Disclaimer: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Post FIN, I guess, though I have kept specific references to a minimum.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
My website is at dreamcatching.netfirms.com/kam/index.htm
Thanks for corrections and encouragement to the members of the Bardic Circle and Tavern Wall, especially Extra, Jaden, Dawn, JLynn, Jordon Falconer, and Sue. More thanks to Claudia, Morgane, and for rereading this countless times, Abardreader. And my thanks as always, to the great Mary Morgan.
A comment about feeding the bards and once it’s over, I promise not to interrupt again.
This story was begun over six years ago when I was in Rome, sitting in a balcony of the Coliseum, looking up towards the Palatine. I had hoped to write it with my partner, as we’d just finished what I think is a great story, The Last Conqueror. But the feedback had been almost non-existent and for several other reasons, she decided to forego any more adventures into the Xenaverse. I had the story completely plotted out, so I began writing it on my own. Once again, as each section was posted, there was little response, and after several chapters, I gave it up.
Now I know that writers should write for themselves, but writing is one thing. Posting it, sending it out into cyberspace and then not hearing a word is another thing entirely. It’s like throwing your baby into a well. Now I hate people that leave stories unfinished, and a few special people pushed on this guilty conscience and got me to rewrite and complete it.
My point is that we writers are not that important. More important are the people who man the websites, the people who beta and most important of all, more than they might ever think, are the people who take the time to comment and encourage the writers. So, the next time you read a piece that you liked or touched you, become an important person. Feed the bards.
When In Rome
The slave’s corpse lay where it had tumbled, under brush on the lush green hillside, well hidden from intense sunshine and any human eye. She had been negligently tossed there from a horse and died alone; victim of a flogging and brutal rape. Around the still remains, insects buzzed and birds sang, all innocent that their vigour framed a lifeless carcass. Nature did not hold the dead in their midst in awed respect; it welcomed it. A few crawling insects began to stir in the foliage, drawn by the lingering warmth of the body, and the scent of blood. Only the light breeze could not reach under the bracken to disturb the deceased.
But then an unseeable presence stilled some of the cries. The long dark hair of the slave stirred, and something seemed to trace the encrusted blood that marked the whip wounds on her back.
Then it was gone.
And then the cadaver moved.
Several birds called out a shrill alarm and the hill was frozen in their frightened silence. The former corpse rolled over, then muttered quiet, but fluent curses as the injured muscles were stretched so that she could drag herself even deeper into the cover of the bush.
Accomplishing that, she hauled herself to her feet, clenching her teeth against the pain and scanned above the trees for some sign of where she was. A pillar and the shattered roof of the house on the hill were only barely visible. But that was enough. Her nearly bloodless face became even more pallid. ‘The Golden House,’ she thought. ‘Oh, Gods. I‘m right in the centre of Rome again.’ But the fear quickly left her face and posture, and she declared quietly to the empty air as she carefully lowered herself to the shelter of the foliage, “it… doesn’t matter. It never has, you hear me? No matter what you do, I won’t forget my promise. I’ll NEVER join you and I’ll never forget her.”
Not very far away, in the great House of the Vestals, another woman was dying. Unlike the slave, she would not die alone. As she lay perspiring, gasping out her last uneven breaths, she was being attended by the entire household of the great temple. With the exception, of course, of those tending the hearth that represented the heart of Rome. No cataclysm could prevent that duty from being performed. And cataclysm this death might be. Even as they bathed her body with cool cloths, the novices would occasionally glance upwards to their head priestess, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, afraid to see their own fears reflected in her eyes.
All knew that the death of this woman, the death of one who was a symbol of the spiritual life of Rome, could mean that their own lives might be forfeit. Once before, the death by lightning of a Vestal Virgin had been of such import, that a committee of the highest powers was formed to investigate what had obviously been the wrath of the gods. Despite the enormous regard for which the Vestals were held, they were women, and naturally the committee concluded that it was the fault of the Vestals themselves. It was decided that the priestess killed by lightning had been punished by breaking her vow of chastity. In the ordeal that followed, other vestals were also convicted of having broken these vows and the Roman Senate was called in special session to read the holy Books of the Sybalines, which advised a simple remedy.
Two couples, one Greek and one of Gaul, were buried alive.
For that reason, no one outside the Temple had been told of the illness that had struck the girl. It was most likely a contagion caught during a recent visit the young woman had made to the docks. Sacrifices of wine and cheese and prayers had been made hourly, yet she continued to grow weaker, until now all waited in apprehension for the end. The Pontifical College, which represented and oversaw all the Temples, would have to be notified, and this was a duty the Virgo Vestalis Maxima was dreading.
As she prayed, much like the birds on the nearby hillside, she became aware of a presence, and directed her chants towards it. This seemed to have no positive effect, and there was an awful silence after the last breath was drawn. The Maxima hung her head low, allowing the stress of the past days to show, and gave one more prayer for the soul of the bright girl who had been raised by her and her sisters.
Regretfully, she gave a nod to have the face covered. She had known Numai from when she had been brought to the temple at the age of six by her once wealthy family. The Maxima had taught and guided her throughout her training to become one of the cherished six vestals. The girl had even been named after the founder of the Vestal order, Numa, and brought there to receive the recognition and education her parents could no longer afford. It was a tragedy in so many ways…
But as the sheet covered the young face, there was a sudden explosion of coughing. Astonished, barely daring to hope, they raised the sheet to see the sweat coated face now wide-eyed and gasping for air. The Maxima took the girl in her arms as the others fell to their knees. The breathing became stronger as did the chants for the miracle that had occurred before them. So great was the relief, that only the Maxima heard the garbled words that the girl spoke, and noticed the astonishment as Numai stared at her hands and arms.
Only the Maxima heard whispers from the still lingering presence, that instructed her as to what must now be done. She immediately ordered the rest of the Vestals to leave and for strong sleeping draughts to be brought. The draughts were accepted without struggle and soon the girl fell exhausted into natural sleep.
Now the Maxima was left with yet another dangerous and more puzzling problem. She could not believe that an evil spirit would have been able to enter the sacred confines of the Temple, and so she would follow the whispered instructions she had been given. For the sake of the Temple she would have to pretend nothing was wrong and hope that when the girl awoke, she would be accepted as the same girl they had all known. But she had spoken fluently in Greek, a language that Numai could barely write. As with all of the senior teachers, the Maxima spoke and understood it well and was quite sure the girl had asked why she was young. And she was also sure that Numai had been brown eyed, though the startled eyes of the now sleeping girl were green.
Back on the hillside, the other resuscitated corpse was not quite alone, nor asleep. She was nervous and waiting; two things she hated more than almost anything else. Almost as much as what or whom she was waiting for.
Her self-directed anger quickly found a foil. “Listen up, cat. Let’s get this straight. I’m sharing these fish only so I can have at least one honest conversation before things get out of my control again. And that should give you an idea about how much she changed my life. Before her, we wouldn’t be talking. You’d already be barbequed.”
The wild tabby looked blandly up, indicting it wasn’t impressed by the honour.
Had anyone been searching the hillside, they would have found few clues that anyone was concealed in the scrub wood. But the former slave had little choice; her injured condition forced her to stay hidden on the hillside until she healed. It was a nervous cure though; shadowed always by the knowledge that it was only the hill that protected her from what lay at the base of the opposite slope: The ‘Navel of the Empire’, and the Roman Forum. As always there was the knowledge that soon she would once again be what she most despised; a pawn in play.
She continued to quietly address the cat. “Okay, where was I? Oh yeah. Japa and dead. Again. A stupid, useless death. The first of many. Even she wouldn’t be able to come up with all the words to describe how stupid. But it all seemed to make sense then. I thought that being without her would be both part of the punishment and what was best for her. I convinced myself, I would be able to stick with her as best I could until maybe, just maybe, we both could be together… properly, some day. You know?”
The cat seemed to shrug.
“Okay, so I was fooling myself and I probably deserved to have that bastard take me away from her. But this rebirthing got old a long time ago. The age isn’t always the same, the eyes aren’t always blue, and occasionally I‘m not a woman. But the bodies are always big, dark and fit. Ready for battle.” The tabby batted the rendered skull of the fish the woman had caught in the ruins of one of Nero’s ponds and looked up for more. Xena groused at it. “If you’re not going to eat that part, I will. The head is good for you, you stupid cat. And knowing Nero, it was probably imported.”
In another of her too many lives she had been a slave of Nero’s, before being crucified once again, along with the Christians who were blamed for the destruction of Rome by fire. Before that, there had been the slave revolt with Spartacus; before that… “There’s always an alternative. I’m handed the choice of being with the winner or the obvious loser, but the price of winning is always just a bit too high.” And despite all the lives she had led and lost, a moment between the two of them, so long ago, was in her mind instantly. ‘Promise me,’ she’d pleaded, no, demanded. ‘If something happens to me, you will not become a monster.’
She closed her eyes at the clarity of the vision and the pain it engendered. When she opened them, the pain was still present but she focussed again on the wild cat. “So when I keep the promise I made to her, I usually end up nailed to a cross. Think someone is trying to tell me something, cat?” she asked rhetorically.
“And this time it looks like I’m supposed to avenge someone. This time the previous occupant was flogged AND raped. And even a handy clue to identify who did it.” She looked at the bejewelled Roman pin representing a winged Victory that had been clutched in her hand when she’d awoken. “Just makes you want to say, how clever,” she muttered caustically. She knew that few Romans wore any jewellery; it would be easy to trace the owner. She let the pin/clue slip from her fingers and fall to the ground without any ceremony, though with an apology to the woman whose battered body she now wore.
She realised she had finally passed the point where she cared about vengeance for herself, much less those whose lives she had entered. For some time she had stumbled from life to life with little holding any meaning to her. Anaesthetised in order to survive, repressing guilt and regret as well as pain and fear. “So what happens when we refuse to play? What’s next on the schedule? Another crucifixion, another pointless, agonising death if I fight back? So don’t complain to me about the quality of the free food, cat.”
The cat ignored her but grudgingly accepted another piece of the raw fish.
Inside the House of the Vestals, the girl woke, confused and thirsty. Her head cleared rapidly as she became aware of that sensation. Thirst, the fogginess after sleeping, these were not the sensations of death. She raised her hand and again marvelled at its rosy colour and lack of liver spots, the clarity of her vision. She was about to clear her throat when a shadow in the corner of the room swooped down on her. Though the room was dark, she was able to make out the form of a middle-aged woman, and the glint of the knife she carried in one hand.
Again, she tried to swallow.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” the woman whispered in Latin, “if we have nothing to fear from you.”
The girl directed her eyes to the knife, but the woman did not lower it.
“I am alive then?” she asked in Greek.
Though the words themselves frightened the Maxima, the tone of wonder they were spoken with, dispelled it. She nodded and sat down carefully by the girl.
Though she had instructed all that she would be nursing the girl alone, she looked to the door before asking her question. “What is your name?”
“Gabrielle,” the girl wearing Numai’s body replied.
“Do you know where you are, have you any memories of this place or of me?”
There was a small shake of the head as the girl replied, “I’ve never seen you before as far as I know.”
At that, the Maxima closed her eyes in prayer for the loss of Numai.
Sensing her pain, the girl reached up to hold the Maxima’s hand gently in a gesture of comfort. “I’m sorry. Have I taken someone’s… place?”
The Maxima did not answer for a moment. “The girl was very ill, and she… died.” And observed how this information seemed to assuage some of the tension she’d seen in the girl. She considered this for a moment, looking at the soft hand on hers and then at her knife, before lowering it.
“I want you to know that you are not being exorcised because I believe that this house is protected by our Goddess. That whatever spirit or God has brought you here could only be for the good. But I still must have an answer to my question. Who are you, and how did you come to be in this poor girl’s body?”
The green eyes stared at the Maxima with some curiosity. “You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t know anything.” She stopped and with what the older woman could sense was a natural impulse, turned the conversation about. “You’re taking this all very calmly. In fact, better than me.”
The Maxima answered sternly, “I have my faith in my Goddess. But I am asking the questions.”
“I told you, I just woke up here. But I envy you your faith. I wish… I envy you. I have only… only my pain. I thought I was finally finding peace in an afterlife, and now…”
“You aren’t 16 seasons old, are you?”
Gabrielle finally smiled. “No. Haven’t been for quite a while.” She took in a deep breath and marvelled at the sensation of air once again in her lungs. Cautiously at first, almost disbelieving the ease with which her limbs worked, she rolled onto her side to better look about the room. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what year it is, at least in a way I‘d know how long I’ve been… gone, I guess is the word.”
“So you are a dead soul, returned?” The Maxima swallowed, but seemed relieved by the almost shy nod.
“You are, were, Greek? Then you would know the works of Homer, when they were written?”
Gabrielle nodded again, but with a faint grin. “Yes, I have a pretty good idea of that.”
“It is about nine hundred years since that time.”
“Years? As in four seasons a year? It couldn’t have…” The girl fell back with a thump. “Nine hundred years!!” The concept hit her like a wall. So much time passed, so much time alone. The Maxima wondered if the measurement was the difficulty.
“That is, as we determine time, by the Julian Calendar…”
A face from the past came to Gabrielle along with a name. “Please don’t tell me it’s named after Julius…”
“The Gaius Caesar, Yes.”
“They made him a God?” The girl snorted. “Xena would love to hear that. But at least it means that he’s dead.”
The girl blinked, as though seeing, feeling something again, and yet for the first time. “Xena!” she breathed. “How could I have…?” She fought her roiling emotions and shook her head to clear it. She gave the older woman a bitter grin. “Remember that name. I think you’ll be hearing it soon enough. Or at least I will. I’d be willing to gamble anything that’s why I’m here.” She lay back again and stared at the ceiling. “Bad enough all of my lifetime was screwed around with, now they’re doing it with my death? Damn them AND her!”
The normally placid face of the Maxima showed her confusion. “Who do you mean? Is this Xena dangerous? Do you hate this woman?”
There was another bitter laugh. “Dangerous? In more ways than you could count. And as for how I feel about her, somehow… I’d forgotten.” The girl closed her eyes in remembered pain. “She made a choice. And it wasn’t me.” Tear-filled eyes opened, but they seemed to be staring somewhere far away. “I searched for her for so long after she left me, searched in so many places, right up until… But somehow, I’d finally found peace. Now, nine hundred years later, it starts again? What does it take to end this?”
“Why did she hate Caesar?”
At this, the girl chortled. “Have you got time for a long story? And that’s not to say I was a big fan either.”
The Maxima became more puzzled, if that was possible. “How would you have met him? He was martyred only two hundred years ago.”
Gabrielle stared. “But you said Homer wrote nine hundred years ago. You do mean Homer, as in the Iliad, right?” The Maxima nodded. “And Julius Caesar, tried to become Emperor of Rome but Brutus and the others…”
“Murdered him. Over two centuries ago. You could not possibly have known them all. Unless you have lived many lives in many eras?”
The green eyes somehow became darker. “No. I lived my life in one straight line. It’s time that’s skipping around.”
The Maxima recognised her cue. “Then perhaps this is the time I should tell you of a message I was given for you.”
Another bright morning on the hillside, and another day of scavenging. The former slave was quiet while the blue eyes stared into a point of the sky. For the first time the self-mocking tone was absent, and the stoic facade shook slightly.
“I know you don’t want to hear this, Gabrielle, but I think I’m about done on both sides now. I can’t keep doing this. Not alone. Not without you. It just goes on and on and I don’t see… love… breaking this cycle. Even when I do figure out the game, that bastard just twists Fate’s strands, and I start all over again. Would you recognise your warrior now? Scared to take a step, just because I’ll find myself back where I started? Or worse.”
There was a meow and the tabby appeared out of the brush to look inquiringly at the food stores. A smile appeared on the former slave’s face, and she welcomed the animal and the diversion it provided. “Hey there! At least I know what you’re here for. “ She reached out to caress the animal who bore the attention for a moment in easy grace. “Gotta shake off the self-pity, cat. We’re all pawns of the Gods, right? I just have a more personal relationship with one of them. I don’t suppose you’d know what his plan is. You’d think he’d be running out of patience or at least finally getting bored.”
She warily stretched her back, flexing the shoulder muscles, satisfied that they were mending, and cautiously lay down on the bracken bed she’d fashioned. Even in the shade it was quite warm and she wiped some sweat from her forehead before closing her eyes. “I should be able to take a walk around tomorrow. I can still see the top of the Tabularium from here, so I’m guessing Rome is still mostly the way I remember it. From the ruins of Nero’s house, I’d guess it’s been about a hundred years since I was last here, maybe more. If I could just slip around the Forum, get behind the Palatine, I’d be right alongside the Tiber. Grab me a boat and get the Hades out of here. But ...” She opened her eyes and looked beyond her shelter, “that would be too easy, right? More likely, if I stick my nose further than these bushes, it’s going to be chopped off. Or time will take another twist, and I‘ll be back here. Or somewhere a lot worse. Any suggestions, Cat?” The cat had found a sunbeam to lie in and didn’t deign to answer.
“I keep thinking that there has got to be some point to all this. Some end game here. That eventually I’ll see what the damn plan is. I thought at first it was just leading up to Caesar again, but that was just a feint. Then the rebellion with Spartacus looked like something might really change. But I threw in with him and it still made no difference. What if there isn’t a point, and this is just my Fate? Alone….” Once more she shook her head as though to cast out the thoughts, and addressed the cat again.
“I could swim across Nero’s lake, you say? Good plan. Good warmup for sore muscles, and once I’m on the other side I might be able to sneak around the Palatine to the Tiber. Though I admit, I was almost hoping you’d suggest a short walk past the Tomb. Just so I could take a moment to spit on the steps where they put Julie. But maybe next time.” Xena laughed but there was no humour in it. The midday heat was taking its toll and she yawned and closed her eyes. “I‘m sure there will be a next time.”
Once her breathing was even, the cat rose, but froze for a moment when a word passed through the sleeping slave’s lips. “…Gabrielle…”
There was nothing more. Satisfied, the tabby slipped stealthily away through the brush. Once it was a fair distance away, it began to shimmer and its image grew faint. But before it completely vanished, a voice said with some amusement, “All this time, and still waiting for the annoying blonde. But I wouldn’t worry. You’ll see Gabrielle. Not the Gabrielle you might remember, but we do what we can…”
A final chuckle faded with the cat.
Full Disclaimers in Chapter I: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually, as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan(at)yahoo(dot)com
When In Rome
The Via Sacra was uncommon in every sense of the word. Once, it had been simply a valley path for herdsmen to lead their cattle to the grassy swamps at the base of the Palatine Hill. Now, a millennia later, the Palatine had become the traditional home of the Emperors for centuries, and the Via Sacra was simply the route to all of the earthly power of the entire known world.
The Flavian Amphitheatre had been built at its foot, and from there the route passed between more and more grandiose temples, before finally reaching the staggeringly beautiful precincts of the Roman Forum and Senate. No traveller could fail to be awe-struck by the sun blazing along the gleaming marble splendour.
Or at least until now.
Gabrielle was not in the mood to be impressed with The Centre of the Universe as she walked the short distance from the House of the Vestals to the Sacred Way. The Vestals wanted for nothing and Gabrielle had spent her nights adapting to being alive by devouring both the sumptuous foods and the contents of their Greek Library. There, with growing anger, she had found the names of friends whose lives had been changed and altered beyond any resemblance to her own memories. So the lustrous pillars under the blistering sun that surrounded her only reminded her of a Greece that had been long destroyed. All of the almost familiar architecture seemed tainted by Roman arrogance.
As she entered the avenue, the throng parted to let her through, many bowing formally. This was not the rabble of the marketplace. For the Via Sacra, only the most formal of togas or uniforms would suffice. But Gabrielle was not impressed by the nobles’ deference either. Perhaps the girl she once had been might have blushed in the face of the veneration, but that girl was no more, regardless of present appearances.
There was a saying amongst the Amazons: There are bold Amazons, and old Amazons. But no Bold, Old Amazons. Gabrielle had been the exception. Despite her courage and even seeming foolhardiness, she had survived several generations of Queens to become even more formidably revered. As a leader in battle, as the occasional Regent, there were too many legends that separated her from those she had led. Her fruitless journeys to Japa and other adventures alone in search of her soulmate had only added to her legend.
She had finally accomplished that most singular of distinctions for a warrior, that of dying in her own bed at a great age. A bitter accomplishment, as her prayers had been unanswered, and she had been, with one exception, alone. The final act of isolation had been that she had arrived at the Amazon Land of the Dead, still in the form of an old woman, still separated from the generations that had gone before her. Friends from her earlier days and still youthful, who had watched her growth in awe, treated her with the same reverence she had so disliked. So as she strolled along the great and sacred road with a physical ease she had not enjoyed since middle age, she accepted the homage that her robes inspired, by habit. Entirely wrapped in the white Vestals’ cotton, including a headdress veil, she stopped at a crest that looked through onto the smelly, noisy bustle that was Rome. Watched as the smoke drifted from the fast food stalls over the cries of astrologers, talisman sellers, wine merchants and a thousand others hawking their wares.
From the House of the Vestals to the Temple of Venus and Rome, was only a short walk, basically across the street and down a ways. Nevertheless, her instructions had been very clear and repeated. “You are only safe under the protection of the Goddesses within the Temples. Do not stop to talk, to interact with anyone. No one must have a hint that you are not who and what you appear to be, for you are in the city of your enemy.” And though the Maxima’s air of maternal affection seemed possibly inappropriate when considering Gabrielle’s true age, she had agreed without a murmur.
“No problem interacting,” Gabrielle thought, as another passerby backed away, bowing reverently. “Looks like they might have a heart attack if I spoke at all.”
The Temple of Venus and Rome quickly loomed above her, its granite columns providing some small respite from the blazing sun. She reached a diminutive staircase at the base to begin ascending towards the grand entrance where two armed guards waited. Again, her Vestal clothing was acknowledged by deep bows and they allowed her entry. Once inside, she had barely any time to glance around the enormous halls before an acolyte approached her.
“Numai?” she was asked.
“Sure,” Gabrielle agreed, indifferently.
“Please, come this way. The Head Priestess awaits.”
Unwrapping her headdress, she followed the girl through even more colossal arches to a niche enclosing a stern woman reclining in the Roman fashion on a divan, beneath a golden statue that Gabrielle assumed was supposed to represent Aphrodite.
The acolyte left them alone at a gesture from the priestess. As soon as the door was closed, the severe expression melted and the woman bounded out of the chair and grasped the shoulders of the now startled visitor.
“I can’t believe you are truly here! You can’t imagine how exciting this is for me!”
Crushed by the hug, Gabrielle returned it while wheezing, “No, but I’m getting an idea…”
“A living remnant of the true Greek civilisation, AND an original acolyte of our Goddess!” the Priestess continued to burble.
“Speaking of whom, she wouldn’t happen to be around, would she?” Caught in the fierce embrace, Gabrielle looked around hopefully, almost desperately.
“Well, yes and no. See that’s one of the things I’m supposed to explain. But first, some wine and perhaps you can tell me a tale? I already feel like I know you. If only your scrolls could have survived!”
Gabrielle froze. She pushed the Priestess back and held her away firmly with both arms. “Excuse me? Now it’s my scrolls? What happened to my scrolls?” Their positions reversed, the Priestess struggled ineffectually in the grip for a moment and then grimaced. “See. That’s another of those things….”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes before releasing the woman and pointing to the statue. “Where is Aphrodite, Venus, whatever you call her now?” she demanded.
“Well, she is here, in a way, in the person of myself as the…”
Gabrielle cut her off. “Look. I need to talk to the real deal.” Ignoring the priestess, Gabrielle began to stride around the niche shouting towards the ceiling, “Aphrodite? Aphrodite???!!” The Priestess blocked her ears as the calls reverberated along the marble corridor and let Gabrielle stomp about for a moment longer before interrupting. “I’m not sure what you’re used to, but Gods don’t just appear in front of mortals.”
Gabrielle stared at the smiling priestess until the smile disappeared. “Where I come from, they did. More than I liked, in fact.”
The woman gestured to a bench. “I’m sorry. Perhaps we could start again? Please, sit down?”
Grudgingly, Gabrielle did so.
“You have been brought here as a result of decades of planning by the Goddess Venus to restore what is right, to reunite two souls, and to change the path of the future.” The priestess smiled, sure that such a noble and extraordinary goal would satisfy this girl.
Gabrielle was strangely unmoved. “Been there, done that. Where’s Aphrodite?”
“I don’t think you understand. You’ve been selected by a Goddess!”
“I’ve already won that particular lottery too many times before. Just tell me why I’m here and no hype, please.”
The priestess blinked. But this was the One, chosen by her Goddess, so she attempted to swallow her concerns. “Certainly. Tomorrow, that small Statue of Mars you passed on the way in, is going to be placed right here, here in the centre of worship of our Goddess! Until an even bigger one can be made! Tomorrow,” and here she choked back her fury, “Mars will be declared the official Patron of Rome, its armies and all its peoples. Every Temple in the world will have a shrine in his name placed in front. Thousands of new Temples to him will be dedicated and those of other deities will be torn down. Each temple, each shrine will draw new worshippers, each prayer adding to his strength. With millions more worshippers to draw that strength from, he will be truly omnipotent. Unless you help.”
“Why should I care about a popularity contest between Gods?”
”Well…” The Priestess hesitated before continuing carefully. “I have been told that this has come to pass through your actions. It is partly your fault, isn’t it? Mars has manipulated time and people to create this situation. He now controls the Loom of the Fates. Which he was only able to do because…”
Gabrielle laughed and stood. “I’m sorry. You’ve really got the wrong woman if you want to try laying that guilt trip on me. I didn’t give a damn what happened when I destroyed the Loom. And the only reason I agreed to come here, was because I thought a friend of mine might show up. But I can see I was wrong.” She turned to leave, but the Priestess continued to speak.
“Also because, Mars has been manipulating the soul of the one you knew as Xena.”
Gabrielle paused but did not look back. “So?” she said casually.
At the sound of a familiar voice, Gabrielle finally turned around. The Priestess had not moved, but her eyes were glazed and her face slack jawed.
Gabrielle smiled. “You were here all along.”
The Priestess returned the smile, but it was as though it was superimposed on her features. “Not really, hon. Like the lady said, we don’t ‘pop in’ anymore. It’s more like we move mysteriously.”
“Not with me, I see.”
“No, Sweet Pea, you… are special.” The Goddess-possessed priestess stood and brushed down her gown. “I don’t have much time, but I hope that ‘so’, was just a trick to get me to show myself?”
Gabrielle was giving nothing away yet. “I shouldn’t have to trick you. So first, you tell me how you, of all people, would dare blame me for destroying the Loom.”
“Gabster! You know I’m the last person who would ever blame you for destroying the Loom of the Fates. I loved that you threw the torch to burn it down. I thought it was the coolest act of pure love that I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something. Anyway, you didn’t really destroy it, anymore than you and Xena killed all those Gods. You just got rid of that manifestation, that physical existence. As long as there are believers, the Gods will exist. But there have been a lot of changes, because, well, there was someone around to take advantage of the situation.”
“A-,” Gabrielle began.
Aphrodite flinched and shushed her. “You don't have to say his name, do you, because He’ll hear you. Even safe in here, it’s like an invite to appear, don’t you remember?” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, you got it. And you have to reckon that if a mortal could figure out how to manipulate the past and future, what a God could do? And He did it. He played with time and rewrote history. And when it didn’t go His way the first, second and third time, He just tried again. He fiddled and screwed around, making changes that He didn’t mean to, to get the ones He did, until He brought us all to this here and now. While He was at it, He changed the myths of the Gods, changed the way we’re connected with our worshippers and shrines. So now He gets credit for founding Rome. He gave it more time to grow until it’s the massive war machine you see. And all of this, all of his change and plans, all come to a peak tomorrow.”
Gabrielle tilted her head as she considered what she was hearing. “The power you have is based on the worshippers? So if he has the whole empire, he’d be more powerful than Zeus?”
“Zeus? The whole Pantheon combined. But even with all that power…”
“Let me guess. He still needs his warrior Queen,” Gabrielle completed. “Is she…
“His already? Nope. She’s holding out. You’d be proud.”
Ignoring the comment, Gabrielle asked, “But why can’t we say His name if the Gods don’t even appear to mortals now?”
Surprised at the avoidance, the Goddess sputtered, “Well, HE can, He’s got power to spare. But to be here like this, even He has to break the connections with any other shrines and followers, and it hurts, lemme tell you! Now I answered your question, you answer mine. What’s with the ‘so’?”
Gabrielle stared at her for a long moment before answering. “Aphrodite, why even bring this up? You know the story. She left me. She chose to leave me. After everything. After I destroyed the Loom, we were… I thought…”
The Goddess nodded. “I know, and you know in your heart, there’s a reason.”
“My heart? Don’t talk to me about my heart. Not even you have that right.” Gabrielle swallowed, then sighed. “I think I’d found some sort of peace since my death. I’ve lost even that now. At this moment, I think I’d accept darkness and even… my soul’s true death… with relief. I’d take it with no regrets. That’s why the ‘so’. You can’t just drag me out of my grave after centuries and expect enthusiasm for one last quest. Can you understand that?”
The goddess nodded with sadness. “I’m immortal, sweets. Sure, I can understand. But, we’re both more than that. We have responsibilities…”
Gabrielle exploded. “Damn responsibilities! Damn the whole of what’s right and best and the greater good! I’ve given everything I was for that and it left me with nothing that mattered.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
The words were muffled as the vestal hunched forward. “You don’t know me.”
The Priestess’ hand reached to draw Gabrielle’s chin upwards. “Yeah, yeah, I do. And if you are ever to fix it, be together as you should have been, you have to put aside what you’re feeling for a bit and figure out what’s been going on inside her heart.”
Gabrielle inhaled slowly and made an effort to calm herself. “So that’s what this is about? We’re finally going… she and I, we’re…. to meet again? After all this time?”
Gabrielle laughed bitterly. “You expected me ask how she is, where she’s been, didn’t you? Because I’ve waited for so long, right?” Gabrielle rose and wandered to a corner of the room where the light was the least and sat down heavily on a marble bench. She spoke quietly. “That was a long, long time ago. I think I gave her up, to survive, you know? I must have had to stop wanting, wishing. After being, and dying, alone. How can you ask me to…?” She faltered. “It hurt… too much.”
There were now tears in both pairs of eyes. “I know, honey. Remember, I was there.”
“I was still alone in the one way it counted.”
“I’m sorry.” For once the Goddess seemed sombre. “I think I hated her. Me, the Goddess of Love, I hated, because… because of what she had done to you. But, things are different. I was wrong, I shouldn’t have…”
Gabrielle looked up. “Shouldn’t have… what?”
Aphrodite continued as if Gabrielle hadn’t spoken. “…because she’s suffered. He’s been pushing her past the breaking point, but that just might work in our favour. Because if she’s been changed, then maybe it’s finally time for the two of you to be together.”
Gabrielle took a breath. Aphrodite waited for some softening but instead Gabrielle asked brusquely, “Fine. So we get together, but…? There’s gotta be an ordeal, a test, right?”
Aphrodite replied, “You got it, kiddo.”
“And with tests, there’s rules?”
“See, this is why we only appear to the special ones. Cuts out all the jumble. Yup. And rule one is, you can’t tell Xena. When the final test comes, each of you has to pass it fair and square.”
There was a dry chuckle from the Vestal. “Oh good. So we get back together by lying to each other."
“Nope, you can work on her all you want, in fact, I’d advise it. Get inside that thick warrior’s skull or you don’t even have the teeny tiny chance I’m giving you.”
“But I bet we won’t be just waiting around for this test. There’s something else you need me to do.”
Switching to an all-business demeanour, Aphrodite nodded. “Like you guessed, Xena has to have been brought back here somewhere, I know it. He’s got to have brought her back for one last try to get her to change her mind freely. But after tomorrow, he’ll be so powerful, he’ll be able to mould her and any mortal to be whatever he wants.”
“None of this explains why it all comes down to tomorrow. Why didn’t you just grab the Loom, or stop him yourself, before today?” Gabrielle asked.
Aphrodite looked slightly self-conscious. “By the time I realised what he was doing, found out where the Loom was, he was too powerful to face head on. And he’s built a great big honking shrine to himself right outside where he keeps it, and his connection with it would warn him if I or anyone went anywhere near it.”
“So you need to strike when he’s not connected with it,” Gabrielle said with a chill in her tone.
“You are so fast, honey, I knew you’d get it,” Aphrodite said attempting to placate the storm she saw brewing.
“And, I bet, whenever Xena is brought back, he’s a little preoccupied?”
“Usually, but so far, not long enough.”
Gabrielle turned away so that her anger was not visible. “So I’m only here as a diversion. To stir things up. To make sure Ares has to be completely, personally, physically involved elsewhere, while you go for it.”
Aphrodite reached out to hold her hands. “No honey, no! I’m not gonna pretend there was someone else for the job, but I would never just play with you. I’m the Goddess of Love, remember? You two have to be brought together. You, your love, is the hope for the future. That’s always been as important to me as anything else. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
The voice was quiet, but there was no doubt or hesitancy in it. “Yes, it has.”
“No, Sweetiepie. Don’t say that.”
Gabrielle seemed to be pondering this, but again surprised the Goddess when she asked, “How do I know that you wouldn’t be as bad a guardian of the Loom as A… Whatshisname?”
The Goddess laughed with real enjoyment. “Guardian? Me? Of the Future and Past of All? All that responsibility? As much as I hate what He’s done, we’ve all agreed to simply leave things as they are and hide it where no one, mortal or God, can ever touch it.”
“You have to figure I had help…”
Gabrielle began counting on her fingers. “Artemis to get my soul from the Land of the Dead, Hestia to place it in one of her dying Vestals…”
“What can I say. The Grrls Rock. It’s taken a lot of time. I only had the strength once this Temple was built. By Emperor Hadrian personally, fifty years ago.” The Goddess paused and waved her hands grandly. “What do you think of it?”
“It’s… big,” Gabrielle said politely.
“I know, it’s not the Vestals. You have those pools and three floors so everyone gets a view over the garden, and all for keeping a silly fire going…”
Aphrodite caught herself. “ANY-way, I got a prezzy for you around here somewhere. Something you left with me, way back when? You ask my girl for it after I take off, okay?”
Gabrielle didn’t appear to be listening.
“Sorry. For a minute there, it was just like old times. But it isn’t, is it?” She pulled herself up from the bench. “How long have I got? How long before you call in the loan of this body?”
Aphrodite tried to raise the level of enthusiasm in the room and ignored the second and third questions. “Old times? I wish. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff He’s changed! Did you know that I’m no longer his sister according to the myths now?” The Goddess clenched her fists. “I’m his...”
“…his aunt. I know.” The Goddess was pleased to see Gabrielle nearly laugh.
“His AUNT!” she affirmed heatedly. “And I don’t want to even THINK about how I was supposed to be conceived…”
“And from what I read last night, you two had a few kids. Congratulations.”
“Him and ME??? That…” The Goddess sputtered. “He has got to be stopped.”
“If I agree, where do I start?”
“You find Xena.”
“I suppose I could go out and take a look…”
Aphrodite shook her head. “That’s… a bit of a problem. If you’re wandering around, He could sense you. And then, you could be used as the key to finally break Xena… because the memory of you is the only thing that’s kept her fighting Him this long.”
This only seemed to anger the girl more. “Aphrodite, I’m not a kid anymore. I’m hundreds of years old and I feel every one of them right now. I can look after myself. And I am not staying trapped in a bunch of temples….”Gabrielle’s voice trailed off as she realised the Goddess seemed struck by some sort of pain. “What is it?”
Aphrodite’s voice seemed far away. Gabrielle strained to hear it. “He’s doing it again. He’s gone to the Loom.”
Gabrielle moved closer to her. “Can you tell what he’s doing?”
The Goddess shook her head slowly. “We never know until it’s done, and sometimes not even then. It could be something big or little. All I know is that it’s like being in a whirlpool for an immortal…”
Her voice was cut off and there was a moan of misery. The room seemed to shimmer slightly and the body of the Priestess was thrown backwards, striking a column, when the wave hit her. The woman fell limply to the ground. When some unknown time had passed, she finally raised her head, and looked about the room. She was alone. “Goddess?” she cried out, but her voice echoed off the marble without a reply. “Gabrielle?” But the response was the same. The priestess was entirely alone.
When In Rome
Xena was just about to emerge from the brush when she felt the familiar nausea of the Loom’s changes. One moment she was amidst the greenery of the hillside, the next she was surrounded by acres of shining pink paving stones topped by columns, enclosed on all sides by Roman structural design. She was in the very centre of the main square of the Forum, standing just below a large raised monument. The cornerstone of the building read that it was the resting place of the remains of the deified Julius Caesar. Xena cursed heatedly and spoke to the skies.
“I take it this is the choice I made in another timeline? Or did you just not like the whole lake idea and changed it for me?”
She was not expecting any answer, and was startled when a voice behind her spoke.
“I knew you would have to come here. To spit on that bastard’s grave, right?”
She spun about and looked at a sight that stole her breath. It was Gabrielle, just a few feet away. Looking exactly as she had last seen her, centuries before, except now she was in full Roman garb; a crimson toga with a similarly coloured sash, her blonde hair in ringlets in what she assumed was the latest style. For a moment her senses spun, until she swallowed and shook her head slowly. “No way. Gabrielle? I don’t think so.”
The vision in front smiled and moved towards her. “That would be the easy way, right? To think that I’m Hope, or someone that just looks like me, wouldn’t it?”
She pulled Xena closer and tilting her head, kissed Xena on the cheek, long and lovingly. Even in shock, Xena’s arms had begun to draw around her when the woman withdrew. Xena stared at her face and the strange bitter smile questioningly until rough hands grabbed her from behind. Several more soldiers stepped forward, and one spoke to Gabrielle. “Thank you for the identification, Ma’am. We’ll take it from here.”
Again Gabrielle smiled her cold smile and demurred, “if you don’t mind, I‘d like to walk along.”
Surrounded by twenty armed soldiers, Xena shrugged off the hands and glared at the chains the solders held. “You don’t need those,” Gabrielle told them. “There’s nowhere for her to go and she knows it.” Xena said nothing but waited for them to begin advancing before falling into step with them, with Gabrielle alongside her. Gabrielle’s voice was light and conversational as the procession moved forward. “I’m beginning to change my opinion about Rome, you know. Only here a few days, and,” she indicated the soldiers flanking them, “look at the friends I was able to make.”
Without turning to look at her, Xena spat out, “you really don’t think I’m going to fall for this crap, do you? Gabrielle would not do this.”
Gabrielle’s next words came with a bitter edge that stung. “No, Gabrielle would never be resentful. Never need an apology. Never be a human being, would she?” She gestured to the soldiers to stop and when they did, she slapped Xena, hard, across the face. Her cheek burning, Xena turned her head to stare down at the woman. Gabrielle’s eyes were burning as she continued. “What did you expect? You left me… alone. Twice. Beyond death! You promised me!”
“This isn’t you, Gabrielle, I know it isn’t you.”
“Do you remember how you left me? The Xena I knew would have seen through those lies in a second. But you were too selfish, too sure that you’d finally found your out, found your peace and redemption at last. You didn’t think about the pain you’d be putting me through, you didn’t even ask me! In the end you were just like, like the Gods and everyone we fought against! ‘Swallow this pain, Gabrielle, It’s for the Greater Good.’” She spat into Xena’s eye. “It was all a lie you wanted to believe so you could escape your pain. Escape the chance of ever being happy… happy with me. So now it’s my turn to make myself happy.” Another gesture from Gabrielle, and the soldiers began to march again, hauling the prisoner with them.
When Gabrielle spoke again, her voice was again conversational. “You know what I get for betraying you, Xena? I get that treaty that Caesar burned. Protection for the only women who stood by me to the end and beyond. So the Amazons are safe, and the joke is, “ and she laughed, “ I would have turned you in for free.”
Now that they were past the Temple to Caesar, Xena was able to see a larger structure rising above the massive Temple to Venus and Rome like a concrete sun. It was some kind of amphitheatre, though ten times larger than any she’d ever seen before.
Matching the conversational tone of the woman beside her, Xena said, “Last time I was here, Nero had a large lake right there. What is it?”
Gabrielle smiled. “It’s where we’re headed. Thought it would be appropriate. After all, it’s another round killing thing.”
The head priestess of the Temple of Venus and Rome had grown steadily unsure of the developments surrounding the supposed Chosen One, especially in Gabrielle’s absence. Leading the doubts had been the discovery of a wrapped gift on the altar sometime after she had returned to consciousness. It had been labelled in Latin; to Gabrielle, and she knew her Goddess had placed it there.
