“Lean back and to onside while pulling upon the reins! Guide the houses round the turn!”
Gabrielle and Lilla both looked to their master with a bit of trepidation. Iolaus was clearly on edge as he watched the chariot race. His jaw was set in a tense line, his hands balled into fists. Even though his charioteer Heniokhos couldn’t possibly hear him, it didn’t stop Iolaus from yelling out pointers.
They were in Ostia, a working class town located at the mouth of the Tiber. As the principal port for the city of Rome, it was a hive of activity. Merchant ships lined up on the wharves busily unloading goods bound for the capital and taking on cargoes of Roman goods bound for the provinces. Such busy trade allowed Ostia the tax revenue to construct a track. Though quite modest in comparison to the one being constructed in the capital, it was still an important stepping stone towards getting an invite to race in the great Circus Maximus.
Since reaching Roman shores, Lilla and Gabrielle had spent most of their time in the townhouse or at the country villa. The townhouse was really a place for the master to meet and greet potential buyers of his horses. The villa, where the business was actually run, had beautiful stables for the horses, but also produced grapes and olives. Their master, having a keen business sense, had seen to it that that the dilapidated vineyards were revived, hoping these new ventures would further increase his wealth. However, his true love remained breeding beautiful horses.
Before entering the stands, Iolaus had indulged the two with a small Roman treat from the Popinae, a kind of walk up cook shop where food could be purchased out of large earthenware pots embedded in a thick masonry counter. Gabrielle and Lilla each got a fist sized canvas sack filled with all manner of nuts and smoked fruit. In addition, he purchased salted peas for the two to share. He covered this bit of altruism by saying it was necessary as Gabrielle and Lilla had lost weight on the sea voyage and still needed to regain their strength.
Both sisters, so used to staying at the villa, had been selected for something very rare for slaves. The two were allowed to accompany their master on a trip to see his horses compete. Iolaus had originally planned to take only Gabrielle, to let her see the horses which she cared for contend in a race, but the little slave had managed to convince her master that Lilla could be of use as well.
“The last turn sister!”
Gabrielle peeked up at her taller sibling in irritation, wishing she had been gifted with just a bit more height, well, actually, much more height. As matters stood, her view was blocked by the crowd who had surged to their feet in excitement.
“Third!” Iolaus yelled in frustration, his voice rising up over even the cheering crowd. “A mistake round the turn cost us first.
“But, still a good finish is it not master? Especially since our driver and horses are new to racing?”
“It is Gabrielle.” Her master’s scowl disappeared, and he chuckled. “I must take you to more races, as you always help me see the positive side of events.”
“Come, let us collect our winnings from the betting, and I must have a word with Heniokhos, the boy has promise, but he must learn that leading a team of four horses, takes finesse.”
Iolaus waded into the crowd, the sisters following.
“Gabrielle, I want you and Lilla to give the horse team a bath,” their master called back, “they must look fresh for the races in the morrow.”
“Now I know how you manage to stay so thin.” Lilla griped. “The work with these animals is quite taxing.”
Gabrielle smiled up at her sister, choosing not to repeat what many who worked out of doors on the manor often said about house slaves, that they lived a much easier existence.
“Sister, watch again.” Gabrielle instructed gently at seeing Lilla fumbling with the rope. “Make a big loop in the rope, and then bring it over the fence bar. Then make a blight on one length of rope hanging down. See like this...” Lilla watched as her sister made another bend in the rope. “Tuck it through the big loop hanging over the fence, then take the other length of the rope, do the same. Now, tuck this bight, through the other.” With skill gained though many hours of work, Gabrielle maneuvered the lengths of rope. “All that is left to do is pull on the standing length.” Her hand went to the strand of the rope, hanging down on the fence and pulled it taught, making a perfect quick release knot. Stepping to Argo, she tired the free length to the horses bridle.
