, but it was only for a time. Now that Gabrielle has completed her......mission......here, we will be reunited."
Gabrielle nudged Xena with her elbow, and their eyes locked for a moment. Then, they both turned towards Janice and Melinda with questioning looks. Xena looked suddenly awkward. Gabrielle spoke, now. "Xena is shy to ask. We wish to ask a favor of the two of you."
Janice was immediate. "Name the favor. It is yours," she said in Greek.
"We wish to.......borrow..... your mortal forms for a few minutes. You see, .............."
Janice and Melinda looked at each other. "No need to explain. We consent," Melinda said.
"Thank you. It will not be long. We have little time. This will not injure you." Xena and Gabrielle stepped forward, and merged into the bodies of Janice and Melinda. The two women then stood, staring at each other, arms away from their bodies, as they relished the feel of the physical realm again for the first time in two thousand years. They then slowly, tightly embraced and kissed. Sallie smiled and grabbed Mack by the arm.
"Come on, Mack. I think these two need some time alone."
Yeah, me too. Lemme buy ya a cup of coffee." With that, they linked arms, walked into Doctor Pangalos' office, and shut the door.
A while later, as Sallie sat on Mack's lap in the swivel chair with her head leaning on his shoulder, the door opened. It was Melinda. She looked inside, and said softly, "They're gone now." Her eyes were wet with tears. Mack and Sallie followed Melinda out into the room. Janice was standing, wiping her eyes with her bandanna. She looked up, slightly embarrassed to have been caught crying. "Oh, yeah. This has been one hell of a night, hasn't it?" At that, all four burst into laughter.
As they settled down, Mack said, "Hey, Janice. Yer hanging out." He pointed to the front of her shirt, which still had a large hole burned in the front. She looked down.
"Oh, shit. Sure am." She then peered down into the neck of her shirt, and said, "That's a relief. Still got 'em both." Melinda leaned over and peered down Janice's neckline, as well.
"Yes, indeed. Cute ones, too!" More laughter, as Mack took off his jacket and handed it to Janice. She received it with a nod of thanks, slipped it on, and zipped it up.
"Let's get outa here for tonight, eh?"
As the four of them emerged onto the cool night-time street and began walking to the hotel, Sallie looked up. "Look at the stars. It's a magnificent night!"
Janice nodded. "Yes, it is, Sallie. Yes, it is."
That night, at the hotel.
A cool, refreshing breeze whispered through the open window. Inside the darkened hotel room, lit only by the glow of the city street below, Janice and Melinda lay silently wrapped in each other's arms. Neither spoke for the longest time, but both were awake and absorbed in thought about the events of the last few days. Finally, Janice broke the silence. "Mel?"
"Did you ever suspect that you and Xena were related?"
"Ah never gave it much thought. Until now, that is. What ah have wondered about is the amazing resemblance between you and Gabrielle."
"I've wondered about that, too. Mel, do you think....?"
"That you and she are related, as well? It would answer a lot of questions."
"Such as, why you and I feel that we've been together forever?"
Mel smiled over at Janice's face, dim in the night. "Maybe we have been."
"I dunno. That's really a stretch, Mel. You mean, past lives, or something?"
"Well, not quite that. But, ah have often wondered why people's ancestries mean so much to them. Maybe it's because we're in some way connected with our families over the centuries. Perhaps there's something in us, some unbroken thread connecting Xena and I, or you and Gabrielle over the years, that causes us to be....well, similar in many ways."
"Such as appearance?"
"Yes, and the chakram business. Ah mean, that was instinct. Ah never thought about doing that, ah just did it."
Janice was silent for a moment. "Well, I can't really come up with any ways that Gabrielle and I are similar. Except for the appearance, that is."
"Oh, ah can. You are both marvelous writers. Ah've read some of your articles, Jan. They are really good. And, you are both gypsies of a sort, refusing the quiet life of a 'traditional' female for one bursting with adventure and danger."
"You know me, Mel. I couldn't stand to be cooped up in a classroom forever. It would drive me crazy."
"There, you see? And, you're quite the warrior yourself. Don't forget, ah've seen you in action a few times. So, ah think that you and she are very much alike."
"Perhaps we are, at that." Then, Janice suddenly changed the subject. "Mel, what did you feel, when Xena was inside your body?"