“MORTALS give gifts to the GODS!” she was remonstrating to the Virgo Vestalis Maxima in the offerings room. “NOT the other way around!”
The Maxima was not in a sympathetic frame of mind. “I can’t believe you let her risk her life by wandering around the City of Ares. She’s a stranger to all of this and therefore merely a child in many ways.”
“Let her?” the Priestess exploded from her simmering aggravation. “Do you really think I would risk all these years of planning by the blessed Venus now?”
A cough by the doorway startled them both. Gabrielle closed the door carefully behind her before speaking. “Look, it was no one’s fault. I’m back now and no one saw me. I had to go. You had no idea what Xena might look like and I’m the only one that might be able to spot her. Anyway, I didn’t have to go very far.”
“You found her?” asked the Maxima in amazement.
Gabrielle nodded. “She was being marched along the Via Sacra below the Temple, surrounded by Roman guards. All I could see was the top of her head, but I knew… it was enough for me to know it was her.”
“Where were they taking her?” asked the Priestess of Venus
“To the Coliseum,” Gabrielle replied quietly.
The Priestess was puzzled. “That doesn’t make any sense. According to Venus, He’s put her through much worse than armed combat. There must be something else. This is His last chance to break her, He must have something special…” A frown flew over her face and she turned to ask Gabrielle, “How did you know the Flavian Amphitheatre was also called the Coliseum?”
Gabrielle shrugged casually. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading since I got here.”
“Yes… well,” she said, but she continued to gaze searchingly at Gabrielle.
The Maxima ignored the questioning and revealed her larger concern. “All the more reason she must not go there,” she said taking Gabrielle into her arms protectively.
Gabrielle pulled away. “You think I’m going to leave her there? Anyway, Aphr… Venus said I was supposed to draw What’s-his-name out. So let me do my job.” She drew on her headdress to leave, practically daring either woman to try to stop her. When they managed to restrain themselves, she nodded and walked towards the doors. Then she stopped, as though remembering something. “I think Venus had a gift for me?”
The Priestess seemed to be grinding her teeth before she pointed to a package on a marble table. Gabrielle approached it, almost warily, before unfolding the cloth. Neither of the other two women could see what it was or read the strange, sad expression that passed over her face.
She took a deep breath, gathered up the bundle and continued to the door. As she exited she tossed back, “Tell Aphrodite to be ready. I don’t know what it’ll be, but she’s going to get her diversion.”
There was an awkward silence after she left. Finally the Priestess asked quietly, “Can we trust her? She has such anger…”
The Maxima chided, “You make it sound as though there is any choice. How can you not follow the guidance of a Goddess? I have faith in her perfect wisdom. Do you not as well?”
The Priestess looked to the door, but said hurriedly, “of course…”
Xena was in the lower bowels of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or as it was more popularly known, the Coliseum. The stone cellars were dank and water seeped from the walls and ceiling. From above, she heard the sounds of crashing and the splintering of wood, always followed by the muffled thunder of thousands of cheers. She’d been hurriedly handed equipage; greaves, manicae and a visored helmet that were all too small, and had stripped and squeezed into them under the leering gaze of her guards. She was all too familiar with the variety of weapons used in gladiatorial contests from her previous lives, and she doubted it was coincidental that she had been picked for the role of Myrmillo, as it came with her accustomed straight Greek sword. She hefted it and the oblong shield and tested their balance. There was something rattling inside the helmet, and it was with a grim smile that she picked up the Roman Victory pin that she knew she’d left behind on the hillside. With some slight regret, she dropped it again to the ground, and stonefaced, ground its glittering gold and jewels into the sand under her hobnailed boot.
With that reminder dealt with unsatisfactorily, she focused on what else Ares might be up to. She was certain that he’d played the part of Gabrielle, but to what purpose? And why send her to fight in another, if much bigger, Roman Amphitheatre? Despite the bloody reputation of the Roman Arenas, she knew that few competitors were actually killed in the contests. Most gladiators retired due to wounds, and those that survived had a soft life between bouts, filled with sponsorship endorsements and groupies. She could have accepted stardom once, ‘but then Spartacus and his rebellion…’
The preparation for combat before an audience was something she had become used to. Something that Xena had never wanted to become accustomed to, was the smell of the average soldier, and she wasn’t about to start changing her opinions now. So she was not impressed when the swarthy bulk of one of her minders sauntered up to her, sneering, “I heard you were supposed to be something special. You don’t look so tough to me.”
Xena merely raised her eyes and let just some of her repressed anger show, but that was enough to push the soldier back several feet. That problem removed, she crossed her arms and leaned against a wall and attempted to look languidly unconcerned while waiting to find out her latest role in Ares’ schemes. But certain words filled her mind.
‘You didn’t think about the pain you’d be putting me through, you didn’t even ask me! In the end you were just like, like the Gods and everyone we fought against! ‘Swallow this pain, Gabrielle, It’s for the Greater Good.’
That hadn’t been Gabrielle, she reminded herself. Couldn’t have been. Despite all the years that had passed, no matter how much she may have earned her partner’s ire, Gabrielle would never betray her in that way. What was really hurting was she could not deny any of the words that the false Gabrielle had said. Each one echoed and pounded in her head, and she found it hard to find that boot in the ass she needed to work out the truth and find a way to stop Ares.
“I would have turned you in for free.”
Her thoughts were mercifully broken when one of the gates clattered open and eight sullen dark youths and a small blonde woman dressed in even more ill-fitting gear than hers were pushed through. They had a moment to eye each other before a group of officials entered, one of whom, a harried middle-aged man, seemed to be in charge. He had a hurried conversation with a colleague before turning to address them.
“Okay, gather round!”
Xena tried to dismiss him with a glance, but he continued to speak anyway.
“I’m Fabius Aguptus, the assistant director of staging for this venue, and you are all now the property of the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Greatest Entertainment Complex the World has ever Known!”
There was muffled, if ironic applause from his assistants.
“I know most of you are new to Rome, and for some of you this is a chance to get out of a dead end position. For the rest of you this IS the dead end.” His sneer died as he crossed his arms. “Some of you want to be famous. Well, fame costs, and right here, “ he stamped his foot on the sandy floor, “is where you start paying.”
Xena rolled her eyes. A pep talk from this animal was not what she needed right now. Oblivious, Fabius continued.
“The important thing to remember is that you’re now in the entertainment business, so that means you better be entertaining. If I see anything I like and you’re still alive in an hour, we could be talking about contracts, especially if some of the bigger sponsors like you. As for escaping, please don’t waste your time or ours. Thousands have tried, and every one of them played or paid. Just remind yourself, right now you’re only so much meat to me. You’re only here because we have a gap in the programme, and if you help ME, maybe later I can help you." There was a muttered acceptance before he continued.
“Normally in the big leagues, we’d never let you out there without at least the afternoon with a choreographer, to block out a few moves, a few stunts. But we have a hole to fill and we grabbed you guys to fill it fast.” He paused to look about.
“You slaves from the provinces have probably never been inside the Flavian Amphitheatre before, have you?” There was an embarrassed shuffle from a couple of Xena’s fellow performers. “No. Well, what you’re hearing is the end of a full naval battle. Inside the building. We flood the below floor area with several feet of water from our own aqueduct and right now, on our stage, there are fully manned ships, firing at each other while sixty thousand spectators watch. This is NOT the local playhouse, got that? But, sometimes not everything works perfectly. We normally have to close for a day or so after flooding, and this show was SUPPOSED” and there was an angry glance at one of his assistants who bowed his head, “to last until mid day. BUT…”and there was another glance at the assistant, “The prisoners of war that were on the boats weren’t up to our usual standards, and they’re about be finished, er, about to finish, earlier than planned. Now we promised action, spectacle to these punters and we also need to get ready for the big day tomorrow. So we’re going to start draining the water now, and we need something out there now to finish off the card. Most of the local criminals were already brought in and executed during the half-time show, so we had to dig around and find something else. And that’s you.”
He put out his hand and an assistant immediately filled it with a map of the Coliseum. He laid it on the ground and gestured for the performers to stand around. When Xena didn’t move, he glared at her. “What’s your problem?”
“I’m not having a good day,” she said laconically.
“Nice to know. I don’t care.” Behind him, three soldiers placed their hands on their swords.
With a heavy sigh, Xena shrugged and moved forward to join the rest.
Taking a pointer from another of his assistants, the manager began to indicate positions in the stadium. “As I said, they’ve already started draining the water and the ships will lower slowly below the main floor sections. Some of the floor supports will already be laid in place, here and here. So you guys are going to come in through the west gate, here, banging your swords together, making lots of noise. The Emperor is out of town, and there will be no salutes to the Senators. Just get to it as soon as they see you. The stagecrews and techies will start mounting the columns and laying the floor while the gangs drag away the ships underneath you, so keep out of everybody’s way and you’ll have space to fight on these walkways here and here.
“Split up and head for them in pairs. Now… frankly, having a bunch of amateurs like you won’t be enough. So I hope you know the drill. It’s a fight to the death, yadda yadda, no referees, until one of you ends up on the ground with a sword at the throat. Nobody… that means nobody, gets out of the room until the crowd judges your match and decides who lives. And they don’t like boring matches, so if you want to go out the gate again, you better fight like your worthless lives mattered. And again, no cute stuff, like trying to go out with the water and out the drains. There are screens set into the stone, and the guys working down below have orders to kill anyone who falls through.”
He faced them grimly. “Now we got a reputation here. Maybe the entire house is paper, but we keep them entertained. Got that?” He waited until a few ‘yes sirs’ slurred out. “Pacing is everything. You’re here to kill time and I don’t want you to bunch up your judgements. I want them spread out, a few minutes apart, got it? You go down, sword at the throat, the crowd decides, you slit the throat. Then the next pair of you, then the next pair, and so on.” He pounded his palm with the pointer. “Bang bang bang, okay? You’re going to follow the stage crew as they lay the floor right out the East side, and by that time you should have already finished your matches. The survivors exit the gate in an orderly fashion while the garbage crews remove the losers and to finish the day, we bring in the elephants.”
Xena thought she’d misheard. “The elephants?”
Fabius turned to answer her. “Yeah, from Africa. Huge ugly things with noses as big as…”
“I know what an elephant is. What elephants?”
“The elephants the Centurions are going to fight to close the show.”
Xena hung her head and shook it slowly.
Fabius was affronted. “Okay, don’t get all high and mighty on me. We’re in the business of entertaining. And until you’ve seen these monsters being attacked by guys a tenth their size, you haven’t seen everything, okay? That’s what the public wants. That’s what we give them. Why, are you some kind of animal lover? ’cause there’ll be thousands slaughtered for the Mars thing.”
Xena straightened up. “Mars thing?
Fabius sneered. “Tomorrow! The big day! Not so clued up as you thought, eh? Mars, God of War?”
“I may have heard of him.”
“Well, get ready to be up close and personal. Mars is going to be declared King of the Gods by order of the Emperor tomorrow. We’ve been preparing for the ten days of sacrifices for weeks. Where have you been?”
“I had a whole other life before today.”
Fabius nodded. “Tell me about it. I used to make boots.” He turned back to address the group. “Anyway, people? Now, I don’t want any headaches, I just want good clean action and happy sponsors. The swords are over there, grab one and wait until the guard with the list gives you your cue. Any questions?”
The young blonde raised her hand hesitantly. “I’ve never used a sword before. I was a kitchen slave.”
The manager shrugged. “Then I‘d say you’re in a lot of trouble.” That dealt with he turned to the other contestants. “Any more questions?”
Xena moved over to the young blonde. “What’s your name?”
The frightened girl swallowed, afraid to raise her eyes to the figure towering above her. “Annia,” she finally managed. Xena was struck by her resemblance to another young blonde she’d once saved from slavers, and grimaced as she realised it probably wasn’t a coincidence. Nor was the costume the girl had been furnished with. She was dressed as the Thracian, and moving to the table, Xena picked out the curved Thracian sword. How long ago had Thrace been her home, she wondered? And she speculated about another Thracian, Spartacus, again. ‘Circles within circles’ she thought.
Xena took Annia’s hand and placed the sword in it. “My name’s Xena. You hold the sword like this. Like an extension of your arm. Don’t wave it separately, it moves with you… “ and she demonstrated.
Fabius was watching and came over. “You’ve done this before?”
Xena lowered her sword. “I’ve been trying to cut back.”
The manager appraised her. “Cut back on the attitude, impress a few people and this could be your lucky day.”
While looking at the scrolls in his hands, he missed a soul-burning glower. “And you lucked out today, because I’m matching you with the kid here. If it looks like she’s going down too fast, try to stretch it out but make it look good. And maybe I’ll see you later.”
The manager took a few steps back when he heard the sound of a trumpet from up the stairs. “Places everyone!”
“Places….” was echoed along the corridor. All waited for the sign and finally an assistant passed the signal to Fabius, who said, “You’re on.” The minders stood, swords in their hands and the contestants glumly marched forward towards their possible deaths. Behind them they heard a choreographer shouting out final instructions. “Lots of noise as you go in, and try to have some fun with this!”
Nothing could have prepared Xena for the effect of walking into the Coliseum. In other lives she had seen larger crowds, at the Circus Maximus on the other side of the Palatine, in fact. She had faced ten thousand soldiers with her own army behind her. But all of that was nothing compared to the compact denseness of howling humanity that was a filled Coliseum. With a crowd that roared with the voice of thunder when she strode onto a plank, high above the slowly receding waters at the pit of the great amphitheatre.
For a moment she felt as though she was shrinking, as though the sheer size of the place was diminishing her, while the volume of the noise pressed down on her even further. It took several seconds for her to gather her wits and senses so that she could push on with some confidence. Beneath her, she could see the cracked and broken ships with their oars tangled in lines, being dragged aside by hundreds of men sloshing through ankle deep water. Dozens of bodies were tossing about in the shallows. Ahead of her were more planks, a sparse web balanced across standing wooden piles, extending above the watery chaos of the wrecks and human remains.
But nothing could blot out the living animal that was the great mob behind the netting above and around her. As Fabius had hoped, at their entrance all eyes were focussed on them, and each of the contestants was momentarily stunned by the attention. She carefully turned on the planking to see a pasty-faced Annia, who was backing up despite the threats of the swords behind her, and pulled her out of the murky corridor into the blistering sunshine.
She called out to her, confident that her voice would not carry far, drowned as it was by the raucous jeers of the 60,000 patrons.
“Don’t look down! Just follow my feet.”
Again, there was a hesitant, if game, nod, and Xena led her carefully from board to board over the scattered network of planking criss-crossing the bowels of the stadium. Even over the crowd’s screams, she could hear the boards creaking under their weight, threatening to drop them to the cavernous space below.
Once she had found a plank sturdy enough to hold both their weights, Xena turned to face Annia, and saw fear return to the girl’s eyes. She gave what she hoped was a friendly smile and said, “we’ll start off with something simple. You swing left, then right, then left, then left again. I swear I won’t hurt you, okay?”
Looking very unsure, but not seeing any alternative, the girl imitated Xena’s motions and there was a satisfying ‘clang’ as the swords met in the air. At that, the crowd cheered loudly enough that Annia jumped as the board they were balancing on shook. “Now again,” Xena instructed.
The crowd was too sophisticated, and after more of the repeated movements, the cheers became jeers, and she heard frantic demands for more action coming from the prompt corner. Apparently the male competitors were somewhat more exiting but the direct attention of the ten or more thousand spectators nearest them was enough to push the manager to demand some real combat.
Xena put a bit more force into her swing and Annia nearly lost her sword, almost dropping it over the side and into the water below. The crowd booed loudly and near tears, the terrified girl stumbled and fell, holding the sword under the plank as she clung to it desperately. Xena dropped to her knees, crawled over and reached for where she assumed the sword would be. Under the cover of the board, she forced the pommel into the girl’s hands. “We’ll make it look like you meant to do that, okay?” The girl nodded and Xena stood and swung her weapon as though for the killing blow. The crowd held its breath when the girl thrust upwards with her sword from her kneeling position and Xena seemed to barely escape being impaled. At this, the audience roared its approval and Xena added to their delight by somersaulting above the girl’s head, landing behind her.
Annia’s face was still covered in fear, but she was still uneasily balancing. Xena smiled encouragingly. “Like the idiot said, it’s all show business. Keep the crowd happy, and maybe I can draw enough attention that you can make a break for it. Wait for your chance, okay?” Annia nodded uncertainly.
Xena scanned the base of the field for some sort of exit, but all were guarded, and the security personnel could call on hundreds of soldiers at any escape attempt. Still sparring with the girl, she slowly revolved, scanning the entire range and all levels of the stadia. In the corner of one eye, she was aware that there was a VIP section in the centre of the stands. Its opulence was proclaimed by both the costumes worn and by the gleaming white marble of its seats. She had been aware for some time that there was a particularly intense interest in her fight resonating from that location, so she grasped Annia’s hand, swung her about, pretended to trip and then rose, facing the seats directly.
And was met by the gleaming cat-like smile of Gabrielle.
She was hard to miss, a lone woman, sitting in the midst of the most powerful of Roman senators. She should have been with the women and slaves in the upper rows, rather than with the arm of a senator draped comfortably around her crimson toga. It took little of Xena’s superb eyesight to see the unusual amount of jewellery on Gabrielle’s companion. Instead of the usual single signet, the man’s hands glinted with rings on each finger. Chains and pins decorated his brilliant white toga, and there was no doubt in Xena’s mind that this was the killer of the woman whose body she occupied. ‘So very, very clever,’ echoing her thoughts of what, only a day before?
Despite the crowd’s appreciation, Xena was well aware that her earlier flip had not been up to her usual standards. Perhaps it was the body, or she had failed to compensate for the unsteadiness of the board, but the fact remained she had barely managed to land properly. As she measured the distance to the exclusive boxes, her eye fell upon the remains of a hull that was still waiting to be removed. She dove towards a startled Annia, spinning her up and about and flinging her in such a way that she landed unhurt and upright. “Now run at me, and scream!” she hissed, and Annia obliged her mentor. Xena appeared to feint clumsily and trip, landing hard on her back on the plank, which teetered as she clung to it.
Annia, seeing her seemingly helpless, stalked her slowly, while Xena inched herself backwards along the plank by her hands. As Annia looked to the crowd for a decision, Xena dropped over the side, landing on the raised end of the smashed hull. Several of the stage crew hastily retreated while security drew weapons and made a dash towards her position. As she had hoped, the flexibility of the boards was greater than the insecure planking, and she used it to springboard herself high into the air, apparently to escape the pursuers. To the crowd, it seemed only coincidental that she landed in the aisle beside Gabrielle. Her extravagantly bejewelled escort moved to strike but barely was his weapon drawn before he was knocked backwards by a quick fist. Despite all her instincts, Xena managed to resist striking again, and turned to face his companion. Before Xena could utter a word, the blonde woman confronted her and ordered, “Bow down.”
Xena held back a laugh. “What?”
Gabrielle smiled cheerfully and spread her arms grandly to the audience. “Unless you want about a thousand soldiers charging down that aisle, you better make it look like this is part of the show. Get on your knees!”
Reluctantly, Xena complied. There was a smattering of applause from the crowd, and a few stamped their feet in approval. At one of the exits, the prompter was feverishly looking through his scripts.
Gabrielle continued to stand with her arms outstretched, eyes gleaming as she scanned the amphitheatre. “You’ve impressed the crowd,” she said to the kneeling figure in front of her, “but what was the plan after that?” She indicated her fallen escort, still unconscious on the steps. “Revenge on Gratidius here?” Xena swallowed, remembering the scars left by the whip and the savage rape her body had endured. Gabrielle noted that the warrior’s eyes had darkened and she smiled. “I had hoped he’d recognise you, but I’m afraid he had eyes only for me.” There was an all too casual shrug of the delicate shoulders. “But if you don’t feel any obligation, you could always go back and kill that poor girl down there.” Then she tilted her head to one side, exposing her neck. “Or kill me?” She shrugged again and coolly brushed down her toga. “But that must be getting old for you by now.”
“Red really isn’t her colour,” Xena said, raising her eyes. “Ares.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Oh, come on. You don’t really believe that?” She pointed to the crowd, beginning to buzz with confusion and then to the network of planks where Xena’s fellow gladiators waited for a resolution as well. “Let’s get back to a plan, shall we? ‘Cause it looks pretty bad, if you ask me. At least half the audience are campaign veterans, with hundreds and hundreds of armed guards at the exits. I’d say you were toast, wouldn’t you?” She reached down to brush a stray hair from Xena’s eyes, but the warrior recoiled slightly. Gabrielle shrugged and said, “Accept the facts. You’re alone and the only person who can help you, is me. And I put you here. This. Is. It. There’s no rescue, there never was going to be any tear-filled reunion.”
“You’re not Gabrielle.” she whispered before turning away, but there was a tremor in her denial. Gabrielle grabbed her shoulder and with surprising strength nearly lifted the warrior up. “Don’t you get it?” she hissed. “After all this time? Stop looking for that stupid young innocent who forgave you for everything. She doesn’t exist anymore! And remember why? Because you killed her yourself! Again and again. Centuries and centuries ago. And when I finally died, I died cursing your name. It’s time to face the truth.”
Marcus Tullius had been tempted. To think that he, an insignificant guard, would have been asked by one of THE sacred six Vestals for a personal tour of the Amphitheatre! He had been so taken by her beauty and charming accent, that it had only been with great difficulty that he been able to refuse. He had tried to explain that due to the present technical difficulties, he could not leave his post. That the majority of the security forces were on the opposite gate; but the Blessed One had been hard to dissuade. He worried that he had cursed himself by angering the beautiful Vestal; there was a long sigh of regret as she stalked angrily away and upstairs towards the women’s seats he had directed her to. He fervently hoped that he could purchase an appropriate sacrifice or prayer to protect himself.
The Vestal moved determinedly through the unfamiliar corridors of the world’s largest Roman amphitheatre. Amid the darkness created by the towering black marble columns, she was pulled by the flow of a crowd that took no notice of her holy vestment, hauled past archways that allowed only a momentary view onto a sunlit field. In those moments, she drew brief glimpses of the broken ships tangled in grapplings before the shoving crowd drew her along again. She had jostled her way to the top of the first flight of stairs when trumpets sounded. Again, she broke through the crowd blocking an opening onto the field, and peering through the mob, followed the focus of attention to the gate now below her.
And there she was. Any doubts that the Vestal might have had about the true identity of the woman she’d seen arrested earlier were washed away by the fighting stance that was as familiar to her as her own name. But the glimpse was fleeting, as again the throng’s momentum pulled her upwards and away from her view. Once she reached the top of another stair, she broke free and ran along the dark, enclosed outer ring of what seemed to be the highest level of the Coliseum, her frustration growing with each stride. A stench from what appeared to be urinals along the curving wall assaulted her, while the crowd inside, hidden by the corridor walls, thundered again and again. Each sound might indicate the crowds’ approval that Xena had killed or been killed and still she could not find an entry where she could see what was happening.
Finally she reached an entrance and, blinking in the sudden overwhelming blaze of the sun, she walked into the upper ring of the stadium, high above the field. Far below, the woman she knew to be Xena was struggling on her back, balancing on a thin long board, trying to evade the small woman who was bearing down on her. Xena’s eyes were not on the girl though, but towards the audience and Gabrielle followed her gaze to see a sight that shook her profoundly. Even at this distance she could identify the straw-coloured hair and the all too familiar features clearly enjoying the event. Then Xena leapt down before bounding skyward right up to the side of the woman, striking the Roman who attempted to attack her. The false Gabrielle said something, and to Gabrielle’s horror, Xena fell to her knees. The woman continued to smile, and though Gabrielle could not hear the words that she spoke, she could see the increasing anger in her face, see the effect of her words on the muscled back kneeling before her. She could guess what was being said and was almost surprised that there was no pleasure in it for her. Instead she felt an overpowering need to stop the abuse and she began to search for the means.
“So that’s the plan, is it, Ares?’ she muttered as she scanned the balcony. “For better or worse, that’s my partner. And Damn it, if anyone deserves to guilt my partner to death, it’s me.”
Her eyes fell upon a coil of rope leading upwards to the curve of the roof. Apparently it was used to unfurl one of the sections of the canopy roof to protect the spectators from the elements. She ran over to test its strength and then uneasily peered over the edge of the railing to the depths far below. Taking a deep breath, she made her assessment of the distance and angle, climbed to the top of the barrier, and closed her eyes. She hesitated, trying to sift through the mixed emotions that had drawn her to this near-suicidal action. Love or Hate? she thought. Did I ever have a choice? Even as this went through her mind, a stream of words was slipping past her lips.
“Crapcrap…CRAP!!!” and then she leapt.
The green eyes of the woman she loved, bore into Xena without any mercy. The crowd was becoming restless, even the stage crews had stopped their work, but Xena had no sense of them; nothing but the furious woman in front of her. “If you were Gabrielle…” she began.
“If?” the woman interrupted. “And what will I get when you admit who I am? Another APOLOGY?” she sneered. “Like, ‘I’m sorry I dragged you for miles and tried to throw your body over a cliff?’ Or, ‘Sorry I cracked your skull with my chakram?’” The smaller woman radiated such anger and resentment that Xena moved back, teetering for a moment on the stairwell. “Or maybe another promise? Like the one, ‘I’ll never leave you Gabrielle’? ‘Even in Death, Gabrielle’. ‘Where you go, go I, Gabrielle’????”
There were no words for Xena, no response to this onslaught. Despite her scepticism as to the identity of the person in front of her, this was too close to the always open nerve of guilt she carried, too much after all these years of nourishing a flame for the one person who had somehow always believed in her. She felt her strength evaporate, her head drooping under the barrage. Then, there was an oh-so-soft hand cupping her chin and she found herself looking upwards again into now calm, verdant eyes. The sweet and well-loved voice began, “You can never go back and make it better. But you could…”
The sentence was never completed, though Xena took no notice. All Xena knew was that from her left, she heard her own battle cry, so hideously garbled that it should have hurt her ears. But instead, she found herself standing, remembering exactly when she had last heard that horrible sound. She spun about to see a girl, no, a woman in her teens, swinging on a rope towards their place in the stands; swinging from a high upper balcony, making that irritating call.
It was awkward. It was a Blessed Vestal Virgin in the most unlikely pose of all and the crowd was not sure if they appreciated the showmanship or were offended by the enormous blasphemy, but Xena could not remember seeing or hearing anything more beautiful in all of her lives. For a moment she thought that it might be one last trick, but a glance at the aghast expression of the Gabrielle in front of her removed that worry. With a grin broader than any she had worn in centuries, she reached up to arrest the rope as it passed by and a compact Vestal clad body slid down the rope and into her arms.
Xena pulled the unfamiliar body into her arms, and felt all her hopes confirmed as a much dreamed about familiar peace enclosed her. For a brief moment, she clutched Gabrielle, fiercely, inhaling her first whole deep breath in centuries. They could have been entirely alone, there in the celebrity boxes of the packed amphitheatre.
Then the girl made an attempt to disentangle herself from Xena, who recognised the effort and withdrew her arms, while still gazing at her with incredulous but elated eyes.
Gabrielle, aware and almost angry that she was tearing up, gathered herself enough to finally ask, “I’m not late, am I?”
Somehow Xena managed to growl, “better late than never,” while stifling what for any other person would have been a sob.
Both women attempted to ignore the slow clap that began beside them for a moment longer, before Gabrielle spoke. She looked intently at the older Gabrielle and then smiled. “You know, you look sorta familiar. Have we met?”
Taking the cue, Xena carefully placed one arm about her former partner’s waist, and ushered her forward as if formally introducing them. “Ares? THIS is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, you remember Ares?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips in a puzzled fashion and frowned at the God. “It’s a nice look, but it’s not really you.”
There was a dark current emanating from the God in disguise, which the smile did nothing to lighten. “Cute. Very cute. So everything’s alright? Should I give you a moment to kiss and make up?”
Gabrielle’s expression hardly changed. "No thanks to you. I know why you're dressed like that. And I can figure out what you were telling her."
Ares spread his/her hands, palms facing her. “You don’t have to thank me, Gabs. Just tell me that I’m not doing your job for you. Tell me I didn’t tell her the truth. Tell Xena you never searched for her and she wasn’t there. Tell me that there weren’t times when you hated her, that part of you doesn’t still want her to suffer. Or are you just like all the battered wives that refuse to leave their bastard husbands because they looooove them?”
Gabrielle felt her partner shift her stance and say, “Gabrielle…”
Gabrielle cut her off. “Let me handle this.”
She faced the God. “You’re right. She left me and she hurt me more than anyone has or ever could. But that’s between us. Not you and your latest outfit. She might never make up for that, but I’m here to give her the time enough to try.”
The false Gabrielle laughed. “Time? You want time?” Ares raised an arm and the restless crowd of the Coliseum froze.
All movement and sound halted.
The God looked about cheerfully in the stillness. “You’ve got nothing. Nothing unless I choose to give it to you. Didn’t anyone tell you, little girl? I have powers drawn from millions now. I could separate you in ways you couldn’t even dream of.”
Somehow, despite being unnerved by the show of immense power, Gabrielle shrugged casually. “Well, if you’re going to cheat….”
The green eyes bulged slightly. “CHEAT?”
The Vestal crossed her arms. “Yeah, cheat. What’s the matter, Ares? Things must have gotten boring for you with all that power. Not up to using your brain to try to stop a couple of mortals?”
Recovering, Xena joined in. “Sure, you could even use the Loom, make it so we’d never even had this moment, but isn’t it just possible that changing the past might risk your grand ascension tomorrow? All that cutting and blending threads hasn’t always had the effect you wanted. You might just screw up one little detail and blow it all just when it was all in your grasp.”
A worried shadow passed over the false Gabrielle’s face. “You heard about the big day, did you? So what are you suggesting, then?”
Gabrielle was thinking furiously. ‘A distraction, keep him busy...’ “One last romp,” she declared. “Noon’s when they read the Emperor’s proclamation and you gain supreme power, right? You against us. We stay free until then, you let us go.”
Trusting that her partner had some plan in mind, Xena coaxed, “Unless you think you aren’t up to the chase anymore?”
There was a hesitation, and Gabrielle decided to steal the initiative. “You start them up,” she said, pointing to the frozen masses, “and we’ll take it from here, okay? And NO Cheating!”
As if in response, the silence was smashed by the return of life to the crowd. Ares made no move to stop them as, still holding the rope, they ran up the steps, knocking aside several dignitaries. Gabrielle took the rope first, allowing Xena to wrap herself around both the rope and the Vestal and then, together again, they pushed off.
Despite the danger, and possibly because of it, Gabrielle found the position familiarly comfortable. As they began their downward pendulum swing, there were cries and even a poorly thrown javelin following their descent, but it was only when she felt Xena tense that she opened her eyes. Ahead of them was a shimmering something that Gabrielle thought resembled a waterfall. Xena cursed and cried, ‘Hold ON tight!!”
As they passed through, Gabrielle expected them to become wet, but instead it was as though a week’s worth of seasickness was compressed into a moment. It was only their well-trained instincts that grabbed the concrete edge of the balcony they slammed into. As they hauled themselves over, it took a moment before either realised that the cavernous Coliseum was empty.
All of the crowd, the competitors, the water, gone; the full flooring now in place, covered by a light layer of sand. Only the brilliant sunshine remained the same.
Gabrielle leaned on the balustrade and puffed, “What… was THAT?”
“That, was a certain God telling us we’re just a sideshow to his real plans. He probably went back in time and simply closed the place for today. Just to make the point.”
“Point taken. So we’re up against an all-powerful, vengeful God who can change the past and present on a whim. We’re not in trouble, are we?”
“No more than usual.” Xena flashed a relaxed grin before striding over to the outer balcony to look out over the city. “Depends on what the rest of your plan was.”
“I just sort of jumped.
“Uh huh,” was all the warrior said. Gabrielle joined her to see what outside was causing the concern on Xena’s face. The warrior was indicating the ground below and across from them. “I hope you weren’t thinking slipping back to the House of the Vestal’s, because there seem to be a big bunch of armed priests from the Temple of Ares standing between us and it.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Then he missed a bet. I’m not staying there. We can slip out and head for the Temple of Venus.” She pointed to the temple only a few lengths in an opposing direction.
“So, no one around, no reason to attract attention and go out the window,” Xena pointed out. “We might as well walk out the front door.” Gabrielle had no objection and they began moving through the peculiarly empty corridors to the stairs.
As they approached the flight of steps, both were oddly silent. Gabrielle was startled when it was Xena who broke the uneasy quiet.
“I know.” As much as Gabrielle might have hated it, there was a taint of sarcasm in her voice that echoed Ares’ taunts of a moment before. “You wanted to have a moment to talk? Say hi, whatcha been up to or anything…?”
Xena breath caught in her throat. “I’ve missed you doesn’t cover it,” she managed.
“No, it doesn’t,” Gabrielle said flatly.
There were only the sounds of their sandals on the cement steps, echoing through the empty building for a moment.
Gabrielle stopped and shook her head. “Xena. What Ares said to you… I don’t want to talk right now, okay? There’s a lot of stuff in my head and I just wanna get used to being together, okay?”
“Get used to it?” Xena stopped and turned to Gabrielle with a broad grin on her face. “Hundreds of years disappeared the moment I saw you on that rope.” Gabrielle didn’t return the smile but Xena, oblivious to all but her own feelings, leaned towards her. Gabrielle held up a hand to push her away, and a startled look appeared in the warrior’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I thought…” Xena’s voice trailed off awkwardly.
The woman who had once been the ancient Queen of the Amazons was still unused to having her emotions so beyond her control. She tried to take the sting out of the rejection with a light touch to Xena’s shoulder. “It’s just… it’s too much all at once. I’m barely able to handle being alive, but you, seeing you, being with you… I can do this if I just focus on the fact I was brought here to do a job. Please don’t ask for more, Xena. Not now, not yet, at least. Please.”
Xena swallowed, and nodded. But they had only walked a few more steps before she stopped and turned to Gabrielle. “No. I have to say something. We don’t know how much time we have. Too many times something came up or I’ve dodged it, and then you never knew... I’ve done it too many times. I won’t do that again. That’s something you taught me.” Appreciating what the effort was costing her once taciturn friend, Gabrielle waited.
Xena closed her eyes. Tried to focus on what she needed to say. “It’s funny. I had this conversation with you a thousand times, and hundreds of years to prepare. It should be easier.”
Gabrielle took her hand. “Xena, maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”
“Doesn’t matter. I have to.” She stopped and tried to begin again. “Gabrielle. I was an idiot, a fool, you name it. I…”
Gabrielle tightened her grip on the hand until Xena was ready to start again. “I don’t know how it happened, how I lost my appreciation for what you were, who you were.” The warrior laughed derisively. “Everybody said that we were a balance for the other. Somehow in the end that became me being the taker while you were the giver. I made a mockery of the love I said I had for you. I need you to know…” She looked directly into Gabrielle’s eyes with all the passion she could draw from within, “…that I’m not that person anymore. That can’t happen again, I swear. Can’t. Won’t. I lived these years learning, knowing everyday, what I missed and needed, and all of it was you. If all you want from me is friendship… that’ll be more than I deserve. But I swear to you, I will take every moment that I am lucky enough to be with you… to show you, to appreciate you, for all that you are.”
Gabrielle was silent, tears forming again, but she slowly and deliberately released her grip to wipe them away before saying, “Oh Gods. I can’t handle this, Xena. Ares was partly right. I can’t… As much as I might have needed to hear what you just said, needed it more than air some times…”
“It’s a few centuries too late. I won’t ask you to forgive me. I don’t want you to. Not again.”
“No. Not late. Just…too much. ”Gabrielle shrugged her shaking shoulders. “Maybe this is not real, or it’s… it’s too much...” She began to turn her face away when Xena stopped her and took her hand again.
“Three words. Then I’ll do whatever you want. I don’t know if I ever said, ever really said this properly, I love you.”
Gabrielle lowered her head into her hands. “Gods. I knew this would be hard, but not as hard as this.” Raising her face to reveal tear-filled eyes, she added, “Part of the problem is that I lost something when I died. All the feelings, memories, everything I felt, about you… they were gone and… and I gave up on you, and I don’t know why. And now it’s all come back so strong and if I let go, feel all of it, then I’ll be no use to you or to me. We have to focus on why we’re here. Please?” The last word was almost a whisper, and Xena took her own roiling emotions and placed them aside as she’d done too many times before.
“Where do you want to start?”
Gabrielle took a breath, and some of the shadows lifted from her face. “Thank you. We could use a few ground rules.”
“You name them,” Xena said seriously.
The girl paused to think. “Okay. No making plans, no decisions…”
“Without consulting you first?”
A fragile smile broke across her face. “That would be good. Really good.”
Xena returned her lopsided grin. “Like I told you, I had a few years to learn stuff.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to draw herself together. When she opened them, she wiped her face peremptorily with the sleeve of her holy vestment and tugged her partner towards the main exit. “So let’s get out of here and figure what’s going on, okay?”
Xena as easily slipped into a business-like manner. “When we are, is the problem. We bet we’d play hide and seek until noon, but thanks to Ares time warping, we don’t even know what day it is.”
“And let’s not forget the whole ‘up against an all-powerful, etcetera, God with a grudge’. Been there, done that.” She stopped, puzzled by a thought which suddenly struck her. “Speaking of whom, has He really changed that much?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, changing time just to make a point. And if he did, how come we’re here together? If the Coliseum was closed…”
Xena’s lips set. “Then we wouldn’t have met here. This moment in time couldn’t have happened. So this isn’t real.” She looked about for some conformation, becoming agitated in a way that Gabrielle had rarely seen. “He’s just playing with us. Again.”
As if in response, the now familiar waterfall advanced towards them, engulfing them, and again Gabrielle experienced the nausea and twisting of her guts.
When it was over, they were standing on the edge of one of the lower circles in a once again packed, thunderously noisy Coliseum, where they had apparently dropped from the rope that dangled above them. The smell of the muddy water and bodies struck them along with the sounds of the mob. They dropped to the ground, and crouching, hid behind a concrete barrier. “Bloody Tartarus. I should have realised that the pause wasn’t real. Where are my brains?”
Gabrielle observed half a dozen soldiers scanning the amphitheatre not far from where they were squatting. “Please, get those brains going fast, because we need to get out of here before someone figures out we have to be somewhere underneath that rope.”
Xena raised her head and scanned about before ducking back into their temporary shelter. “We can’t make it up to the balcony window dressed like this,” indicating their Vestal and gladiator apparel, “and there are too many guards by the gates. We need a diversion. Then I could probably kick out a door. A break out by the rest of the slaves could give us the cover to run for the Temple. If only I had my chakram.”
Gabrielle withdrew an unforgettable object from her Vestal draperies. “What do you mean, YOUR chakram?”
Xena blinked. “Where…” she began.
Adopting a reasonable tone, Gabrielle interrupted, speaking very quickly. “If we had the time, we could argue all day whose it is, I mean, just because *I* have it now, after you gave it to ME, and the GODDESS Aphrodite kept it for ME for hundreds of years and since I died at over eighty years of age, even if you include the time we were on ice, I’ve had it far longer than you did, and since we’re about to be captured by a hundred soldiers, don’t we have more important things to worry about?” Gabrielle finished in a speedy rush and smiled guilelessly.
“But…?” Xena began again.
“Later we’ll talk. Maybe I’ll let you borrow it sometimes.”
Xena hesitated, then nodded. “Okay.”
“You’re right. It’s yours now.”
Despite the danger they were in, Xena seemed completely nonchalant. “The chakram is rightly yours and no one else’s.”
Sceptically, Gabrielle asked, “you’re not going to grab it on the return, first time I throw it?”
Xena was the face of virtue. “Never occurred to me.”
“Hmmmmm.” They suddenly both grinned for no reason until the moment was broken by the sound of orders being called from beyond their shelter. “Assuming I accept that, back to business? What’s the plan?” Gabrielle asked hurriedly.
“Well, MY plan was that I would take the chakram and cut down the canopy supports along the roof, drag them to a torch, and scare the heck out of the audience.”
“And kill everybody in a stampede out the gates?” Gabrielle objected.
Xena stood up again and quickly looked down the passage. “Not a big fire. And I promise to be polite about it, okay? But first…” Whatever she saw through the exit elicited another slumping of her shoulders. Gabrielle braced herself for more bad news as Xena returned to crouch beside her. “FIRST, we immediately get someone a hell of a lot smarter than both of us. You were right, He doesn’t do things just to make a point.”
“What is it now?”
“Remember how the Temple of Venus didn’t have any guards around it before the pause?”
Gabrielle nodded, then smacked her head. “There’s a bunch of guards around the Temple of Venus now?” AT Xena’s concurrence, she covered her eyes in disgust. “He put us all alone, to get us to talk, and like an idiot, I spilled where we could head for shelter. Why didn’t you feel him nearby listening?”