“See, you do this in case the horse fights you as you wash her. Just pull on the slip end here…” Gabrielle pulled the other length of rope dangling down from the fence bar. “And the knot releases so the animal does not get hurt or hurt you.”
Lilla groaned, knowing what would be next as her elder sister pulled the length and the knot untied. “You try again.”
“Gabrielle, I can barely lace my boots right!” whined Lilla as she fumbled with the rope.
“Nah-uh… make a loop.” Gabrielle shook her head, her hands moving up to assist just a little. “No...No… See… tuck…there…. Yes… now…through…correct…pull…
“Got it!” Lilla beamed.
“Okay Argo,” Gabrielle addressed the white stallion as she would a friend. “Now be good as we need to give you a good brushing and wash.” Gabrielle grabbed one of the curry combs, handing the other to Lilla now standing on the other side of the horse. The younger sister immediately took the round stiff bristled brush and worked it in a circular motion on the horse’s body as Gabrielle had taught.
“I still don’t see why we have to brush, before we brush.” Lilla griped.
“I’ve told you the reason two times past Lilla, on two other horses…” Gabrielle smirked though unseen by her sister. “This one loosens gunk in the coat and helps with circulation, the little dandy brush will sweep the hair and gunk off her body loosed by the curry comb.”
“Right, just what I said, brush to brush again,” Lilla snarked causing Gabrielle to shake her head slightly as she continued to work.
“Want me to give you a boost?” her sister asked seeing Gabrielle move to drag her little step-stool over so she could reach higher on Argo.
“No sister, just like I said no two other times on two other horses.”
“You know you aren’t that much taller than me.”
“No, I’m not.” Lilla smiled as their conversation now tread on familiar ground. “You’re just really short.”
Gabrielle, stepped down from her stool and looked up at the side of Argo rising high above her. She happily groomed the master’s horses, but had never learned to ride. The height upon the horses back was just too dizzying.
“Okay, I am…” Gabrielle conceded.
“Am what?” Lilla asked guilelessly.
“Really short!” Replied an irritated Gabrielle and while Lilla laughed at her expense, she walked over to pick up the dandy brush to use on Argo’s legs.
“Tell a story Gabrielle.” Lilla commanded imperiously, which drew a withering look from her sister. “Please?” she amended, “you know to pass the time.”
“Okay…” Gabrielle thought a moment.
“Once there was a beautiful brown haired, hazel eyed peasant girl…
“Was she tall or short?” Lilla teased.
“Short, Lilla, now hush and listen.”
“She lived in the northern reaches of Greece. Along with her two brothers and mother…”
“Were they farmers like us?” asked Lilla.
“No, her mother ran a tavern.”
“Where was her dad?”
“He left the family when…. Lilla!”
“Here grab the buckets.” Gabrielle ordered. Pour it over her gently; don’t splash it in her face like you did the other horse.”
Gabrielle, I thought that was what you were supposed to do.” Lilla said sheepishly.
“I know you did sister, but no one, to include horses, likes to have a bucket of cold water thrown in their face. First pour water over Argo’s legs so she knows what you intend to do and doesn’t get scared like Celer did.
“Okay…” Lilla groaned. Both sisters took turns, emptying then refilling the buckets until Argo’s coat was well and truly wet. Picking up the sliver of oily soap, Gabrielle smoothed it over the horse’s white coat, building lather up as Lilla did the same on the other side. From the hooves up the two girls worked slowly cleaning every bit of the stallion. “Least this one is a girl; we don’t have to deal with one of those…things.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Sister we grew up on a farm!”
“I know Gabrielle! Doesn’t mean I like cleaning boy parts!”
“You also had to clean the…” Gabrielle leaned over to make eye contact with her sister. Green eyes moved to Argo’s tail section.
“I know! You don’t have to remind me!”
“We only have one more horse to wash after Argo, Lilla.”
Gabrielle smiled, watching her sister perform an exaggerated shudder.
“At least continue your story, to take my mind off what I’m doing.”
