See part 1 for disclaimers.
Sleep receded in measured degrees, allowing for a languid and wickedly decadent awakening. The sound of muted activity interspersed with the brightly cheerful staccato notes of birdsong filtered into the room, borne on weak shafts of late morning sunlight through the partially opened shutters. Tiny motes of dust drifted through them like miniature flakes of white-gold snow, catching Gabrielle’s lazy, half-open eyes and providing her with several minutes of simple, yet tranquil entertainment.
A deep breath turned into a full-bodied stretch, and she let out a contented sigh as she resumed her relaxed pose where she lay belly down on the mattress. The aches and pains of the past week had been replaced with a returning sense of healthy well being, and, for the first time in what seemed like forever, Gabrielle could honestly say that she felt good. The day seemed to call for a smile and the bard happily proffered one, and that felt good too.
Gabrielle turned her head, curious to know if Xena was feeling as well as she. With dismay, she noted that the other half of the bed was conspicuously empty. A spot of disappointment dropped into her day as she regarded the other pillow with its shallow imprint, proof that a familiar dark head had lain itself there through at least part of the night. Well, she reasoned, you can only expect her to be able to deal with so much, right? Besides, when have you ever known her to sleep in late willingly? It almost made her feel guilty for having done so herself. Almost, she grinned to herself. Guess I can’t put it off any longer though. The subterranean growls from her stomach seemed to agree as Gabrielle pushed herself upright and scrubbed her face with her hands to rid herself of the last of her sleepiness. With some good-natured reluctance, the bard finally left the comfortable confines of the bed behind.
A small, well-banked fire caught her attention, as did the wooden tray of food and the presence of their packs left leaning against the hearthstones. Intrigued, the bard approached, uncertain what to make of the sight of her belongings lain out with apparent care on the chairs and across the hearth before the smartly crackling flames. Looks like you’ve been busy, she commented to her absent companion.
A scrap of paper tucked under a trail bar caught her eye and she picked up both before settling herself on the floor next to the fireplace. Gabrielle nibbled on her breakfast, made all the tastier for the warrior’s thoughtfulness, and began reading the bold, slanting hand of Xena’s writing.
Gabrielle, (it read)
I have some things to take care of so I’m starting out early. Your stuff was a little damp from the rain, but you’re sleeping like the dead right now, so it’ll probably be dry by the time you get up. Your scrolls seem fine.
I’ll look for you when I get back so stay out of trouble. Take it easy on yourself when you go to help out. You’re still more tired than you think you are. From what I saw last night, you’re looking way too thin. I like having you around so make sure you eat something, all right?
p.s.: I meant it when I said stay out of trouble.
Gabrielle snorted at the written afterthought and nearly choked on her breakfast. "Like I’m the only one here who attracts trouble," she muttered aloud.
‘I like having you around…’ She read the sentence through several times more and then the rest of the message, smiling at the caring sentiments it contained masked beneath pragmatic suggestions. I should be annoyed at you for running off again, but after what I did to you last night I suppose giving you some room is only fair. The tumbling quiver of sensation through her midsection at the mere thought of the night before was enough to unsettle her, and Gabrielle held a hand against her midsection, vaguely hoping she would be able to look Xena in the eye the next time she saw her. For once she wasn’t upset for being left behind. The time alone would let her work out how this newest development played into their friendship and whether or not it seemed likely that Xena reciprocated her feelings.
Whatever her emotions, the bard’s appetite thankfully hadn’t suffered for it and she quickly devoured the remainder of the trail bar before investigating the other items left on the tray. Selecting an apple, she then inventoried her belongings and true to the Xena’s word, her clothes were comfortably warm and dry. How early were you up? And what is this? Gabrielle turned kilt and top this way and that, pleasantly surprised to find that someone, most likely Xena, had already scrubbed them clean. The imminently practical gesture was so completely Xena that she had to smile. The meaning behind the act didn’t go unnoticed however; Gabrielle knew that the warrior didn’t do such things without reason. And while the reason might be entirely her own, the fact that Xena had chosen to do it at all gave Gabrielle a warm feeling inside.