“You must have noticed, now he’s the one with...”
“Many skills.” Gabrielle finished. “Great. So not only are we trying to defeat a vengeful etcetera, God, but we can’t talk about our plans because He could be overhearing us!”
“Not to depress you, but it’s worse. If He doesn’t hear us the first time, and we actually get away with whatever we do to get out of here, He can always go back in time and listen in when we made the plan.”
“I actually understood that.”
Xena stood up. “Good, because it just gives me a headache, and one headache at a time is enough.” She scanned the audience once more and spotted the guards moving even closer to their location. “We can’t talk about what we’re going to do, maybe we can take different parts. If I can figure out a place to go and how to get us out of here, can you figure out how to keep Him from following us?”
Gabrielle got up beside her. “Funny. I was about to ask you that if I knew a way to keep Him busy, could you find a place to hide.”
“Suddenly I’m remembering why I’ve felt like half a person for so long.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips in frustration. “You keep saying the sweetest things. Stop it. ‘Cause it’s pissing me off.”
“Is that permanent?”
“We’ll see. Can you get the slaves out of here as well as stampede the crowd in a kind and gentle way?”
“I can do half of it.”
Gabrielle smiled. It was a liberating smile and she thought about why that was for a second. Then it hit her. “You know, I’m having fun. I forgot, that we really did have fun. And old, revered Queens of the Amazon don’t have much fun.”
Seeing soldiers moving directly to their position, Xena bit off her first response for another. “Good, because here comes more fun.”
When In Rome
Marcus Tullius was now standing steadfast at the western entry that barred the exit of anyone from the staging area, completely unaware that anything out of the ordinary was happening on the field. It was only when his commander rushed by, demanding that the rest of the guards follow, that he became even curious. He started forward but was harshly ordered to stay as his fellows followed the officer. But at the sounds of screaming and the cries of fire he ventured a little further out of the dark hall.
He had intended to simply steal a peek, but his eyes widened and he stopped, disbelieving, in the archway.
A female gladiator was careening wildly about the circumference of the upper Coliseum on a rope swing, with flames eating away at the roof fabrics hanging on either side of her. As she twisted crazily about the stadium, she was lighting the netting that protected the spectators throughout the building. The flames were growing brighter with each elliptical circuit, but she was calmly calling down to the crowd, “Please evacuate the Coliseum. Do not panic. Walk, do not run, to the nearest exit. Please evacuate the Coliseum…”
She was doing all of this, while at the same time evading or snatching out of the air, projectiles aimed at her from those few guards not being swamped or busy attempting to control the terrified mob. The crowd was obeying with alacrity but the panic was well contained by those professional soldiers who had moved into position to aid the exodus.
If they had looked carefully, they might have realised that the fire on the roof banners was already burning itself out, but the movement towards the many exits still continued. Marcus knew that his job was to make sure that the competitors at the ring level did not escape during the confusion, so he stood staunchly in the centre of the archway, his hand on the hilt of his sword, waiting for the onslaught. He was not prepared when the inverted face of the Vestal appeared ten feet above him over the balcony. He stared at the beautiful apparition in shock for a moment until it said, “Oh, it’s you!”
Marcus simply nodded, his brain not having access to any words. The upside down head frowned and said, “I don’t suppose you’d consider opening that gate, would you?”
Marcus swallowed, and shook his head. “I didn’t think so,” she seemed to sympathise. “Duty, right? Tell me about it.”
Again he nodded. “Oh well.” The head disappeared and Marcus advanced enough to look upwards and see the Vestal straighten, and pull out a round gleaming piece of metal. She muttered something to herself, and Marcus found himself asking. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“She had the nerve to ask me, ‘are you sure you still know how to throw it?’ I mean, I had this for over sixty years, and she wants to know if I can throw it. Hades, I’LL show her who can throw it.”
In the corner of his eye, he had become aware that in the meantime, the gladiator had reduced the orbit of the rope, and was now pitching her swing higher and higher in a line aimed directly towards him. Nevertheless, his eyes followed the disc after it was thrown. It sailed boldly to the ridge of the roof and caught the sunshine as it severed the ropes at their rooftop junction. The glints must have appeared to be bolts of lightning, for as the severed ropes dropped away, there was a cry of awe from the few remaining in the stands. But the swinging gladiator was already prepared for that and when her line was aimed straight at Marcus, she leapt from her rope seat before the ropes and banners began to slack off and fall, hissing, into the water-sogged sub-floor. Things moved even more quickly for Marcus then, for the disc bounced off another support and also came unswervingly towards him. Before he could move turn, or even think, the disc arrived before the gladiator and struck him a glancing blow on the helmet. As his eyes curled up in their sockets, he saw the disc seemingly magically return to the Vestal’s hand above. He fell to the ground and was vaguely aware that the female gladiator was flying over his body, crashing into the gate behind him, before he lost consciousness.
Gabrielle was just slipping the chakram into a belt under her robes when she heard a voice below her call out, “Nice.”
Surprised that the compliment meant as much as it did, she covered by curtsying and responding, “Thank you. It was a team effort.”
“I used to compliment you when you did something good, didn’t I?”
“It’s been so long, I’m not sure,” she called down with a grin.
“Well, that’s changed too. But I think you’re up now.”
Gabrielle accepted the responsibility with a wave. “Simplicity is always best, I think.” As the slaves began dashing towards the now open gate, she swung herself over the archway and landed with a solid thump on the plank directly in front of an escaping Annia. Annia stopped, suddenly afraid that the freedom she had seen behind the Vestal was some sort of a trick.
Gabrielle stood with her hands on her hips and stated dramatically, “Praise Mars!”
Annia looked to Xena who was also surprised. Gabrielle repeated confidently, “Praise Mars, for saving us from the fire!”
Again Annia looked to Xena, who shrugged and nodded. “Praise Mars,” Annia repeated dumbly.
“All together!! Louder!” And like a chorale director, Gabrielle raised her arms until all of the absconding slaves were repeating with her, “PRAISE MARS, PRAISE MARS FOR PUTTING OUT THE FIRE!!!”
“Very nice!” she said and moved out of the way to lean against the wall, pointing at the open gate. “Now keep repeating it and get out!”
The chant had already spread from the dozen slaves to stragglers in the crowd even before they ran out of the building. It continued to grow in louder and louder emphasis.
When Gabrielle caught up to Xena in the cool shelter of the exterior ring of the stadium, she was watching the scene quizzically. “A thousand Gods to worship in Rome. At least a hundred that would be connected with fire, and they’re all going to thank the war god?”
“If you were as superstitious as the Romans, and someone was giving a really big God credit, would you take the chance of pissing him off?” Gabrielle answered. Then she looked up to the raised eyebrows of the woman beside her. “Well, sure. You would. I’m talking about normal people.”
The chant continued to spread and the vast majority of the crowd were now caught up in it. Many were on their knees praying. Xena shook her head in admiration. “You’ve made a God magnet! Ares will be drawn and stuck to sixty thousand prayers like an ant to sugar. You are brilliant, my love.” Both women noticed the endearment, and Xena turned her face away. Gabrielle reached up and carefully grasping her partner’s chin, turned her to face her. Xena said quietly, “When I talked to you, when I needed to talk to you, I called you that. It just sort of slipped out from habit. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s… nice. I wish…”
Xena shook the mood off and squared her shoulders. “Stuff for later, if we can make a later, right?”
Slower than Xena this time, Gabrielle took a moment before agreeing. “Right.”
Gabrielle watched the crowd as it seemed to grow in fervency and size. “What is really great is that Ares can’t even try to go back in time to find where we went, because he’d just get drawn there whatever time he showed up. Anyway, now that I’ve been brilliant, it’s your turn, I assume if the mob is drawing Ares, that we…?”
“We go that-a-way,” Xena said, pointing ahead of them.
“What a way?” Gabrielle asked.
“See that line of bushes?” indicating a line of scrub foliage perhaps a few feet wide that straggled up the hillside.
“I was just brilliant and your idea is to run for the bushes?”
“I think you’ll like my bush.” A smirk nearly escaped.
Gabrielle had no such restraints about smirking. “You do remember you’re talking to a Vestal Virgin, don’t you?”
“Depends if the Vestal trusts me.”
There was a small moment of thought before the answer came. “Yes. This one does.”
“Almost forgot, if we’re trying to be inconspicuous,” Xena said, indicating their respective remarkable costumes, “Isn’t this the time we usually change our wardrobe?”
Gabrielle looked beyond the shadows of the pillars they were behind and scanned the square. “I knew there had to be some advantage to being in Rome. One size toga fits all. In the old days, we’d be searching half the day for a short soldier or a really tall woman in a nice dress. In the correct shade, of course.”
“And then we’d bop them on the head.”
“We don’t even have to bop anyone.” Pushing Gabrielle in front, Xena called to two passing women wearing plain white togas. “Ladies, would you be interested in a special blessing from the great Vestia?”
Moments later, two women in plain togas emerged from the side of the Coliseum and appeared to stroll quite casually towards the line of brush leading up the hillside.
As they continued their apparently nonchalant stroll, Xena glanced at her companion and said, “You look good.”
Gabrielle nearly paused in mid step. “What? Oh. You mean Numai looks good.”
Irritably, Xena responded, “No, if I’d meant that I would have said it. I mean, you look good. The way you walk, the way you crinkle your nose, the glint in your eye, that’s you. No one else.”
“Well, you too. Couldn’t mistake you for anyone else.” At that moment, Gabrielle became aware that she was holding Xena’s hand, and with a growl of frustration, flung it away. “This damn body!” she exclaimed.
Xena glanced about to make sure that no one was listening. “What?”
“This damn body. I’m used to having this ache in my knees, and I had this numbness along my arm since, I can’t remember… Now, the taste buds are alive… the eyesight is so clear and the colours it sees…”
“And all that’s bad?”
“It’s not just that, it’s all very young and it has…” Somehow Gabrielle did not look like an old woman while blushing and waving clenched hands.
“Juices?” Xena mocked lightly.
Gabrielle glared at her, but managed to keep her voice low and unheard by the passing Roman soldiers making their way to the mob gathering around the base of the Coliseum. “It’s an unneeded complication.”
Xena continued walking, nothing in her manner indicating that the comment hurt. Until she replied, “It wasn’t juices that made you hold my hand.” Frustrated, annoyed and more than a little hurt that the warrior was once again blasé about her emotions, Gabrielle shot her another glare that Xena evaded by ducking deep into the hedge. “Anyway, we’re here. You’re on watch,” she said, as she began scrabbling around.
“Got it.” Trying to appear relaxed and alone, Gabrielle’s gaze wandered over to where the growing crowd outside the columns of the Coliseum seemed to be hotly debating what should be used in a sacrifice to show their gratitude to Mars. She breathed a sigh of relief that there was no one looking in their direction. Nevertheless, as an excuse for her presence, she bent over and began collecting some of the red poppies that were sprouting between the bracken at her feet. Behind her, she heard Xena give a grunt of satisfaction, and then she heard the heavy, scraping sound of concrete being moved along concrete. “So,” she murmured from the side of her mouth, “Where are we going to go where we can’t be seen?”
To her increasing annoyance, Xena didn’t answer, but continued to drag something along the ground behind her that Gabrielle couldn’t see. In frustration, when their rear ends touched for a moment, she gave Xena’s ass a hard backwards shove.
But when she turned about, she found she was all alone. She stood there, in stunned solitary amazement by the shrubbery for a moment, before admitting out loud, “That was impressive, I have to say.” Then she saw in the short brush, a stubby bit of brickwork extruding from the ground with what seemed to be a cover lying beside it. Whatever it was, it led downwards, was dark inside and had to be where Xena had disappeared.
“Xena?” she called down into it tentatively. “Are you okay?” The darkness did not reply.
She leaned further over the opening and said into it heatedly, “Xena! What’s happened?”
From the darkened depths she heard a rueful, “Nothing.”
“NOTHING?” There was a moment of unrepressed fuming. “Okay, Warrior. Unless you want to know what nine hundred years of anger exploding on your head feels like, tell me what’s wrong!”
“Ow.” The sound reverberated off the underground walls for a moment.
“Uh huh. I hurt myself… trying to show off.”
Gabrielle shook her head wonderingly. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you say any of those words, at least not in anything near that order before.”
“Part of the all new improved me. Isn’t that what you want?”
There was silence from above. Xena called up again. “Gabrielle?”
“What I want is getting very complicated. And I wish we could stop talking about it.”
“Well, I want and need you down here. There was a glass window in the vent, and I think I caught a few splinters as I slid down butt first.”
“So you’re telling me you have glass in your ass?”
There was a ghostly wry chuckle. “Ah, there’s something else I’ve been missing all these years. Your way with words.”
“There’s an old curse I heard once. May you get what you asked for.”
“Cute. You know, sooner or later some God-worshipping Roman is going to ask you why you’re talking to a bush.”
“And let’s not forget the glass in your ass.”
At the muttered curse, Gabrielle found herself wearing a grin. After taking a quick look about to make sure that all attention was still on the crowd on the other end of the square, Gabriel lifted one leg over the edge of the concrete ingress and prepared to drop down. “How deep is what ever this is?”
“You can lower your legs and put your feet on my shoulders.”
As she did so, she couldn’t put off asking another question. “That doesn’t answer what this is, or was?”
The answer was another echoing growl. “Get down here and I’ll tell you. And while you’re still up there, slide the cover back in place.”
It took a bit of balancing, but she managed to pull the heavy cover over her head, leaving them both in Stygian darkness, before allowing herself to be slowly lowered to the ground. Gabrielle carefully disentangled herself from the strong shoulders and awkwardly moved away from the Warrior. The temperature in the darkness was considerably cooler than outside, but the air, though stale, was dry. Her mood also seemed to darken, as if reflecting their latest circumstances.
Off to her left, she heard Xena scrabbling along the walls, apparently searching for something. Answering the bard’s unspoken question, she said, ‘We’ll need some light. Should be something to help with that along here. And I’m hoping that was water in the flask you have on your belt.”
“Water and a flint and don’t forget my satchel. Always trained my Amazons to be prepared.”
“Before or after you were dead?”
Gabrielle tried to keep her voice nonchalant. “My time, being dead, it’s getting a bit hazy, but it was a bit of both.”
“You kept busy, I’ll bet.”
“I think so. I mainly did the meet and greet. Newly dead Amazons, tried to find someone they would have known. Talked them through the dying.”
“I don’t want to get on any nerve, but that doesn’t quite sound like a job for this sour, dried up, emotionless hag you’ve been telling me about.”
Gabrielle’s didn’t respond, so Xena tried again. “Weren’t there a few old friends that didn’t see you as The Great Queen?”
“You mean like Ephiny?”
“Ephiny was the worst! I practically ordered her to call me Gabrielle and she refused. She said it felt like she was calling Artemis by a nickname. All she saw was the things I’d done and the old body… I had no friends. And you weren’t… I became what they expected, to survive, Xena.”
“And you did. Survive, I mean.”
“Survive? I was dead! In more ways than one…” The angry retort might have continued when it was cut off by an exclamation from the darkness where Xena was standing. “Sconce with a torch still in it.”
“So hand it here so I can light it up. I want to look at that ass.”
“More things I was wishing to hear but again, not quite this way.”
“Bend over and be quiet,” Gabrielle ordered. After only a few attempts, she got the torch burning. In the flickering light, Gabrielle could see that they were not in some abandoned temple or cave as she’d first thought, but in a tunnel of some kind. And not a hurriedly dug, earthen one, but one with decorated plaster walls that stretched off in opposite directions for some distance. She ran her hands through the contents of her satchel, until she found the strigil she’d picked up in the Vestal’s washing quarters. An unfamiliar object was hooked onto it and she examined it for a moment, trying to decide if it would be of any use.
She turned to Xena and said, “Someone’s been putting things in my bag.”
“Like this. Not the sort of thing someone would just throw away.” She raised a piece of glittering jewellery.
Xena glared at the Victory pin that she’d last seen crushed and broken in the amphitheatre. “You’d be surprised how hard that is to throw away. I’ve been trying to do it all day.”
“Might be useful. Looks like it’s worth a lot.”
“It’s worth nothing, Gabrielle. Trust me.”
Gabrielle dropped it back in the bag with a shrug and picked up the strigil. Once Xena had propped her arms on a bench and positioned herself under the torch, she began the delicate task of pulling out the shards. Though used by the Romans to scrape oils and dirt from their skin during bathing, she’d noted that the strigil had a fine enough point for other uses. She also observed that although Xena might have changed sufficiently to say ‘ow’ earlier, throughout the painful process of removing the splinters, her breathing stayed steady and even.
She worked carefully, methodically and silently. Occasionally there was an almost unheard grunt from Xena when a shard required some digging to free it, but that was the only sound for a while. Finally Gabrielle was satisfied there were no more fragments and stood to stretch. “As much as I liked the rhyme, it’s not glass. It’s thin slices of marble from the wall decorations. I need to sluice everything down once more to check, but I think that’s it. If you think it’s worth while, I can stitch it up as well.”
“Well, you don’t really think we’re going to have these bodies long enough to heal, do you?” Gabrielle tried to sound matter of fact, but some bitterness tinged her response. She moved a little, the better to see by the weak light of the torch.
To her irritation, Xena said lightly, “Probably not. But if you don’t have anything else planned…” Gabrielle found herself fighting a somehow familiar urge to stick out her tongue at her.
Gabrielle pulled out thread and a needle from her seemingly inexhaustible pack and worked for a time in silence. In her final years she had grown to enjoy quiet, but the stillness of the tunnel was becoming oppressive. Without thinking, she broke it, asking, “You missing that talkative little girl around now?” She cringed as the words slipped from her mouth, but waited for Xena’s answer. The waiting only increased her irritation for some reason.
“Nope,” she said finally. “I was thinking I’d promised to tell you what this place was.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes on her work. “Go ahead, I’ve got a few minutes.”
“I get to tell you a story?” Gabrielle didn’t respond to the forced enthusiasm. She was careful as she stitched in the flickering light, but occasionally pulled the thread taut with swift, grim strokes.
There was another pause while Xena shifted her upper weight on her hands. Then she began. “Once upon a time there was a crazy little Emperor named Nero. All this area above us was his personal possession. He had a lake about where the amphitheatre is now, and where your Temple of Venus and Rome…”
“It’s not my Temple…” Gabrielle interrupted, her words were garbled through teeth that were holding one end of a thread.
“Before it was all built, there was this huge statue everyone called the Colossus. So the area around it was called…”
“The Coliseum,” Gabrielle inserted.
“Got it. Anyway, he built this mansion on the opposite rise, covered it with gold and filled it with the greatest art in the world. They called it the Golden House. But by tradition, he still had to have a place on the Palatine. After all…”
“It’s where the Emperors live. That’s where the word comes from. Palatial, palace, from having a place on the Palatine.”
“…but he wasn’t the most popular guy at times, so in order to go safely from one house to another…”
“He built a tunnel. So this goes to the top of the Palatine Hill?”
“It used to. I’m betting that after a century or so it’s probably caved in or blocked at either end. But I figure that there’ll be more of these ventilation ducts along the way. With luck, there’ll be a vent right before they walled it up and we’ll get out there.”
“But wouldn’t A… you-know-who know about it?”
“He’s got so many people working for him now, he’s stopped thinking for himself. And it’s not like he can track people like a dog. If we don’t call on him and none of his stooges see us, we’ll be safe enough.” There was a hardening of Xena’s voice, “Unless, that’s not part of the plan.”
Gabrielle cut the final thread and stood up. “You’re done. According to my reading, the Romans now consider dried bull’s dung the latest therapy, but considering the injured area, that might be redundant.”
“There must be enough cobwebs in here to cover even an ass this big.”
Ignoring the abuse, or any pain she might have been feeling, Xena turned and stood, facing her former partner. “And all that hard work was not just in case there’s more than today for us?”
Gabrielle shrugged, though Xena’s rising to stand over her had increased the claustrophobia created by the tunnel and consequently her tension. “Just want to do the job right.”
Xena tilted her head to so that she could see Gabrielle’s eyes in the torchlight. Before they darted away from her gaze, they seemed uncertain. “What's really going on? There's something you haven’t you told me. What is the job you’re really here for?” she asked softly.
Gabrielle moved away. In her mind, she could hear her conversation with Aphrodite in the Temple; “And with tests, there’s rules, right?”
“Yup. And rule one is, you can’t tell Xena.”
Still not daring to let Xena see her eyes, she muttered evasively, “Plan? Pawns don’t have plans.”
Wincing in pain, Xena squatted down in front of her. “Okay. I’ve had it.”
The stubborn look that crossed Gabrielle’s face was one she was all too familiar with. “What?”
“Look, I get that you’re angry, I get that… that you’re this old dried up woman, that you’ve been through hundreds of years of a life FILLED with changes that I know nothing about. But there is NO WAY that any part of the Gabrielle that I knew would accept being a pawn. Not if there’s any other choice.”
Gabrielle’s guilt at keeping a secret, fuelled her already broiling anger. She began making jabbing motions with her index finger. “DON’T you try to tell me WHO I am! Don’t you DARE tell me you’ve changed and then do that.”
Xena didn’t back away but the torch in her hand wavered slightly. “I knew that would get to you!”
“You know nothing! LOOK at me! Nine hundred years later and I’m backing right into that box we made for me. I’ve just finished stitching your ass up like the little sidekick I always was.”
“You just rescued that ass!” Xena exclaimed. Their voices reverberated along the empty tunnel walls.
“Yes, but…” There was another angry retort on her lips, but she’d seen the look of anguish on Xena’s face, a pained ‘why are we doing this?’ expression and was unable to continue. She turned away, and in a completely different voice, said, “I’m not being fair. I know. I’m trying to keep a lid on all these things inside and I’m failing. I’m not proud of that. I’m angry. Ashamed.”
“Ashamed? I get the angry, but ashamed?”
“For a lot of stuff.” Gabrielle looked away. “But mainly, because I gave up. I gave up on you. I never searched for you… after I died. I blamed you for leaving me and then I did exactly what…”
“That’s alright,” Xena interupted quietly. “It was better that way.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “You still don’t understand. When I died, somehow I lost everything that was... I lost us. And now that it’s all come back, I’m caught right back at the beginning. Caught between the guilt that You Know Who was right. And that maybe I can only get through this by sticking to my resolve. By shutting down what I’m feeling. Even admit that I prefer not remembering what we really meant to each other.” Her green eyes were overladen with tears and she fiercely wiped them away with one dusty hand. “I hate feeling this way. I hate feeling, full stop. Especially the guilt. Guilt, because a core part of me still believes love should have been enough. It should have been enough to find you. Even after death.”
Xena took a moment before she answered. “You should be angry, but ashamed? This is my fault, not yours,” she said carefully. “We needed to meet again when we could… I needed time to learn, truly understand, what we had. What I gave away. And I also needed to know that you were safe, away from…”
Whatever Xena was about to say was cut short by the appearance of a glowing apparition, which blinded them in the dimness of the underground corridor. Almost as bright was the smile and exclamation, “Hello young lovers!”
Xena dropped her head in frustration, nearly losing her torch. “Oh, bloody Hades!”
Gabrielle was equally taken aback. “Aphrodite, what are you doing here? What happened to not popping in? And more importantly,” Gabrielle looked about worriedly, “how did you find us here?”
The Goddess shrugged. “Ummmm… First question first, nice to see you too, Sweets. Second, like, as it’s you two, it’s worth the bit of pain. And as for the third, well, you guys told me where you were.”
“We told you?” Xena looked over at Gabrielle. “Unless my brains really are in my ass, I think I’d remember that. You, Gabrielle?”
The Goddess happily explained. “Well, actually, it was both of you. Just not yet.”
Realisation struck both with a thud. “Oh, crap,” said Xena.
“You’ve got the Loom of the Fates,” Gabrielle completed.
Aphrodite nodded gleefully. “Uh huh. Did I say thank you? That’s part of the job done, and I could kiss you both if you weren’t in this grotty, yucky place.”
They needed to get back to the main point. “We told you where we were?” Gabrielle asked
“Well not now, in the future, where I was, you know?”
“No, we don’t,” groaned Xena.
“You have such a closed mind,” the Goddess criticized. “Because it is so cool! I just pick a spot on a thread and wave and here I am!”
Gabrielle strode over with her own finger wagging. “You told me you were going to tell the Fates to hide it some place no one could find it.”
Exasperated, the Goddess said, “I was going to. But then you asked me to come back here! And can I say again, YUCK.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “And then you’re immediately going to let the Fates drop it in a pit somewhere, right?”
“Well, sure, but let’s think about it for a teensy minute. The Fates are still in chains. I could go back, and use the thing to set everything right! I could get you and Dark and Deadly out of this hole for starters.”
Aphrodite placed both hands on her hips and confronted the girl; the tone of the single word, spoken as if to a wayward child, clearly rubbing her the wrong way. “Listen, I don’t have to ask. I AM a Goddess, remember?”
Gabrielle didn’t flinch. “And I, am the only real friend you’ve ever had, and you made a promise to me.”
“But…” the Goddess squirmed.
“I want your word.”
There was a Goddess-sized sigh, but then a slight lift to the head. “You sure? Because they have a sort of scrying pool down there…”
“And?” asked an interested Xena.
Gabrielle shot her partner a ‘don’t encourage her’ glare.
The Goddess continued anyway, “I sort of peeked at what was going to happen to you guys...”
“It doesn’t matter what you saw. You-Know-Who spent centuries playing around with the Loom to get what he wanted. We don’t have that kind of time and we can’t risk changing anything,” Gabrielle insisted.
“That’s what you think,” retorted Aphrodite.
Xena took Gabrielle aside. “Wait a minute…”
Gabrielle glowered. “Look, the world can’t afford her getting in the habit of making visits there. You know better than I do that power corrupts.” She gestured at the now pouting Goddess. “Even with warm fuzzies attached to it.”
Xena shook her head. “That’s not my point. She already has information and we need all that we can get.” She asked Aphrodite. “Did we happen to say why we wanted you to come here?”
“Ummm, not really. You were all kind of abrupt. Like rushed.”
Gabrielle considered this. “Well, probably because at that time, we’d already had this visit, so when we asked you, we knew what happened already.”
Xena pressed her palms to the sides of her head. “Now I’ve got that headache again.” Visibly making an effort to calm herself, she tried again. “You didn’t tell us things were going to be bad?”
Aphrodite shook her head. “No, you already knew.”
“We knew because she told us now,” Gabrielle theorised. “Hey, I’m getting the hang of this!”
Xena let out a slight moan. Now on the trail, Gabrielle ignored her. “Okay. Since we’re supposed to find out, you might as well tell us.”
Aphrodite gave a false smile. “There are a couple of possible fruits of the Loom, one of them is that you just head for the river and escape…”
Gabrielle nodded. “And…?”
“You live happily together. Sort of. For a while. We might have the Loom back, but my brother still wins the main prize. The losers at the Pontifical College argued against His ascension until their tongues fell out. But with the Emperor away at the wars, they couldn’t convince his head guy to even delay the announcement of… His… promotion to big kahuna until the Emperor got back. Anyway, once he’s made head God, there’s no changing it. He finds you several moons from now, and He, well, it’s not pretty. But,” she added with a false smile, “You do get to live until then in peace.”
“And if we don’t run away?”
The rest came from the Goddess in a rush. “You-Know-Who becomes head God for all the reasons I already gave and he catches up with you tomorrow. He plays a few nasty-type games. He re-creates your worst nightmares of death. And separates you. In one possible timeline, he offers you a deal and you both refuse him. But in another, He offers to give Gabrielle a new life. With a husband, children, he shows Gabrielle telling stories by a fireplace, and Xena, you’re dying, and you … agree.”
Gabrielle, spun to look at the warrior. “No, she won’t,” she said with certainty.
“O-kay. But refusing doesn’t make things any better. When even at Thanatos’ arrival, you both refuse to bow to him, he uses his power and reaches… he’s really angry, you see, about losing the Loom and… stuff…” she trailed off.
“Go on,” Gabrielle warily encouraged.
Wincing, the Goddess did. “He reaches out… and captures your souls. I saw myself, trying to stop him, but he’s drawing from thousands of new worshippers at hundreds of brand new temples. Then he crushes you in a way that you die, apart… in agony.”
“So we die,” Xena said dispassionately. Gabrielle stared at her, disturbed by the flatness in her tone.
Aphrodite shifted uncomfortably. “He crushes them reeeeal slow.”
There was little change in Xena’s tone. “So we die slowly.” Again Gabrielle shivered at the quiet statement.
“Slow, like, you know, an eternity,” Aphrodite completed.
At this, both mortals looked at each other with widened eyes, before Xena spoke again. “Okay, we don’t like that. When does this happen?”
Aphrodite thought. “Your bet with Bro was to hide until noon, and that’s also when the new temples are dedicated. You die soon after that.”
Xena looked at Gabrielle and shrugged. “Noon. In Rome. Did you have any other plans for noon?”
She seemed to be holding in some emotion and said sullenly, “Give the Gods what they want, right?”
“The Gods? Right. Since when have we ever done that? We’ve spent our lives paying for their screwups.”
Gabrielle was about to reply when a thought struck her.
Aphrodite interrupted. “What is with you two? You have a choice. I have the Loom! Aren’t you listening? I can make things better!”
The changing expression on Gabrielle’s face was very familiar to Xena, even if it was on an unfamiliar face. Xena knew that a missing piece had filled some puzzle.
“Like you did when I died?” Gabrielle enquired softly.
Flustered, Aphrodite took a step back. “What do you mean?”
Gabrielle moved forward to follow the retreating Goddess. “It just struck me. What Xena just said. You even reminded me yesterday, that I was never alone because you always were around. When I died.”
Aphrodite looked suddenly nervous. “You were special to me. Of course I’d be there.”
“You weren’t just there. You did something, didn’t you?” Her voice rose, became strident, causing dust to drift down the narrow walls. “What did you do?” she demanded. “What did you do to me when I died?”
The Goddess shook her head firmly. “You got it all wrong. I did nothing. Really.”
“Really. Then why did I forget how I felt about Xena, until now?”
“Mortals leave some emotions behind when they die. It’s a part of becoming on another plane,” she explained glibly.
Gabrielle shook her head. “But when Xena and I died together on those crosses, we still knew each other afterwards. You had to have done something, didn’t you? A part of me didn’t go… with my spirit. That’s why it wasn’t the same.” She raised a finger and waved it from one to the other. “What haven’t you two told me? Why I didn’t keep all my memories of Xena into the afterlife?”
There was a glance to Xena, before Aphrodite began. “What happened to you on the crosses, it was special. Your love was pure, it was so true. You died for each other,” the Goddess said wistfully. “When you died the last time, so alone, it was all corrupted, it was part of your pain. It couldn’t follow you. I thought about…”
“What?” Gabrielle demanded.
“Not letting you lose those feelings. But, I knew it would be better for you. Both of you. Do you think that I, of all people would want any love to die, especially love like yours?” she asked, plaintively. “But I knew you’d never stop, even at death, searching for her. You’d keep searching, and only get caught by my brother just like…” Aphrodite stopped, realising what she’d said.
There was no victory in Gabrielle’s voice as it echoed in the dark chamber. Just another flat statement. “Caught. Like you knew Xena was.” She took a deep breath. “You knew that he had her when I died.”
Aphrodite held out her hands beseechingly. “Honey…”
Gabrielle ignored the entreaty. “You knew that He had taken Xena’s soul. You knew and you didn’t say anything to me.” Gabrielle paused, to take a strained breath. “I was dying, I DIED, crying her name and you didn’t say anything.” She shook her head in slow anger.
“I thought, I thought it was what was best, for you.”
Xena spoke for the first time. “And I thank you for it.”
Gabrielle turned on her. “What? How can you say that?”
“Gabrielle. She saved you. She saved me. If you had been taken like I was, I wouldn’t have had any hope.”
Gabrielle laughed bitterly. “Like the hope you have now? You’ve accepted that we die tomorrow as if it was some sort of accomplishment!”
“But I could change that, if you’d let me help,” Aphrodite inserted hopefully.
No words could have been better designed to anger the girl. “Yes, more of your help! Thank you so very much!” she spat out sarcastically. “At least when I was an old woman, no one saw me as poor little Gabrielle. And now I get ALL the advantages of youth. I need someone to save me. Make my choices for me, poor child that I am.”
Aphrodite dropped her eyes at the burning glare, but Xena did not; but rather, held it, throughout the rant.
“Have you ever noticed that you’re both SO very, very happy when I’m innocent and ignorant? And you can say things have changed? NOTHING. Nothing has changed!”
Gabrielle stomped off down the corridor beyond the reach of the flickering torch. Aphrodite looked to Xena, about to say something indignant, but the warrior grimly shook her head. There was a shuffle/stumble in the darkness and then a loud curse before Gabrielle returned to them, her stony face bathed in cobwebs.
“I need to get out of here. Somewhere where I’m not a pawn.” Away from you, was unspoken but clear.
Xena’s face reddened in frustration as she shouted, “You’re the one who keeps saying you’re a pawn. I’m the one…”
“You’re the one who’s in love with dying,” she accused Xena. “I don’t even know if it has to be for the greater good anymore. What’s the point of fighting when you won’t try, or even imagine…Why can’t you for this… one… time, fight for us? To live?”
A frustrated Aphrodite interrupted. “Then use the Loom! Change the world and see what shakes out!”
Gabrielle never took her eyes away from the warrior’s, but she shook her head grimly. “No, whatever we change, could hurt millions.”
Xena reached towards her, but Gabrielle quickly drew back. “Then we have to accept that we die tomorrow but that we die fighting. Together. And that’s a victory. Please Gabrielle, let me keep my promise this time.”
“You’re still not listening to me. You can make the most impossible plans and schemes, except when it comes to us having a future together!”
Xena shouted back, “Because I never deserved a future with you!”
Xena’s words echoed for a moment, until there was only silence, except for the laboured breathing of both partners. Gabrielle stared into the pain in Xena’s eyes, at the honest regret in them as well, and softly said, “But what if I believe… that I deserve, that I want, a future with you?”
Xena froze, and Gabrielle saw that her next words would be a denial. “You see?” she spat. “Still a child to you. Nothing’s changed,” she ground out.
Gabrielle began to pace about, her brow scrunched low in thought. She looked up again at the Goddess and said, “I still need to get out of here. For a moment.”
Aphrodite still stunned by the emotions she’d witnessed, bobbed her head in enthusiastic agreement. “Name a place and whoosh, you’re there.”
“You said the Fates are still chained up?” Gabrielle asked.
Aphrodite started to nod her head before hesitating. “Somebody should release the girls, sure, but… Do you really think you’re exactly the right…?”
“Send me there. But after the time you’ve sent yourself here.”
The Goddess looked over to Xena who nodded. She turned back to Gabrielle, somewhat miffed. “Isn’t that a bit of a double standard? You won’t trust me to go, and I’m not the one who torched the place the last time!”
Gabrielle’s expression gave away nothing. “You said anywhere.”
“Do it,” said Xena
Aphrodite stared at both of their firm, set faces. “I guess the girls could send you back when you’re… done. You won’t be long? After doing whatever…” Getting no response, she raised and shook her arms in exasperation. “Fine! I mean, who am I to argue? Just because the entire Pantheon of the Gods but one, have gotten together and promised to let mankind make their own fates, hey mortal, here’s the keys to the wishing well.” Nevertheless, she flung her hands out and Gabrielle vanished.
Xena smirked. “Here’s the keys to the wishing well?”
“She knows what I meant,” the Goddess griped uncharacteristically. She lowered herself heavily onto a stone bench and continued, “and, oh yeah. The Fates are going to love to get visit from her again. Especially with that expression on her face. Lucky for her they’re in chains.”
She looked up to Xena, for once not attempting to hide her worry. “She really wouldn’t…?”
Xena replied to the unspoken fears. “We trust her.”
“Because we love her, right?”
. “That, and because she’s pissed off that people have been changing her life drastically without permission.” With Aphrodite following her, Xena began advancing down the tunnel, the torchlight glinting off the marble collages on the walls. “Do you see her doing that to a whole world?”
“She did once.”
“Different situation.” There seemed to be a cave-in ahead, blocking the entire tunnel, so Xena slowed her pace, placing the torch in the nearest sconce in order to examine it.
Aphrodite continued the conversation, blithely unaware of any obstruction. “But mortals who were beat up as kids, sometimes become the worse batterers.”
“Not Gabrielle.” The ceiling collapse was quite extensive. Who knew how far it extended? Xena was thinking.
“So how many times did your Dad take his hand to you? At least he didn’t drag you behind a horse,” Aphrodite shot back.
That jab broke through. It also hurt. Xena angrily turned about with a stone slab in her hands and gave the Goddess the full power of her pale eyes. “I don’t owe you any explanations.”
The Goddess did not back away. “Don’t you try to intimidate me, Xena. Because, yes, you do owe it to me. I brought that girl back, and whatever happens tomorrow, it’s important that she knows… I need to know that you are not going to hurt her again.”
Xena snorted and turned away from the Goddess and back to the task. “Didn’t you hear her? She doesn’t want people looking after her.”
Aphrodite crowded her. “Not now. Not after all she’s been through. The sweetest, gentlest of all mortals! And how much of her change was because of love for you? Love I encouraged.”
Xena continued to clear away the larger debris, checking to see that nothing she removed was supporting the roof. “Then it’s a little late for this talk, isn’t it?” she finally growled.
“Just promise that you’ll tell her that you won’t leave her again.” Then with a note in her voice Xena had never heard before, the Goddess asked, “Please?”
The ‘please’ lingered in the air. Xena finally stopped her work, but kept her back to the Goddess. When she spoke, her voice was muted. “Aphrodite. I wish to Hades I had a guarantee for her. I wish I saw a way that we had the time to…But we don’t. This is just a chance to make better, not to live again. And I’ve had lots of time, without her, time to think about what I would do if given the chance. That’s what I want this time for. To make up for being a fool. Of course, I loved her, but I always came first. MY missions, MY destiny. And finally, MY redemption.” She barked a laugh. “And there was a joke, my great search for redemption. And look how I fell for that scam. Proof you can’t con an honest woman.”
Xena began lifting sections of tiles and tossing them recklessly behind her. She continued her confession as she dug deeper into the pile. As if digging deeper into her own rot. “I screwed her over, I definitely screwed me, and there’s only one thing I know that might make any of it better. So we’ll do your job. We’ll fight our fate and yeah, still end up dead. But if nothing else, I’m gonna show her that I have learned something.”
Xena stopped, brushing the caked-on dust from around her eyes. In the silence there was only her slight strangled breathing until Aphrodite asked, “What was it? That you learned?”
Xena was still facing away from the Goddess, but her voice was clear. “That she means everything to me. It took a lot before I learned that. About a dozen ass-kickings and more by your brother. And it changed me. Even *I* had to learn, whether I wanted to or not. You can’t keep thinking you’re what’s important, when you keep losing. That’s all I’ve done for a dozen and more lifetimes. Had my ass-kicked.”
She finally turned to face Aphrodite. “You can’t believe that you don’t need anyone’s help, when you keep screwing up alone. No ego could take that. Not even mine.” She laughed. “The only chance I had against … against Him, was with her. So is that hope? Because it’s the worst thing of all too. I wanted her safe, but the irony is that my only chance to get out of this trap was by putting her at risk again. I don’t know if she still believes in us, but I believe in her. That’s what I learned and that’s what I’m going to show her.”
To her chagrin, it seemed that the Goddess was no longer listening to the longest speech Xena had ever made to her.
Aphrodite swallowed and caressed her stomach. “Maybe it’s just a bad batch of wine, but I’m getting that feeling…”
“What?” Xena’s expression hardened as she caught on. “No.”
Now certain, the Goddess nodded. “Oh yes. Your reality just shifted a little. And that means somebody’s playing with the Loom. Any guesses who? What has she done?” She raised her arms and vanished in a sparkle. With no other action possible, Xena stoically returned to clearing the rubble, only the occasional clenching of her jaw indicating any of her frustration.
The waning sun struck the slopes of Mount Parnassus, revealing a line of men and women waiting for what their patience indicated was a most popular shrine.
Centuries before, a goatherd had found a mysterious cleft in the rock which released a vapour that caused the sheep to stagger about. Upon further enthusiastic study, it was discovered to have the same effect on men, though they also had an unfortunate tendency (or fortunate, if you were one of the amused Gods,) to fight one another or jump off cliffs.
Centuries of further investigation had led to the present arrangement. Specially gifted women, after defined rituals, of course, would be allowed to partake of the fumes. At which point they would, under the influence, babble incomprehensibly in response to written questions. Male priests, in exchange for large sums of money, would interpret this babble as an answer to the specific question, though it was always couched in the most cryptic of terms.