“Okay.” her Gabrielle agreed happily.
“The village the girl grew up in was lovely. It had rolling fields of grain and a marketplace with genuine walk in stores, instead of just simple vendor’s carts like we had in Potadeia. The village people were also most friendly, greeting each other in the streets and meeting each other in the tavern to celebrate all the wonderful occasions’ life gives us, as well as to give comfort to each other in times of sadness.”
One of those sad times, changed the beautiful peasant girl, and her village forever.”
“What was the peasant girl’s name?”
“I’m getting there Lilla.”
“A vicious warlord heard about the lovely village and lusted after its riches of stored grain and merchant coin. Having resolved himself to steal what the villagers had worked so hard to gain, he and his men raided it one morning. The villagers resisted as best they could, but were no match for a trained army. The beautiful stores were looted; the fields filled with growing grain, burned, the mill destroyed. The evil warlord laughed as his men took terrible liberties with the women, and killed the men who tried to protect them. Before riding off, he yelled out a warning that he would return in a fortnight. If the village didn’t meet his demands for more riches, he would... kill… them… all.”
“How terrible!” Gabrielle looked up, hearing the sadness in Lilla’s voice, seeing tears in her sister’s eyes.
“Here…” Gabrielle began picking up the buckets, handing several to her sister. “We must wash Argo off now.”
“After rinsing the soap away, the girls took wooden combs in hand to run through Argo’s mane and tail, before using the sweat scraper, to wring out the remaining moisture in the horse’s pure white coat.
“What happened next?” queried Lilla, absorbed in the story.
“The beautiful peasant girl was not in the village when the raid happened, having gone to her favorite pond for a swim.”
“Thank the gods!”
“When she returned, her heart broke seeing the devastation wrought upon her village by the evil warlord. Her anger turned to thoughts of vengeance. But what could she do? She was only one lone village girl, how could she stop an army?”
“How indeed?!” Seconded Lilla. “One against an army? Impossible!”
“One brother urged for them all to flee, to run and hide in the hills. The other urged them to stay and fight, both looked to her to break the impasse between them.”
“What a terrible choice to have to make.”
“Marshaling her courage, the girl resolved to fight.” In the town square, she stood upon the dais reserved for the town crier. With fiery words she rallied the townsfolk, telling they must fight for their homes, for their children, for their wives, and for their sweethearts! Her cries for vengeance filled the square and filled the hearts of the men gathered there. As with one voice, they elected her to be their leader.”
“A girl?!” Lilla was skeptical. Girls don’t lead Armies!”
Gabrielle smiled as she continued to slick water off Argo’s coat with the scraper “That is what her mother said in her attempts to warn her daughter. You see, the Mother was convinced that her daughter’s course would only lead to more death. The two bickered back and forth, their voices rising in volume, the anger at the stubbornness of the other finally boiling over.
“If anything terrible should befall your brother, I shall never forgive you! Her mother shouted. “
“I will protect him! Her daughter shouted right back, before turning on her heel to storm out of the tavern.”
“Lilla,” Gabrielle warned, “be mindful, don’t stand behind Argo when combing her tail, she might kick.”
“Yes sister” Lilla grumbled. “You must tell what happened next!”
“So blinded was she with anger, that the girl didn’t even notice that she had not only stormed out of her mother’s tavern, but also had walked clear out of the village. It was then, as she stood in the middle of a burned out field, that the girl realized how little she knew of war.”
“See, I told you girls couldn’t be warriors! Didn’t I?”
“You did Lilla, I attest to that.”
“Realizing she was out of her depth, the girl fell to her knees and did something she rarely, if ever, did.”
“What?” Lilla barked out when Gabrielle paused a moment too long.
“Oh! To who?”
“She called on Athena, goddess of wisdom and military victory.”
“Very smart,” said Lilla, “but I’d be frightened to actually invoke the intercession of a goddess.”
“As would I sister,” Gabrielle agreed, “But the girl felt she had no other option left her.