"Oh, my. Ah think ah felt some of what she felt, but we were still separate people. It was almost as if ah was watching from a distance, but part of it. How about you?"
"Yeah, same thing. It was the most incredible feeling. It was then that I was convinced that Gabrielle and I were related. It was as if......I was welcoming an old friend."
"Jan, do you think they were.......are.....as much in love as we are?"
"No doubt of it. They were.....are....soul mates, after all. Gabrielle killed herself to follow Xena to the next life. What a depth of devotion that was."
"Almost as much as you stepping in front of me when Ares tried to kill me. You took that for me. You were willing to sacrifice yourself to keep me safe. Ah'll never forget that, Jan. Never."
They turned towards each other in the dim light, and their eyes met for a long moment. "Hey, I had to. Wouldn't want to have to explain to an irate Xena about the last of her line getting bumped off. Would you?"
Melinda and Janice both began laughing at that. "Janice Covington! You can't be serious for more than five minutes, can you?"
"Naah. Except about you. I could be serious about you for a lifetime. Or two."
"Hey, don't push yer luck. I am a gypsy, after all."
"Darlin', you can be a gypsy all you want. But, where you go, ah go. In this life, or the next."
"I was hoping you'd say that. God, I love you, Mel."
"Ah love you, too, Jan." Melinda snuggled down next to Janice, and they prepared to drift off to sleep together. In the quiet night, some slight sound from the next room drifted through the wall.
Janice whispered, "Mel?"
"Sallie really gets loud sometimes, doesn't she?" Janice felt Melinda begin to shake from silent laughter, and then felt Mel's soft voice next to her ear.
"Well, darlin', let's see if we can do 'em one better. C'mere."
"Again? Mel, you're incorrigible. A sex maniac."
"Ah wasn't until ah met you, Janice Covington. Now, shut up and seduce me."
And, as the soft breeze ruffled the curtains and light from the full moon embraced the room, Janice did exactly that.
The Metropolitan Museum, New York City, forty years later, 1986.
Mack MacKenzie limped down the polished hallway of the museum, leaning on his cane. His wound from the war was giving him lots of trouble this week, and he wondered if this was going to be "par for the course" from now on. Yeah, he thought to himself, getting old really does stink. But, maybe it's better than the alternative.
He stopped in front of a large sign next to a spacious room, and studied it through his glasses.
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM
THE OPENING OF A ONE-YEAR
UNITED STATES TOUR OF
ARTIFACTS RELATED TO THE
XENA -GABRIELLE ERA
OF GRECIAN HISTORY
Courtesy of the Museum of Antiquities
This must be the place, he thought, and entered the room. There were quite a few people already gathered, and in one part of the room, rows of folding metal chairs had been arranged facing a podium. Conversation buzzed around him, as he quietly limped through the crowd of well-dressed people. He looked around in vain for a familiar face. Seeing none, he limped over to the coffee urn, and helped himself. His hand went for the sugar, hesitated, and then reached for the packet of artificial sweetener as he muttered something under his breath about "damn doctors." He stood awkwardly by a corner, sipping his coffee, and studied the people around him. Nicely-attired bunch, he thought to himself. Smell money in here, too. Must be museum supporters. Glad I wore my dark suit. Never was comfortable in crowds. Get more that way, the older I get. Just a grouchy old fart, that's me.
He finished his coffee and dropped the styrofoam cup into a nearby trash can. Leaning on his cane, he walked through the open double doors, and onto the wide balcony. He stood, surveying the spring morning. It's still a beautiful world, he thought to himself.
His ruminations were interrupted as a strangely familiar voice hailed him from about ten feet away. "Mack . Mack MacKenzie." He looked over, and a broad smile broke out upon his lined and weathered face.
"Janice Covington. My God, but you're a sight for sore eyes!" He limped over to her. She had aged considerably, but that was still Janice. Her almost-white hair was pulled back in her perpetual pony-tail, and she sat looking very dignified in a grey suit. Her face was worn and she had half-glasses perched on the end of her nose. She put out a hand and grasped his arm. The grip was still strong, even though her arm was thin.
"Mack, it's good to see you. What's it been now, five years? You look wonderful. Forgive me for not hugging you, but as you can see, I'm stuck in this damned wheelchair."
Mack had noticed the chair. "What in the blue hell happened to you, Jan?"
