by Bongo Bear

Product Disclaimer: All but Xena, Gabrielle and Eve are mine.
Copyrighted July 12, 2000.
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The parade route wound around the city square three times before finally it settled in front of the main platform. The mayor, a stodgy balding fellow, eagerly stepped forward to deliver his speech commemorating the tenth anniversary of the defeat of their sworn enemy, the city of Aledale. His people followed Eli's teachings. Before they were conquered, Aledale honored the gods of Olympus.

"Ten winters ago, the final battle raged not a mile from where we now stand. We were losing until Eli smiled down upon us and gave us victory. Xena, Warrior Princess and Defender of the Faith, you were our protector then. Today we honor you. Please come forward and say a few words." The mayor extended his robed arm from the podium and pulled Xena up onto the platform. He presented her the keys to the city.

The Defender kept her back to the audience instead of soaking in the crowd's adulation. She even cringed slightly when thunderous applause rose up. She turned to the crowd and croaked out, "Thank you. I appreciate the honor you offer me, but I cannot accept it."

The mob chanted, "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na." Finally, she accepted the brass keys and quickly walked off the stage.

"What is wrong with you? You're usually more," Eve said, "more polished than that."

"I know. I know." Xena shrugged off Eve's hand on her elbow. "I just need to get away from here. We're supposed to meet Gabrielle tomorrow."

As they shouldered their way through the crowd, the mayor yielded the podium to another speaker, a preacher man.

"The worshippers of the old gods made Aledale a den of iniquity. Our victory showed them the error of their sinful ways. We are now one city under one God. Eli showed us the Way and we all bask in his everlasting Light."

The preacher's voice faded into the distance as they walked toward the city's central fountain. Xena poured out a dipper of water into her hand and splashed the cold water onto her face.

"It could have gone the other way, you know." Xena said as she shook out the excess water from her hair.

"What do you mean?"

"A Galemedian messenger literally ran into me while I was camped in the forest near here. His mission was to deliver a scroll containing the terms of Galemede's surrender to Aledale's forces. He told me of their conflict and begged me to help. He said they followed Eli. Of course I helped. If that messenger hadn't come across me, if he hadn't told me that they were fighting for Eli, I would not have been involved at all."

"So you're saying that they were lucky to have found you." Eve said. "Well, don't knock good fortune, Xena. When at war, you need all the help you can get."

"I suppose. These keys," Xena said as she jangled them lightly, "don't feel right in my hands. I'm not sure they would feel right anywhere."

"The mayor and the townspeople would be offended if you didn't keep them. Besides, you fought for a good cause. How many battles can you honestly say that about?"

Xena shrugged.

"Where are we staying tonight? I saw an inn back there." Eve thumbed toward a side alley.

"I don't want to stay here. Galemede will party all night long. I want to rest." Xena eyed the buildings lying to the west of the city square. "Why don't we go across the river and look for an inn there? They seem quiet enough."

They crossed the long bridge over the river the locals called Fortune and quickly found an inn on the other side. Banners announcing the tenth anniversary festooned the posts supporting the front of the building, yet the inn itself was quiet. Judging by the number of horses tied up in front, Xena guessed that only a few travelers were taking up quarters. There was plenty of room for a couple more.

Xena approached the bar and asked for two ales. As the portly barkeep busied herself with filling the tankards, Xena said, "It's so quiet here compared to just across the river. Shouldn't you be celebrating, too?"

The woman suddenly stopped pouring the ale and set the large jug down. "What's to celebrate, warrior?" She looked Xena up and down. "Don't let the banners outside fool you. I put them up because I have to. There's nothing for us to celebrate here."

"Huh?" Eve asked.

"We must be in Aledale," Xena said.

"Yeah, welcome." The barkeep waved her hand around the dimly lit common area. As their gaze traveled around the room, they noticed the large cobwebs in the corners and the thick dust on the shelves. And through the large windows, they could see only a few buildings had candles lit in their front rooms. In the distance, a firework exploded over the central square in Galemede proper.

"It's changed. It's not as I remember it at all," Xena said.

"Don't know when you were here last, warrior. But you should know that old river Fortune is fickle. Some years she rises like a lady and lays rich silt on our farmlands. Other years, she's complete bitch and lays waste on a whim. Both cities have been rebuilt many times over."

"A real hopping place," Eve whispered into Xena's ear.

"I would love to celebrate something, but we can't even mourn our war dead properly. My boy's lucky. I found his body before corruption took hold. Most were buried in a mass grave." The barkeep continued, "Have you seen the cemetery over in Galemede? Notice the marble statues honoring their generals? It was paid for from the taxes levied on Aledale's commerce. Half of what you're paying for the ale you're drinking goes straight into Galemede's coffers."

"Well, Galemede did win. It's only fair that they recoup their losses from the lo..." Eve suddenly shut up when she felt Xena's elbow in her ribs.

"Say it, girl, 'losers'! That's what we are. I know it. We all know it. We're reminded of it every year."

"Doesn't Galemede share some of its good fortune with Aledale? You're all citizens of Galemede," Eve said.

"Some of the tax money comes back to us. We built a new school last year," the barkeep answered.

"See, it's not so bad, right?"

"Galemede sent some teachers over here to instruct our children in the way of Eli. But most of the adults still worship as we always have. In secret. That's how we worship these days. We will be the last to do so. Our children are becoming strangers to us."

"I'm sorry," Xena said.

"Don't be. We deserve it. Maybe you don't like our cause. Maybe you don't like us. We fought just as hard and as bravely. What good is that when there is no honor in losing? Though, it could have been worse. Galamede could have enslaved instead of assimilating us." The barkeep fell silent. She stared into space, her eyes only seeing the past.

She sighed deeply and came back to the present. "I talk too much. It doesn't matter anymore. Will you be wanting more to drink?"

Xena and Eve shook their heads. The barkeep gathered up their empty tankards and waddled into the back room to wash them.

She called over her shoulder before disappearing behind a ragged curtain, "The room at the end of the hall is available. I'll bring up fresh linens when I'm done here."

Xena and Eve walked to the back of the inn and found their room. As they unpacked their saddlebags, Eve said, "You did the right thing ten years ago. Galemede winning the war proved that Aledale was wrong to continue to worship the old gods. The Olympians never cared about people. Eli cared about everyone. Ares, Zeus, Athena, they were all evil. I'm glad they are gone."

"Even Aphrodite?" Xena asked.

"Except for her. She was Gabrielle's friend. When the rest weren't treating us mortals like toys, they were trying to kill us."

"The gods had their faults. I should know, shouldn't I? The gods were selfish immortals. That's a fact, regardless of the outcome of any war I fought. Winning this war proved nothing except that I'm a good commander and Galemede's soldiers were competent enough to follow my orders."

"Eli meant for you to fight, Xena. I just know it. You were his instrument to right a terrible wrong. It's really that simple."


The next day, Eve woke up with the sun. Xena was not in the room.

She went downstairs to question the barkeep when Xena walked through the front door. Eve caught a bag of provisions tossed in her direction.

Eve said, "You should have woken me up. I would have helped you buy more supplies."

"Nah, I didn't want to wake you. Besides, I had something to take care of. It's done now. I'm ready to leave whenever you are," Xena said.

"Give me half an hour to eat something and get cleaned up. Then I'll be ready."

After they left Aledale, the barkeep went to the cemetery like she always did each morning. She carried a bundle of flowers she picked while they were still wet with dew. As she knelt to place them on top of her son's grave, she found a set of brass keys.


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