“Let me guess,” Lilla snarked, thinking she knew what would happen next “the goddess came and solved her problem.”
“Athena did not show herself, so the girl then prayed for Artemis to help her. As before--”
“The goddess of the hunt?” Lilla snorted contemptuously. “That was dumb of her; she was fighting, not hunting deer.”
“Ah, but sister, Artemis is the patron of the feared Amazons.”
“Amazons really exist?” Lilla was clearly dubious.
“I do not know I’ve never seen one.” replied Gabrielle.
“Well, if they do exist, calling on their goddess makes sense, so Artemis chose to help?”
“Her situation was hopeless then.” Lilla concluded.
“Another Olympian did choose to help.”
Lilla gasped at hearing the dark god’s name. “Not Ares!”
The god agreed to help, he would give her the training needed, but as always, he demanded something in return.”
“What could she have given him? She was only a peasant.”
“Her undying loyalty,” responded Gabrielle.
“Loyalty of a peasant?” Lilla was dismissive.
“Ah, but you see sister, Lord Ares has a keen eye for potential, and this village girl had such an intensity of dark hateful vengeance burning within that the god was drawn to her like a moth to flame.”
Gabrielle paused to take a breath and allow her tired arms to droop at her sides.
“Sister!” Lilla growled impatient for Gabrielle to continue.
“Ares beckoned the girl forth to fall upon a knee before him. She refused.”
“Did he strike her down, for her insolence?”
“No, he rather liked it.”
“But,” Gabrielle continued. “Wanting the training he agreed to provide, she, of her own free will, spoke the oath, words that would forever bind her to Ares.”
“She said…” Gabrielle summoned up a most solemn tone... “I promise on my life, that I will be faithful to you Lord Ares both now and in the future, I will vanquish all enemies from the field of battle. Henceforth, I fight for your greater glory.”
She became Ares acolyte?
“More than a simple acolyte Lilla,” Gabrielle corrected before continuing. “With those words she became his completely. Darkness flooded into her soul, sparking the flame of war within. Her beautiful brown hair turned dark as night to match the black soul within. Her eyes mirrored the coldness of her heart, their shade changing from warm brown to icy blue. On the nape of her neck the symbols of Ares, plumed helmet and bloodied spear, burned into flesh.”
“Her transformation to his chosen was thus realized.
“She became his chosen!”
“Yes sister, and Ares resolved to cast her in his own mold. She would become the most fearsome, heartless, and vengeful warlord he could possibly create. She would be clever enough to outwit all enemies, have strength and height that would surpass even the strongest and tallest of moral men. He gifted her with knowledge of every weapon ever created by man or god across the entirety of the known world.”
Their work finished, Gabrielle pulled on the quick release knot and Argo bolted away, joining the rest of the master’s racehorses in the stable yard.
“Come Adorandus.” Gabrielle smiled as the beautiful white stallion moseyed up to her instantly. Lilla slumped against the wooden fence, tired from washing the animals, but grateful this was the last. Little wonder Gabrielle slept so soundly, she worked very hard.
“Why did the master give them Roman names?” asked Lilla, referencing the horses.
“He didn’t Lilla, I did.”
“He let you name them?”
Adorandus was getting a most loving scratch on the nose by Gabrielle.
“Okay,” Lilla began, frustration showing itself in her tone. “So why did you give them Roman names? We are Greek.
“But we live in Rome.”
“Fair enough,” Lilla sighed. “What do their names mean?”
“Well, Adorandus, means adorable. “Cel—“
“Wait,” Lilla cut in. “They are all snow white, how do you know which is which?”
“They all have different personalities. Adorandus is gentle. Celer means swift because he loves to run. “Verbosus means chatterbox, I can always count on him to wicker as I work. And Argo-“
“Argo, is Greek.” Lilla noted.
“After the —“
“Lilla quit interrupting!” Gabrielle playfully slapped her sister’s upper arm. “She’s named after the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed on when they went to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
“You named her after a ship?”