"Oh, I fell and busted my ass. Actually, it was my hip. Got some metal in it, now. The docs say that I'll be up and around in a bit, though." She eyed Mack. "You look a bit worse for wear, too. That old war injury?"
Mack nodded. "Seems to bug me more and more, these days." He looked at Janice, and grinned. "Guess we've both got metal in our hips now, eh?"
Janice laughed, and responded, "Always said that we were a lot alike. You got yours from the Germans. Me, I got mine from being stupid and trying to work another dig."
"Let's go over here, and let me sit down. I'll push you."
"Sure you can drive this thing?"
"Oh, yeah. Although I remember that you always wanted to drive."
"That's just because you always drove like a little old lady."
"Look who's talking now."
Mack parked Janice's chair by a bench, and he sat next to her. Neither of them said anything for a moment. Then Mack reached over and put his hand on Janice's arm. "Jan, I'm really sorry about Melinda. I'm even more sorry that I couldn't have been there for you, but I was kinda sick at the time. It must have been tough on you. We all loved that woman so dearly."
Jan looked over her glasses at Mack, and smiled weakly. Those are still the kindest and saddest eyes I've ever seen, thought Mack. "Well, thanks, Mack. I know ya would have been there if you could have. You know, I think I finally, really understand how Gabrielle felt." Mack nodded, and Janice continued. "So, was Sallie able to come with you? The last time I was able to see her was Mel's funeral. She was such a help." Mack didn't say anything, and just cast his eyes towards his shoes. "Mack. What's wrong?" Janice said softly. Mack's chin trembled a bit.
"Sallie's dying. Got cancer. Probably won't live more than another week or two."
"Oh, Mack. Damn." Janice sniffed, and quickly drew a handkerchief from her pocket. She held it in front of her face for a minute or so, as some tears squeezed from her eyes. "I'm so sorry. Where is she now?"
"You should be there. Not here."
"I'm here for both of us. Sallie insisted. Besides, it's only an hour's drive."
"Will you take me to her, after this thing is over?"
Mack smiled. "Why, I'd be honored. Sallie will love to see you. She always thought the world of you, you know. I'll give the house a call, before we leave."
Janice removed her glasses and mopped her eyes. As she did, she said, "Guess we need to get in there. Looks like they're getting ready to start."
"Here. I'll push you." Mack stood and pushed Janice's chair into the room. Most of the crowd had taken their seats. As they approached the chairs, Janice motioned.
"They reserved some places for us in the front row. Stick me right here, and you can sit next to me." Mack did, and as he sat, the museum official began to speak to the assembled crowd.
May I have your attention, please?" The crowd quieted expectantly. "We would like to welcome you to the museum today. As you know, we have the honor of hosting a magnificent display of Xena and Gabrielle artifacts from the Museum in Athens, Greece. They will be available for perusal immediately after our welcome and comments here. But, as a preview, I'd like to show you just a few slides. Lights, please. Thank you. Now, this first slide is the mausoleum, situated in the gardens of the Athens museum. The remains of Xena and Gabrielle have been interred here together since their discovery some forty years ago by a team of American archaeologists." Janice reached over and put her hand on Mack's arm, as they looked at the slide. The picture showed the inscription on its side clearly, in both English and Greek. Here rests the mortal form of the Warrior-Bard Gabrielle of Potadiea, with the remains of her beloved Xena. They clicked through the rest of the slides as the speaker talked briefly about each one. Then, the lights came back on. The speaker continued, "And, we have the great honor today to have present with us Doctor Janice Covington, who led that team." He gestured towards Janice. "She has kindly agreed to tell us something of that experience. Doctor Covington?" At that, an usher appeared behind Janice's chair, and brought her to the front of the room, next to the podium. As they lowered the microphone to her level, some applause began. Mack began clapping loudly, and stood to his feet from the edge of the front row. The rest of the room began standing as well, and the applause became thunderous. Janice received a standing ovation of a full half-minute.
When the room finally silenced, and the crowd resumed their seats, Janice simply said, "My goodness." She looked at the crowd over her half-glasses, and began to speak. "The discovery of the tomb of Xena and Gabrielle was a marvelous adventure. Would you like to hear the story?" She looked about at the assembled guests and officials, and continued. "Well, it was in the summer of nineteen forty-six. As I remember, I was in Athens for a couple of days, when............."
-December, 2001 djb