This rather shady enterprise had nonetheless become so successful that an entire theme park of magnificent proportions had grown about the site, including several theatres, an art gallery of treasures sent from across the various empires, picnic areas and other amusements for the family.
The associated venues of entertainment were already closed for the day but the remaining queue was there for the main attraction. Many had waited since morning but they were lethargic after standing for so many hours under a scorching sun. So it was not entirely peculiar that no one noticed when a hooded figure replaced the devotee who had been first in line. The figure advanced towards the shrine, striding through and ignoring the scents and smoke that could overwhelm even the hardiest of men. As the figure made his way through the miasma, a priest suddenly appeared in the gloom, standing self-assuredly in his way. The cloaked figure paused and let him speak.
“Might I assume, Pilgrim, that you know the requirements to meet with the sybil?”
“Yeah, yeah. A burnt sacrifice and gold.”
“Yes, and your question must be written before it can be passed on. Would you like me to scribe it for you? It’s only a small additional fee.”
“Nah, I‘ll skip that. But you could be a big help with the sacrifice.”
A bluish ball of flame erupted from the figure’s hands and quickly engulfed the priest. His shocked and pained screams echoed for a moment in the chamber. The hooded figure smiled benignly as the dusty remains swirled about before they settled on the stone floor. There was the sound of approaching footsteps and a young girl entered the chamber. A fine silk covered her face and head but a tendril of hair was exposed, wet from the ritual bathing. She stared at the figure, silently waiting for a question to be posed. He ignored her and shouted towards the ceiling, “Come on, Apollo, get your ass down here. I don’t have time to waste with your mouthpiece.”
There was no response and the girl cupped her hands over her face as though praying, a focus away from the shouting.
“I don’t need a bunch of half-gassed ramblings. SOME-body brought a certain irritating blonde back from the dead and while I was busy dealing with THAT, they stole a certain Loom!” There was still no answer but the figure continued to rant. “You have to know there are gonna be paybacks. And you gotta know you’re too late. I don’t need the Loom anymore. All you did, was get me ANGRY! You and those whores are going to pay BIG TIME for this. And you know I CAN make you pay!”
With the outburst over, he rolled his head back and around his shoulders for a moment to calm himself. In a quieter voice, he continued.
“I just wanna make sure there are no more little surprises. That you know your place in the new order or else you won’t have any place. Not one on Parnassus, or anywhere else. You got that? If you think that your little pawns were anything other than a distraction, that you could use them to beat me, you must have been breathing in the smoke here a little too long. Unless you think that you can stop the destiny I created. With or without the Loom, tell me I don’t already CONTROL destiny.”
The figure was somewhat startled, when instead of the usual incomprehensible gibberish, the Oracle spoke clearly in answer to his question.
“You cannot control the thread of destiny.”
He turned to the sybil with disdain. “Really? I don’t need the threads anymore. I played that Loom like a lyre and made them into a cloth so perfect, even I’m amazed at its perfection.”
The Oracle countered, “The thread of destiny is not on the Loom. It is within each mortal. It is their soul. You can only destroy it, not change it.”
The figure chortled. “Shows how little you know. You don’t know power. The kind of power I’ll have when your boss drags the sun highest in the sky next time. I’ll shape everything as I want. And those pawns of theirs are going to suffer ten times for screwing with me. They’re going to know pain in a big way and they are going to bleed.” There was a flash and the figure was gone.
Even after the blaze of light vanished with the God, his anger still seemed to manifest itself in the temple.
A much gentler sparkle of light occurred in the corner and the sybil turned to it, dropping to her knees. The Oracle bowed low, cupping her face in her obeisance to her Lord.
Apollo spoke cheerfully to His servant. “So what did He miss just now, eh, Pythia? I know it may be against company policy, but explain it to me. What’s the Thread of Destiny?
The seer recited in a sing-song voice, “There are three threads in each and all of mortals. Two of which every farmer and breeder uses with familiarity. They are of this world and determine the physical, the seen. The colour of eyes, the height of each individual and they are wrapped about each other, hidden in more numbers than you can count in every man. But the third strand will not be seen by even the greatest of healers or after the longest passage of time.”
“Cool. So what’s it do?”
“Someday, the healers will adapt the first two. Adapt and transform as You,” and she bowed again, “already may. They will never see or know of the third, and will try to make explanations for it. They might see twins that will be exact in every way because of the first two strands, but try to explain why they also share non-physical traits. Such reoccurrences they will call coincidence. They will never be able to concede that the twins also share this third strand, this thread of destiny, wrapped just as closely around the other two strands but existing not in their world of reason.”
“Okay, I got that. But what’s that mean for Xe and Gab? The big man who just left, he’s made a mistake? Do they have a chance?”
“The Bard and Warrior will die.”
The gods were not ones to show mercy or sympathy, but something close to that brushed the figure’s face. But the Oracle was not yet done.
“If each makes the true choice for their redemption, with the help of the Gods, their thread may continue.”
“May, huh? Clearer than usual, though, thanks. Well, you know where I’ll be at noon. See ya, sweetheart.”
The sybil bowed to the empty space, carefully arranged her ceremonial robe, and moved to her ornate seat over the cleft in the rock. She reached over to the golden platter beside her throne and plucked a few fresh laurel leaves to chew on, and then breathed in the fumes that escaped from the unknown depths of the earth. Under its influence, she shuddered slightly before primly re-seating herself. She closed her eyes in concentration and waited for a question to be posed. There was a pause before she realised that there was no longer a priest to assist her. She sighed, chewed thoughtfully for a moment on the laurel leaves before calling out loudly in the direction of the crowds waiting outside the doorway, “NEXT!"
After a long time, Aphrodite reappeared, fear shining in her beautiful face. “The Loom, the girls, Gabrielle, they’ve gone!”
Xena looked up from the rubble and made an attempt at a calming gesture. “She was supposed to let them go. Maybe that’s all you’re feeling?” she said uncertainly.
“Uh uh. Somebody changed reality. I know what that feels like. Trust me.”
There was another flash in the darkened tunnel that blinded Xena again for a second, and as her eyes cleared she found Gabrielle standing in front of them. The Vestal’s eyes were red and it was clear she’d been crying.
“What’s happened? Are you okay?”
“Never mind that. What did you do?” Aphrodite demanded.
Gabrielle replied with an almost cruel smile, “To quote the Goddess, nothing, really.”
“I know what my g… what my insides tell me. Something’s changed.”
For some reason, Gabrielle seemed to be avoiding looking Xena in the eye, and rather than answer the Goddess’ questions she spoke in a weary monotone, “It’s funny, because I could have done anything. Even after I took off their chains, the Fates offered to let me…”
She cleared her throat, still in some kind of shock. “I was tempted, but the chance that there would be repercussions, you know… I didn’t corrupt the past, or the future. I just gave us some… hope, I think. I needed, I needed some little thing, so that we could… hope. Have something. So I got it for us. Not much. They said we still… we’ll still have to die, but maybe…”
Aphrodite stomped her foot. “What did you do?”
Gabrielle’s eyes cleared and her voice became stronger. “Why don’t you go up and look?” she said, clearly indicating that the Goddess should leave.
Aphrodite looked perplexed for a moment. “But… yeah, Okay. But when I find out what you did…I’ll…I’ll be back.”
With that uncertain threat lingering, she vanished.
Xena stood, and tentatively opened her arms to take Gabrielle into them. Gabrielle shook her head, but gently pushed Xena back onto the marble bench before sitting beside her. She stared straight ahead, but did not move her hand when Xena covered it with hers.
“I just remembered another thing about what it was like when we were together.”
Xena waited, a part of her shrinking in fear of what was coming next.
“We never got the chance to absorb each new shock. We never…” and Gabrielle began to cry.
This time Xena did not hesitate and drew Gabrielle into her strong arms. There was no resistance and the bard’s head fit right into the crook of her shoulder as it always had. She could feel the tears soaking through the dirty toga, and waited for the storm inside her partner to subside. “That’s part of why you needed to leave? You wanted some time, and something else happened, right?”
Gabrielle disengaged after a moment, and drew her hands across her face to wipe the tears away. “Yeah. My own fault, though. I think I knew, somewhere inside, what had happened to you all those years. But I needed to see it.” There was a shamefaced smile. “It wasn’t what I expected. I kept thinking, I guess, I wanted to think, even after Aphrodite told me you’d had a rough time…”
“I tried to tell myself, ‘oh, she’s probably been offered the world over and over, tempted, maybe some mind games, the usual stuff, you know’. But then they let me see…”
Xena searched within for some reply, but there was nothing she could do but let Gabrielle continue.
“At first,” and there was a choked laugh at this point, “I thought I was just seeing the same death. Just repeated, again and again.”
“Gabrielle. It didn’t matter,” Xena said, gently.
Gabrielle shoved the tenderly caressing hand away violently, and turned to stare directly into her partner’s eyes. “Don’t you dare soften this for me! No one alive knows as well as I do, what that’s like.” She stopped to push the pain from her mind, before starting again.
“I had a long and… exciting… life. So it’s not surprising, you know, sometimes I forget a name or a face or exactly what I was feeling at some critical moment.” She lifted her face to look at Xena, and the warrior was relieved to see that the anger that had tightened the muscles around the bard’s eyes was gone.
“Of course, I remember the best stuff and the really bad… like when we hurt each other, when you left, that’s clear too. The victories and defeats though, they can get a little blurry sometimes.” The bard took a slow, even breath before continuing.
“But I just have to close my eyes, just for a moment. And I can be right there. On that cross, again. Feeling that eternity of agony.” This time she reached over and took Xena’s hand in hers. “And… I’d had you with me. But you, you were alone.”
Near tears herself, Xena choked out, “Gabrielle, You were there. Always.”
Again there was that broken laugh. “I know. When the Fates showed me, I saw your lips move. Each time you… when you were… your lips,” Gabrielle closed her eyes and tears ran from them. “They said my name.”
She took a deep breath. “But that only makes it worse. I don’t want to hear that you did it for… for that girl, the girl that isn’t.”
Now Xena was confused. “What do you mean?”
“What you said before. You meant it for her. That young Gabrielle, the ideal you carried around. This debt you think you owed.” The choking voice became impassioned. “I will not be another guilt you carried. Another of the mistakes you think you need to redeem.”
Fighting the desire to hold the woman in her arms, but wanting some intimacy, Xena took Gabrielle’s hands and cupped them under her own chin and tried again to think of the right words.
“There was never any girl, don’t you see? I’ve loved you. Always you. And I swear I know you’ve changed and still, I love this woman, the woman that you are. How can I put it?” She stared up into the tunnel ceiling and thought. “You know, soon the moon will be rising. Right?”
Gabrielle swallowed, and her nod was barely visible in the flickering light.
“You know it and I know it. The moon will rise. Even though we can’t see it from here. We can’t see it, but we know the moon is up there. Somewhere.” She stopped and focussed again. “Some nights there are clouds, but we still know there’s a moon in the sky.” She turned her pale eyes onto Gabrielle’s.
“I never thought you were some perfect… ideal, you said? But even on our worst days I still counted on, knew that part, that soul, the things that are the best in you, were there. I’ve always known that part of you. When you were just a kid, or when you were troubled and hurting, I knew it was there, behind the clouds. I know it’s there now. That’s you, Gabrielle. Unique, and so very special. And me,” the warrior chuckled mirthlessly, “Sometimes I did things, often, I did things, that I know weren’t who I wanted to be. Who I could be. But you saw something in me that no one else did. Including me. It saved me. You saved me. And I needed that, more than I ever knew, I needed that.”
Xena’s eyes were as filled with tears as Gabrielle’s now. “So, of course I thought of you. Of course I thought of you when I was given the choice of being a toy for that bastard or dying on those dammed crosses. But it isn’t your fault or responsibility, it was my choice and my salvation.” She wiped the tears roughly away and asked; “Now maybe you need that. Now it’s my turn, finally, to show you that moon. That part of who I know you are. Will you, can you… let me?”
Gabrielle tore her eyes away from the warrior, and the extrication was painful. But she needed to concentrate. For every day from Japa until her death she’d thought about this moment. And now, it seemed to have arrived without any conscious effort on her part. Can I do this? Can I finally ask her… But when else? What other time are we likely to have?
She cleared her throat, refusing to look into Xena’s eyes. “It’s not…quite that simple. There are some things, at least, one thing…We have to…well, talk.”
She knew there was worry, and possibly even a little fear in the warrior’s eyes, but typically when it was personal, instead of voicing it, she made a joke instead. “If we have to talk, then you’re gonna have to do better than that.”
Gabrielle allowed a very short chuckle to escape. “Well, it’s like you said. I must have had this conversation in my head a thousand times.”
The warrior’s eyes widened comically. “Oh Gods, not you too.”
This time the laughter was not forced. “Where’s that new improved Xena?”
“Not all that improved, because right now she’d rather be taking on a dozen harpies with a toothpick.”
“Nope. I said anything, and I want to keep my word, right?”
Gabrielle stood and paced a short distance away from the torch, moving into the shadows, trying to put the words in order. “Okay, because I need to say this, and also because I think it’s going to be important. Tomorrow.”
Any lightness that had been brought to the moment disappeared as her figure went into the shadows, and her voice grew harder. “I know we’ve talked, about the things we did… to hurt each other. Who was at fault and what drove us, how much we were manipulated, by Him, Dahok, the Furies and every other force under and over the skies. We’ve apologised, the Gods know, until we were hoarse. But… we never talked about why you came riding into Amazona, looped that rope around me and…”
The shadow that was her partner’s body stilled. ‘I thought, hoped, we’d handled that.”
Though she knew she wasn’t visible, Gabrielle shook her head. “That’s the one thing you never apologised for. The one thing I’ve never understood.”
Gabrielle cursed the weakness that was rising inside of her and the tears threatening to emerge as well. “I knew you had cause, I knew you could be… but not like that. Not to me. You were my safe haven and….”
“Gabrielle. I’ve tried, I’ve relived that day in nightmares too many times, I don’t know!”
“Now or never, Xena. Whatever happens tomorrow, you have to answer this question now. Why?”
Xena could hear the note of desperation that had crept into her partner’s question. There was clearly more to this than finally finding an explanation. So as painful as it was, the warrior was going to have to dig in places she had long left buried. She closed her eyes and pictured herself, on that horse, the stolen one, because Argo had refused to let her ride. Steeled herself not to cringe at the memories that flashed behind her eyes. “I remember… the hatred.”
Gabrielle winced, but pushed on. “Okay, think. I need you to think about the hatred. Who did you hate?”
“What do you mean?” Xena opened stinging eyes to look at her. “You, I was hurting you, it had to be you.”
“But you’re not sure. There was something else…What did you think would happen after I was dead?”
“You could have easily just slipped into that sweat hut and slit my throat. Or kidnapped me and tortured me for as long as the hatred drove you. But you rode in, right through the Amazons, in bright sunlight, dragged me down every path and trail. Then stood on that cliff in plain view of all the world, ready to heave me over like I was a sacrifice to the gods. What did you feel like, about to hurl me over the cliff?”
The warrior closed her eyes again. Put herself back in that terrible moment, waiting on the cliff, screaming out her defiance and pain… to whom? Why was it so public, who was she screaming at? Had she been waiting for something?
“Like I was waiting. Like I was waiting… to be struck down.”
Gabrielle let out the breath she’d been holding. “Okay. Now why would you be expecting that?”
“Gabrielle, maybe you shouldn’t try to get inside my head. You wouldn’t like it there.”
Once again, the bard heard Aphrodite’s voice in the Temple. “Get inside that thick warrior’s skull or you don’t even have the teeny tiny chance I’m giving you.” So she continued to bear down. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve been there. No one else knows better what’s inside that mind and I’m still here.”
“Then you know I’m not a good person, Gabrielle. I enjoy the fight, the killing. I still do and I don’t think that will ever change.”
“This is supposed to be news? I know you, Xena, yes, you’ve shocked me, but I’ve shocked myself more. I have my dark side. At least your dark side saved us more often than not. Mine nearly got us both killed in Chin. The dark side never pushed me or you away. It was the lies and the self-deception. Always.”
Can I push this and not break the rules? Gabrielle thought. Aphrodite said, “And rule one is, you can’t tell Xena.”
Gabrielle pondered for another moment, before flinging the opinion away. ‘Sorry, Dite. I can’t do this, not with a lie.Forget it.’ she decided.
“I think there’s one last game coming up, Xena. And I think that we’ll lose everything if there’s one place in our hearts and minds that we aren’t sure of. That’s one place in your mind that I don’t know, and I’ll bet you anything that whatever He has planned, it’ll be the places we don’t know that will make us fail. That’s why you have to remember why you dragged me!”
Reliving even a part of that long ago memory was clearly causing the warrior pain, pain she would have done almost anything to avoid. But almost anything was not everything; not when it came to Gabrielle.
“I just remember the anger. I remember…” The warrior began to pace about in the confined space. “I was dragging… that thing behind me, needing it to die.” The whole time she could feel Gabrielle’s eyes burning into her back, but she pushed on. “Like it was torturing me with… everything I’d failed to be, couldn’t ever be or have. Wanting it to suffer, to be ground into the dirt, to stop giving me pain when I trusted it, when I gave into it.”
Xena’s flow of words subsided, as she looked to the ground, mortified.
Gabrielle’s voice was strangely calm. “That doesn’t sound like you were dragging just me. I think you were dragging a lot more. And I think… you were trying to kill yourself.”
“More about how I’m in love with death.”
Gabrielle threw out her hands in frustration. “I don’t know, that’s what it feels like. But something’s there. Something we need to know for tomorrow. Whatever it was, it’s there.”
“Okay.” Xena let out a rush of air along with the word. “I remember standing on that cliff, holding something, thinking that it was everything. All that was important, all that I loved, ready to toss it like garbage over the cliff. I knew it was unforgivable. That…”She swallowed before continuing. “It was the worst thing I had ever done and that someone, something would finally stop me.”
“And instead I struck you down.”
There was a catch in her breath as though she’d been running. “Thank the Gods.”
“But you see? Whatever you were trying to destroy, you or me, it needed me dead or us apart. Even after you’d lost everything, and we were no longer friends, something drove you, needed you, to finish the job.” Now, it was Gabrielle who began to pace. “As if, with me dead, the last door was closed. That there was no hope.” She stopped and looked towards the warrior. “Now we’re together, that hope has to be here. You said you wanted me to see the moon, well, I need, no, I demand, that you see that hope.” Gabrielle took Xena’s hand. “All I ask is that you believe that we will be together longer than just noon tomorrow. That, that alone, is worth whatever we have to go through.”
“I can try. For you, I’ll try.” A slightly sour expression came over Xena’s face. “But in love with death? You don’t really think that?”
“I’ve had a few years to think about it and, Yes. Your Warrior’s Way, I thought I understood it once, but… it was more than your way, it became who you were.” Once again, Gabrielle felt she was following a trail, and she turned to face the warrior, now outlined in the torchlight. “What do you think the last centuries have been about? Why do you think What’s His Name would push you again and again, knowing you would have to choose death?”
Xena shrugged. “You tell me. You sound like you know.”
“I don’t really see him putting you through all those lives because He wanted you to learn how to appreciate what we were or what we had or what I was to you. Maybe it happened along the way, but you know that wasn’t His plan. I think He did it to reinforce, to pound into you, your belief that the only value you had was when you were willing to die. That you had to die to pay for your crimes and find redemption. That’s what Japa was all about.”
Despite her determination to stay calm, her voice began to rise. “Forty thousand souls was just another temptation. It was just enough for you to break every promise you made to me. To give your life for the redemption that seemed right to you. I need your promise you won’t do that again. Because Ares knows you. He’s been waiting all these centuries for this moment. Waiting until you would give yourself to him in exchange for me, even if it was a me that was bitter and angry, because you thought that’s what you deserved. But look at me Xena. Look at me and tell me I would ever be about death? Your death or anyone else’s. I need you to believe in us, in our being together, or we stop right here.”
“I don’t know… I can’t…” Xena uncharacteristically stuttered.
Gabrielle reached across in the dark and found Xena’s hand. “I need you to believe that we will be together longer than just noon tomorrow. Despite what your mind and the Fates are telling you. That, that alone, is worth whatever we have to do. If you can believe that, then…”
There was a forced chuckle in the dark. “Then anything is possible?”
“Anything. And you better believe that.”
“Gabrielle, I don’t, can’t...”
“Right now, I don’t care what you think you can or don’t do.” Gabrielle huffed once. “Just shut up and believe.”
Could she? Xena thought. But she was unable, unwilling to deny the needs in the woman holding her hand, or deny her own no longer dormant wishes.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes with her free hand and took another deep breath. Even though they were both away from the torch, and in almost complete darkness, Xena was somehow able to stretch out her hand and unerringly find a few of the errant strands of blonde hair, and place them behind the bard’s ears, gaining an unseen smile from her partner at the familiar gesture. They moved closer and if at first there was hesitation, it changed to comfort that somehow became a frisson of desire for both.
Despite Xena’s inner promise to give Gabrielle space, she found herself enclosing the smaller woman in her arms. She was surprised to notice that she was also trembling slightly, and her lips became dry, even as they moved closer to Gabrielle’s.
Xena stopped, waiting for a sign from her partner, when Gabrielle whispered, “I was so angry with you before I died. And then yesterday, it all came back so… completely. So hard. I remembered being mad and tired of loving you and not being loved the same way, but right now…” She paused, and a sudden flicker of the torch caught a smile that broke through the tears and directly into Xena’s now pounding heart. “… this moment, I want to love you again. Please don’t make me regret loving you again. Please…”
If words alone could have been of reassurance, Xena would have searched the world to find them. Instead, she struggled; motionless, speechless. But Gabrielle had continued looking into her eyes, and she found what she needed to see, and began closing the gap between them. The hesitancy that had lingered in the first few moments dissipated, and she caught Xena’s lips between her own, and tilted her head, deepening their contact….
…when Aphrodite suddenly appeared, looking somewhat winded. Startled, both mortals sprang apart like naughty children, and tried to appear detached, unsuccessfully. The Goddess evaluated the situation with a smirk, and promptly ignored it for her own immediate focus.
“Okay. I give up. I can’t see any changes. Still Rome up there, sky is still blue and talk about your missed opportunities, you didn’t even fiddle with the fashions. But whatever you did do, there are still plans for You-Know-Who to become Boss God at noon tomorrow. So, unless this chance you made for each other is real subtle, I think you should travel Air Goddess about now. Or at least, let me give you a running start?”
Both Xena and Gabrielle spoke at the same time.
“No? Nope?” the Goddess questioned the unexpectedly smiling partners.
Gabrielle shook her head and with a sigh slipped her hand back into Xena’s. Where it seemed to belong. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work out, but one thing we agree on. We don’t run away. Especially if it’s going to leave What’s-His Name as supreme power over the world.”
The Goddess threw up her hands. “Hello? I know! I brought you back for this. But I have to do something. Right? He’s too powerful. Do you realise what a fluke it was that you even managed to hide from him this long? The Fates have said that you die. You saw it yourself! There isn’t any give here, you both died long ago and this was your day to make it better, but we’re all out of time.”
Startled, Gabrielle looked at Xena, unsure what the words might really mean, but hoping that her heart knew.
Xena looked down at the hand in hers. “I’m prepared for us to die tomorrow. Whatever the cost. As if taking the easy way ever worked for us anyway. But…” She turned to face Gabrielle, “There’s not much I still believe in, and I still don’t believe I deserve you, but… I believe in you. If trusting you is what it takes,” and her face broke into a smile, “Then I can do that. If that’s what you need from me, that’s easy.” Again there were tears welling up in both their eyes and the once loose hand grasp now seemed as though it were moulded from steel.
Certain of what she was saying now, Xena continued, “And… There’s dying and then there’s dying. We’re not leaving that bastard in charge of the world.”
Gabrielle was nodding and thinking ahead. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to rely on just belief. We just might come up with a few arguments to stop Him, something that the Pontifical College didn’t think of.”
Aphrodite blinked. “Even though you know what’ll happen after that anyway?”
Gabrielle nodded her head. “There is one way you could help. If we stop… your brother, all the Gods would owe us a big one, wouldn’t they?”
Aphrodite considered. “If he’s not boss God. I guess. Pooled together, our powers could do something, nothing big, mind you. You’ll still have to die at noon tomorrow. I’m not powerful to stop him and neither is anyone else I hang with. And…” she wagged her finger like a school teacher, “…don’t you guys get any ideas. You can’t kill Him. Or wall him up or something. Killing Gods never made you any friends on Olympus and that ain’t gonna change.”
“But if we stay, we keep distracting him? If we did stop him from becoming head God, then they and you’d owe us.”
“But you’d still have to die!”
Gabrielle and Xena waited.
“Okay. What WOULD you expect in exchange for this… favour?” the Goddess asked.
Minutes later, after a few plans had been made, an unconvinced Aphrodite began to saunter away when she stopped, and flung out her fingers in a familiar motion. Xena immediately froze in place. A worried Gabrielle was about to say something, but at a smile from Aphrodite, she moved to her side, though never taking her eyes off of her all-too-still partner.
“I’m not welshing on the deal we just made,” began the Goddess quietly. “But you do know that if you blow the final exam tomorrow…”
Gabrielle nodded, and whispered, as though afraid that Xena might still hear them. “I know. But you also said you were here to bring us together. I’m assuming that it wasn’t just for a sleepover.”
“It’s not up to me, I told you. When that last temptation is made, the answer has to be for Love. The big ‘L’ one. If not, well, all bets are off.”
“Xena knows His tricks,” the bard said confidently.
Throughout this whispered discussion, there was an unusually sombre look in the Goddess’s eyes. As if there was another meaning in her words. “To give the person you love… the chance to have the peace they never had with you, it’s a big deal. Hard to refuse, ya know?”
Though she could tell that Aphrodite was being more cryptic than usual, she decided to let it go. “She’ll handle it.”
The Goddess only shrugged. “Okay. I tried.”
With that enigmatic goodbye, she left them alone, and at her disappearance, Xena unfroze, unsuspecting that any time had passed. For a long moment, they stood quietly, contemplating the barrier of the collapsed section of tunnel as if it were a physical illustration of their own relationship. Gabrielle decided a change of mood was needed, and as she rolled her toga up her arms to get to work, she joked, “This is typical of you, you know? Why is it you never take me anywhere nice?”
Straight faced, Xena replied, “Nag, nag, nag. Never satisfied. Weren’t we just at the Coliseum? The Greatest Entertainment Complex In The World!”
Gabrielle reached into the pile and tossed a section of cement aside. “True. And I did get to see a few nice temples.”
Xena stepped onto the debris to grasp a large piece of cracked tile. “There you go. And now this." She gestured about. "A part of Rome that the tourists never see!”
As Gabrielle snorted, the mound Xena was standing on suddenly began to slide underneath her feet. As she reached to the wall ahead to steady herself, the surge of rocks undermined a support and as it fell, a huge section of the ceiling shook itself loose with a haze of dust. Gabrielle leapt forward to help but Xena shoved her backwards and away.
And then the warrior was gone. Blocks and sections of gravel continued to shower down from the ceiling, creating billowing clouds of dust that filled the tunnel.
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet, trying to see through the dust, finally finding a massive pile of rubble where Xena had been standing, joking, moments before. Pain and anger squeezed through her throat, generating a feral wail.
“NOOOOO!” Unmindful of the dangers of further cave-ins, she stumbled forward and began scrabbling through the pile, tossing and throwing whatever materiel her hands could grip. She was oblivious to everything; the passage of time, the blood that was soon dripping from her hands and fingers, or the stones still trickling from the ceiling onto her back and sides. Everything, but her rapidly despairing search.
How long it took until she found a powder covered arm she would never know. Struggling to hold onto her reason, she cleared it until she had uncovered a shoulder and fought the desire to pull the still form out before checking as to what might be broken. Instead, she continued to tear away brick and rubble upwards from Xena’s chest, noting with great relief that it still rose and fell in hitching irregularity.
But as she uncovered the dust-coated features, the breathing stopped.
Gabrielle hurriedly straddled the body, pulled open the stiff, dust-covered mouth and cleared it of the larger obstructions. Her heart again clenching with fear, she began to try to inflate the unmoving lungs. There was no response, and she stopped to kick aside more rubble, finally remembering to look upwards to see if there was anything else falling. Instead like magic, part of the partition ahead collapsed, revealing a stairway leading upwards. Gabrielle closed her eyes, squeezing out tears and began to half-cry, half-laugh at the terrible irony.
“No time for tears now, Gabrielle,” she mentally ordered, shaking herself from the hysteria that threatened. Once more she tried to blow air into the still warrior.
Nothing. No response.
Now beyond panic, she began pounding on the chest in anger. Words, half remembered from some other lifetime, spilled from her lips. “Don’t you LEAVE ME! Don’t you DARE… leave me… alone… again!”
She hammered on the chest, dust rising with each strike, shouting in rhythm with the strikes, shrieking at the air; "Xena! Wake UP and BREATHE, damn you! Breathe...BREATHE! WORK with me, here! Do you hear me? BREATHE, dammit! Xena! PLEASE! Not now. Don't…leave me… alone…again...."
Once more, she tried to inflate the lungs, but this time, there was some assisting movement, and she withdrew her mouth hesitantly. Her reward was a ratchety cough spewing dust into her face. The eyes fluttered, but even in the weak light, the brilliant blue contrasted with the grimy face. Gabrielle’s relief drowned her senses, and she hung her head in exhaustion. Meanwhile, Xena’s trembling hand rose, and stroked various dusty joints. Gabrielle impatiently waited for the inspection to be complete before asking, ‘Anything broken?’ and got a weary shake of the head in return. Together they carefully eased the warrior out of the wreckage, before they finally collapsed against a wall. Both were covered in small cuts that bloomed red on their dust-coated skin, and their once white togas were grey creased in black.
Gabrielle began to laugh quietly. Afraid that it was the onset of hysteria, Xena ignored the sound, awkwardly patting her shoulder. “Anything… particularly funny?” she managed through a ratcheting cough, when Gabrielle finally fell silent.
Gabrielle raised a weary hand to a grimy forehead, trying to catch her breath. “Me, as usual. I just got through telling you that being crucified was my greatest nightmare. I forgot there was something else. Something that beats that hollow.” She wheezed and waved a shaking finger under the warrior’s nose. “You are NOT doing that to me again,” she instructed fiercely. “No more pushing me out of danger, no more taking stuff on your head—literally or otherwise. Whether we like it or not, we’re partners. Got that?”
Xena only nodded while panting.
Gabrielle swallowed. “The way I feel, the ceiling might as well have collapsed on me anyway,” she mumbled.
Xena became aware that the passage beyond them was now cleared. She gestured questioningly at it and her exhausted partner found a faint grin. “Had to do something while you were just lying around.”
“Nice job.” Xena acknowledged, and made to stand up. “Then you deserve a break.”
“Oh no, you don’t.” Though still shaking from the emotional shock, Gabrielle managed to grab an arm and pull the warrior back to the ground. “First, before we do anything, we both need to wash up, then we’ll go on. Together. You are not leaving me even one foot behind anymore. Or haven’t you been listening?”
Xena slumped against Gabrielle. “Doesn’t seem that way, does it? I keep having to say I’m sorry.”
There was a silence in the darkness that ached for a long moment. Gabrielle coughed a few times, spitting out more plaster. “As long as we’re sure of the rules. We’re together, right? Right to the end. As far as it goes.”
The warrior smiled wanly. “Sounds like a plan to me. Though we have been known to get to the same place by different roads.”
“So, then, maybe a different road, but the same destination?”
“Always. Together. To the end. For as far as it goes.” She reached over to grasp Gabrielle’s hand. Gabrielle searched the warrior’s eyes to see any hesitation, and Xena allowed her the time, hoping that she’d find whatever it was she needed to see. Apparently she did, for as they gripped each other’s hands to shake on the agreement, Gabrielle smiled and they said together, “Different roads, same destination.”
Xena realised it was the first true, full smile she had seen from Gabrielle throughout this very long day.
So, for what seemed like far too short a time, they rested. Then, moving stiffly and using their precious water carefully, each attended to the other’s wounds. Despite their caution, even those movements seemed to stir more of the rock dust, so Gabrielle knelt and began carefully tearing a portion of her toga, until she had a strip the size of a mask for her face. She rose to find Xena staring at her. “Uh uh. You’ve got your own toga.”
Xena coughed. “Ah… no! I’m fine. I was… never mind.”
Gabrielle smirked when she realised where Xena had been looking. “I’m exhausted, covered with dirt, and you’re leering at my legs? One almost kiss doesn’t mean I’m easy.”
Xena pursed her lips and continued to look at the discussed body parts. “Even if I’m on a diet, no one says I can’t look at the menu.”
“Don’t talk about food!” Gabrielle begged. “Not until we’re on the other side of this fall.”
“This one,” Xena grumpily replied.
Gabrielle shook her arm free of rubble. “Cheer up, Ms. Optimist, there can’t be many more, or we wouldn’t have gotten through to tell Aphrodite where we were.”
This didn’t cheer her partner up. “I’m very happy all that time line stuff makes sense to you, but…”
“It gives you a headache?”
“Different time lines are like earthquakes. You think the ground under you is solid, and then…”
A few more muttered complaints later, Xena was able to push through into the corridor beyond and Gabrielle was passing the torch ahead, before following right behind her. The torch was hardly needed, for there was another skylight immediately above, radiating heat and sunshine, reminding them that night was still a long way off. Beyond it, they found what looked like the beginnings of stairs, but they were also covered in rubble reaching to the roof.
“Break time?” Xena asked, to which Gabrielle agreed gladly. Xena gave her a sideways glance. “Hey, I just realised. No stomach monster!”
Gabrielle was not amused. “Ha. Ha. Don’t worry. It may be silent, but it’s still here. We had a big day, you know.”
“I can’t believe that horn of plenty you seem to have in the bag doesn’t produce food.”
Gabrielle made a face. “Well…”
Xena’s eyes lit up. “Weren’t you planning to share?”
“It isn’t that, it’s just when we smashed into the wall on the rope, I think it all got squashed.”
“Is… It…. EDIBLE?”
Gabrielle had to laugh at Xena’s intense interest. “Who’s got the stomach monster now?”
“Just poor strategy to be hungry before a battle,” she stated with a smirk.
They took off their improvised masks and sat down on another of the benches that seemed to mark each section of corridors. At Xena’s expectant look, Gabrielle grinned and began rooting through her bag.
“Okay, we got some bread… or it was bread.” She produced a squashed item, with something white oozing from the sides. “I may have grabbed it before it was completely cooked,” she admitted.
Xena looked at it with some distaste. “Moving on?”
“Moving on, we also have a bunch of these things. I wasn’t sure which ones were the best for eating so I grabbed a bunch of them. The cooks used them in practically everything.” This time she brought a handful of red mush.
“And the best part, runny, milky cheese.”
“And to think I was really getting to like that bag.” Xena immediately changed her tone when Gabrielle appeared to pout. “But we do want to eat. So hand it over.”
Gabrielle resisted. “No way. This might be our last meal, and I want it to be something decent. Is there anyway we could cook this stuff? I have a few spices and herbs… I don’t suppose Nero installed ovens in his tunnel?”
“Nope, but if it’s heat you need…” and the warrior pointed aloft and ahead to the sun-dappled air vent and the steaming hot tiles that surrounded it, “The sun’s been hitting that all day and that’s probably as hot as any oven. But wouldn’t it be simpler just to stuff it in the bread?”
“If we want this to be ready anytime soon, maybe if I flatten the bread it’ll cook faster. And we also have….” Gabrielle laid out the bread and pulled out a long cylindrical object.
Xena perked up immediately. “Aha! My faith in the bag was right! Sausage!”
“Get your mitts off this. I’m putting it in the … thing.” She placed the sausage on the marble topped bench and produced another item. Xena blanched.
“Oh please, don’t tell me you’re going to use my chakram to chop…”
“WHOSE Chakram?” Gabrielle asked pointedly.
Xena clenched her hands and eyes. “Arghhh! Yours. But couldn’t you use my sword?”
“You’re so delicate,” Gabrielle teased, but threw herself into her project with gusto.
Despite her injuries, Xena began to pace, averting her eyes as the slaughter continued. “You’re deliberately making this last longer, aren’t you?”
“No,” Gabrielle denied. “I want the slices thin. But you wait, I haven’t sliced the cheese yet.”
“And here I thought you just needed a bath.”
“For that, I’m slicing the cheese REALLY thin. It’ll cover the tomato mush and the sausage, might make it look a bit better.”
One very cheese-smeared chakram later, and Xena having lodged Gabrielle’s creation in the chimney between the heated tiles of the vent, they returned to clearing the stairway. The job was quickly done, as it mainly required the rock to be rolled further down the corridor, blocking the passage back to the Coliseum. It was clear, if unspoken, that they wouldn’t be returning this way. Or at all.
A torch was used to peer upwards to a further line of steps climbing the hill.
“We must be getting close and it looks pretty good from here on in. We’ll take a break now, then follow the steps and see where we can exit. Then wait until dark to go out and start poking around.”
“Sounds good. Wish we could have a bath first. The one thing in Rome that they do well.” Wearily, the two returned to the air vent oven.
“Funny, something smells nice.” Xena reached up and carefully pulled down Gabrielle’s creation. The cheese had browned on the top, spreading and covering the sausage and paste except for a few crests and peaks. “It’s your whatsit. It looks ready. And smells pretty good!”
Gabrielle pretended to be offended. “You sound shocked.”
“I apologise, Madam.” With a flourish, Xena placed the creation on the makeshift table and while she looked away, Gabrielle again used the chakram to cut the flattened circular pie into triangular sections. There was a moment of hesitation, but at the first bite, they were looking at each other in shock and delight.
“I shouldn’t be surprised, ya know? Though I was wondering…. if this is a last meal…” She looked questioningly once more at Gabrielle’s bag.
Gabrielle moved to grip it proprietarily. “Xena! Wine? You want me to go hauling a great big heavy bottle of Roman wine in my bag? And it would have smashed by now anyway.”
There was a sigh from the warrior. “True.”
Gabrielle instead produced a small flask. “So it’s lucky I wrapped the bottle of tsipouro in the bread.”
Xena’s eyes lit up. “Ouzo? You have Greek Spirit?” She grabbed Gabrielle’s cheeks and kissed her hard on the mouth before snatching the bottle away. “You wonderful, wonderful woman!”
Half pleased, partly shocked, Gabrielle managed to ask, “Excuse me? I come back from the dead, I rescue your ass from the Coliseum, dig out a tunnel with you, pretty well forgive you for being, well… you. Anyway, NOW you’re grateful?”
Nodding happily, Xena poured a few ounces of the spirit down her desiccated throat, before passing it back to Gabrielle, who did the same. With the exception of the fit of coughing that followed. “I guess Vestal virgins don’t drink,” she wheezed. Xena was about to say something but just grinned a very lopsided smile. Seeing this, Gabrielle moved in front of her and folded her arms. “What?” she demanded.
“No way. I have my own speeches I prepared for the last hundred years and the first one was always that I wasn’t letting you get away with that ever again. Now you tell me right now, this moment, why you have that big dumb grin on your face.”
Xena laughed. A strangely relaxed sound, so Gabrielle settled by her side, and watched the flickering of the torch on her partner’s face. Xena took another bite of her bread and chewed it pensively. “Fair enough,” she finally said. “I was just thinking…” she took another shot of the tsipouro and passed it back to Gabrielle, who took the flask, never taking her eyes off Xena. “You know I want to believe we have some sort of hope, but…. I mean, we’ve been told by the Gods and Fates that tomorrow we fight him the most powerful God and die. While enjoying the wait for that, we’re trapped in this dirty tunnel, I have stitches in my butt…”
Gabrielle took a long swig of the tsipouro. “Oh yeah, I can see why you were grinning now.”
“But,” Gabrielle prodded.
Xena gave a shy shrug. “At this moment, this time, this place is beautiful.”
Gabrielle quickly returned the bottle to Xena, hoping to encourage her to continue. “Yes…?”
After a swallow, she did. “This place, this moment is…”
“Transformed?” Gabrielle tried.
“Transformed,” Xena agreed. “Because of you. Like my life.”
Gabrielle took her partner’s hand. “No,” she disagreed vehemently. “If it’s transformed, it’s because we’re here. Because despite all of what we’ve been through, we’re here.”
“Then I say, thank you. For transforming my life changing me. Because… because you loved me.”