“Her builder, Argus, yes.”
“So after Argus… is that what you told the master?
“And he allowed it?”
“Yes, though he did eye me for quite a time. I thought I would be in trouble for choosing to name her Argo.
“A name is a name; I don’t see why he’d care.”
Gabrielle smiled knowingly at her sister’s response.
Lilla resolved to tie a quick release knot on her own, and smiled wide when she did it correctly.
“But what of her village, what of her family?” the younger sister asked, tell the rest of the story!
Gabrielle chucked soft, Lilla had always been this way asking questions about everything the moment it came to mind, she supposed it was a family trait, both girls and their mother had always been insatiably curious about the world around them.
“With Ares help the girl successfully defended her village,” Gabrielle continued. “But in the very moment of her triumph she lost her beloved brother named Lyceus, an arrow robbing him of life.
“How terrible! And after she told her mother she would keep him safe!” Lilla interposed.
“Yes.” Gabirelle handed the curry comb to Lilla, who shuffled off to the other side of Adorandus. “With tears flowing down her cheeks, the girl laid her beloved brother’s body on a table top within her mother’s tavern. Lyceus! Her mother cried while weeping over the dead body of her son.
“I did all I could,” said the daughter--”
Lilla stopped her work for a moment. “I believe her,” she said with conviction. “No one wants their own to be hurt.”
“True.” Gabrielle agreed, and then continued. “Her mother looked up from where Lyceus lay, her eyes filled with hatred for her own daughter. At that moment, unthinking grief took control of her tongue. Oh... yes... you did all you could, the mother said. You raised this army you talked him into fighting. These might as well be wounds from your sword! You took him from me!”
“Hated... by her own mother!” Lilla shook her head in sadness as the image of the scene conjured by Gabrielle’s words floated in her imagination.
“Running from the inn, the girl met her elder brother, the one who had decided to hide in the hills outside town. I hear tell you have lead Lyceus to his death, the eldest sibling, by name of Toris accused.”
Lilla stopped what she was doing for a moment, having heard the name Toris before.
“I take responsibility for my choices; she replied harshly, Know this brother, the girl said with conviction. I would gladly trade my life for his!”
Much to Lilla’s dismay, Gabrielle halted the story for a moment to grab hold of the dandy bush, beginning to sweeping it over Adorandus, prepping the animal for the water to follow.
Gabrielle continued…. “My plan was better!” The brother said smugly. You should have listened to me, but no, you had to fight! Dark rage filled her at hearing Toris’ words. Men would come to call that evil bent... Ares gift.”
“Some gift,” Lilla muttered sarcastically.
“Lilla, let me finish!”
“Suddenly the girl stepped forward out of the shadows, her eyes cold, the moonlight shining off her black hair. Toris fumbled back! She now loomed even taller than he! You are a coward! She accused” Gabrielle’s voice had risen to such a level that it, startled poor Adorandus.
“Sorry boy...” Gabrielle gave the stallion a soft pat on his neck.
“He was a coward, she was right!” Lilla interjected.
“How so, sister?” asked Gabrielle.
“Well he ran! He could have defended his home, and then perhaps his brother would have lived.”
“Maybe, or maybe they both would have been killed doubling her mother’s grief.”
“True.” Lilla said upon a moment’s reflection, “but he did leave his family alone, that was awful of him.”
“I guess he felt fighting was not the answer, Lilla.”
“What happened next?” her sister questioned while they both walked to the well to fill buckets.
Gabrielle smiled sadly for a time, and then continued.
“Remove yourself from my sight! She yelled. One of her hands grabbed him tightly by the throat. Hide...Toris, she hissed...hide yourself from my anger! Toris ran from the village, within he was filled with shame due to his actions mixed with fear of his sister’s wrath.
“What then?” Lilla urged while pouring the first bucket of water over Adorandus’ leg.
“A rock was thrown from the crowd of villagers that surrounded her.”
“Someone threw a rock at her?”
“Yes, and it was followed by another. You killed our sons! The villagers cried.”
“I defended this village! The girl retorted. More rocks hit her, drawing blood. Shoving people out of her way, she too ran out of the village and into the comforting darkness of the night.
“Where did she run?”
“Where else Lilla? To Ares, and as promised, she devoted herself fully him, learning well his art of war then making it her own.”
“Wait!” Lilla stopped her work. “The esteemed Toris ruled Athens!”
“Her brother.” Gabrielle said simply.
“It is Xena you speak of!” Lilla gasped.
“Is that really her story?”
“I don’t know sister, I suspect only Xena knows the whole truth. What I told you I pieced together from bits told by different bards.
“A very sad tale.”
“Yes.” Gabrielle agreed.
“Wait!” Lilla walked round the stallion to peer down at her sister. “Argo is the only horse you gave a Greek name, why?”
“I told you why sister.”
Lilla smirked down at Gabrielle. “Are you sure that is why you named her such?”
“Well…” Gabrielle’s voice tapered off and she smiled while looking into the distance.
“I think you named her after a certain famous horse owned by a certain famous Empress.”
“You are smitten with her!”
“I am not!” Gabrielle defended vehemently.
“You called her beau-ti-ful” Lilla accented the syllables of the word, to further tease her sister.
“I…” Gabrielle dipped her head, falling silent for a moment. “She is…” added soft.
Suddenly she was gathered up into a hug by Lilla who realized her playful teasing had uncovered something far more.
“You are smitten!” There was no venom in Lilla’s tone, just an undercurrent of worry for her elder sister.
“It’s crazy!” Gabrielle nestled into her sisters hug, I don’t understand why I feel the way I do. We met so long ago, and for so brief a span… Why does her memory haunt me so?”
“I do not know,” Lilla stated honestly, “but what the heart desires, cannot be denied.”
Gabrielle pulled away, “I am only a slave, invisible to this world.”
“Don’t say things like that!” Lilla, never one to raise her voice, shouted so loud the stallions spooked.
“Lilla, don’t scare the horses, the master will—“
“Hush!” Lilla put her hands on hips and glared down as her elder sister. “It does matter what you think!” “We are more than just slaves! We are people! Haven’t you told me that time and again?”
“Your right of course, it’s just… just that…” Gabrielle faltered.
“She’s an Empress.” Lilla smiled, “and your station in life is that of a slave. Well, I’ll admit, you do aim high sister.”
Gabrielle laughed that sweet beautiful laugh of hers, which always made Lilla smile.
“Honestly Gabrielle, Xena is terrifying. Clearly Ares darkness is within her.” Lilla warned.
“Sister, I cannot help what I feel, I feel I must see her again, talk to her again.”
“You’ve always been one to do as you will Gabrielle.” Lilla sighed, “Even when we were very young, I could tell that what our village offered, you did not want as your life. While I played it safe you pushed, sometimes sparking papa’s anger, and causing mother sadness. But...you taught me that you have to make your own way in this world, no matter what others may think.”
“Sister, Lilla took Gabrielle’s hands into her own. “While I do not understand what you feel for this horrid, scary, fearsome...” Lilla thought a moment. “Dreadful...”
“Okay Lilla, I get the idea.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
Well, just know I will support you whatever decision you make. I owe you that Gabrielle.”
“No, you listen. I don’t say it as often as I should, but without you I’m certain I would be dead if you hadn’t begged the master to buy me as well. The least I can do is to give you my full support in the decisions you make, even if I might disagree.”
When you do meet Xena—“
“Highly unlikely,” muttered Gabrielle.
“Knowing you as I do Gabrielle, I believe you will meet her someday.” Lilla turned away, leaving Gabrielle speechless, a rare occurrence.
“And when you do meet her,” said Lilla while resuming her work. I want you to remember, that come what may, I love you sister.”