Their heads seemed to have moved on their own accord, until their foreheads were touching. Xena managed to say, “I do love you, ya know? I always did. I think, I just didn’t always know what that meant,”
Gabrielle nodded slightly, feeling the warrior’s head shift with the small movement. “Me, too. I mean, I always knew, and maybe I should have gotten the nerve to make sure you knew. Because I knew what love should be and didn’t always accept the responsibility.”
“Shush. I screwed it up. But you’re here, now. And that’s all I care about.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “You’d think that with only one day to live we’d be able to get through it without blaming each other or ourselves.”
Xena laughed. “You get mad if I say we haven’t changed that much?”
Gabrielle averted her head slightly, but not moving from the position they had moved into, and cleared her suddenly dry throat, “I am impressed you haven’t asked me a rather obvious question. Especially since I made YOU promise not to make any decisions without consulting me.”
Xena smiled. “I’m impressed with me too. But I know you have a reason. And you’ll tell me what you changed at the Fates when I need to know, right?”
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. “I’m still not sure I know what to do with this kinder and gentler Xena.”
“Only for you. We’ll see how kind and gentle I feel once we get a shot at that bastard tomorrow.”
“You don’t think He’ll just want to have a nice chat?”
“Gabrielle, the only time we ever got along was when He was a mortal. If He was bad as a regular God, imagine what He’s like now. Even at your best, you couldn’t change His mind unless you got your hand inside His skull. Trust me.” There was a slight flexing of her shoulder muscles, and then Xena stood. “Speaking of tomorrow, I think it might be wise if we checked out what these bodies can do. I doubt it’s all going to be talking, don’t you? Maybe we could do a bit of sparring?”
“Unfair! You still have your sword from the arena! What am I supposed to use?”
“The same things you’re gonna have to use when we probably meet up with guys with swords tomorrow.” While Gabrielle was soberly considering this, Xena added with a grin, “anyway, we need to burn off this…?” She picked up a triangle of sausage and tomato paste covered with baked cheese on flat bread. “Whatcha gonna call this, anyway?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I was thinking…” Though at that moment all thinking stopped. She had raised her eyes, seriously considering the question, when her eyes fell upon her partner. Her partner, in the most flattering of torchlight, beginning her stretches before a drill, as though they’d never been apart. ‘Well, not quite like they’d never been apart’, because her once-again traitorous body was clearly aware of how long it had last been. Yes, it was not Xena; thank the Gods it wasn’t Callisto again, but still… if she had ever worried that their spark had disappeared, she was right then being firmly assured that that part of their relationship had not died. At all.
Xena straightened and looked over to the silent bard. “Sounds long. Will it fit on a menu?”
Quashing a lascivious reply involving what she’d really like to see on the menu, Gabrielle shook herself mentally and physically, and joined the warrior in stretching the unused muscles. There was little room for anything but close quarters hand-to-hand, but their combined competitive natures soon had them focussed on nothing but the drill.
But when they had nearly exhausted themselves in the intensity of the exercise, they drifted together and collapsed against one of the walls. Sleep took them both before either could wonder why it seemed so natural that they had ended up in each other’s arms.
And Aphrodite’s attempted warning was completely forgotten.
Gabrielle awoke, instantly aware that something was wrong. Not particularly bad, just… wrong.
Her dreams had been a jumbled cavalcade of memories but eventually her head began to clear enough to attempt to identify the warm weight resting in her arms. After her years in the fields welcoming the dead, she opened her eyes half expecting to see a child or a young Amazon nestled there, but… it was Xena. It truly was Xena.
Certainly, the borrowed face was different, rounder, not as angular. And the eyes were closed so those amazing blues were hidden from her, but her body knew the identity. ‘Incredible’, she thought. ‘This is real.’
Then what was wrong?
Okay, she had a stiff neck and back, probably bad breath, hunger; all being-alive stuff she was still unused to, and yet there was a delicious sensuousness to them all. She looked down at the apparently sleeping face against her chest and finally realised what had been niggling at her: This is the wrong position for us.
Had she not been afraid to wake the sleeper, she’d have laughed out loud at the idiocy that after nine hundred years apart there could be a right or a wrong position. And in their years together, Xena had stubbornly resisted the concept of any thing being their usual way of doing anything.
But even she had grumpily acknowledged, once, that they had a sleeping position that was perfect, and this, as wonderfully sensuous as it was, wasn’t it.
As her head cleared more, she realised, or was it remembered? that the aches in her back and side from their sparring were only temporary, soon to be eased by her body's youth. ‘The brain knows, but the body doesn’t’, Xena had said. Which had only served to goad Gabrielle into pushing herself further. It wasn’t that the body of the Vestal was out of shape, it just wasn’t used to using certain muscles, and it was those that were paining her.
She also remembered that it had been her own half-asleep insistence that Xena lie alongside and on top, as the warrior’s stitched butt was in no condition to take any weight. And remembered how their shoulders had slipped over to rest on each other until their faces were inches apart… and they had kissed. Just the once, and she was almost surprised that there was no regret to be found in its gentleness. She touched the memory on her lips with her tongue. Her body remembered Xena. That she could accept, but it seemed that it was also telling her it wanted more.
Wasn’t this exactly what she had sworn she would never do again? Take the warrior into her heart, accept the apology and hope that it wouldn’t lead to more hurt. What had Ares said, damn him…’are you just like all the battered wives that refuse to leave their bastard husbands because they looooove them?’
There had been a time when her life hung on the thread of how well she’d been able to interpret the shadows within the warrior’s eyes. Had she been avoiding looking into Xena’s eyes, afraid of what she’d see? What was more frightening? That the warrior was lying to her, lying to herself - or that she was not? Had Gabrielle become what she’d feared the most? So determined to never trust another that she’d blinded herself to real change?
Maybe. Because this was different. They had talked and she’d seen the pain it caused Xena, but the warrior had still done it. She’d had centuries to think and when Gabrielle had challenged her - that just maybe all that sacrifice was simply for some child on a pedestal, a remembered Gabrielle that was a sweeter memory than the grubby reality - Xena had become poetic. No, things had changed. And she’d changed, too. She was older, and wiser and even with the physical sensations that were stirred by just holding this woman in her arms, she was no shy youth.
And it had been so very long…
Granted, there were still problems. There was the fear contained in the memory of Japa. Of Xena once more being convinced that sacrifice was her Way. If those barriers could be removed then… there were no limits, were there?
She stared at the profile nestled against her shoulder and with a rueful shake of her head accepted what her heart had always known. “Damn you, Xena,” she thought, “because you’ve certainly damned me. Maybe if I’d known I had this same power over you, I could …” what? Believe? Accept?
That she knew this woman, knew her as well as she knew any thing in the world. What they meant and who they were to each other, that knowledge was branded on her soul for the rest of time.
Then as her mind fully cleared, she realised with some chagrin that there was no way that Xena could still be asleep if she, Gabrielle, had awakened. She reached over to lightly tap the forehead in her lap with a fingertip. Immediately the blue eyes unshuttered and the full lips creased into a grin.
“’bout time,” Xena said with a smirk.
Afraid that she had been caught with her thoughts still in her eyes, Gabrielle adopted a light tone. “Good evening to you too. Sorry you were suffering there.” She made to shove Xena’s head off, but the long arms reached around and captured hers, and she desisted.
“I, ah, didn’t wanta move. Comfy. For the first time… in a very long while.”
Gabrielle gave her a loving glare. “Then say that, okay?” The stroking palm along Xena’s forehead offset the glare.
“Okay,” the warrior said softly.
“Are we really in a rush for our own execution?”
At that curt reminder, Xena began to get up. “Right. People to see, Gods to piss off.”
Now it was Gabrielle who held on, pulling the warrior back. “Things to decide. How much time will we have to argue our case? How hard will it be to find the Emperor…’s flunky?”
With a cat-like stretch, Xena eased her body back to its previous contented position. “I’d say it’s about midnight now. Assuming Aphrodite’s directions are right,” and at this she rolled her eyes, “we should be fine.”
”We meet up with the flunky and you talk. You try to explain why they’re about to make the biggest mistake of their lives. Make such a good argument that the Emperor’s next in command is willing to make a decision in the absence of the Emperor. Then according to the Fates, we’re scheduled to meet with our old buddy.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Me talk? Are you sure? I know it’s usually my job and I may have been reading a lot while I was here, but you’re the one with the up close and personal knowledge now. You know this history and these guys.”
Xena managed to stay stretched across Gabrielle as she reached over to pick up her sword and examine its newly sharpened edge. “I was never exactly a big fan of Roman leaders, Gabrielle. And the last few lives haven’t improved my mood much. Bad enough I’ll have to stay in the same room without separating some heads from shoulders. Don’t make me debate with them. You wouldn’t like the results.”
“That’s what I figured.” Gabrielle muttered to herself. More loudly, she said, “So, break over?” and it wasn’t really a question. More firmly, she said, “Let’s get at that wall, then.”
If Xena had heard the earlier muttered comment, she let it pass, and they brushed out and straightened their clothing relatively quickly and efficiently, except when Gabrielle caught her partner staring at her as she stretched her still stiff joints.
“Vestal Virgin, remember,” she reminded.
“Nope. Gabrielle. Every movement, Gabrielle.” The warrior grinned and shook her head sadly. “But there is a schedule.”
Between sparring, they’d managed to break through to find one final barrier at the very top of the stairway; a doorway that had been bricked in. Strangely enough, there didn’t seem to be any mortar holding the bricks together, and they’d removed one brick to assure themselves that it led directly outside. The fresh air and night sounds had confirmed they were probably inches from their goal.
Now they stood behind it again, ready to move out, but still puzzled.
“You didn’t find this a bit odd?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena gave the loosened bricks an experimental push. “I know. Doesn’t make sense. Give the Romans credit, when they build, they build to last.”
“Exactly. I mean look at this tunnel. Solid. It goes through marshes, up a good sized hill, but no water, no rats. Dry as a bone. All to lead to this?”
Xena continued to examine the structure. “Ya know, I could swear that there used to be mortar, but somehow it’s all just disa…”
“Aphrodite,” they both realised simultaneously.
There was a flash and that personage appeared. “Hey guys, people have been looking all over for you! Whatsup?"
The partners looked at each other, realising what her statement meant and what this visit was. Xena groaned. “This is Dite, from before she meets us… Oh, Gods. Can you handle this?”
Gabrielle chuckled and condescendingly patted the distressed warrior on the shoulder. “It’s okay, I‘ve got it.”
Oblivious to the interplay, Aphrodite burbled, “Have I got news for you!”
Gabrielle interrupted. “We know. You have the Loom. That’s great. But we need you to go back in time, back there in the tunnel, about six candlemarks and tell us all about it then.”
Somewhat miffed at her news not being news, the Goddess asked plaintatively, “Why can’t I just tell you now?”
“Because we already know from when you told us before.”
“Headache. Right about here,” Xena moaned, rubbing her forehead.
“It’s really important,” Gabrielle urged.
For a moment it looked like the Goddess was about to refuse, but catching Gabrielle’s eye and the appeal she saw there, she huffed and said, “Fine. What-Ever.” And once again they were alone on the stairway.
Still rubbing her forehead, Xena had to ask, “If she’s been up at the Fates, seeing and all seeing, why doesn’t she know she already visited us?”
“Probably because it hasn’t happened to her yet. The timeline hasn’t resolved itself for her. There’s our world and Aphrodite’s world.”
“That I’d known for a while.” Xena gave the loose bricks another shove. “Now that’s dealt with, d’you wanna just bust it in?”
Gabrielle looked up at the height of the wall. “I thought we wanted the element of surprise?”
Xena made a shushing movement, and a pair of curious but bloodshot eyes appeared peering through the gap in the wall they had made. They each looked at one other.
“Surprise is overrated.” Xena took a deep breath and with a characteristic cry, leapt upwards and kicked down the wall. As the dust cleared, they could see two booted feet sticking out from the pile of rubble.
“Well, no one else might be, but I bet he was surprised,” Gabrielle remarked.
The fresh night air flowed about them as, all business now; they stepped over the bricks and the body, prepared for whomever else was on guard.
After the tomb-like atmosphere of the tunnel, the moon’s light almost blinded them both. Both women instinctively shielded their eyes with their hands, but it was Gabrielle who was struck dumb as she lowered hers. “By the Gods,” she gasped.
They were standing on a rise surrounded by the most spectacular series of gardens she had ever seen. Massive lattices draped with grape vines enclosed perfectly manicured bushes, dotted with statues and fountains. Above and surrounding it all, the vast bowl of the sky was pricked by stars and pierced at its lower rim by the seven hills and the landmarks built upon them. To their right, the city of Rome rose and dropped on its mounts as though tossed on waves. To their backs, the shadow of the Coliseum’s peak loomed menacingly against the darkness. To their left, the Palatine hill dropped away, past the Circus Maximus to the Tiber. But in front of them, enclosing the gardens, were the palaces of the rulers and Emperors. Architecture designed to stagger and astound by the best and the brightest, for the richest and most powerful.
Xena was somewhat less affected as she stared out over to the city. “Up this high, where you can’t smell the stench, it doesn’t look half bad. Still Rome, though.”
At that reminder, Gabrielle forced herself back to a working state of mind. She looked down at the unconscious soldier under the rubble. “Someone will come looking for him.”
Xena was already listening to the breeze. “Armed somebodies.”
Gabrielle listened as well. “Like the dozen or so coming now?”
Xena nodded. “Six on the right, six on the left, a dozen coming right for us.”
“Don’t these guys sleep?”
Xena shrugged and indicated the wealth surrounding them. “Round the dial Security.”
Both began analysing their choices. “So?”
“Three choices,” Xena reckoned.
Gabrielle ticked them off on her fingers. “Give up. Take them. Evade.”
“Evade?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle thought before nodding. “Agreed.” Then turned to her partner in curiosity. “Why didn’t you go for letting them capture us?”
“Couldn’t be sure where we’d be taken.”
“Ah. Funny. I didn’t think it would be very impressive for the negotiations if we arrived tied up.”
Xena grinned. “Different paths…”
Gabrielle returned the grin. “Same destination.” She looked about them, this time evaluating the land. “So how do we evade?”
Xena pointed up. “You should like this, Amazon.”
Gabrielle followed her finger to the long rows of lattice that ran above the gardens and swallowed. “It’ll never hold us.”
Xena ignored the sour expression and cupped her hands together. “Leg up?”
With a sigh of frustration, Gabrielle placed her foot into the handgrip provided and sprung to the top of the wooden pergola. Even as Xena made the leap unaided, the sound of the hobnailed boots of Roman soldiers came closer.
The passage of centuries had not diminished Gabrielle’s fear of heights. While the soldiers marched underneath, she lay along the crossbeams of the pergola, clutching the supports with her fingernails deep into the wood. On the other side of the pergola, Xena stood absolutely straight, her body’s shadow lost in the lines cast by moon on the ground below. Gabrielle marvelled at how she remained so still, even as the agitated soldiers discovered the collapsed wall. There was a muttered discussion beneath their feet as to whether the injured soldier had collapsed the wall on his own, by accident. The soldiers then split up into groups to investigate the passage and carry the injured man to a healer.
Once again the garden was silent. Gabrielle carefully rose to her knees, and then slowly raised herself on her trembling feet. With a nod to Xena, she leapt to the next crossbar, nearly toppling over by overbalancing. Instead of falling, she pushed off to the next, and then the next after that. Xena ran alongside, at first matching her speed, but once it was clear that Gabrielle had found her stride, the warrior increased her pace. Gabrielle began to fall behind, but her blood seemed to be humming as she took in the experience. High above the gardens, she felt as though she was immersed in the night. Her nose caught the scents from bushes, flowers and herbs gathered from around the world at her feet, the stars scattered carelessly above her. Xena had already sped ahead, crossing the beams with an effortless pace that drove Gabrielle to increase her own jumps. She quickly realised that the spacing between the crossbars was the same for both of them, and for once, Xena’s longer legs would not give the warrior any advantage.
With a stadium’s length still to go, she drew parallel with Xena, and flashing a grin, began to pull ahead. Xena increased her own speed, and the two began racing full out. The scents of the garden wafting up, the great dome of the sky surrounding them, Gabrielle felt exhilarated like no time in her life since, no, only since she had last been with this woman. Then one of the pillars moved, and unable to slow her momentum, she began to tumble. Some part of her mind scanned ahead to one of the garden statues, and she laughed as she realised whose it was. She placed a foot on the tip of the helmet of Mars, pushed upwards in a tuck, tumbled and landed perfectly on her right foot on the next pillar without breaking her tempo.
They arrived in a dead heat and as Xena began her patented leap upwards, Gabrielle fired herself forward tucking herself into a ball. She skidded lightly over the earth, and kicked against the ground for one last flip, landing upright on her feet. A split second later, she heard Xena’s boots contact the ground behind her. She stared at their relative positions for a moment.
“I beat you.” There was wonder in the breathless whisper.
They had landed in front of their target. A sumptuous palace that gave credence to the name. A small entrance led inwards to a sunken garden, lined on three sides by pillared archways. Two of the Emperor’s Praetorian Guard stepped forward into the doorway, drawing their swords, only to be lying unconscious on the ground seconds later. They might have been somewhat annoyed to realise that their dispatch had barely caused the two women to pause in their conversation.
“You could have hurt yourself tumbling-“
“I beat you,” repeated Gabrielle gleefully as they slipped into the garden. A water feature lined the garden and the quiet gushing of water covered the very slight sounds of their footsteps.
“You got your toga all dirty,” Xena whispered.
Gabrielle gestured at the long since darkened fabric. She grinned.
Xena laughed in response. “Yes, you beat me.”
“YES!” To Xena’s increased amusement, Gabrielle began to silently imitate a dance Xena had once done when under the influence of the Furies. She waited while the smaller woman shook her butt and pumped her arms in satisfaction. Finally, Xena took one arm and said quietly, “You do know, that there are hundreds of things you can do better than me, don’t you?”
As the thought flashed through Gabrielle’s mind, ‘No. No, I didn’t,’ out of the silence came a scrunching sound and both slipped into the shadows of the pillars. Gabrielle’s ears identified it as a giant snail being crushed on marble, likely by a hobnailed boot. Before she could congratulate herself on her perspicacity, she realised that Xena probably could have told her the kind of marble and the complete physical build of the soldier treading on the shell. ‘Has that been a part of our problem? Me just being so damn competitive?’
A throat cleared and a deeply modulated voice reached across the garden to them. “If you’re here to speak with me, come forward.” He spoke in Latin, but immediately the same phrase was repeated in Greek.
The figure remained in the shadows but a single hand was illuminated in the moonlight with a finger indicating the direction for the two to go. With some misgivings they passed under the archway to enter an inner courtyard, where the moonlight now fell on the polished brass of several dozen of the Praetorian Guard, who quickly closed around them.
"Oh good,” breathed Xena and reached for her sword. Without being quite aware of it, their movements brought their shoulder blades closer until they were back to back. “This is really unnecessary,” said Gabrielle as they slowly turned, matching each other in step to watch their opponents “We came here to talk.”
“Yeah,” added Xena. “If we’d just wanted to kill a whole bunch of Roman soldiers, we would have done it on the way here.”
The Master of the Household finally stepped out into the light. His coiled brunette hair and beard were managed, though unruly. From the way he carried his muscular build and authority, he was clearly no bookkeeper. To Xena’s experienced eyes, this was a former soldier and senior commander. His dark eyes regarded the two thoughtfully. “My apologies if these guards are necessary, but you don’t look, or act, like special emissaries of the Pontifical College.”
Xena gave the Roman the benefit of a wide false smile while keeping her eyes on the encroaching soldiers. “That’s just how special we are.”
There was another moment of hesitation, while a quick but thorough examination was made of the partners. Finally the regal hand was raised to prevent the advance of the Guard. “There is a room. One where our discussions will not be disturbed. It is down that corridor, second door on the right. I will join you shortly.”
The command and possibly Xena’s glare, encouraged the Guard to back away and sheathe their weapons. Glancing at Gabrielle and receiving her assent, Xena moved through the soldiers and the two entered the indicated hallway.
At the second door, they descended into a room unlike any they had seen before. At first it appeared to be in the heart of the exterior garden, but it soon became apparent in the flickering torchlight that it was actually windowless. That from ceiling to floor, the walls were covered by a continuous garden fresco. Amongst the leaves and branches were scattered birds of every kind and plumage.
What was even more unusual was that despite the richness of the walls, the furnishings were austere in the extreme. There were no household Gods, no divans or containers of food, no gold or silver proclaiming the power of the occupant. A few simple carpets on the simple mosaic floor, two wicker chairs, and a solid but plain desk covered by folded papyri and writing implements. Gabrielle was drawn to study them while Xena examined the room with a worried eye. With forced casualness, she asked Gabrielle, “So what was your battle plan again?”
“Battle? Oh, you mean my war of words? Why the Emperor must stop the raising of What’s His Name to Capo di tutti Capi?”
Gabrielle began to pace as she spoke, and it seemed to Xena that her youthful body was reflecting her true age for once, as her enthusiasm for her project grew.
“Okay,” she began. “Here’s what I think we should say. I figure that the basic thrust will be a metaphor. That War is not some sort of cheerleader, or even a supporter of one side or other. You can never have War on your side. He’s more like a fire that greedily demands fuel and more fuel and takes it wherever, however, he can find it. That who wins is never important, just the conflagration. And when you’ve had enough war, He’ll still be hungry. Given enough power, He won’t need you to create wars, He’ll start them himself just to watch the burning.”
She paused, her eyes glowing. “Right?”
Again there was only a non-committal, “Uh huh.”
Ignoring the lack of enthusiasm, Gabrielle rolled on. “That from what I’ve read and heard, what the Emperor needs is peace. He needs a chance to consolidate borders, deal with the plague, starvation, and now, get this, devaluation of currency! And all that is just going to get worse if he has to feed this fire of this God. Then I figured I’d work up to an emotional crescendo about individuals making a difference at a key point in history, giving individuals a chance to make their own decisions, not something based on what a self-serving God wants, even if that choice is to worship another deity of their own choice… if that inspires them to make their own… positive contribution…”
Gabrielle slowed the flow of words when she finally caught on that her passions in this argument were not exactly being shared. “What?” she demanded.
Xena looked about the room again. “I think we may have a problem.”
More than slightly pissed off, Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips. “This is a new one, right? Because I think I’m up to speed on things like us dying at noon. What else?”
“You remember that place in Athens, the Stoa Poikile?”
“You mean the Stoics? Those guys who thought if they reduced all sensation, then they wouldn’t fear death? That the Gods didn’t exist, that all was reason and to be dealt with reason and, what else, oh that one had to go with the flow to find your purpose. What a crock! You don’t think that...?”
Xena spread her hands about to indicate the austerity of the room.
“Oh crap,” was expelled from Gabrielle’s lips like air from a balloon. She froze before beginning to pace again. “New game plan.”
“So this deputy Emperor or whatever, wasn’t in your reading?”
“In fifty years, maybe. When it’s been reported, become history. This is now.” She turned to the desk and began quickly scanning the reams of scrolls. To her surprise, much of what was written was in Greek.
Xena pursed her lips and thought. “Well, I guess our only chance is whatever you did at the Fates.”
Gabrielle stopped her reading. Swallowed. “I wish you hadn’t brought that up. Because that rested on what happens here. And how do we convince someone that we’re about to be killed by a living, breathing God if he doesn’t believe in them?”
A voice from the doorway said, “That’s not quite true. Certainly the Gods influence and sway, but only as men deposit their faith in them.”
As they turned to face their host, his face remained impassive, and he wore the simple toga with a confidence and gravity that radiated from his person.
“Phrased in that manner, we would agree,” Gabrielle said diplomatically.
Now Xena began to pace about the room, her old animosity stirring her guts in the presence of the authoritative Roman. “Before we get into any discussions, I need to know if any of this matters. Are we wasting our very precious time? Do you even have the power to make a decision?”
The Roman seemed perplexed until Gabrielle hurriedly interjected, “She means, do you have the Emperor’s ear?”
The Roman appeared even more puzzled for a moment, but reading something in Gabrielle’s expression, he nodded and replied, “Certainly it can be said I have the Emperor’s ear.”
Unsure what had passed between the two, Xena hesitated. But the choice of not trusting Gabrielle and any other option, was no choice at all. “Then you’re on, Bard.”
And so the battle of words began. By the time dawn began to appear on the fringes of the corridor outside, Gabrielle’s voice had begun to become ragged. Xena remained outside the fray while the Roman seemed to be enjoying the discussion, but seemingly impervious to the arguments or the passage of time.
“Of course. God is the universe, the universe is God. The wise and virtuous learns one's place in the scheme. The goal of human existence is to live consistently with Nature, which means consistently with Reason.”
Even if this was Gabrielle’s battle, Xena could not let this go. She interrupted, “Reason? We’re talking about war, not nature or reason. D’you think Carthage was reasonable? Don’t you see that a mania like that could only come from damned whispers in the night from a real, bloodthirsty God, who cared nothing about the deaths on either side?
The Roman tilted his head in interest. “Everything is by nature made but to die."
“Not that way. I’ve heard those damned whispers,” Xena acknowledged. Her eyes flared for a moment as she spat out, “I was there when Rome destroyed Carthage.”
The Roman shrugged. “Rebuilt it, you mean.”
Xena laughed. “Rebuilt, using bones as mortar on burnt fields.”
Gabrielle interrupted in frustration. “But don’t you see, Xena? He sees that as simply the flow of history to this point.”
“And he’s just going with the flow?” Xena spat out. “He actually likes the smell of burning bodies? Then why worship War? Cut out the middle man and simply worship Death.”
There was the slightest tinge of anger in the Roman’s face now.
Gabrielle quickly picked up a parchment from the desk and began to recite from it, “He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if you have no sensation, neither will you feel any harm; and if you acquire another kind of sensation, you will be a different kind of living being and you will not cease to live.”
The Roman nodded.
“But that’s the antithesis of everything this ascension will accomplish. You will be enflaming their desires, turning them to a new heat and fire. You say you want to follow the river of history, when instead you’re prepared to drop a great massive rock in the stream. Turning Rome to the worship of Mars, and Mars alone, will divert and change the course of Rome.”
Finally there seemed to be interest in the Roman’s eyes. “You remind me of my daughter. She too is rather headstrong, but trustworthy.” He thought for a moment. “Prove that statement well, and we might have agreement.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I might be able to do that.”
Xena felt the weight of a dozen lifetimes ease just a little. She moved through the doorway to view the last of the shadows and calculated the time left until noon. “I’m betting she can," she stated confidently. “And when she does, is there a chance we could have some time to ourselves?”
Gabrielle looked up, curiosity being replaced by what Xena hoped was more than casual interest.
“If only because I still owe her a decent Roman bath before we have to… go.”
“Should our business be concluded in time, I think that can be arranged. I believe I have a bathing area somewhere about this house that might afford some privacy, if that is what you wish.”
There was a sound, almost a moan, from both partners that startled the Roman. “May I take it that such a plan would be desirable?”
Trying desperately to suppress the pictures and person that they were both associating with the word ‘desirable’, the special envoys simply nodded. The Roman quickly resumed their discussions, but could not help but notice that as Xena resumed her pacing, it was with a somewhat uneven stride. And though the bard’s concentration on the negotiations was not compromised, she seemed to periodically fidget unaccountably.
‘Special emissaries from the Pontifical College indeed’, thought Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Emperor of Rome.
For some reason, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves discovering a sudden quite unaccountable shyness as they entered the Apodyterium to begin the much needed and long promised Roman bath. It was not yet morning, so the room was empty of all but the ornately carved marble benches. They stood there, hesitating; each fumbling uncertainly with the clasps of their togas, until Gabrielle finally spoke. “What in Hades is wrong with us? After all we’ve been through, why is this so awkward?”
Xena shrugged. “Yeah, it feels like our first years together. All that time, dancing around each other.”
“Sometimes literally.” She grinned at a memory. “But these aren’t even our bodies,” she went on. “Why am I feeling so damn shy about revealing it, and to you of all people?”
She stomped over to a bench so loudly that she almost missed Xena’s quiet explanation. “Because some part of you knows that it is your body to me. I keep telling you, the way you move, the expressions on your face? That’s Gabrielle and no one else to me. And even if you were that 85 year old Amazon, that’s still all I’d see.”
Gabrielle sighed, and without any thought, moved towards her partner, circled her with her arms and held her. Almost muffled by Xena’s toga, she whispered, “You know, once in a while… you say exactly the right thing.”
“Once in a while, I get lucky.”
Gabrielle partly withdrew to look up with a smirk.
Xena pretended to consider her words for a moment before continuing. “Or… maybe, maybe when it’s really important to me, I find the words.”
Gabrielle resumed the hug, saying, “Twice in one day. You have changed.”
They rested in each other’s arms for another moment, and when they broke apart, it was with dazzling grins and a certain defiant pleasure that they shucked their cloths onto the bench and rushed through the lukewarm Tepidarium area. Stopping only to collect a few vessels of oil and a clean strigil. The caldarium was not at full blast so they didn’t need their sandals to walk across the heated floor; the water itself was more than hot enough though. Xena lowered herself into the scented heat without a word; then with a moment’s hesitation, Gabrielle eased in front of her.
Part of Gabrielle’s mind accepted that this closeness should be awkward. Some things did not feel completely resolved and yet… ‘Maybe the comfort that we’re feeling, is simply because we’re together again in a familiar position… in the water, simply a matter of unforgotten habit. And the Gods know it’s been a long time since either of us has taken a real, honest-to-goodness bath, and we should just… appreciate how relaxing it can be. That’s all. It would be dumb to rush into… things… considering what we’re facing, right? At least, that was what ran through her mind as they rested, without a word, allowing the scented fog to waft about them.
Xena was becoming a little less relaxed as time passed, though. Gabrielle’s weight, the skin pressed down on her own was definitely affecting her, arousing her and when she opened her eyes to look at just the bare shoulders pressing against her chest, her breath caught. Her partner seemed vulnerable and still all too desirable. Even the wet, downy hairs on her arms seemed to demand a caress. Despite the fragrances in the stream, Gabrielle smelled of familiar scents and woman; and as Xena watched, a bead of water ran along her shoulders forward down to her chest. She swallowed, wanting nothing more than to be that drop of liquid.
‘Was she presuming too much? Was this too much again?’
“Should I…?” Xena began to shift to give Gabrielle some space when a hand grasped her thigh.
“Xena, I’m comfortable,” Gabrielle stated flatly, though there was a trace of amusement in her tone.
“It’s okay? Like this?”
Then Gabrielle began to question the situation. “Is it bothering you? I could get up?”
The warrior drew in a breath, and released it. “Naw.”
The bard relaxed once more. “Good.”
“Just seems like I’m, you know, assuming…”
Xena was in no position to see the smirk on the bard’s face, but she could hear it in her voice as she asked, “Assuming what?”
“You keep saying you’re not a Vestal or even that naive kid from Potadaia, and sitting like this, I feel like I’m, well, it’s a sort of…”
Gabrielle snorted. “You think you’re taking advantage. As if being the chair is the dominant position.”
Affronted for some reason, Xena disputed, “Well, it is.”
“You’re a chair, Xena. I sit on you,” Gabrielle said, emphatically.
“What d’ya mean? My big long arms are around you and I could…”
“My sharp little elbows could nail your gut, my hard little head could break your chin…”
“It feels like the dominant position.”
“I’m sure the chairs have been telling themselves that for a long time.”
Xena’s chest shook with repressed laughter. Grateful for the change of mood, Gabrielle cheerfully ignored her and looked instead in antipathy at the curved strigil in her hand, grumbling as she slid it along her arm. “Speaking of dumb things, do you think What’s his name deliberately changed the entire course of history just to get rid of soap in bars?”
“Compared to most warriors, he’s always been relatively clean.”
“That I didn’t need to know or hear. Maybe we should be talking about what happens tomorrow?”
“Gabrielle. I’ve had a lot of experience waiting to die. And one thing I’ve picked up, is that mentioning it all the time does not improve the experience.”
Gabrielle nodded her agreement and lay back, closing her eyes once again, when she felt a long arm slip gently about her and drift slowly toward her thighs.
She coughed in an exaggerated fashion. “Ahem? Where does that think it’s headed?”
Xena stilled. “Sorry. I guess it was… cold.”
“Really? It was cold?” Gabrielle’s eyes sparkled mischievously.
“And, I thought…”
Gabrielle sniggered. “I’m sure you did think… things.” With a firm motion the bard pulled the tanned arm back into the same questing position. “I’ve been… thinking things, as well.”
“Not as often as I have, I bet.” Much relieved, Xena shifted slightly forward so that her chin rested on Gabrielle’s shoulder, her nose contentedly buried in her hair, while her hand continued its slow glide along the oil slick thigh.
Gabrielle thought for a moment before saying, “I think it still worries me, just a little, that you’re seeing this… young body.”
“Gabrielle, haven’t we established that I’m attracted to, in love, completely and utterly in love, with the bard inside?”
Gabrielle smiled. “So. You do know that it’s not like I’m actually…”
Gabrielle could feel the smirk against her scalp. She reached underneath to caress the side of the firm buttocks she was resting on. “Let me tell you. Right now? This mind is far from being…”
“Yes?” Xena prodded.
“Far from being virginal.”
The warrior chuckled deep in her throat. “Certain about that?”
“And I’m pretty certain I’m old enough to know what I want.”
“Doesn’t matter. You could be this young virgin AND an eight hundred year old crone. I really don’t give a Hades’ cuss about the bindings on the scroll.”
“Easy to say,” Gabrielle harrumphed
“Look at me,” Xena requested softly.
At the change of tone, Gabrielle swallowed, acutely aware of the warrior’s body against hers. She slowly tilted her head sideways to stare up into Xena’s eyes. “Okay.”
“This scroll,” Xena said solemnly. “Would you read it?”
She examined the face, and more importantly the eyes, of her partner carefully. Then nodded just as solemnly and spoke with certainty. “Every line. Every page.” Gabrielle paused nervously before asking, “And… this one?”
Xena nodded earnestly. “Every line. Every story. The ones I knew and especially the ones I didn’t.”
“There are some… sad… stories in there.”
“Then I might cry a little. But there are also some very, well… not so sad stories.”
There was not any gap between them now. And neither of them was conscious of their unfamiliar bodies or their lives apart, or of anything but what they saw deep within each other’s eyes.
“And you’d laugh?”
“Laugh, cry, every emotion I’m capable of. You’ve always brought out the best in me. Even the feelings.”
“Really?” Gabrielle wondered.
“You’re doing it now.”
It seemed as though there was no movement required at all for their lips to touch.
After a long, sweet moment, they pulled away with softly swollen mouths. Gabrielle reached up to cup the warrior’s face and smiled. “I hope you’re not going to say that we should’ve been doing stuff like that since I first arrived.”
Xena chuckled. “This body may be fit, but I REALLY don’t think we could have been doing half the stuff I’ve been thinking about, pretty continuously, since I first saw you.”
“Warriors,” she snorted. But she pulled Xena’s mouth closer and bit her lip ever so sharply.
“There were guards at the doors,” the warrior managed with only part of a lip and even less concentration.
“OUT side the door.”
“They better not come in,” she growled.
Gabrielle raised herself from her warrior seat, the warm water running down her thighs. Xena could not stop herself from capturing some of it with her tongue. She looked upwards and saw beyond the young girl to her partner, who was reaching out her hand, asking her to stand. “Are you sure? “ Xena asked.
Gabrielle deliberately misunderstood. “I spoke to those guards and I was very clear. We are special emissaries with cultural traditions that require privacy.”
Xena laughed and took the firm hand in her own. “Sounds like you were presuming…?”
The bard replied confidently, “I was just… thinking.”
“Traditions?” Xena questioned and rose and Gabrielle gave a throaty chuckle.
The bard reached out, brushing the dark wet hair out of her partner’s eyes, that simple touch marking the warrior as her own again. And then, her breasts were slowly, ever so lightly, nestled against her partner’s, and she could feel the heat between Xena’s legs pressing against her stomach, and once again, all she could see were Xena’s eyes, shining.
“Too long,” one partner murmured.
“Much, much too long.” One of them agreed.
Though who made either statement, neither could have told.
So with what time they had before noon, the special emissaries renewed several traditions.
Far too soon, Gabrielle stirred within her warrior’s arms, allowing herself the freedom to revel in the sensations, without any thought of what lay ahead. She knew Xena would be hesitant to break the precious mood, so she knew it would fall to her to get down to business. There were a few last, treasured kisses first and she savoured the taste before pulling back to lean her forehead against her lover’s. Though her voice showed regret, she pushed herself to ask, “So I guess… we need to think about plans?”
She felt Xena stiffen in her embrace, but she stoically responded, “I usually start with assets and options. Then work from there.”
“Right.” And the bard was wordless for a moment, but her hand absently slipped along the warrior’s back. “We have to talk about what Aphrodite saw.”
Xena pursed her lips. “Our worst nightmares of death.”
“Yeah, that would probably be what I meant,” Gabrielle whispered.
“Well, He has to know what we’re both afraid of.”
“You know what my fear is.” The absent caress progressively changed to a fixed grip upon the warrior’s arm. “It was being left alone. It’s always been that, Xena.” She ducked her head into the crook of Xena’s shoulder. “And it happened. I thought it had happened again yesterday.”
Xena gently lifted her chin and when their eyes had caught, she declared quietly but firmly, “That will not happen today.”
There was no resistance on Gabrielle’s part as Xena took her into her arms again, and silently they clutched each other for a short, poignant moment. There was another long kiss before they broke apart. This time it was Xena who thought out loud. “We just have to keep him busy. That’ll give us a chance to keep our deal with Aphrodite. That much we can do.”
“Just being together, to the end, will that be enough for them?”
“It has to be. What’s worrying me is that he always keeps something back, something to spring on us, and I can’t see what it is yet.”
Still clasping her warrior, Gabrielle heard Aphrodite’s warning in her mind. “When that last temptation is made, the answer has to be for Love. The big ‘L’ one. If not, well, all bets are off.”
“I think you have to keep your promise,” she said, out loud.
But what else had Dite said? “To give the person you love… the chance to have the peace they never had with you, it’s a big deal. Hard to refuse, ya know?”
Unaware of her partner’s ruminations, Xena stated confidently, “Gabrielle, when you are breathing your last, you will be in my arms. Nothing. Nothing will stop me from being there.”
Gabrielle drew in a breath and said softly, “Goes both ways, you know.”
“So our assets are that he doesn’t know what’s really going to happen at noon. And another asset, He’s overconfident. Because He knows me. He knows what would hurt the most. He knew… that I was waiting for you all these centuries. To rescue me.”
Hearing the pain in the warrior’s voice, she whispered into her partner’s chest, “Xena, you don’t have to…”
“As lame as it was, that last trick might have worked. I was so desperate, missing you so much with each time… Even though I knew you had to be kept out of it, He knew I’d accept even a false Gabrielle, just to have you… be with me. Again.”
“I’m here now.” And she raised her head to kiss her warrior lightly on her cheek. “See?”
Gabrielle waited until Xena had recovered from the memory, before asking in a businesslike tone, “So how is that an asset?”
“I said, He may know me…”
“But He doesn’t know me? Sure He does.”
Xena shook her head. “Nope. At best he’s always seen you as the brightest kid in the class. Don’t be insulted, because he’d take you as his Chosen in a bee’s wing flap, but he always underestimates you. That, is a definite asset.”
“And what about after?”
“Thing is, Love…that’s another problem.” Despite only the dim light, Gabrielle could see that the blue eyes were shining. “Even if we beat Him, I don’t think we’re going to the same place.”
Infuriated, Gabrielle pulled away. “How can you still believe that?”
“Gabrielle, there are things I’ve done…”
Resisting the urge to strike her partner, she spat out, “And what about me? There are things I’ve… even the things you know about…”
“You still believe that Hope…?”
“I murdered a child, Xena.”
“No! It was…”
“I know, a great evil. But will we ever know for sure? We both have so much blood on our hands, Xena.”
“Gabrielle, you are… so much more than you see yourself to be. And I will be there to show you. Tomorrow, or the next day, if I can.”
“Just remember, you promised me, together, remember that, no matter what else.”
One last kiss sealed the bargain.
Despite the seriousness of the impending circumstances, even when they had parted, there was a comfort from the past hours that lingered. Though habit drove them to dress quickly and efficiently, there were a few light touches and smiles that reached their eyes and beyond, that completely belied their situation.
Xena shifted the toga on her body by bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet and Gabrielle smirked at the familiar movement. The warrior caught the grin and pointed at her in mock accusation, saying, “I can’t believe you saved a legion of Romans!”
Whatever she had been expecting Xena to say, that wasn’t it. “What…? What are you talking about?”
Xena smirked. “I figured it out. What you did at the Fates with the Loom. You saved the Thundering Legion.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Why would you think that?”
“The miracle of the Thundering Legion! Your friend, Marcus whatever, admitted that the one thing that had made him consider our proposal at all, was when he was with the Thundering Legion. When they were saved by Christians praying for rain. That came at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place, to prevent their massacre. He said it, what was it? That he wondered if belief could create its own response.”
“Great deduction, oh Brain of Greece. Too bad it’s…. wrong!” Gabrielle giggled at the expression on Xena’s face. “Yes, it happens. Do you think that creating a miracle comes under the cover of ‘a small thing’?”
“You’ll figure it out?”
“Not until we’re out of here, I hope.”
“You heard me.”
Their wait was ended as a young man entered, in robes that indicated he was a high servant of the house. “I am ordered to bring you to the gardens.”
There was an exchange of mutual shrugs and they followed him outside through another courtyard shrine and further into the rear gardens high above and overlooking the Circus Maximus. It was long after dawn, but the wealthy had no need to rise early and even their slaves were not about. There was certainly no sign of their host from the night before. The servant seeing their confusion, explained, “The Emperor has made his decision, and he has left to implement it.”
“The Emperor? That was the Emperor?” The warrior turned to look at Gabrielle, comprehension dawning. “That was the little thing you did at the Fates, wasn’t it?”
Gabrielle nodded. “It was the smallest change I could see that might make a difference. He missed a transport home. So I changed it so that he didn’t miss it this time. It meant he arrived here a week early. I figured that the mission was bound to fail if we only dealt with someone who couldn’t really make the decisions.”
“And you didn’t tell me, because you knew….”
“We would have to trust him. Put our lives in the hands of a Roman Emperor. I didn’t think you…”
Xena nodded her understanding.
Gabrielle asked the servant, “Okay. So we’re here. Now what?”
He cleared his throat, nervously. “I do what I was ordered to do.”
He looked to the skies and in a loud voice called out, “Lord God, Mars! Lord God, God of War. Mars! They are here!”
Xena and Gabrielle froze, both wanting to bolt, but instead their hands found each other’s and they watched in dread fascination as the War God evanesced in front of them. He was dressed as a young boy as portrayed in the Roman sculptures, but there was no hiding the familiar lazy grin as he took them both in. “Guess what. It’s not noon yet, and… You… Lose.”
The servant stood frozen, his mouth falling open in astonishment at the sight of a living God.
“Run!” Gabrielle urged.
“Yes, run!” Ares agreed. “Run as fast as your little legs can carry you.”
A familiar fireball appeared in Ares’ hand as the messenger managed to break out of his stunned immobility. The ball flew from the God’s hands and without time for even a shriek of pain, the lackey disappeared in a blaze of flame.
Ares shrugged. “Yeah, I figured about that far.”
Ares turned to smile lazily at Gabrielle and Xena. “Gosh. I guess he was supposed to run back to the Emperor and tell him that a God that couldn’t possibly exist actually appeared. Don’t think so.”
His grin widened even further as he looked at the partners. “And now… One game ends, and an even better one begins.”
Gabrielle stared at the space where the human life had been lost and her eyes brimmed.
Xena forced her mask of indifference on and casually asked, “So does Joxer know you have his helmet?”
Ares gave them a slow grin. “Funny. Shouldn’t you be asking if I lost something?”
They both gave him their best, wide-eyed innocent expressions.
“Yeah, I think you know. That lovely Loom? I’m guessing that you,” and he slowly circled Gabrielle, “were hired to keep me busy while my aunt went after the ladies and their little weaving shop. Actually, I don’t mind. I’m not even pissed off. I’d think being stuck for eternity with your sisters completing all your sentences is punishment enough. I am just a little surprised that dear, sweet Dite didn’t use her powers to get you guys somewhere safe. Or did she promise and then renege?”
Again the two remained silent.
“Doesn’t matter. See, I don’t need the Loom of the Fates anymore. I think this world is just about perfect as it is. In fact, I’d say this world is exactly the way I wanted it.” He barked a laugh. “After all, it is all mine. What I made of it.”
There was a crazed manic look in his eyes that they had never seen before. The energy he was casting off vibrated and jarred both of them so much that it seemed essential to remain silent until they could get some sort of bearings.
“You couldn’t possibly understand just how beautiful this world will be,” Ares continued, enjoying their silence. “There are threads upon threads, laced just so, and exactly right in place… to make sure there will always be war. Rebellion. Civil disturbances! Lots of fun for me to feed on for the rest of time. And guess what?” He paused to stare into Xena’s eyes for a moment. “There’s nothing you can do about it. With the powers I’m going to be receiving from all those new altars, there’s nothing I won’t be able to do. So, nope. I’m not worried about losing the Loom.”
The partners shared a glance, trying to repress any show of fear. But this was frightening. A crazed Ares, mad with power, almost unlimited power and daring them to make him use it.
He had been ignoring Gabrielle for the moment, satisfied with teasing Xena with the energy his body was generating, so it was Gabrielle who broke from the stupor to accuse him, “What about all the lives you destroyed? Even the warriors you controlled had no futures. What about all the people we saved in our time, the people who deserved more? You turned the Amazons into your most fervent followers and what happened? They’d survived under my rule and through Artemis, but now? They’re all dead. Only myths!”
Ares seemed to address the skies instead of Gabrielle. “Just myths? Glorious myths. Sacrifices to my power.” He turned to her and his smile became slightly less manic. “Hey, I had to break a few eggs to make my perfect omelette.”
Gabrielle shook her head, her grim lips the only sign of her anger and sorrow.
“That’s right, don’t say anything you might regret, because first, we’re going to play a little game.”
“Goody,” said Xena, flatly.
“Oh yes, you’ll like this. See, I often had to take little trips to the future. Just to see what effect some of my tinkering was having. And I came across a situation that screamed of…you.”
They were suddenly on high plain that dropped into an abyss a few feet away from them. Ares motioned to them to move closer to the edge. “Come on. You can’t play your best if you don’t know the board.” They found each other’s hands and followed the War God.
“See that lovely cliff across the way?” He gestured to the other side of the chasm. “Behind it and down the valley is an encampment with a cohort of Roman soldiers. They’ve been trying to find a way around this mountain, or over that river way down there. There is one, but it’s a four days march to it and another four days back to here. In the meanwhile, on this side of the gorge, behind us, is a tribe of Germans. Now they hate the Romans nearly as much as Xena does. Because, not only are they bent on keeping their miserable piece of land, but after the last battle, the Romans crucified all of their leaders. And then their wives and children. Gotta love it.”
He looked to the partners for some reaction, but receiving none, continued.
“But one of the soldiers the Romans sent out for reconnaissance, well, he unfortunately got caught by them. So the Germans figure, turnabout being fair yaddayadda… so in just a candlemark, they’re going to tie that poor Roman bastard up and nail him to a cross right here. Where the Romans can see it. But in the old future, the Roman commander couldn’t bear such a mark of humiliation on his command, so he ordered one of his men to cross this gorge. And that poor little Roman gets completely stuck with German arrows for his efforts. So picture it. One on a cross and the other stuffed with arrows. Now does that sound or does it not sound like two people we both know? Now, generous being my middle name, I’m going to save both of those poor souls, by swapping them with my favourite ladies. But first, when in Rome…”
Gabrielle dropped to the ground, surreptitiously slipping the chakrum from under her robe to rest in the tall grass near her foot. Ares looked down at her, kneeling just as he would want, but asked suspiciously, “What? Giving up so soon? Don’t you wanna play, Gabby?
From the ground she replied, defiantly, “I figured if we’re about to have Roman armour put onto us, I’d prefer to take the weight off my knees first, if you don’t mind.”
Ares laughed. “You guys are so smart. One of the many things I love about you.”
From her place, kneeling on the ground, a glow began to coalesce around Gabrielle, until she could no longer be seen, but the sudden scream of pain had Xena running to her side. But before she could reach her, Ares had made the slightest movement with a finger and the warrior was flung to one side, where she lay frozen in place. The screams grew louder until the glow vanished, leaving Gabrielle lying on the ground, clad in a helmet, iron mail breastplate, leg and arm guards, belt, red and white tunic, and laced boots. But between the bowl-shaped helmet and neck guard was the face of a Gabrielle that was far more familiar to Xena. One with short cropped, almost bleached-blonde hair and a face she had dreamed of for centuries.
“What would be the point of having you watch each other die, if you could pretend it wasn’t really each other?” Ares asked rhetorically.
“I’m okay.” The bard shifted her shoulders experimentally, feeling the muscles confidently flex, and smiled. Unseen, her foot moved to find the chakrum, and slipped the toe of her boot through it. “Actually, better than okay.”
“And now, my warrior princess. I’m a little disappointed despite all my reminders, you didn’t feel the need to get revenge for that poor slave.”
“Yeah, well about that. As you must have guessed, you too get to be in the Roman Army again.”
Another glow surrounded Xena, and though she tried to remain silent, a pain-filled cry emerged, and then she was dressed identically to Gabrielle, and once again the familiar planes of her face could be seen under the helmet.
Ares admired his work. “Isn’t this perfect though? Now, I can’t take the risk of sending Xena to the Germans. Because you’d just as likely beat up their leader and take them over, right? Instead, you’ll just be a conscript with the cohort, following orders or find yourself whipped, while Gabby hangs on another cross. And despite the inevitable outcome, I just don’t think you’ll let that happen, will you? So now that you know the game, here are your choices.”
Xena rose and walked towards the God. “Choices?” she growled. “And what might they be?”
“To become whatever I will you to be.”
“Don’t think so, Ares.”
Are thrust his face into Xena’s. “You don’t get it do you? This is all you get for a choice. Because I will it. This is my world, the world I created and you will live or die as I decide. You can choose to be with me, or I will make you into whatever I want.”
“Why us? What’s the point?”
“Because you don’t know what’s best for you. And that’s me.”
Xena snorted. “You? The only time you had a chance of having me, was when I was mad. The only time we cared about you, wasn’t when you had power, but when you showed your vulnerability. When you were human. And this, this latest power crazed madman? He’s nothing to me. He’s Mars, and I don’t worship Gods.”
Ares shouted back, “I have loved you, needed you…”
Gabrielle spat out, “You don’t know what love is. This is all about power, not love. Control, not need.”
Ares spun to her. “I showed my love! I buried you together. I let you die together! That was love. But now… You’re right, you’ll see rage and my wrath. You will never, never be together again. Not in any moment. You can watch each other die the way you have in your nightmares. That’s my last wish for you. Unless one of you finally says the words. And you know what they are. Simply ask to save yourself or the other, say that you’ll be mine and I’ll grant your every wish. Or be mine anyways.”
He lowered his voice but continued to gloat. “See, there is no chance of victory. With the powers I’ll get at noon, I can change you into whatever I please. This time, Gabrielle won’t be a playwright. I’m not that idiot Caesar. Maybe we’ll just dumb you down a bit, maybe turn up the blood lust. How’d you like to be a gladiator, Gabby? A killing machine devoted to the Queen and King of the Gods. And maybe when we feel like it, Xena and I’ll let you sleep at the foot of our bed, like a dog. What about it? Maybe you need to really know what I’m talking about. Doing whatever I want. Do you know what that will feel like?”
There was no motion that they could see, but suddenly Xena slumped to join Gabrielle on her knees. Xena looked up at the glorious figure that was their God and began to wonder how she could ever have thought to best this greatest of beings. “Feel the glory, Xena. Imagine what you can do for me, the death… the conquest. And you Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle raised her dazed eyes, blinking.
“If I were to ask you to sacrifice yourself now, right now, what would you say?”
Her wondering lips parted and Xena could hear her soft and awestruck voice. “Anything, my Lord, whatever you wish…”
Ares released them and they shook themselves, a terrible shudder that was pure, cold fear.
Fighting her own shame, Xena looked at Ares with disgust. “I don’t know how many long hot baths it will take to get that feeling off…”
“But you haven’t the time.” Ares grinned cheerfully. “All I want to hear is you giving yourselves to me. Freely. Otherwise, this final game ends with both of your worst nightmares, and then I’ll take you anyway.”
“You think we’re going to give up, just because you rigged the game? We fight to the last minute, Ares. Always.”
“So one last moment together? A little goodbye?”
Still stunned at seeing their own familiar faces, they looked into each other’s eyes for one moment before slowly moving together. They reached out, but then, just as they about to touch one other, there was a small gesture by Ares, and they vanished, whisked off to their final destinies, alone.
Ares blew on his fingers. “Psych!”
And even if he’d been aware that a certain round killing thing was not lying on the grass where Gabrielle had stood, he wouldn’t have cared.
After all, His fate was already written.
And so was theirs.
For all his bravado, Ares now found himself with some time to kill, and so slipped back to Rome. Nothing seemed out of place but centuries of fine tuning the destinies of millions had made him cautious. He drifted outside the Temple of Venus, close enough to perceive that his priests were in there, no doubt readying sacrifices for the consecration of the newest Great Altar. He lazily tracked the hundreds of pigeons that had been released from the Palantine to deliver the final messages from the Emperor to the outlying temples in his honour.
After all the centuries of twisting threads, of trial and more errors than he would admit to, the day had finally come. Ultimate and supreme power. It was going to be good to be the King, he thought. And smiled.
And, as he checked the position of the sun, in a few hours, in one way or another, his two greatest obsessions and foes would be his. Why was it so important to break them? he mused. He was all-powerful, what did two mortals matter? It didn’t matter, he told himself, they would be on their knees praying to him like the rest of the world and their defiance, centuries of defiance, would be a memory only he would remember. But…
His wandering thoughts collided with an awareness of another of his projects, the son of the Emperor. Who seemed to be in attendance with his father. Ares was certain that the Emperor had been absent when he had last looked at the threads of the Loom of Fate. He was used to his changes having small ripples so he discounted it as having any importance.
After all, it was just a little thing.
He knew that he should be checking on the last details of his ascension, but he finally could not hold off returning and appearing to Xena. After all, what was the point of being omnipotent if you didn’t indulge yourself occasionally?
He made himself appear back on the cleft, this time on the Roman side. Things seemed to be ahead of schedule. The Romans had already brought up a catapult to the edge of the abyss and were preparing to launch a grappling rope across. Xena was still in her armour and regardless whether it was in some sad hope to rescue Gabrielle or in fear of being flogged, was clearly following orders, and destiny, by preparing to cross the chasm, once the rope had been secured on the other side.
He allowed her to see him as he appeared, floating above the chasm, as she prepared to cross along the rope hand over hand once it was secured to both sides. He could see that she was aware of him, but she ignored him to leap out onto the rope, and begin her doomed rescue.
“I can hear the Germans, Xena,” he called to her. “They’ll be coming up that hill any moment. With your bard bleeding on a cross. Just say the words, Xena, because I’ll take what’s mine anyways. The sun is almost at its peak. The countdown is at an end.”
Gasping, she spat out, “We’ve had this conversation, MARS. The Ares I knew is under there somewhere but it’s not worth the effort to find him anymore. The only person that counts to me, expects me to keep my promise and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Ares chuckled. “To die together? I don’t think so. In fact, I know so.”
Xena paused her advance again. “Ya know what I think? You being here just shows how little mankind needs the gods, because you don’t seem to have anything better to do.”
Ares ignored her and instead pointed to the rise on the other side of the cleft. “And here they come, right on time. Everything’s right on time. The sun, the sun is near its peak. Let Apollo look down one last time as I rise above him forever. Soon, so very soon. I will be EVERYTHING!”
Sure enough, the tip of a wooden cross appeared over the hill. Ares watched Xena’s face and to his disbelief, despite the strain of her continuing efforts to cross the cleft, there was anticipation, not fear, in her eyes.
When the cross finally rose over the slope of the hill, it was empty, and Ares anxiously scanned the tribesmen for Gabrielle. When he saw her, she was not a prisoner at all. To his complete surprise, she was actually in the lead, in full Germanic traditional dress, urging them onwards.
Like them, she was dressed in a leather poncho and the loose trousers favoured by this tribe. Like the rest, she carried a spear and shield and her short bleached hair matched her new kinsmen.
Ares cursed himself. The Germanics often bleached their hair to the exact shade of Gabrielle’s, or they coloured it red and cut it short after and often over, their first kill. And with all her years of travel, she’d probably learned a dozen languages including theirs, and had no trouble convincing them she was in armour as a spy on the Romans. Here he’d been worried about Xena taking command, and that irritating but remarkable blonde had done it instead.
As these realisations were coursing through Ares’ mind, Xena shouted, “You think you know her and yet you still keep underestimating her, don’t you, MARS? It’s like her secret weapon, I swear.”
The pleasure in her voice caused Ares to snap and without thinking of his greater plans, he pushed in her direction. The force of the god’s rage flung Xena back across the gorge, up and tumbling over the plain. She was able to pull into a ball before receiving any major injury, then sprang out of the tuck, landing on her feet. She was already running back up the slope to the crest when a well-aimed fireball smashed into the Roman catapult, reducing it to smoking fragments. There was a call from the Roman commander to retreat and Xena found herself alone on her side of the gorge.
On the other side, Gabrielle’s forces had also panicked upon seeing the War God, but when she shouted her orders, a few managed to rally and let fly their own rope across the gorge. Xena was at the cliffside, tying it off immediately and once again crossing hand-over-hand.
Ares flung out his arm once more and this time a fire ball burned through the rope, which snapped half way across. Xena fell with it, falling for several feet into the gorge until the rope held, smashing her into the cliff face. While she managed to keep her grip on the rope, there was another wave of the God’s hand and a salvo of arrows materialized in the air above her, before moving swiftly at her. He watched as they soared towards the helpless warrior with satisfaction, until they were suddenly sliced in twain by a familiar whirring object, which returned with a snap into Gabrielle’s hand.
"How...?" Though the God as he stared at the obect in her hands. Could this woman not stop surprising him? And the Germans must have been impressed even more.
Spinning about to deal with this latest attempt to thwart his vision, Ares sent another fireball directly towards Gabrielle, who barely dodged it. It struck one of her tribesmen and his shrieks of pain drove off the remainder of her forces. There was no cover for her to run to and she knew it, so as she rolled away she threw the chakrum towards Xena hoping the warrior could use it to defend herself at least. Again the war god sent out a fireball but this one struck the chakrum with a cracking sound that echoed across the gorge, and to all of their astonished eyes, it hung there for a long moment, split into two pieces, before falling, useless, into the depths below.
Another series of arrows appeared and hung in the air, waiting for a command to launch at Xena. A fireball formed in Ares’ hands and he looked to where the Bard was crouched, waiting to see which way to jump. Instead he formed two more, and threw all three towards her, arcing at her from each side, with no way to escape.
It was not entirely as he’d planned, but it was close enough.
And then he stopped time once more.
He took in the partners’ positions and noted with satisfaction that they would both be dead in the moment he allowed time to continue.
Xena still held onto the rope, though there was no longer any need, as she was suspended in the air, weightless. She maintained her composure, glaring with slitted eyes as the War God walked across the gorge, striding on the air as if it were the firmest of paths. He stopped in front of her, his face almost sad and said quietly, “Game over, Xena.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, silently seething at their defeat. “It’s never been just a game, Ares. And whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any.”
Ares’ expression didn’t change. “That’s what I figured.”
“So what’s this been about for the last few centuries? Just getting your jollies?”
“Nah, I had a hope. Even the omnipotent have hopes, you know. You always were special to me. And I did really think that just maybe the whole evil Gab thing might break you, but I was rushed. Other things on my mind, big day and all.”
He sighed dramatically. "Nope, sorry Xena, but for the last century… you’ve only been the back up plan.” He smiled at the mounting horror in the warrior’s eyes as the realisation struck; exactly what the true plan had been and that Ares’ absolute self-assurance meant that it was about to be fulfilled.
The God turned, his laughter filling the air, negligently flicking his fingers towards the hovering arrows. They responded like attack dogs released from their leash and instantly flew towards her. Xena tried to bear down on against the cliff face, hopelessly attempting to spring across the gorge by sheer force of will, needing to do something, anything, to get to her partner to stop whatever inducement Ares had planned. But she had barely enough time to scream “NO!” when the torrent of arrows struck and pierced her, humbling her in agony.
Ares smiled with satisfaction one last time before turning away and saying, “See ya. I’ll try to make sure my new Queen has the time to say goodbye.”
Gabrielle also found herself able to move again but the fireballs stayed in place, vibrating with confined destruction, but motionless while waiting for the command to reduce her to ashes. But before she was even able to think of evading them, her eyes were seared by the recurrence of a nightmare memory. Turning towards an agonised scream, she saw Xena, pierced by a dozen arrows, each jutting haphazardly out of her bleeding body.
More than one a mortal wound. She struggled to breathe and her heart seemed to judder to a halt.
She should have been prepared; she knew that this was Ares' plan, she told herself. She was nevertheless devastated as her partner shuddered in pain and then froze, becoming motionless. Even the small spray of blood halted in its course down Xena’s body.
And then Ares materialized to block her view.
“Hey, Gab. As I was just telling Xena, game’s over, you know? And I hope you’re happy. After all, this is really all down to you, Gabrielle. She wouldn't give in to me. She’s kept her promise. Her promise to you. You’ve done your job well," he smirked. "Congratulations.”
Tearing her eyes from the repetition of one of her worst memories on earth, she tried to channel her partner’s detached attitude but all that spilled from her mouth was, “You bastard.”
Ares laughed, and continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Not a small accomplishment on your part. Since we both know how hard it is to get into that thick skull, but you did it. More than I ever did. So that does win you a prize. Something I wouldn’t offer anyone else.”
He paused and looked intently into her eyes. “A prize like... Power, beyond any mortal’s imagining. And your mind, free of all manipulations by me. Free to think and advise and refuse. But by my side.”
“Me?” She wanted to cry and laugh. “You want me to your warrior princess now?”
“Nah, what I need, and this world I shaped needs, is more of, say an Athena. But better. One who knows mortal minds and hearts. This world needs balance. I did too good a job. It’s too violent, too grounded in war to survive without blowing itself up far too soon for my liking. You could be the balance that saves it. Saves the world. What do you think?”
Still crouched, she looked past the fireballs that seem to be waiting on her words, and she could see Xena suspended from the rope. Her warrior’s face frozen in a cry Gabrielle felt was bubbling up inside of her as well. “Why would I agree to anything you’d offer?” she spat.
“Because I can also give Xena what she wants. What she always wanted, even more than to be with you.”
And suddenly Gabrielle found herself somewhere surrounded by a darkness that moved and crawled. Ahead, in colours just brighter than the darkness, was a scene that stole her breath away. It was a family, their love and warmth palpable to her. There were children sprawled laughing in the warmth of a hearth, the centrepiece of a home that was neither wealthy not poor; simply comfortable. Out of focus were the parents above the children, their love and affection far clearer than the blurred picture. Gabrielle pulled herself away from the vision to call into the dark, “So is this what you tempted Xena with?”
“Not exactly,” a chuckle accompanied the rich voice. “Take a look at the face of the mother.”
And it was clear now, that it wasn’t Gabrielle in this vision of peace, but Xena. Her face more relaxed than Gabrielle could have ever imagined and her eyes clearer and glowing with serenity.
“Cortese never had to happen, Gabrielle. I still have the power to put her in the home she wanted before all that happened. She can be the person she wanted to be. What she wanted for herself, for you, for Solon and was always taken from her. This is her secret, Gabrielle. This is what she’s always wanted. This is what we both took from her.”
Gabrielle stared at the figure, at the children gathered about her, shaking her head slowly.
“Yes, Gabrielle. This is what she chose when she had the Fates’ promise. She wanted a life where she had never killed. This is what Xena always truly wanted. Is it a surprise she kept trying to impose it on you?”
“But when the Fates granted that wish, she gave it up!”
“Only to save you from taking a life. Even when her brother was killed, she didn’t waver. It was only when you had took up the sword, had killed, that she’d sacrificed it all. She’d sacrificed it all for you. For your blood innocence.”
Ares chuckled at the guilt her saw spread across the bard’s face. “But that ship sailed a long time ago, didn’t it? She gave up her soul’s peace for you, Gabrielle. And how many times have you killed since then? How much blood is there on those hands? A dozen deaths? A hundred? A thousand? How many more if we count the deaths of those who opposed you, or died following you, as you led them in battle?”
He waited for a moment before allowing her to see the vision of Xena even more clearly. “I can give her this, Gabrielle. I can bring her peace.”
Another piece fell into place for Gabrielle. Ares was telling the truth. Her driven partner, filled with anger and guilt, had a place, somewhere buried inside, that wanted this domesticity. She’d been forced to abandon it for herself, but had still dreamed of peace and home and family for Solon. And for her bard. And Gabrielle knew. What broken dream had been dragged behind that horse so many years ago.
The War God had been following her thoughts. “Your blood innocence is long gone, isn’t it? She sacrificed it for nothing. So it’s no surprise, that when that part of her that still hoped for this peace, the peace she hoped that Solon might have had, that you might have had, this nurturing place, was finally crushed forever… by you… Is it really a shock that she completely snapped?”
Ares’ voice became firm and confident. “This is our fault, yours and mine. You owe her this, Gabrielle. We both owe her this.”
She heard her own voice weakly asking, “How can I be sure you’d let her have this? Why would I trust you?”
“Because you’ll be there, beside me. Making me keep that promise and keeping her safe. You can save her AND save the entire world from its own self-immolation by being my balance. I told you, this world is too violent, too steeped in War and its fire. I can make you a Goddess, a goddess of unimaginable powers and everyone will benefit. Refuse me, and she dies clinging like a spider to that wall and you’ll burn in my flames. And the world?" He mimed an explosion. "Boom. And you? You'll both live for one... more... little moment, the end of little lives, and then… nothing more. You’ll have sacrificed everything, everyone's future, for one pain filled moment.
"But if you agree, you can change the world, and give Xena what she needs.”
His whispers seemed both inside her mind and right by her ear, “I thought she meant something to you. But you’d rather die for nothing this time? When you have this one chance to keep her whole? To save her and the world? Come with me, Gabrielle. Admit that this offer is everything you could have wanted.”
The vision of the happy and innocent Xena began to fade and she felt the loss of it immediately.
His breath still brushed her ears. “What are you willing to give for your love? She’s trapped, dead by those arrows because you’re the best. Only you could have convinced Xena to never give in to me. And one last present. All that guilt over those deaths, the nightmares, I can make them go away, like THAT!”
And it was true. She could feel it as a huge weight dropping from her shoulders. The memories of that girl staring at the knife that had pierced Meridien, the Roman soldiers killed for nothing but her rage, the weight of so many deaths and betrayals, it was gone. And it was as though she was taller, stronger without them. All of her contradictions, the excuses she had made with each kill, they were not even bindings anymore, unnecessary threads that could no longer constrain her.
“You know what your mind can do, Gabrielle. You know how you love to plan, to feel out others. Instead of telling a story or planning a birthday,” and the War God rolled his eyes, “you could be shaping… the… world.” His whispers were caressing her ears again. “With just your words. Just like you changed Xena’s choice. A saviour on the battlefield, with me, and all the power I can give you.”
A part of her was telling her this was a part of the plan, to delay him until noon arrived. But another part could feel the desire to agree grow with each syllable He spoke. With each breath. His words continued to waft past her ears. To stop being the child, the sidekick. To have the power to make the whole world and the all the people into something… better. And she looked towards that vision of contentment that could be her lover’s potential future and she felt only satisfaction. Everything seemed to fit into place and thoughts of a plan to defeat the War God were unimportant. Her insecurities and Xena’s happiness, this was no sacrifice. This was Destiny. She reached into the vision to try to stroke that raven hair for one last time, one short goodbye.
Gabrielle wrenched herself away from the swirling darkness that comprised the vision of Xena and family, to see a glowing light-filled passage appearing beside her. She was slightly surprised to find that her tears had already dried. Perhaps such things were only for mortals. So she turned towards the light, thrusting aside an inner conflict that for some reason she could no longer understand, seemed to be fighting the giddy anticipation of this new challenge and new life.
The luminous passage began to consolidate into an archway of the finest marble, of a towering height and gleaming in a manner that the finest Roman architects could only have wept to see. Beneath it, Ares waited, clad in armour that shone as brightly as the marble. There was a thrumming that was vibrating throughout her body and as she stared at him, so casually waiting for her, it seemed as though she was pulsing in tune with him. She was intimately aware of his allure and she found herself being drawn towards him.
She closed her eyes for a moment, forcing down a desire to run to him in eagerness. Ares seemed to recognise that she was resisting him but only smiled.
She raised her arm, somewhat surprised to discover she was still clad in the grubby German tribal attire, and pointed beyond the archway, asking, “Olympus?”
“Why not?” he replied with studied carelessness. “I was considering moving out from under the family, but what would you like?”
She drew on her memories of another poet. “Which never storms disturb, rains drench, or snow invades, but calm the expanse and cloudless shines with purest day.”
This drew a lazy smile from him. “Yeah, that’s the place. Or we could build something just for two?”
She tilted her head, considering. “Two thrones?”
“Something you were saving for Xena?”
A frown passed over his handsome face. “You really gotta get over the whole Xena thing, kid. You were never a second choice.”
She nodded, acknowledging what suddenly seemed so clear to her. “This was the plan all along.”
He stooped over, before dropping down into a squat in front of her, a devilish gleam in his eyes. “Hey, I tried to figure out a way to get both of you, but it wasn’t gonna happen. At least with both your minds intact. And blind obedience can be fun, but gets boring after a few centuries. And it doesn’t provide much balance.”
Her tone was light, almost careless, as she asked, “So why the centuries torturing Xena?”
He chuckled and lightly caressed her jaw with one finger. She strove not to show her pleasure, her expression only showing her desire for his answers.
“Torture? Nah, I was giving her a choice. What can I say? I’m an optimist. But Xena’s just too much like me. She may exceed the teacher occasionally, but we do think alike.”
Now his hand grazed her cheek slightly and she swallowed as he continued with a lower voice. “You, on the other hand, are both the student and the teacher. But I couldn’t figure out how to get you from the Amazon Land of the Dead. So I was forced to play poor Xena, waiting for Dite and Arti to get a clue.” He smiled at her with something that seemed like real affection. “Anyway, I knew you were the key. Either to breaking her or by joining me. So it all ends well.”
But it wasn’t ending well, was it? Gabrielle knew something was wrong, but she felt completely disconnected from almost any serious worries. “She wouldn’t want me to do this. She’d never want me to make this sacrifice for her,” Gabrielle mused aloud.
Ares shook his head and laughed. “Sacrifice? A chance to save the world…”
“From you…” she pointed out, smiling.
“From me, and return to your partner what was taken from her? And let’s not forget, almost ultimate power, you wanna call that a sacrifice?”
She shook her head, as though attempting to clear it, but everything was already so clear, wasn’t it? “This isn’t what we promised…”
“Gabrielle, you know a good commander has to change the battle plan when new information comes along. Xena couldn’t have known what this deal would be. So whatever agreement, whatever pact you made before this, hardly counts.”
He reached out to take her hand and she moved gracefully to take it and found herself walking alongside Him, feeling His attraction, feeling the joined rush of power, feeling invincible… but there was something very wrong, something missing and it was somehow familiar. It was just like when she’d died….
Ares was still inside her thoughts and he barked a laugh. “You won’t have to worry about death any longer.”
“I wasn’t worried about that specifically,” she tried to clarify. She shook her head again trying to seize onto her memories, but they seemed so flimsy and insubstantial. “More what happened last time. What Aphrodite took… whatever.” She frowned and tried to focus again. “The same things you took… that you took from me.”
He shrugged. “You mean your pain, fears, your insecurities? You had a limp, so I helped you walk straight. That’s not what I’d call a problem.”
She closed her eyes and held still, waiting for him to turn back towards her. When he had, she kept her eyes to the ground, afraid to be drawn again into his strength. “You said you wanted a mortal, with a mortal’s attachments. Without those things, I don’t think, I’m not… myself.”
“No, you’re better.”
His patronising tone was just what she needed to marshal her thoughts, and return some of her spirit. “If I bump into a table, and you take away the bruise, I‘m just as likely to bump into it again,” she argued. “For all the… fullness, inside of me now, there’s something missing. Missing like when Aphrodite let me die without my emotions, and I ended up regretting what I’d lost. I’m not making that mistake again. Give me those things again, just so I know I’m making this choice clearly.”
Impatience showed in the God’s stance. “We’re wasting time.”
Gabrielle looked into his eyes. Gauging him. “What’s wrong, Ares? Not so sure of the deal?”
“Fine, have all your bruises back, but remember, my deal is still far better than the one you made with Xena.”
And she almost fell to her knees as the weight of her own memories and emotion filled her again. There was still the strength and power of the Gods running through her and they fought in her heart for a moment, as she delved into what had bothered her about his statement. That sense of a wrongness coalesced about a single word and she knew what it was. Inside the smooth flow of his words, there was a jagged edge that cut her. It was the word deal. She shook her head and raised her face to look at him. There was a still a primal attraction but it was once again mixed with a deep revulsion for what he had done.
“That wasn’t a deal between Xena and me, Ares. Or some sort of treaty, or a contract. It was a promise. We made a promise to each other.”
“In the end, what’s the difference?” he said disparagingly.
And she could see he that he truly didn’t know. But he had, once, at least that one time. She recalled for him, “When you saved Eve and me, when you gave up your Godhood, you didn’t ask for anything. You just made the sacrifice without asking for anything back.”
“But you both felt obliged to get it back for me,” he retorted.
“At that moment, you didn’t do it for that reason. Is there some part of you that remembers what that meant?”
But it was clear from his bored expression that he didn’t and at that instant Gabrielle knew what she had almost given up and what Ares had already lost. And that she and Xena were not the only ones being tested.
“If I say no to this, you would… send me back, back to where Xena and I die, apart? Just for revenge? There’s no part of you that wants another choice?”
“Wha’dya mean? You want me to let you go, let’s all be friends again?” he mocked.
“I’m a God! You don’t get to reject me and not pay for it. No one… rejects… ME.”
She found herself feeling compassion for the God, as strange as that might have seemed to anyone else. Though she knew Xena would understand, Xena was the only one who could. There in that perfect splendour of physical perfection, there was now only ugliness. Whatever humanity, whatever love might have been inside him, the centuries of unlimited power had burned it away, leaving only shells of desires. If she was right, and there would be a punishment, then Ares would also have to face it.
“Sorry, Ares. And I am sorry.”
“Oh, not again,” he exploded. “COME ON!”
“No, Ares. All your tricks aside, this isn’t me. Not who I want to be, or who I truly am. I can see the logic in this, and you had me going for a bit. You can’t know how much, but no. I promised. As much as she promised. That no matter how small the chance, no matter how little the possibility, we would try with our last breath to be together. And because I know that amongst all the guilt and insecurities you think are keeping me back, that’s my humanity. And my strength. I can’t become this thing for you, just so she’d be happy, because she wouldn’t want me to. And anyways, in the end… I need to be with her. Need it more than I need anything else.”
He was silent, his face blank, and she almost turned away, feeling she was intruding somehow.
“I wish you’d take the chance and just let us go. But I know you won’t, and I’m sorry for that too. Send me back. Because in the end, you only offered me this because she kept her promise, and I won’t cheat her of that sacrifice.”
“You’re sorry,” Ares stated flatly.
“I am. More than you can imagine, and that’s the pity of it.”
“Rather than be with me, both of you would rather go to your deaths. Alone.”
“No. To what ever fate we can still make.”
The War God’s face tightened and his frown became an angry grimace. He threw back his head and laughed, but there was no humour in it. “Your fate?” His figure began to grow and expanded in height until he was towering over Gabrielle, his rage like thunder and his voice sharper than lightning. “Then DIE… you… Ungrateful BITCH!”
And instantly, she was there again, frozen on the hillside, the fireballs on all sides, swiftly traveling towards her. Knowing that she had little chance, she nevertheless leapt to the side, evading two of them. The third, struck her dead on, in the chest, searing her, burning away skin almost to the bone. It was a mortal wound, and somehow in her agony, she knew that as a fact, as clearly as if she’d seen her own pyre.
Ares watched from high above, stone faced, as the two women he had admired and loved so long ago, suffered, soon to die. He pushed away any residue of emotion from their shared pasts, pushed away the smallest remnant of sympathetic pain at their distress, and continued to observe in magisterial silence. At least that was how he appeared. In contrast to his thoughts.
‘Centuries of work. Centuries of plotting and twisting and planning and they both say no??? Damn them, damn every mortal and all of their progeny’, the God of War proclaimed in his mind. And he took pleasure that these last two rebels would never again touch, that the broad crevasse would keep them apart as they suffered through their last moments. Before he seized their souls for his own pleasures.
This knowledge calmed him and he found his composure once more. ‘None of this matters. It’s just an insignificant sideshow. The True history of the world begins now, and all that came before this, will not be remembered by anyone, least of all by me.’
He looked to the skies and to the sun that was now at its zenith; anticipating the supremacy he knew was coming, that he knew would be soon flowing through every particle of his body. He rose into the air, sent out tendrils from his mind to touch the altars that would be first to be dedicated, and closed his eyes in glorious expectation. Beneath him, two mortals, that he had once cared for and loved, were dying.
But how did that matter anymore?
His moment of anticipation was staggeringly crushed. Instead of the long-awaited power flowing into his fingers, Ares felt as though his hands had been cut off with an axe. Pain sliced through his mind and not having felt any hurt at all for centuries, he fell to the ground, crashing, barely remaining on his feet, a short distance from where Gabrielle lay herself, gasping in pain.
“What…?” He staggered again and toppled to the ground, and when he opened his eyes, they met the gleaming smile of Xena, still hanging from the other cliff, blood streaming in rivulets down her body, and yet somehow grinning in triumph despite her own mortal wounds.
“Oh, got an owie? Tsk tsk,” she managed.
“How…?” he asked, before another spasm lanced through him.
The wind caught the warrior and she rotated slightly around the rope, closing her eyes as the movement twisted a few of the arrows, but her smile remained undimmed. “You’re wondering what went wrong with the great plan?” Xena raised a blood-streaked arm to point at the fallen bard, trying to keep the tears from rising in her eyes. “Well, she did. What you’re feeling isn’t brand new suckers to the Great God. Just the reverse. ‘Fraid all those new altars were a bit premature. They’re being taken out.” She stopped to gain a breath and then continued, remorselessly. “They’re being rededicated to other Gods or just smashed… right where they stand. We played you, Mars. We let ourselves be caught. While you’ve been playing your sick game, messages were sent out today to all the Empire, by order of the Emperor of Rome, because Gabrielle convinced him that you… were just a rock in the stream of life.” She began to chuckle, and though it was cut off by a spasm of coughing, her smile never left her face.
Seething, and driven to end that grin, Ares struggled to his feet and tried to send a fireball right into the mocking visage, but again, somewhere another altar was smashed and he fell again to his knees in unthinking pain.
Xena forced her eyes a few metres to scrutinize her partner. Gabrielle had somehow maintained consciousness and raised her head so that she could also see across to Xena. Even from that distance, dangling from the cliff, the warrior could make out the charred flesh, blackened and exposed, and knew that the bard had very little time left. The pain, she knew, must be agonising, but at least the fireball had seared her flesh so that there was little blood loss. Their eyes caught, held and they shared an aching gaze across the breadth of the chasm, a gaze that embraced each of them for an age. Xena had almost forgotten what is was like to be so completely absorbed in Gabrielle’s eyes, connecting with more than one another’s thoughts… until Gabrielle broke the stare, to look downwards. To direct Xena’s eyes along the steep downhill slope, down to the river far below. The one place they could conceivably reach to be united.
Xena contemplated the impossibility of Gabrielle, in her condition, crawling that distance to the base of the canyon, or of herself dropping or climbing down the cliff face. But in the face of the determination she could see in her lover’s expression, she could only nod her agreement.
Gabrielle acknowledged the pact with a short nod, and closed her eyes to prepare herself for the pain, pulled up her knees into a tuck, biting her tongue as the pressure against her shredded chest tore at her nerves. She grasped the hem of her poncho and pulled it so that it rested under her legs and feet and gripped it tightly, and prodded and pushed at the ground until she began to slide forward. Surely gathering speed, she began to toboggan her way down the steep slope.
‘Atta girl’ Xena thought in admiration. As the bard descended, Xena turned to solve her own small problem.
Xena stared angrily at the smooth cliff walls and then at the immense distance to the ground. For the moment, she had nothing to fear from Ares, as he was still feeling the collapse of another altar and lay on his side, groaning in agony, unable to think of anything but his own defeat and loss.
To drop, even without these injuries, would mean certain death. Any other alterative would take time and Gabrielle clearly did not have long to live. She scanned the length of the sheer cliff, finding nothing that could be used as a foothold, nor did she have anything within reach that could make or be used as one. Or did she? Xena examined the arrows jutting out of her body, each in the few gaps not covered by the Roman armour. They were of a fine hardwood, and most could not be removed without releasing a cascade of blood. She selected two closest to her right arm, arrows that did not appear to be staunching the flow of blood, worked them back and forth until the points released. The pain was severe, but she focussed on the trust she had seen in Gabrielle’s eyes, faith that the former warlord would find a way to join her. Finally she had two, firm, unsplintered arrows in her hands. She thrust one into the soft limestone of the cliff and felt triumph in her heart as it held. Then pounded the other into the wall of stone as well. She cut herself loose from the rope and began the laborious task of using the two arrows as handholds to all too slowly, lower herself down into the valley.
“I can do this. I will do this,” Gabrielle muttered to herself. Her ability to maintain her balance was uncertain, and sliding through the sparse underbrush took all of her waning concentration, but she kept the base of the ravine in sight as her final objective, even as the jolts of the underbrush and then jagged rocks caused everything to turn to…
Joxer is shouting, “Xena, what are you doing?”
‘You're not real. You're in my mind,’ she tells herself or is it Calisto again? and then, oh Gods, the rope is catching around her and she’s being pulled and the ground is tearing her and the stream and the rocks are cutting into her and the physical pain is almost, almost as terrible as the anguish and regret until it all stops and Xena, but not Xena not her Xena, never her Xena, lifts her above her shoulders and screams “VENGEANCE!” And she tries to fight but they’re falling, falling into…
…of the noon sun was once again blinding her and she realised she was still only part way down the hillside and somehow she’d fallen on her side. The stinging pain of her burned flesh was all she could feel or sense and she was wondering why she had to move and why she couldn’t die right there. She lifted her head and saw Xena. Xena, somehow keeping that impossible promise. Making her way down the sheer cliff. Using the bloodstained arrows she had pulled out of her own body. As her mind and eyes cleared, she could see the blood, so much blood, running along her partner’s forearms, drizzling down, like a perverse rain.
‘What were those words? If I only had 30 seconds to live…?’
Tears filled her eyes, and inspired once again by the heroics of this woman, she found some last strength inside and twisted herself back upright but even as she began to move down slope again, it was too much and once again it all went…
…from the skies filled with the snow, fluttering gently, as it kisses her skin it almost seems warm and Xena’s eyes and that loving smile are all she can see as the soldiers position her arm for the next nail and Xena says "Gabrielle-- you were the best thing in my life.” And she replies with words from her core, from her heart, but then the nail punctures her palm and through into the wood and then once more and they are being lifted up and her own weight pulls at the nails and the shock of the movement turns everything…
…skin speckled with blood in front of her eyes and it was hers because this was real again and she was back on the hillside and she had to get up because she’d promised and if there was still that chance she had to be there, they have to prove that they can be there for each other and she was damn well not going to fail, and if Xena could make it and Hades, whatever she had to do, dammit, she was going to get down there. All that they’d been to each other, all of the trust, betrayal and yes, love, came down to this moment. “Gotta stop passing out, gotta get DOWN there….” And she was sliding again and getting closer but it was still out of reach because there was a steep drop just before a hillock that she couldn’t avoid hitting and she slammed into it and everything went…
Xena’s could feel the blood loss affecting her and she was aware that it was stealing her concentration. She tried pacing herself with a rhythmic chant,
*Thrust into the rock*
*pull out /thrust IN*
‘GAB ri ELLE.’
But the cliff wavered before her eyes and her mind shifted to other places and other voices.
“The arrow must've grazed your lung. The poison…”
"I just ran out of time didn't I?”
‘GOT to’ *thrust*
‘GET to’ *Pull*
‘GAB-ri ‘ *Thrust*
"You've got to take me with you-- teach me everything you know. You can't leave me here in Poteidaia. I wanna go with you. I've studied the stars--spoken with philosophers-- and I have the gift of prophecy. I can be very valuable to you. Take me with you. I want so much to be like you.”
"And I want to be like you,” she remembered. There were tears in her eyes as the memories coursed through her mind. She blinked both tears and the past away, only to see that down below, but only two thirds of the way to the stream, Gabrielle had crashed, fallen on her side, her body lying all too still. At the same moment, she could feel, she knew somehow, that Ares had again risen to his feet once more. Xena also knew that she was entirely defenceless, clinging to the cliffside by her fragile handholds. But her luck held again and before he could launch an attack, two small altars in the countryside were deconsecrated and he fell to his knees once more.
She glowered down at where the bard’s body lay, feeling her heart clench at the stillness, terrified to her battered soul that she was already too late. The distance was still far too great for her to survive the fall in her condition, so she could only continue her slow descent and her chant:
‘GOT to’ *thrust*
‘GET to ‘ *Pull *
She forced her body into the rhythm but the pain and worry threatened to overcome even that discipline. As she tried to close her mind off, once again it meandered to a time with too many echoes of the present.
"Don't you argue with me! I know that I'm going to die—I accept that. Why can't you? A long time ago, I accepted the consequences of our life together-- that it might one day come to this. It has. I'm not afraid.”
And then her own voice, cracking with emotion but firm, so sure.
"You always said that I was the brave one. Look at you now. If this is to be our destiny, let's see it out together. Even in death, Gabrielle—I will never leave you.”
The broken promise hurt as much as the shafts piercing her body. ‘I knew the truth of what we were together. For that one moment, I knew. How did I ever forget that? How did I move away from that? Why? Was I afraid? Or just a fool?’
‘GOT to’ *thrust*
‘GET to’ *Pull*
She heard a groan of pain, and this time it was not Ares mourning his losses. She looked across and saw that Gabrielle was stirring below, struggling to right herself. There were more anguished sounds that tore at Xena’s soul, until she could see that somehow the bard was once again moving downhill in a more or less controlled slide. But in her struggle, she must have torn away some of the cauterized tissue, and was leaving a glistening trail of blood on the underbrush. Xena pushed herself to increase her speed, knowing that only sheer determination could be keeping the bard alive now.
She felt the hairs on her neck prickle, and looked up to see that Ares had managed to crawl to the edge of the hill and was once more about to launch a fireball, his eyes red with pain and twisted passions.
But this time he succeeded.
The flaming ball flew straight for her and despite the distance below, she knew she had nowhere to go but down. She pulled out both arrowheads and let herself plummet.
The fall was swift and nearly deadly. Despite attempting to prepare herself, she slammed into the ground, hard, splintering her heels. She did not try to hold back the scream of pain. She staggered forward, and collapsed. Smashing at the arrows in her chest. Burying them deeper. Further puncturing her lungs and other organs she didn’t have the time to think about. She managed to roll onto her side, one bloody arrow still in her hand, her eyes desperately trying to find her partner. But instead, falling on one last barrier.
The stream that had created the chasm.
It flowed between them, and she couldn’t walk, much less stand. And though Ares had been slowed down, he would be there soon enough. Their time, like their life’s blood, was running out.
She lifted her eyes and on the other side, Gabrielle was still sliding downhill, till she hit a small outcropping. The force lifted her upwards, and she landed, hard, on her side. Her body continuing to skid along the ground, until she finally stopped, resting alongside the water.
As painful and terrifying as the sight had been, what caused Xena’s heart to freeze, was that throughout the fall and slide, there had been not a sound from her bard. Throughout, Gabrielle had not uttered a gasp or cry, and now her body lay, boneless.
Her only movement was the motion of one extended hand, as it drifted in the water, as the waves rocked it back and forth.
“Gabrielle!” she cried out, the shrillness of her voice revealing her panic. Refusing to believe she was too late, Xena used the last arrow to drag herself along the ground in a slow crawl until she reached the edge of the stream. Once there, she let go of the arrow and gripped a few of the larger rocks and pulled her body into the icy water, leaving her own trail of blood behind her on the shore. The sting of the cold did not refresh her at all, but she was beyond noticing such minor disappointments now. She forced herself to snap off some of the arrows that still protruded, to allow her to roll with the current. Meanwhile, her senses told her that Ares was slowly recovering. The last fireball had drained him, but he would be coming soon, and looking for vengeance. She used one arm to dig into the small stones and pull her body against the current, downstream from Gabrielle’s body. Resting only when it became necessary and when a swirl in the current helped her draw closer to her goal.
She reached the centre of the stream where the water ran slower but it was deeper and an eddy washed over her face. She spat out the intrusion and called out, “GABRIELLE! HOLD ON!”
Gabrielle was not unconscious, but her mind was wandering in and out of oblivion. It was hard for her to know what was real and what was her own imagination. She thought she heard a voice calling her name but it seemed so very far away. She knew she had to stay awake, and she pulled one arm free to scrabble in the dirt until she managed to find and then grasp a flint in her hand. Blood seeped around it as she pressed it into her palm to remain conscious.
Xena had almost reached the far side of the brook, a few feet downstream from Gabrielle. She hoped that she could use the force of the current to give her enough lift to heave herself out of the stream. Alongside the bard. If she didn’t pass out first. Or if Gabrielle was still alive. ‘No, she had to be alive. She HAD to be alive.’
“Gabrielle? I’m almost there. Talk to me!” she gasped, even as she continued to struggle across. “I need a story now, Gabrielle. I need to hear one of your stories. Remember… remember the first time… the first time we lay out…out...”
It was almost only a sigh, but she still heard the words, “…under the stars?”
A foolish grin broke out on her face and her eyes were again filled with tears. “Yes! Yes, Gabrielle. Under the stars.” Her boot caught a boulder underwater and she steadied herself, holding against the current. “And our first kiss…”
Again, almost unheard, came the reply, “In the dreamscape.”
“That’s right, love. I wouldn’t trade anything for those memories.” One boot was firmly hooked around the rock, and the other was pressed against it, ready to push out. She primed herself for the pain that was sure to follow. “And there’ll be more. More memories. I know that now. And if I can believe that, then you can hold on, Gabrielle. Please!”
She kicked away and surged into the stream, and waiting for just the right moment, thrust her arms into the river bed, pushing hard, and rolled in the air for what might be the last time. Landing with a muffled cry, but finally, alongside her life’s love.
Panting, exhausted and frightened, she lifted her head to look upon the supine form. The stream of blood seemed far too much for any living person to have left behind them. She felt a slight hysteria seize her and she found herself begging, pleading, “Gabrielle? Gabrielle! Please, please have waited…”
The whisper from close at hand was quiet, yet firm. “Waited for you. And this time… you came.”
The words re-energized the warrior and hardly noticing her own wounds, she pulled herself nearer, and slowly slid one arm about the prostate bard. Gabrielle lifted her head just enough to look into Xena’s face, into her eyes and from somewhere found an exhausted smile.
“So what kept you this time?” Gabrielle managed.
Xena tried to chuckle, but instead her lungs forced out a bloody cough. “Sorry, stairs… were a bit… steep.” She raised a trembling hand to caress Gabrielle’s face, trying not to smear it with any of the blood that dripped from her fingers. “Thought you might… might have changed… your mind.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No. Just a diversion… different paths, same destination,” she whispered, weakly.
Xena gazed at the burned and bloody body and said, “Always. From now on. Always. But…”
There was still a bit of sassiness still left in the bard and she waved a shaking finger in front of Xena’s face. “If you say you’re sorry, I swear I’m going to find the strength from somewhere and hit you, you got that?”
The warrior reached up and carefully held the finger. Kissed it gently and nodded.
Gabrielle pulled the hand free to rest it on Xena cheek, still with fire in her eyes. “You kept your promise this time, you fought for… us.” The effort to speak so firmly had drained her, and she laid her head back onto Xena’s arm. “That’s all… all that matters.”
“It was worth it…” It was becoming difficult for Xena to speak as well, but she needed to tell Gabrielle what she’d learned. “Even if there’s almost no chance… if this is the time… to die, than this… is what I want to die for.”
Gabrielle swallowed and pulled her warrior closer, and shifted so that for one last time her head lay across that familiar shoulder and she painstakingly lifted and draped one foot over Xena’s legs. So that they could be in the right position once more.
“How… does it feel?” she asked.
“This? I’d prefer…” Xena drew a awkward breath, “…we weren’t so overdressed.”
Gabrielle could still chuckle and did. “No. Choosing love… instead of sacrifice.”
“Aside from hurting… in more places… than I thought I had?”
Gabrielle grinned, but waited for the answer anxiously.
The warrior pursed her lips and thought. Despite the pain, the knowledge that her life was ending in moments, none of it mattered. Because the only thing that mattered was to be with Gabrielle. To be with the woman she loved.
The answer was easy. “Feels pretty good. Better than… It feels like…”
“Redemption?” Gabrielle completed hopefully.
Xena nodded, wonderingly. “I always thought… redemption… meant a hero’s death.”
“Redemption… of your soul… would come from sacrificing it? Why?” she asked softly.
“Because I’m a fool.…”
Gabrielle tapped her finger softly against Xena’s forehead, as though it were a reprimand. “Never insult this… this woman I love.” Gabrielle shivered and closed her eyes. She could hardly feel any pain, any sensation other than the coldness seeping into her bones and she knew their time was almost done. She shivered again, and a tear swelled in her eye and began to slip down her cheek, though she could not have said why. She thought again about that snowy hillside so long ago and murmured, “Cold. It was cold… last time too.”
“This time… can I warm you?” Xena whispered and she reached over to wipe the tear from her partner’s cheek, and pulled that dear face closer.
Gabrielle lifted her chin to explore the gentle kiss on the lips before whispering, “I want you to know, even when I was angry…”
“Always you. Soulmate. Always. Love… of my life.”
Now, unashamedly crying, Xena whispered back, “Always… always you,”
“Hard to talk…” and she opened her eyes so that they might say all the things she couldn’t.
Xena was shaken by a spasm of coughing and when it passed, found her head too heavy to keep raised. So she lowered it slowly, bringing Gabrielle along with her, carefully, gently, until they were face to face, in each other’s arms.
Gabrielle whispered her last words. “Together. No matter...”
Xena wiped the last tear from Gabrielle’s cheek and in a quiet growl said, “Always. Together. You just…save your tears… for anyone… who tries… to get between… us.”
There was only calm as their lips caressed each others once more, until Xena cautiously gathered the injured bard just a little tighter in her arms. And the bard settled comfortably inside the embrace. Both women closed their eyes and all of the pain faded. There was nothing in their minds, their memories, except the person holding onto them.
They could actually feel their hearts’ movements ebbing.
Above them, an angry and powerful God was struggling to get to them, driven by jealousy and anger that he would not even acknowledge, to stop this from happening.
But he was too late. He was not even a concern of theirs anymore. All they wanted, was just one more moment.
And there was one more moment.
One more moment, when their hearts paused.
One more moment, when their breathing ceased.
One last moment, and still, they held on to one other.
And then the moments stopped.
When Ares finally appeared, with crazed eyes and energy blazing from every pore, and glared down at the partners, fuming, his vengeance still to be seized…
…there nothing for him.
Their victory was in the half smiles on both of their faces. And in what should have been a final and deserved peace.
“NO!” He screamed to the wind. “You don’t just die and think you can escape from me? You’re MINE! You’ve always been MINE!” He reached out to grasp the wispy tendrils that were leaving their bodies. Extracting them, separating them, drawing them into each of his hands as if their souls were simply a filmy piece of cloth. And once they were clenched in the fists of each hand, he gloated. “You haven’t begun to imagine what I can, and will do to you.”
The hands that gripped the warrior and bard’s souls began to blaze with light and as the War God looked in astonishment, they sparked and flashed until he was forced to uncup his fists, whence there was an explosion of light that to his shock and horror burned not only his hands but blinded him as well.
Sightless, his palms on fire, he staggered back, stumbled and felt himself being held by many firm and unyielding hands. A voice spoke. ‘You went too far, God of War.’
He recognised the voice the Goddess Venus, her normally open and loving tone, set and implacable.
‘What have you done? This was my business, they were MINE!’ He snarled.
‘You were warned by the Oracle. The threads of Destiny are not yours to control. You could not contain them, not such as these. The world needs them and it calls for them.’’
‘Their threads have been sent across the world to the unborn, to weave within the threads of this generation and all those to come. To fight what you have given birth to.’
‘And the natural order believes that would cause my designs to falter? What difference will it make if there are more blue and green eyed warriors refusing to join my cause?
‘You still do not listen. It is their Destiny that has been sent to travel on, to seed, to expand and spread. To fulfill the future you have tried to thwart, to continue to fight, to cull what you have sown. It is what we promised them.’ At this affirmation, Ares could hear movement about him and the hands grasping him became unyielding. ‘And having fulfilled that promise to mortals, the Gods will now take care of their own.’
‘Fine, you have me helpless,’ He sneered at her, ‘But you can’t kill me, even if you wanted to, so you won’t. You know what happens. Love can’t exist without its balance.’
Though he could not see her, he knew that the Goddess had shaken her head, almost regretfully, as she countered, ‘That was in the world you destroyed. That was in the world that was. But there is no need for War in this world you created. There is War in every fibre of its existence. You have made yourself…redundant.’
The assembled pantheon of all the Gods raised him to their shoulders, and each of their faces as firm and decisive as her own.
Restrained by his brethren, trapped and helpless, the God who would have been supreme, who had been invincible, whimpered, ‘You can’t do this to me!’
Again there was a regretful shake of the head. ‘You did it to yourself. And then when you were given one last chance, an opportunity to show compassion, to change this course, to show that there was more than destruction in you, you refused. The bard asked you for a reprieve, and you refused. This world you made cannot afford a God without compassion any more.’
The God of War searched inside of each of his brethren for sympathy, but found only a judgement in their hearts. ‘Then what will you do with me? You still haven’t the power to kill me.’
And as though they were the wind, they moved soundlessly to a cave or cavern, a place so dark that only the glow of the Gods gave it any light. The God of War found himself petrified, lying in a cold, stone casket. As if he were just another of the many statues he had sanctioned and approved. Despite all his internal struggles, he was unable to move even the least of muscles, so strong was the spell that ensorcelled him. Fear grew in his eyes as the coffin lid began to slowly slide shut above him. The Gods, in concert, began to chant, ‘You have been sentenced to be secured here, to sleep through the ages. To be held by the Eye until such time as a descendant decides you are needed.’
As the opening slowly closed above him, the God of War cried through it, ‘A descendant? A Descendant of whom?’
‘The only mortal with the right to decide your fate. And it will be her weapon, given to her by you, broken by you, that can free you.’
‘They HAVE no descendants! I made sure of that!’
The chorus responded, ‘No. Those threads, those seeds we sent out, will make their descendants in the hundreds, in the hundreds of thousands. And the one who has your weapon, only they will decide if you are ever needed again.’
And with those final words, the casket finally closed, sealing the God of War in his airless tomb, and any final sounds he might have made were silenced. The Pantheon vanished, the great stone coffin lay still, left alone to wait through time, in obscurity and shadows.
Far, far away, by a small river at the base of a great chasm, A Goddess looked down at the mortal shells of a Warrior and her Bard and a golden tear dropped from her cheek, settling on her palm. She closed her hand and then closed her eyes as well. A light inside her palm glinted, then shone. When she had opened her hand, there was a small sparkle within. She called to the Beardless One and gestured towards the husks at her feet.
‘Can you, can you take them? And do what you can?’
But the Farseeing One looked towards her palm and said, ‘I can do nothing without what you hold in your hand. You managed to save a part of their threads. But you have only two halves of each of their destinies, perhaps enough for only ONE mortal. Which one will you choose?’
The Goddess smiled. ‘Must I choose? Or is there is a solution that is far more apt?’
The quill was lifted from the scroll for a moment as the author considered the next line...
Epilogue: Part One
Once more, a slave’s body lay where it had tumbled, under brush on a lush green countryside, well hidden from the cloud-twisted moon and any human eye. She had collapsed there after a fall stumbling downhill. A few nocturnal insects began to stir in the foliage and a light breeze reached under the bracken to disturb her. The short blonde hair of the slave lifted slightly, and the current of air seemed to trace the encrusted blood trickling from the scrapes and swellings that were proof of her gruelling passage through the underbrush these past nights.
And then she moved.
She lifted her eyes to see a slight shimmering glow from the base of the horizon, indicating sunrise was soon to come. Daylight was no longer her friend, so she pushed against the earth, struggled to stand, and wavered on her feet for a moment. Then she doggedly pressed on again through the bracken and tall grass.
She could smell water, not too far off now. Water for her wounds, water to drink. All she had eaten was kale she had stolen from a garden the night before. She could not afford to rest while it was still dark. In the morning there would be soldiers with dogs searching for her. Her exhausted mind told her she must get further away. As far as possible from that damned city. There was someone depending on her to survive.
The scent of water grew stronger and there were fewer trees ahead. She nearly tripped on something she could not see, but caught her balance and continued to push on. The ground had been flat for some time, how long she could not be sure. Whatever map she’d ever had in her mind had faded away long ago as she’d stumbled through the seven hills. Now it was only instinct that guided her forward. Behind her, she could sense the boding evil of Rome, as if the city itself were a spirit bent upon pursuing her.
Part of her mind was aware that her feet were wet from the ground and that there were now reeds surrounding her. They parted under her feet and suddenly, the landscape opened in front of her. She had found the water.
From the hills of Rome it had never seemed so wide. So wide, so broad, so completely impassable, that her desperate scramble through the valleys of the great hills of Rome now seemed pointless. Had she any energy left she would have tried to remember an appropriate curse for this river barrier.
She fell to her knees thinking, ‘By the Gods! Why are my hopes always raised only to be dashed again?’
So many steps in her life now seemed to be deceptions by a higher power. Some force laughing as it fooled her once more into thinking she had a chance. Chances that were always crushed.
Once again, she wanted to die, if only to end, finally end this cruel persecution.
She had been born a slave, but one that had been educated to read and write both Greek and Latin, under laws that, particularly under the present Emperor, which had augmented the rights of the enslaved. It was not entirely a humanitarian decision on the part of the Romans. After all, as slaves numbered in the hundreds of thousands, almost half the population of Rome, the ruling classes had no wish to reawaken the passions which had incited Spartacus. Her owners had encouraged her education for the purpose of teaching their children. But one year ago, she had rediscovered the greatest disadvantage of slavery; one could be sold like a piece of cheese or a loaf of bread. Sold with the rest of the estate, on the owner’s death, to become a menial in the kitchens. Sold to a young master who did not need to follow any of the proscribed regulations.
For her new master had been Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, the son of the Emperor.
There had, as always, been a small benefit to fool her once again that her life was improving. Her new home was where she had met her husband, Urbanus. She had found love and a good man, though he had been a slave as well.
When Urbanus had proposed, she had been truly happy for once. She now knew that should have been her warning that it could not last. Their young master had not opposed the marriage, perhaps because he had not cared or because he been away so much. But things had changed, in the household and in the master when he returned from the wars and received his toga virilise, denoting his rise to manhood. And again, more recently, when it became clear that he would soon be named Consul. The youngest in the history of the Empire. And thanks to the influence of his thuggish friends, he began to revel in his power. He no longer saw himself bound by the laws of the Empire. A pretty slave, one with natural blonde hair and appealing looks, was an obvious target for his growing lusts. He combined his love of gladiatorial bouts and machinations by having her husband trained for the Coliseum, actually torn from her arms one night, and killed in an arranged mismatch of a bout.
Then while still grieving for this loss, nearly broken by this terrible reminder of her status, the master had made advances to her. Several advances. Each cruder than the previous, each spurned with greater and greater fear. Each followed by beatings which were illegal for any other than the son of the emperor. Her humiliation had only been magnified when her subsequent assaults were witnessed by his comrades, particularly the older senator Gratidius, who had suggested that he knew how to tame such brazen defiance.
During this time she had discovered another mixed blessing; that her husband had left her with child. The child was a great comfort in that she would have something of her beloved Urbanus. But that comfort was completely undermined with the knowledge that any child born to this house would belong to Commodus. Would grow up in a Rome ruled by Commodius and his friends.
She had no choice, despite knowing what the penalty might be; she had planned and attempted an escape. Which turned out to be simply another brief flirtation with hope before she was caught, and returned to a laughing Commodus.
For the sake of her secret, her unborn child, she had agreed to Commodus’ demands, but had apparently disappointed him in her lack of response to his immature fumbling. Regarding her passive despondency, that high born noble Roman had decided she was of no further use, and laughingly told her that if she missed her husband so much, she could join him in death in the Coliseum.
Where thousands had cheered her imminent murder.
Once again, the Fates had cruelly shown Annia possible aspirations. Two amazing women had appeared, freed her once more and given her hope that there was good in the world, that there were heroes. That there might be greatness in mankind and that perhaps her life and that of her child could be saved. And she had begun this last run for freedom.
Of course, within one day’s cycle, this had led to the horror of the previous day. As she’d crashed through underbrush, cringing at the sound of dogs barking in the distance, the stress had become so great that she had begun to shiver uncontrollably. There were convulsions in her belly, and she began to bleed from her vagina.
She had known that she was losing the baby. Known it in her heart and soul. As she lay there, completely helpless, under the height of the noonday sun, she had wept for Urbanus, her child and for herself.
But the gods would not allow such an easy respite. They had sent another enticement; a miracle. In her pain-wracked nearly unconscious state, she had seen a light, a sparkling gleaming presence which seemed to pass into her and the pain had… stopped. She could almost feel the child within her calming and could it be possible? Growing stronger. It was only that miracle that had pushed her to continue. Pushed her through the last day of hunger and fear and pain. Once again believing that there was a reason, a higher purpose to her survival.
Now daylight was soon to rise and the river had killed her last hope. As she crumpled to her knees, broken and defeated, covered in cuts and swellings from nettles, half starved, she felt despair rising. Once again, she wondered if death was not preferable to this continuing torture of hope.
She turned her head to look back where she knew Rome was. Knew that it was laughing at her as she lay broken at its feet. She had always been so careful not to offend. Always had done what was expected, not like those women in the Coliseum. They had been bold and taken their Fate in their own fists. They hadn’t knelt and folded their hands and counted out the lashes, she was sure. They had never gone to a man’s bed because of fear.
And the spark of anger at herself began to turn. The spark of defiance that had been buried so deep she hadn’t even smelt it smouldering, burst into flames of hatred.
Gods, she hated Rome. She hated the Romans in it. She hated the Romans with the Roman dogs that pursued her. She hated the Romans who had cheered in the Coliseum. She hated the cowardly Roman fool who would soon rule it. And as her hatred grew, she felt the passivity she had worn like a cloak about her for so long, tear at its seams. Rend apart, as her anger and resentment fuelled this hatred. And as she pulled herself up, raised herself once again to her feet, she vowed that she would live. The anger grew and she found strength in it. She would do whatever it took to make sure that her child would survive. And she would survive as well, if only to teach him to hate, to despise Rome. And to kill as many Romans as his lifespan would allow.
At that moment, if an answer to her vow, she heard voices. Voices carrying clearly over the sunrise lit waters.
It was a boat of some kind, gliding along in peace and tranquillity, the antithesis of all that she was feeling now. She crouched down, one hand reaching for the sword from the amphitheatre, her other hand twitching. The voices were speaking Greek. Accented, but not the familiar accents she knew from the many slaves from Epirus. The voices were women, but the boat, from what she could see through the bracken, was definitely Roman. That was all that was important. She pushed her exhausted limbs to climb the ancient olive tree that sprung from the shore and hung over the river. She listened to the voices carrying clearly over the water. Or one voice, apparently reading a story.
‘Can you, can you take them? And do what you can?’
But the Farseeing One looked to her palm and said, ‘So, you managed to save a part of their threads. But you have only two halves of each of their destinies, perhaps enough for only one mortal. Which one will you choose?’
The Goddess smiled. ‘Why should I choose? There is a solution far more apt…’
The story teller stopped as though considering the next line. Annia held her breath; they were still a stadium away, and the boat was moving all too slowly for her.
A deeper, querulous voice asked, “And…?”
The one who had been reading replied, “I thought I was reading aloud so you can hold the tiller and not read over my shoulder.”
The deeper voice snorted, “Apollo and Aphrodite don’t talk like that.”
“I’m writing about the Roman Gods now. People have certain expectations.”
‘Roman Gods,’ Annia thought. ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving me proof that these two, women or not, were worthy targets.’ She silently raised herself higher in the tree, further out over the river, her sword clutched in the hand that held the underside of the branch. She kept her breath shallow and continued to listen as the boat drew closer.
“Hmpph. Since when did you start doing public relations for them?”
“I’d say…Since they gave me what I most wanted in the world.”
“Sellout,” the deeper voice grumped. But there was still amusement in its tone
“Yup,” said the story teller agreed contentedly.
‘Rich and contented.’ Annia thought. She could take them both and then take the boat. Sell it and use the money for a new start. For her. For her child. Never think about what she did to get the money.
The story teller spoke. “Okay, what are you smiling at?”
“I caught that look. You’re worried because everything is alright. Aren’t you? And I’m supposed to be the pessimist!”
She could see them now, just the outlines of their bodies against the sunrise. Their robes were of a high caste Romans. Had Annia had any remaining doubts, they disappeared.
“Not worried,” the storyteller was saying. “Just checking to see if the chalice is half full. I’ll still depend on you to tell me when it’s half empty.”
“Right now, I am very much a full chalice gal. Because right now, I am busy… anticipating...”
The storyteller was turning slightly to look back at her companion in the stern by the tiller. “Anticipating what, exactly?”
The larger woman seemed to be attempting an innocent tone. “A very full chalice. What else? Meanwhile,” the larger woman tapped what appeared to be the edge of the scroll the story teller was holding. “How’re you gonna explain in there about this whole one destiny, two people thing?”
“I thought you had this worked out,” she stated patiently. “There was only half a thread for each of us after Aphrodite spread the rest out into the world. You’ve always been the other half of my soul. Now we also have one destiny between the two of us.”
Annia had no idea what this nonsense was about. Too often she had heard philosophical discussions between her masters. All purposeless wastes of time when there were people dying or starving. She blocked her mind to it and focussed on silently easing into a position to strike.
The navigator was still blathering away about Fate. “I got that. Basically, we share the same destiny. Got NO problem with that. But does that mean we die at the same moment? In the same battle? Or at the same time but apart?”
“Guess we’ll find out. I’d prefer in bed, after a long, long life.”
“Or in bed very soon, if last night is anything to go by. That chalice overflowed.”
They were so close, Annia could now see the cheeky grin on the storyteller’s face. “Wimp.”
“Not. I told you, I am anticipating many more full chalices. I’m just not all that happy about having a set destiny.”
They continued to babble on while Annia disregarded their conversation. For as the boat and her moment of decision drew nearer, she had found some last doubts calling out to her. How could she do this? How could she kill? The voice within her cried out that this was not who she was, but she ruthlessly thrust it down.
This was for her child.
And she purposely let her anger rise again. And looked at the sword she had been given in the Coliseum.
The woman, Xena, had shown her. ‘You hold the sword like this. Like an extension of your arm. Don’t wave it separately, it moves with you…’
They were almost underneath her at this point, but caught by the shallower waters, the boat slowed even more. Annia almost bit her tongue in frustration.
“I think we still can shape the where and when, just that it’s both of us, and I couldn’t be happier. If we’re destined to die together there’s no more, get behind me, Gabrielle, You stay here, Gabrielle. I am looking forward to a life without any overprotective, self-sacrificing warrior princesses.”
“Oh right. Miss Take-Me-And-Let-The-Rest-Go, huh?”
“Hmpph. You’re not happy with how that worked out?”
She could see the storyteller’s face now. That she was young and clear of eye would not change her mind. The darker woman’s voice seemed to come from the water to her side. But that didn’t matter. The boat was headed right for her.
“I don’t get is how two halves of two different people’s threads could be joined into one destiny?”
Even in the sparse light from the sunrise, the storyteller’s smile became particularly bright as she responded, “Maybe, just maybe, because they were always meant to be one and the same.”
The repetition of that one word finally broke through Annia's musings. That word penetrated.
They were talking about their shared Destiny. She gripped the sword more tightly as the prow of the boat began to pass underneath her. The blonde woman, her bleached-white hair now catching the first rays of the sun, would soon be directly beneath. Unarmed and defenceless.
Annia laughed silently as she thought, ‘Welcome to your Destiny’.
Annia held her breath. The boat so close now, that she could see the downy blonde hairs on the nape of the neck of the woman passing directly below her. She raised the sword slowly, her muscles already clenching as they anticipated the downward stroke. She swallowed, a voice inside her mind shouting NOW! NOW! NOW... and froze when there was a cough behind her.
She had been so focussed on the blonde, that she only now realised that the darker woman was no longer in the boat. She knew, somehow, without turning, that the other woman had not only managed to get behind her without her noticing, but onto the very same branch. That should not have been possible for a mortal. She shivered before moving her head slowly around. There was a dark figure backlit by the sliver of rays of the sunrise, which caught on a gleaming sword inches away from Annia’s own throat.
The blonde woman’s sharp call from below cut through the leaves and almost through her state of panic. “So what were they doing up there, Xena?”
Annia’s eyes widened at the name. Xena?
The shadow replied dryly, “We haven’t gotten that far. Yet.”
“Anyone we know?”
The woman moved closer to Annia, and she could feel the pale eyes examining her face. She still held onto her own sword, but tried to compress her body into the hollow of the branch.
“Actually…” the dark woman said.
There was a snort from below. “You’re kidding. Who do we know around here that would be trying to jump us from a tree?”
The pale eyes were still scanning her, holding her in place. “Remember Annia from the Coliseum?”
There were sounds below, a rustling of the reeds she knew meant that the boat was pressing into the shore. “She was trying to ambush us? Why?” the blonde asked.
The warrior moved even closer, yet the sword near her throat did not waver throughout the approach. Annia could see the face clearly now. To her shock, it was not the woman in the cells, but the expression, the movements, they were all very similar.
Annia’s mind was racing within her fear-stoked paralysis. This woman, this Xena, was the same height and colouring as the woman from the Coliseum, and her movements were the same, it had to be the same woman.
But it was not.
“Could you let me handle this!” The tone in the woman’s voice, it too was the same as she remembered, the same note of asperity.
No offence seemed to be taken by the woman below, for a laughing voice drifted upwards. “Knew it. The honeymoon’s over!”
In response to the laughing words of the blonde, Annia saw a memorable smirk appear on the face only inches away from her. A smirk that had been imprinted on her memory. And the stance with the sword, lazy but completely assured, it too was known to her. This was the same woman. Which meant, it was not truly a woman at all.
“So it was just a part of the game, wasn’t it?” Annia whispered.
Confusion brushed across the dark woman’s face. “What?” She drew back the sword just a slight distance and stared at Annia as though she was an unwelcomed puzzle. “Listen.” And the voice dropped to a low register. “I’m not very patient with people that try to kill my partner. I’m going to try and think that this was just a misunderstanding. But you’d better drop your sword before you make any more mistakes.”
Within her mind, the voice of the slave warned; Be quiet, accept, bow down. But the anger that had burned so brightly moments before had only been banked and she found herself shaking her head.
“No.” It felt good to say the word and she repeated it, loudly. “No!” As her voice rose, so did she, leaving the shelter of the branch to face the warrior. “I’ve had enough!”
The dark woman slowly moved down the branch, which encouraged Annia further. “You, whatever you are, you and your kind, you think you can continue playing with my life. This really was just another game for you, just another way to drive me mad! Well, you’ve succeeded. Because I don’t care which of us dies now, but it will end now!”
She punctuated the end of her rant with a swift thrust of the sword, expecting the expert in front of her to deflect it easily. And she closed her eyes, anticipating the offensive counterattack that would surely end her life in a moment.
However, instead of taking the aggressive strike, the warrior must have responded to some other instinct and withdrawn her sword. In the cramped space, she had been forced to use her arm to ward off the thrust and Annia’s sword glided along the dark woman’s skin. When she opened her eyes, to her shock, the dawn’s light revealed a thin red line on the woman’s arm from which blood began to seep.
Annia stared in disbelief. “I hurt you? How?”
The warrior didn’t even glance at her injury. She growled with an edgy menace, “We’re too close with all these branches. I had a choice of deflecting your blade into your face or taking the cut myself. I won’t do that again.”
She ignored the words, stared at the wound, demanding in an almost hysterical tone, “Why are you doing this? Stop bleeding!”
Having moved back into the pre-dawn darkness, only the eyes were visible, glowing blue chips of ice, but Annia saw them blink at her demand. “What?”
Annia’s voice rose even higher. “Stop bleeding! NOW!”
The eyes closed for a moment before the warrior asked, “Or what? What is wrong with you?”
The slave could not stop herself from repeating her plea, crying out, “Stop bleeding!!! Stop it!”
Shaking her head, the dark woman called to the ground, “Gabri-elle!”
“Xena! WHAT’S WRONG?” The blonde woman was suddenly beneath the tree, and her eyes caught on the small amount of blood dripping from the other woman’s arm. Almost instantly her hands were holding two small pitchforks, and there was anger blazing in her green eyes. Any lightness disappeared and with a voice like steel she stated, “If you’ve hurt her, you’ve made a big mistake. And your last one.”
In contrast to the smaller woman, the dark menace that had originally shrouded the tall woman now dropped like a cloak. She barked a laugh and said in what seemed a tender tone, “Queen of the Amazons.”
After a quick glance which must have reassessed the extent of her partner’s injury, the blonde relaxed slightly and responded quietly, “Xena. Remember? There are no more Amazons.”
The dark warrior shook her head and said fondly, “Yes, there are. Wherever you are, there will be Amazons.”
Annia, her mind still in a tangle, thought to take advantage of their distraction and raised her sword again. Only to freeze at the growl from the blonde below.
The dark woman waved a cautionary finger down towards her partner. “Hey! I didn’t call for that kind of help. More of the sensitive chat kind? Because I haven’t a clue what’s going on here.”
With a nimble series of hops and a swing, the purported Amazon Queen was crouched on a branch slightly above the two. She waited until the slave’s eyes tracked her before speaking. “Annia, you’re Annia, right? Put the sword down! You saw her in the Coliseum. You know how good she is with a blade. And you really wanna fight her? She could kill you!”
Annia shook her head. “N-no.!” she stuttered. “That would not happen! Because that would spoil your play with me!”
The Amazon looked over to her partner. “What is she talking about?”
The dark woman rolled her eyes. “This would be why I asked you to talk to her.”
“Fine, first thing…” the blonde woman said. Annia was not quite sure what happened next, but her sword was snatched out of her hand with a swift move by one of the pitchforks. She watched it fall to the ground with widened eyes. The warrior raised her free hand and shook it in a gesture of frustration. “I could have done that!”
The Amazon simply smirked and told her partner, “Not as nicely. Now you too. All weapons get put away until we can figure out what’s going on.”
With some grumbling, the warrior sheathed her blade, and the blonde, with a quick spin of the pitchforks, placed them deftly under her toga and into her boots.
Yes, these were the two who had rescued, no, allowed her to escape. She felt a cold shudder go through her slight frame and her hysteria began to ride higher. “You will blame me for making her bleed,” she mumbled. “She should not be bleeding. Why is she still bleeding? Make it stop!”
The warrior looked to the offending wound. “It’s just a minor cut.”
“Mortals bleed. I will not play this game. I will not play anymore. And I cannot make Gods bleed!”
“Gods? We’re not Gods,” the blonde stated firmly.
Annia spun to face her. “No? How foolish do you think I am? Your faces are not the ones in the Coliseum. Did you think I am such a fool as to not remember your faces? That I could not tell that you have changed your bodies? You have given yourselves away!”
The warrior seemed embarrassed. “Oh, right. Forgot about that.”
“You admit that you are not mortals then?” Annia demanded.
There was a casual shrug. “We’re very mortal, we just forgot about the body changing stuff.”
Annia could feel her eyes bulging
“It’s been a really busy couple of days,” the warrior added.
“Like you wouldn’t believe. Lots of other stuff on our minds,” the blonde Amazon pointed out.
“But,” the warrior insisted, “We’re not gods, okay? This is just what we normally look like.”
The blonde seemed to be about to interrupt. “Ummmm…”
The dark woman rolled her eyes again. “Oh yeah, we’re not supposed to forget that she’s really ninety or something.”
“I just wanted to point out that it’s not what we normally look like, just what we looked like when…”
To Annia’s further astonishment, this lecture was halted and she turned about to see that the dark warrior was rocking her head back and forth somewhat comically while making a sort of chattering motion with her hand. Annia expected the Amazon to be offended, but her response seemed to be only an affectionate smile.
“Fine,” the Amazon finally spoke. “Maybe we can get back to the topic at hand. Why someone we rescued is trying to kill us and is hysterical because we’re not Gods. Okay?”
The dark warrior said nothing but folded her arms across her chest in what seemed like some kind of truce. Both turned to face Annia once more.
Annia could only shake her head. Their tone and manner seemed insulting, but there was affection in every word. But now they waited on her and she could not find the words. “But you must be Gods. I thought… I thought I finally understood…”
The warrior shrugged and gestured for Annia to look up to the blonde. “Talk to the Bard. Sensitive chats, still not my department.”
The blonde pursed her lips. “You’re not getting out of this so easy. You can help. Show Annia your right hand.” The darker woman stretched her hand towards the slave, who tensed and withdrew as it neared her. “Palm up,” the smaller woman instructed.
“Annia, look at those fresh calluses. That’s from rowing us since last night. And that bruise above the palm, would a god get their hand caught in an oarlock?”
The darker woman looked slightly offended and grumbled, “Next time we try a new design of boat, you can row first.”
“Annia.” The green eyes locked onto hers, nothing but earnest sympathy within them. “We’re not Gods. The faces and bodies you saw us with before, well, it’s a long story. But we fought one of those gods, and we won. And because we won, we’re back the way we used to look, without, well, those disguises.”
Then the blonde squatted to move closer to Annia, who stilled, but did not back away this time. “We were… brought here, to fight a God, because it was something the Gods wouldn’t do themselves. Getting you or the others out of the Coliseum wasn’t part of their plan or anyone’s game. We let you guys out because we needed a diversion and… because it was the right thing to do.”
“Not a plan, or… but you… You were brought here by the Gods?” Annia stammered.
“It’s not a really big honour, trust me,” the warrior interjected.
The blonde woman snorted. “Hardly.”
“But in the Coliseum…”
The warrior dourly interrupted this time. “Like she said. It was a trick. We needed a diversion.”
“From Mars? You needed to distract the God?” There was an exchange of glances before a quiet nod.
Now, with the light having risen higher in the skies, she was able to examine their faces. There seemed to be no deceit in either of their expressions, which gave her some flickering courage. “Then you fought the Gods for man and Gods? As did Heracles? Or Perseus?”
The blonde woman made a gesture of uncertainty before agreeing, “Yes, but like she said, it’s not the honour you might think it is.”
The words slipped through her lips. “You’re… heroes.”
The blonde gave an amused glance at her partner. “She’s not really big on that description, but yeah, she is.”
The warrior shook her head and admonished, “After all we’ve been through, you still talk about me being the hero?”
The Amazon shot her a glance but quickly returned her eyes to Annia, who swallowed before daring to ask, “And what do you want with… me?”
The blonde woman took her hand and held it, despite the shiver the slave made at the contact, saying gently, “We don’t want anything from you. But we might be able to give something. Like help. If you accept it. I know you have no reason to trust anyone, especially us. But you need to be practical. We passed men and dogs back a way, looking for escaped slaves. We have a boat heading away from them and… you must be hungry. We have tons of food.”
Seeing that Annia was growing calmer, the dark woman had already begun to climb towards the ground, but paused to look back with that familiar smirk, “Yeah, the little squirrel here bagged a lot more than just nuts this time.”
Before the dark woman could turn away, an olive struck the warrior in the exact center of her forehead. Annia quickly glanced at the blonde, but she didn’t seem to have moved. The warrior was not fooled and with a glare that chilled Annia, that made her want to run very far away, said quietly, “Don’t. Start.”
The Amazon appeared not to have noticed this terrifying transformation, and continued to talk to Annia as though there had been no interruption.
“We were at a big party last night, and I snaffled a… few, you know, bags of stuff. I also got some mead, some jars of spiced wine…” She waggled her eyebrows. “We were saving it for deipnon, but we should at least eat the salads before they spoil.”
“Uh huh. Because it might spoil. Right,” the warrior growled from below them. Another olive must have been cast, for there was an outraged “OW!” from below.
“But then, a lot of the stuff could go bad before then…” the blonde blithely continued.
The sardonic rejoinder, “Food? Spoil? Around you? Like that’s ever gonna happen,” was this time accompanied by a speeding olive which struck the Amazon Queen in the centre of her forehead.
The blonde rubbed her forehead, closed her eyes and her lips pursed slightly. When she raised her eyelids it was to smile rather sweetly and say, “Grab some olives, Annia. Lots… of olives.”
The Amazon must have seen the bewilderment and no small amount of fear in Annia’s eyes, for she added with a wicked grin, “You wanted to take her on, right? This could be a bit safer than a swordfight.” Annia swallowed hard trying to sort out this latest insanity. The blonde Amazon lowered her voice and urged, “We have some time. Xena will hear the dogs long before they get near. And this is what freedom is. Playing when you can, just because it’s fun. That’s freedom. Not just watching. Not just keeping your head down, trying not to be noticed because being noticed can be the worst thing.”
Annia face took on the flush of wonder. “You… know? You’ve been…”
The blonde nodded. “I know. And I know that it ends today. For you, for me and Xena too, this is a brand new beautiful day. A new start. I promise you. So… let’s have some fun, okay? And,” raising her voice slightly, “We can beat her. We have the strategic advantage of the high ground.” This time, Annia saw the flick of the Amazon’s thumb that sent the olive zipping through the leaves.
“Oww!” came another outraged cry from below. But it was followed by two olives which pelted them both on the arms. “You think the high ground is an advantage? Where do you think the boat and all the food are?” The warrior laughed from below as two more olives pelted them both.
“For how long, Warrior!” the Queen called back, scrambling up the sturdiest branch and once her shining eyes had caught Annia’s, she pointed to the opposite side of the tree.
‘Madness’, Annia thought, and yet as she moved to the branch indicated by the grinning blonde, she found that smile spreading to her own lips. Somehow, these two seemed more alive than anyone she’d ever met. There was elation and delight in life and living that radiated from them as though it were some fever and she was surprised to find she wanted, needed, to be infected with just a simulacrum of this madness.
She was slow at first but despite her exhaustion and by gathering her nerve, soon the two blondes were clambering about the tree like monkeys, while olives whizzed all about them. Missiles came and went until her hands were slippery with the oil squeezed from the green fruit. The largest groupings of olives were on the outer branches, which were less sturdy and left them exposed to the warrior’s unerring aim. So Annia found herself working as a team with the blond, each taking turns in attacking while the other stockpiled missiles. It was play at such an unreasonable moment that she found herself almost hysterical again, but this time with laughter. Not even wondering when she had ever laughed that way before.
In fact, she was quite proud when it was her diversion which ended the mock battle. She had distracted the warrior for a crucial moment, calling to the far reaches of the tree for the Queen, giving the impression that the blonde was in a different portion of the tree than she actually was. When the warrior moved instinctively to shield herself from that position, the blonde dropped directly on her from above. Amidst smothered giggles they disappeared from Annia’s sight into the reeds underneath.
She heard the blonde say victoriously, “I told you we had the advantage of height!”
“You have never…” the warrior grunted, and she stood up, now with the smaller woman laughing in her arms, “had the advantage of height!”
Annia watched them, wondering at their ease. This was the warrior of such deadly skills, one she’d seen free dozens of slaves by crashing through an iron barred gate as though it were wattle and daub? This was the Queen of the legendary Amazons? Laughing and playing as children?
That Queen’s solemn promise of moments before came to her. “…it ends today. For you, for me and Xena too, this is a brand new beautiful day. A new start. I promise you…”
She slouched into a crotch of the tree, feeling the smooth bark against her back, hearing their laughter. Breathing in their freedom as if it were a scent on the breeze.
But at that moment, the warrior stilled, and let the blonde slip quickly to the ground.
The dawn light suddenly seemed chillier, as off in the distance, baying dogs could be heard. Annia’s fears returned from where they had been hidden for too short a time. She cursed her foolishness, wondering how she could have forgotten her circumstances so easily. Her expression must have revealed those thoughts for as she began to climb from their perch, the blonde called to her, “Hey! Don’t you start regretting a few moments to have fun. You have to seize them! Something I’d forgotten and you should always remember!”
The former slave considered the words and nodded, but could not reply, burdened by a dry mouth and pounding heart. By the time she had descended from the tree, Xena already had the boat out of the reeds and alongside a small stone abutment.
The blonde stepped into the boat first and turned to Annia. “So let’s start again. My name’s Gabrielle. Like to share a meal and a ride out of here?” and she smiled while extending her hand. Annia was surprised at how much of a balm that smile was to her. Slaves seldom were greeted with smiles in Rome. Despite her returning anxiety, it was not as though she had many choices, so she gripped the surprisingly strong hand that was offered and allowed it to draw her on board.
As she moved awkwardly to the stern bench, she became aware of the dirtiness of her clothing, the tangles in her hair. She also noticed that the partners were watching her, exchanging concerned looks. Perhaps they thought her clumsiness indicated an injury of sorts. But when she sat, resting an open palm on her stomach, they again traded glances that indicated some deeper understanding.
The dark woman took her place by the rudder, and her attention turned to the river and its currents. The blonde woman poled them out of the shadows of the olive trees until they regained the Tiber’s channel. She waited until they were centre stream again, before adjusting the sail, sliding across from Annia to balance the craft, and setting her warm green eyes on their passenger.
Despite the kindliness of the gaze, Annia huddled, in a futile attempt to hide her torn and soiled clothing, the tangled blonde tresses that contrasted so severely with their fashionable, if oil streaked, garments and their fastidiously brushed hair. If not Gods, the women were both fit, more than women would normally be in her experience. As beautiful as any goddess she had seen in murals or statuary. Apparently prosperous, if their expensive robes and the quality of the small craft were any indication. She watched the shore move away much too slowly.
Gabrielle began to rummage about the sides, before coming up with a series of sacks from which she withdrew two goblets. “We only have two cups for drinking, so we’ll have to pass them around like a potio, if that’s okay?”
Annia nodded in what she hoped was an appreciative manner until her jaw dropped as the food was brought forth. At first it was the familiar fruits and even some cheeses. But then, delicacies Annia had prepared but never had the chance to eat appeared. Then there were also some that she was not familiar with. Basic grains were all the kitchen staffs were offered, for meat was only for the wealthy. “What are these?” she asked, tentatively.
“Dormouse, stuffed with pig and pine kernels,” Gabrielle answered, making a face. Xena snatched one and bit into it lustily, saying, “Nice and crunchy.”
Gabrielle shuddered theatrically, “Yuck.”
“So says the woman who ate a whole stuffed sow's udders by herself last night. Annia, don’t follow the bard’s example. She hasn’t been living off the land for the last few days. Eat slowly. And start with the grains and fruits,” the warrior advised.
Annia nodded at the advice but it was hard to obey when the horn of plenty continued to spill out such riches, and her dinner companions were so passionate in their enthusiasm.
Although the boat was not all that large, the two smaller women managed to lounge in the Roman fashion while passing platters about. Xena remained at the tiller deftly snatching portions as they passed by.
Gabrielle handed her one of the goblets and said gently, “This doesn’t have that much alcohol in it. Xena says she’s seen what happens when women who are expecting drink too much, but this should be okay.”
“How did you…?” But when Annia followed Gabrielle’s gaze, it turned to her hand, resting on her belly, unconsciously caressing the still unseen life.
“How far long?” the Amazon asked.
She smiled, sadly. “Only a few months. My husband, he…” and she shook her head, unable to continue.
Gabrielle squeezed her hand and asked, “Are there family, anyone who could help?”
Annia shook her head. “I only know other slaves. And if they were to help… even if they wanted to… There would be trouble for them. My master is very powerful. Above the laws. If he knew I had a child, he’d, he’d say I was taking his property. He could, would, claim him. They will look for me… He and his friends, they are very powerful, like Gods themselves, and no one can hide a child from pursuers of such capability.”
“Been there,” grunted Xena.
“And done that,” agreed Gabrielle and they exchanged apologetic expressions that served to only confuse Annia more, if possible.
The mood was deliberately changed by Gabrielle who produced another plate. “Yoo goffa fly de fliced eggs!” she enthused with a filled mouth
The warrior smirked and ordered, “Swallow, Gabrielle. Swallow?”
The blonde put her hands up, frowning, which soon melted into an expression of rapture. “Oh yeah… Like I just said, you gotta try the spiced eggs!”
“If there are any left,” Xena complained, “You’ll leave me with just the olives. Why are there so many black olives?”
“Romans always gotta have olives.”
A quick hand snatched a sugar treat from one of the plates. “You’re not getting all of these. Did you get the recipe for them?”
“The libum? Oh yeah, it’s just cheese, bay leaves, an egg, honey obviously. We can pick that stuff up on the road, easy! But you’re supposed to save them for the moretum,” Gabrielle cautioned.
“Is there going to be anything left for tomorrow?”
“We got tons of salsamentum. Salted fish and lots of ham. They’ll stay fresh for a while.”
The warrior rolled her eyes and told Annia, “Suuuure. Nevermind what I said before, eat what you can, while you can.”
Annia was laughing openly now, and with it came the confidence to ask questions. “You said this was all from a party?”
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. “Well sort of, the Pontifical College doesn’t really have what you’d call parties.”
“It was a party, Gabrielle. A bunch of politicians celebrating the big win,” Xena grumbled.
“Xena… They wanted to thank us.”
“They wanted to celebrate their victory over the priests of Mars. And we weren’t all that welcome, showing up looking like…us.”
“I think it was more the Domina,” Gabrielle said softly. At Annia’s expression, she tried to explain, “She’d had a Vestal die…”
Annia was surprised that she was not aware of this stunning news. “A Vestal died? I didn’t hear that!”
“Well, the College is going to keep it quiet. Two reputable witnesses swore that Vesta Herself was involved, and with the proof of that involvement in their faces, it was decided that the girl’s death was ordained by higher powers. Which made it harder for the Domina, as the girl who died, she was one of her favourites. I… well, I looked like her when I first… arrived. When she saw me as I am now, I think it was as if, as if the girl had died again.”
She was silent for a while, before Xena added, “She still insisted you take everything you could carry, so she couldn’t have been that upset. Not with you, Love.”
That last word, or was it a title, spoken with such tenderness, jarred Annia. Love, at least sex between men, was commonplace in the Empire, but several philosophers had firmly stated that love between women was not possible. Certainly in the physical sense at the very least. Another belief refuted, for it was blindingly clear that the philosophers must be wrong. Looking again, she could see it in each of their actions, even in their competition. Competition which ended when support was needed, the right word flowing instantly almost before it was asked for.
Had her husband and she been like that? When their lives had allowed, perhaps. But too often there had been moments in their shared slavery that no words or actions could relieve. She found herself once more being dragged into a sombre mood which must have been noticed, for Gabrielle plucked a ‘V’ shaped bone from one of the poultry dishes and extended it towards her saying, “My grandmother used tell us to make a wish, and then we’d pull on the ends and the person who got the largest part would have their wish come true.”
The warrior grunted a sound that sounded like an opinion. “Uh huh.”
“Warrior, don’t make fun of my family traditions, or you won’t like my wish,” the Bard threatened, though there was a smile close to the surface.
Gabrielle rummaged about in another sack. “And, there’s a bunch of bones I saved for soup, so… a ha!” And she displayed two more identical bones. “Okay, we’ll do them all at the same time, think hard about your wish and then…”
Xena checked the waters before leaving the tiller so they could form a ring with the three of them, each hand holding onto one branch of the bone. A sense of some ancient ritual seemed to swathe this childhood game. They closed their eyes as they prepared to tug on their portion.
Annia broke the silence by wishing out loud, “I would wish that this were real.”
Xena lowered her hands. “What… do you think this is still a game?”
Annia shook her head emphatically. “No. I can see you are… that this, for this moment, is real. But it is only this moment. Life is not like this.”
“That’s true,” the blonde Amazon conceded. “But even so, all the more reason to enjoy the moments. Make a better wish.”
Again the circle was formed. Each closed their eyes and pulled. When they looked to see the result, each held one of the larger portions of the bone.
“Yes!” Gabrielle cried, delighted. “That worked out great! So…?” She looked across to her partner, eyes filled with curiosity. “What did you wish for?”
Xena hesitated, but unable to resist the demand in the sparkling eyes inches away from her, she finally said, “I wished…that… I wished that I would never hurt you. Not ever again.”
Gabrielle’s eyes closed and she reached for her partner’s hand, and Annia noted that she found it without needing to open them. The warrior softly nudged the smaller woman’s chin with a finger, asking softly, “Gabrielle?”
The Amazon’s free hand played idly with the fold on Xena's robe before she whispered, “I hurt the most when you’re in pain. So I wished…That this is truly a new start for you. That you’re finally free of your past.”
They heads were so close, and both moved to touch the other’s lips tentatively, then withdrew, conscious of the eyes of the woman near them. The warrior slumped slightly, allowing her forehead to rest against the smaller woman, so very gently. Annia realised she was holding her breath. Both seemed to take a pause, drawing strength from the presence of the other, drawing strength to pull away.
“Sorry, Annia,” both muttered, and she knew they were worried that she might be upset, or jealous of their happiness.
She shook her head, a finger brushing at the tear that for some unaccountable reason had appeared in her eye. “No, this is a goodness. I have been raised surrounded by so much greed and hatred, and I lost my love… that to know there is still love, that there can be love… No… this is all good.”
The blonde reached out to take Annia’s hand again, squeezing it to say what words could not. Then she cocked her head and asked, “So, you changed your wish, right? What was it?”
“It may not be a possible wish,” she caressed her belly once more as a benediction. “I wished that my child should grow up… free.”
She looked up and found herself joining in a smile that ran about their circle..
Gabrielle raised her goblet, saying, “I think we should drink to that!” As she refilled each of the glasses, keeping the jug for her own toast. “To making our wishes come true.” But even as they clicked their vessels against each others, the sound of dogs baying caught their ears and Annia’s expression grew shuttered again.
Gabrielle secured the jug and placed both hands on the slave’s shoulders. “Annia, I told you, a new start. Anything is possible. And we really can help. Where would you like to go? If you could go anywhere?”
Annia wanted so much to believe, but instead shrugged, saying, “Does it matter? Is there anywhere far enough?” and she twisted her face away from the direction she’d come, away from the nightmare that had been Rome.
Gabrielle asked casually, “Ever been to Ostia? There are ships leaving there for anywhere you can imagine. It’s just a bit further downstream.”
“I hope they finally got around to dredging it?” Xena interrupted.
Gabrielle ignored the question and instead removed her hands to squat in front of Annia again, asking quietly, “You’re worried that no where is far enough, right? You’re scared about being caught, brought back to him? You said your master abused you. I thought under the law you could take him to court?”
“They do not matter to him, because,” Annia paused and lowered her voice to whisper, “Because… he is the Emperor’s heir.”
At their shocked response, Annia began to explain. They allowed the boat to drift quietly, with a light breeze under the warming sun, while Annia described her life within the house of the Emperor’s son and heir. She told of how she had been treated and what kind of man she had been abused by. About his associates. How impossible it would be to escape him.
Gabrielle became angry. “This is the heir? To Marcus Aurelius? What was he thinking?”
Xena was thoughtful. “This has to be Ares’ doing. Think about it. A coward, but with a huge ego? Easily influenced…?”
“That doesn’t sound like one of His usual favourites,” Gabrielle questioned.
A pensive look came over the warrior’s face. “Ares said he had everything planned from this moment on. I think he wasn’t planning on just pulling the strings this time. I think he was planning to be sitting in the big chair up front while watching the puppets dance.”
“So now that Ares is gone, what’s going to happen?”
“It’d be like building a tower and then pulling out the main support.”
Gabrielle shuddered. “You are talking of the fall of the empire? The empire’s a big tower. Thick walls. Could it fall that easily?”
Xena shrugged. “Not tomorrow, maybe not for centuries, but everything crumbles, Gabrielle. Gonna happen someday.”
Annia had been trying to follow the conversation and had grasped one point. “But if Rome were to fall…? Many of the people defends against… I have been told that they are savages, savages in the millions!”
Xena nodded. “And that’s how it’ll end. Province by province. When they grow weak, the end will come from sheer numbers and pure meanness.”
“And what will happen to all those great walled cities and the people in them?” Gabrielle asked.
“You know. You’ve seen it. Slow rot and finally masses crashing over walls. Some will survive. By running. Probably for the swamps and cliffs where they can’t be followed. Some will build forts in the provinces away from the centre. Off in Britania, for example.”
“And what darkness will descend?” Annia was aghast at the images they were creating in her mind.
“Not everywhere,” Gabrielle said. “Something will remain. Some will save their ideas, their knowledge. Take their scrolls, saving them.”
“And they’ll also take their scheming and plotting…” Xena grumped.
“But that has to be better than savagry?” Annia asked.
The food lay forgotten by even Gabrielle now. She sighed and said, ““You’re saying that Ares has created a world that without him will be conquered by the horde?” Gabrielle asked.
“Some places, yeah. The soldiers will withdraw, the empire will contract, leaving cities defenceless. And they’ll either surrender…”
For reasons, that Annia did not understand, something surfaced in Gabrielle’s eyes and her expression hardened. In a stern voice, belying her apparent youth she stated, “But if we do, Xena. If we face another horde, just so you know…”
Whatever it was, the warrior knew immediately and made a calming gesture. “Gabrielle…”
The Amazon was having none of it. “No, you listen. This new start has some rules. I’m not that kid anymore and there are lines this old lady doesn’t cross. If that’s what’s coming, and we get caught in it? No matter how bad they are, no matter what they do, we find another way.”
“Gabrielle! What if there is no other way?”
“Find another way. I mean it, Xena. I love you, but I will not massacre a whole people just to live. Not this bard. You will find another way”
Annia watched curiously as it seemed this argument would cause one or the other to look away, but instead there was only a simple nod and, “Okay.”
“Good.” Gabrielle relaxed slightly which relieved Annia, despite having only a dark glimmerings of what the conversation might have meant. Gabrielle had already moved on to consider their options. “So then what we have to figure out…” And whatever she might have said was lost as Xena held up her hand, her whole attention to the air about them.
Annia watched as Gabrielle also stilled, and her nostrils seemed to twitch. But regardless of whatever it was she sensed, she looked to her partner for confirmation.
Xena turned to face Annia. “You just got yourself a boat.”
Annia felt as though the craft had once again lurched suddenly and she was somehow far out to sea. “Why…?”
“Someone’s sort of calling for us,” Gabrielle answered, or did not answer, from Annia’s point of view.
“Unless, you’d rather not?” the dark woman asked. “New lives, you know.”
“You’d consider that we…? I mean, I know you don’t need to anymore. I mean,” and her tone changed, became somewhat cautious, “You found your redemption… right?”
The warrior must have known what that insecurity meant, and reached across and pulled the smaller woman into her arms. “Yes,” she whispered into the smaller woman’s shoulder. “I have. Never doubt that.”
“So…” the bard continued, still as cautiously, but with less nervousness, “We could ignore it, I don’t know, go back home, something like that, go to Egypt…”
The warrior pursed her lips. “Whole world open to two peace loving, ummmm… say, farmers?”
There was a long pause before both broke into sudden giggles.
“Not gonna happen, is it?”
“Not this lifetime. We have the skills…I guess, we need to use them.”
“Because we make a difference?” Gabrielle asked.
“We did once, and even if that time, those people no longer exist…”
“We have time to make a difference here. And now.”
The reflective expressions and postures held for a moment before melting
Gabrielle grinned again. “I was already getting restless.”
Xena returned the smile. “Me too. Just saying farmer...” The warrior chuckled, but as she stared across the water her thoughts strayed somewhere and her eyes darkened. She muttered, “Maybe it never was a search for redemption. Maybe it just me, hooked on the fighting, the kills...”
It was to Annia’s ear, almost a plea or at least a question in the tone. If so, the warrior was not disappointed. The Amazon took her partner’s jaw and turned it towards her, stating firmly in response, “No. You hear me? Maybe you still enjoy a good fight, even a good kill, but afterwards? You’re just as drained as I am. That’s what we learned apart, wasn’t it? If we didn’t have this,” and she gestured between herself and her partner, “to recharge, to refill, we wouldn’t do it anymore. I know I wouldn’t, wouldn’t be able… to...”
A small twitch of a smile surfaced on the warrior’s face. “And maybe I like showing off.”
The Amazon chuckled. “Yeah, you do,. And me too. But not because we need to prove anything. Not anymore?”
“Not to me. Never to me.”
“Goes both ways, you know that?”
This confusing dialogue was brought to a halt when Annia finally heard what the other two had perceived minutes before. A faint cry of anguish from far down the river. A plea for help. As they rounded another bend they could see distant smoke rising over the trees, smell the very distinctive scent of burning homes. Something they all knew only too well.
Both women turned to the former slave. “So as you can see, it looks like we’re headed in different directions now,” Gabrielle said.
Xena cocked her head for a moment before disagreeing. "We’ve got a little time. I can hear armour. Soldiers, not raiders. More than a dozen. And it sounds like they’ve taken hostages, probably moving them up into the hills. We may have to wait till nightfall.”
The blonde’s tone became resigned. “Soldiers? Roman soldiers? Hades, for once, we were getting along with Rome. And why would they want hostages?”
"Somebody has something they want." Xena shrugged
"Hmmph. Same old, same old. But whatever they want, it's not in that village. Doesn't smell like they left much."
"Of course,” Gabrielle agreed. “So, wounded over there, hostages heading uphill…?”
"We have to split up."
“We-e-ellll?" Xena asked.
“You're the better healer. Think you can trust me to somehow track a large band of grubby soldiers dragging hostages through woods?"
Annia blinked again, not understanding why the two seemed even eager to set off, or why Gabrielle would consider such a dangerous task so simple.
Xena only grinned more. "I think I can do that. As long as you promise…"
"I can keep out of sight. We don’t want to test Destiny right away, do we?"
Xena looked to the sky. "Be dark in about three candlemarks. Take us both about that long to find out what's going on and meet halfway and..."
"…figure out what next.” Gabrielle completed. “Together?"
By this time, Annia felt as though her head might explode. If she could follow this strange conversation at all, it seemed as though these two intended to take on a complete column of Roman soldiers alone, for the sake of strangers.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. That way is trouble. Wouldn’t it be sensible to be going in the opposite direction? Quickly?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Sensible, probably. But going away from trouble never really worked for us.”
Xena disagreed, “Like we’ve really tried all that hard.”
The perplexity the former slave was feeling, clashed her sense of debt for the heroism of these women. The women who had helped to free herself and the other slaves. She found herself asking, “Is there anything I can do?”
Gabrielle recognised the newfound courage being displayed. She rose and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder, guiding her over to the rudder.
“You’re very brave to offer, but I think learning to handle this boat, beginning a whole new life, and having a child, are enough for your platter now. And, don’t worry about the boat, it’s not stolen. The Emperor gave it to us.”
Annia swallowed. “The Emperor!”
Xena shrugged. “Yeah, and then there’s all the other stuff the Pontifical College gave us.” She looked to her partner and received a nod. “Mainly fancy stuff that’ll just slow us down. If you want it, it’s yours.” She reached into a large satchel by the keel and pulled out a stunning and expensively woven toga. “Clothes too...”
“Xena’s not really a toga person,” Gabrielle interjected with a teasing grin. “I think it’s her sensitive skin.”
Annia found herself caressing the fine garment, before shaking her head. “But… This is too… it’s too much. I can’t…”
Gabrielle once again took her hand and captured Annia with the sincerity in her eyes. “A new start, remember? Don’t let the past stop you from grabbing the good with both hands when it finally comes.”
For all her confusion, Annia could see that the other blonde woman was trying to tell her something very important. Something she was trying to pass on. So she nodded. “Then, I thank you. For it would be a change to have some good in my life. Since my husband…passed, it has been very hard. I do not wish to complain….”
“This baby was all I had. But even that was embittered by knowing that even before he was born, he was already a slave. And then, when after noon yesterday, when he was dying… the miracle occurred.”
“Miracle?” Gabrielle asked.
“Noon?” Xena prodded.
“I was trying to climb through some brush, and I fell. And I felt… Inside. Something was wrong. With the baby. I felt it, I knew I was losing him. But, the Gods saved him. Just after noon …”
Both partners seemed to freeze and even the dark woman seemed to be hanging on her words, as though what happened to her child concerned them all.
“Yes?” both almost demanded.
Annia paused, startled by of their intense interest, before responding. “It was as if, there were these lights, these sparkles, and I felt something, and it was as if it went inside of me and suddenly I knew it was all, all right. As if, whatever it was… somehow made him stronger. Saved him.” Annia looked to both, hoping that they might understand what she was unable to express. To her surprise, she saw that understanding clearly in their eyes. She continued, “I could feel him moving again and I knew, he… she… was going to be alright.” The optimism once more seeped away. “But he’ll still be the child of a slave, and no matter how far I go… my master…he’ll…”
The warrior stated firmly, with a trace of some emotion Annia could not place. “We weren’t gonna let that happen before, so we’re sure as Hades not going to let that happen now.”
“What do… why do you say that?”
Xena paused. “Because…a lot of things. I had a daughter…”
“A daughter? Where…?”
“She…” Again there was that hesitation. “She’s gone. She was taken from me.” The warrior gathered herself, before continuing. “She was… special, like your child might be. And she was also raised in the city of my enemies, raised to fight. For them. For my enemies.”
“Special? How do you mean special?”
The partners looked to each other and again there was some sort of agreement reached.
“There’s something else, something you need to know…”
“The… sparkles you saw?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yes?” Annia asked.
Gabrielle prodded her partner, receiving a frustrated glare in exchange.
After a futile search for words, the warrior closed her eyes and blurted, “You explain it!”
Gabrielle grinned and began to the warrior’s obvious relief. “The fight we just had? It ended just after noon yesterday. The reward, what we really won, was… hope. A small chance at peace for this world. It’s a violent place, with almost no chance for survival. So part of our deal, was that children, unborn children and those to be conceived, were touched with a part of … I guess…us. Parts of our destinies and maybe skills, because, the world is going to need them. We think that your child and many others, might be part of this chance to survive. Of hope.”
Annia hands dropped both of her hands in a protective position about her belly. “So if as you say, my child has been touched this thing you did, has been touched by you, if she’s special… how can such as I raise him? What would you have me teach him?”
The warrior turned away. “Again, your department. I’m the last person to give advice about being a parent…”
“Xena?” Gabrielle nagged. “You couldn’t even last one day. We said, we would remember the good.”
“Fine, but I still wouldn’t give advice. I’ve had followers. Even the ones that knew of how I’ve tried to change…”
“There was this town… This was way back, probably when you were at the Academy. They’d heard your stories and they thought I was a role model. Can you believe it?”
There was a look on Gabrielle’s face that said many things, but disbelief was not one of them.
“Well, they said they sometimes would ask, what would Xena do? I admit, I thought that maybe I had something I could teach them. Until one morning, I found them lynching a woman. Not because they’d seen her commit some crime, but on rumours. Not even rumours. Whispers! They were beating her because they thought that was bold and brave and what they’d learned from me. Without a thought of justice or truth… and they could claim they idolised me?”
The warrior made a disgusted snort. “No thanks. And you know how it was, the ones that followed my earlier days. They were even worse. They took the easy route to leadership. Playing on all the worst in man. Playing on the fears, the greed. We couldn’t afford that then and we can’t afford it now. Every time that happens we fall closer into the world that Mars created. So no, Gabrielle, I’m not going to give speeches about how to live or be a hero, okay?”
There was no hesitation in the Amazon’s voice now. “Don’t you see, Xena? You just did. What you’re saying is, the right way to lead, is to inspire. Not to create fear. But to try to find that kernel in all of us that’s the best. And that’s what you’ve done with me.”
“After all we’ve been through…?”
The Amazon nodded. “Yes. You brought out the best in me, Xena.”
“You are the best in me, Gabrielle.”
Once again, tears were straining in the eyes of all the women, and Gabrielle took a deep breath before summing up to Annia, “So, that’s a start. That’s what you tell him. Or her. That this world will not survive unless you look for and inspire the best in people. Not to use fear even when it seems the easiest path."”
Annia looked up to see that Xena was directing the boat to the shore opposite the smoke.
“So, anyway, you’ll be needing more than just new clothes and a boat.”
Annia looked to both of the travellers. “I don’t understand.”
Gabrielle looked to the satchel. “Well, they’ll be looking for Annia, won’t they? A new start needs a new name.”
Xena began rooting about again and this time pulled out a few sheets of parchment. “The Pontifical College felt that we might need certain papers to establish who we are and they left them blank for us to fill in. I don’t think we need them, do you, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle already had her quill out. She took the scrolls and scribed furiously for a moment and then looked to the girl. “Would you mind…How do you feel about the name… Numai?”
Annia was willing to accept any name that might take her from the nightmare of pursuit. “Numai. It’s lovely.”
The papers were placed in her hands. “This will certify that you are a free woman, called Numai, originally of Rome. After the death of your husband in battle, you’ve decided to move to the countryside to raise your child.”
Annia looked at the parchment, her mind whirling. “Why Numai?”
“That was the Vestal, who I…” there was a pause that implied a series of words that that could not be completed.
“At least you knew her name,” Xena said quietly, but there was another emotion lurking behind the set face. “You said that one of your master’s friends, was named Gratidius?”
“He was a great influence on my Master.”
“I have reason to think, he killed and raped a slave. Though it might have been a trick and he was innocent.”
“I cannot imagine innocent and Gratudius in the same sentence.”
“Would he rape and kill a slave?”
“Yes,” and though she struggled to keep her answer firm, her lips quivered slightly.
“Well, he won’t be doing that anymore.” Gabrielle leaned over to look at the pin. “I sort of spoke to the Emperor about that.”
There was something in her partner’s voice that seemed to catch Xena’s attention. “You did what?”
“Look, Xena. Just because you managed to keep yourself from wreaking revenge on the bastard, didn’t mean that it wouldn’t bother you that that girl never found justice. So after you told me about it, I had a word with the Emperor. He agreed with me that Gratidius was guilty in his treatment of his… staff.” Again, Annia had a feeling that they were speaking some language she didn’t understand, so much was implied by their words. “He’s going to be spending some time in a large cell and with any luck, he’s learning first hand what it’s like to be flayed and raped.”
Xnea closed her eyes and then leaned over to offer Gabrielle a short kiss and a brilliant smile. Both of which had Annia blinking even more furiously than before.
“Always looking after me, huh?” the warrior stated.
Annia tore her eyes away from the women and back to the parchment in her hands. No matter how confusing all of this was, the words on the sheet were clear. She was free. Her child would be free.
Xena began rummaging around in Gabrielle’s satchel. Finding the object she was looking for, she said, “Then he won’t need this.” She opened her palm to reveal a jewelled Victory pin. Numai looked at it in astonishment. The gold and jewels were worth more than she herself had been sold for. “This… this could…”
“Help start out a whole new life? Take it. You wouldn’t believe how hard I’ve tried to get rid of it. Maybe so I could have it now. To help another slave,” and once more the sun seemed to come out of that stern face.
Annia reached for the pin, before withdrawing her hand. “You said that it belonged to someone else?”
“It originally belonged to Gratidius. He gave it to a slave as… let’s call it a parting gift. And she… handed it… to me. All legal as I’m sure Marcus will approve.”
She felt the pin being placed into her hand, but she stuttered, “Marcus?” Annia was now feeling quite faint. “You call the Emperor, Marcus?”
Gabrielle pointed to her partner. “She wanted to call him Marky. Or was it Tuti Capo?”
Xena snorted in amusement. “Tutti Fruity, maybe.”
Annia was shaking her head. “You have given me things far more valuable. You might need this, someday. Perhaps you might want to give it to someone who is closer than a stranger.”
“Nah,” the warrior grinned. “This feels right. There’s no one left, no family…”
Gabrielle spoke. “The people we knew, they only live in our memories. Some of what they did, who they were… We’re the only ones… it doesn’t exist anymore. But we’ll remember the best in them.” She massaged more tears from her eyes to look to her partner.
“And I think,” Xena took Gabrielle’s hand once more, “that if we can do that for them… we can do the same for each other. Right? Remember the good. We can do that, can’t we?”
“We can. We will.”
Annia was still trying to find the words, actually any words, to thank them, or to understand how this had happened, when Gabrielle called out, “I guess this is our stop. And I think my partner is gonna want these.” She held up some sort of armoured breast plate and leather accoutrements.
The warrior looked over the armour with a pensive gaze, the shine of the brass and steel indicating it had been recently made, or perhaps created by the gods, Annia thought with wonder.
“Nah, hand them to me once I’m in. No point in getting them wet, right?” Then with some footwork that was too fast for Annia to analyse, she was in the air, high above the boat, turning, in the air to her amazed eyes, and then slicing into the water hardly stirring a single wave. When her head and shoulders appeared, the water flowing down her ink dark hair, smiling, Annia was prepared to once more consider that a Goddess was emerging.
Gabrielle seemed almost angry. “The boat didn’t even rock, Xena? How can you leap up from a boat in the water and not bounce it all over place?”
The warrior grinned and was about to speak when the blonde interrupted saying, “Don’t you dare say, I have many skills.”
The warrior grinned unrepentantly. “How about I just say, I’ll show you how later. Is that better?”
“Yeah, that’s a lot better. Just as long as… And she took a deep breath, “As long as you remember…every once in a while, to show me the moon in the daylight and the cloudy skies.”
Annia looked about, scanning the achingly bright skies for a moment before asking, “But the moon is not out now?”
The partners smiled at one another before turning to her and Gabrielle said, “Yes, it is. You have to learn to trust that the moon is always there.”
Annia shook her head in an acceptance that she could never understand. Instead she asked, “Are all heroes mad?”
“It helps,” Xena chuckled.
“And there’s the madness of love, Annia,” Gabrielle added cheerfully and she carefully moved to the side, carrying the armour.
The warrior touched her partner’s hand and said, slightly smirking, “You mean like last night kind of madness?
Gabrielle blushed, then smiled. “Last night… It really wasn’t too much, was it?”
The warrior looked away as she took the first of the leather accoutrements from the Amazon’s hands. “Never. It was better than memory and…” Xena uncharacteristically stuttered, “It…It made me believe that we’ve always shared one soul.”
Gabrielle brushed her stinging eyes quickly before reaching to her partner. "Here… that’s still my job, right?"
The warrior nodded, saying, “For as long as you want it.”
“Forever long enough?” the Amazon asked.
Just as casual as the reply, “Sounds about right,” The warrior found the shallows and straightened, standing tall, as the Amazon began what was clearly a familiar action. She pulled the shoulder straps over the broad shoulders and reached for the buckles. "Hold still, these are loose," tugging at the straps of the fasteners and making them tighter.
"There... “She slid around to face her warrior and received a soft kiss on the forehead which brightened the smile already on her face.
Gabrielle packed a few belongings into the simple satchel. She moved to the edge of the sloop, leaving Annia clutching the pin and the parchments. Once the boat was secure enough, she slipped out. Once alongside, she gave it a slight push out of the shallows, calling back, “The moon, the moon is love, Numai. And it’s there, if you trust, if you look. Always look for the moon, Numai.”
But just before they began their swim to the opposite shore, they gripped each other’s arms as she’d seen soldiers do, and yet their eyes held for a time. A frozen moment, their bodies and breath completely still in the rippling waters of the Tiber. Nothing but their gaze, withholding nothing from each other. There was no repeat of their previous kiss and yet Annia, no, Numai, realised that she’d never seen anything as intimate.
Then without a word, they broke apart and moved purposely towards different points along the shore.
And again the word fell from her lips. Heroes.
She pondered, in wonderment, There are heroes about! And her heart lifted at this knowledge and she looked down to where her unborn child rested, asking, “Could you be a hero? Despite the risks and the hardships and loss? If you were taught and guided and made to know the difference between justice and injustice…
“Would I want to teach you this?”
And even if she did, could this one child make a difference? What would the world know, what would the world care in the eons ahead if one child’s struggle was for the greater good or not?
Because parchment decays, memory fades, libraries burn and the world changes …
For one moment she could imagine the vast acres of Rome as ruins, even see them covered by earth, and yet…
The forms of her era and the architecture beneath would alter the landscape subtly and the green things that grew over them would be changed by what was under them, and the colours of that growth might vary perceptibly. And the human mind… was it not as complex as the earth? Could it not occasionally feel that alteration in the contours, the buried memories long lost, to find that rightness, that spark of truth? That instinctual knowledge that heroes, that these women, had once existed and shaped a hope for the future?
And she looked to the now far away figures lifting themselves out of the water across the river until they disappeared into the bush. And thought back to the city behind her. Thought of herself. A refugee, a former slave and a survivor of the worst brutalities of the Coliseum. A survivor because of these women. With her own story still to tell, whether history recorded it or not.
She looked down the river to see that she was steering out of the breeze, and adjusted her course as she’d been shown.
Yes. She could do this. She had known so many things in this world far worse than to raise a hero. She could follow their path and make her own… followed by her child, and her children’s children.
Her grateful tears joined the Tiber as her boat slowly moved towards Ostia and the future.