Look at me. I’m getting emotional over clean clothes. She rolled her eyes at herself and set about getting dressed. "At least I can blame it on being a bard; we’re supposed to like mushy stuff." Uh huh, you can tell yourself that. Just don’t pretend you don’t know what you really feel. Gabrielle paused in the middle of tying her boots to face up to that last thought. She allowed herself to revisit the memory of their kiss and the breathless rush of whirling emotions, the most powerful of which was the feeling of wonder and connection, emotions that she hoped she had seen mirrored in Xena’s wide blue eyes.
"So this is falling in love." A wild swell of exhilaration made Gabrielle want to laugh out loud. "Wow." She suddenly couldn’t wait to see Xena again. "Okay. Just… calm down. Get a grip." A couple of deep breaths helped to settle her somewhat and she continued to dress, but all the while very aware of how her thoughts never strayed far from a certain dark-haired, leather-clad warrior. Okay, but like that’s anything new. She laughed at herself, understanding better now just what that singular preoccupation had probably meant. I need to go and do something to distract me before I drive myself nuts. Helping out the townspeople was the surest bet. Gods knew they could use all the help they could get at this point.
With a destination in mind, the bard finished dressing, grabbed a chunk of bread and her things before heading for the door. A sudden thought made her pause at the threshold, and though painfully self-conscious about it, Gabrielle went back for one more item before going on her way, a small, satisfied look on her face knowing that the warrior’s note had been tucked away in her belt for safekeeping.
* * *
"That’s the last for this trip," one of the soldiers murmured and brushed off his gloved hands.
Gabrielle straightened up with a sigh and looked over the shrouded dead lain in neat rows here in the courtyard near the gate. Through the scorched opening she could see where a massive pile of wood was being gathered for the pyre. Soldier and citizen alike prepared the dead, and the celebratory air of the day before was dampened as Neapolis’ losses became more apparent. The bard adjusted the makeshift mask on her face and nodded to the man. "Thanks, Marek. If Josiah’s ready, I’ll start taking names here."
"Are you sure?" he asked doubtfully. "You look like you could use a rest."
A cart rumbled loudly past them, momentarily preventing her from answering. They stared at the full compliment of passengers; the silent and still remains of the siege’s victims that filled the bed to capacity. The pair of dark-coated warhorses and an escort of soldiers and townsfolk, looking tired and glum, completed the sombre scene. She watched them go, a similar heaviness mirrored in her own heart. "No." Gabrielle shook her head. "I want to get this down. They deserve to be remembered."
"I’ll get him for you."
She looked upwards where the sunlight, only reluctantly showing its face throughout the day, had now completely receded behind a wall of ugly, dark clouds. From the scent on the slowly rising breeze she could tell that it would most likely rain again tonight. The bard sighed and tried to relax her shoulders, but everything ached. Tending the injured and laying out the dead had proven a sovereign remedy for her flighty emotions from this morning, giving her something very real and very necessary to focus upon.
It hadn’t stopped her from watching for Xena though, and now with the evening hours fast approaching and the weather looking to turn again, she couldn’t help but worry about the warrior as her eyes turned frequently to the gate. Ridiculous as that is, she scoffed at herself. Was there anyone else more qualified to look after themselves? Doesn’t matter; everyone should have someone who worries for them. After all, I know she worries about me. And as irritating as the warrior’s over-protective streak could be, it still gave her a good feeling…
Interrupted from her pleasant reverie, Gabrielle turned to find Kozani’s General standing by her side. Now able to take the time to notice him properly, she was struck by the solidity of his presence, like the mountains swathed by clouds beyond the town’s damaged walls. He seemed as imperturbable and worn as their rocky facing, as grey tinged as the snow touched peaks. "General Taelere." She greeted him amiably, if tiredly, after pulling down her mask. "If you’re looking for Xena, I’m not sure where she is."
The older man cleared his throat and shook his head. "Actually, it’s with you I wish to speak. Do you have a moment? It’s obvious that you’re busy…"
If she didn’t know better, Gabrielle would have sworn that Taelere would have gladly accepted any excuse to avoid this conversation. "No, I’m still waiting for Josiah. What do you want to talk about?" She hooked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear and waited patiently.
Taelere drew a tightly rolled scroll from his belt, the parchment looking a little worse for wear around the edges, but its seal still intact. "I was asked by Xena to deliver this into your hands." He held out the scroll and relinquished it into her hesitant grasp.
"My hands?" She glanced down at the cryptic missive and then back up. "When did she give this to you?"
"Just before we left Kozani. She was quite… adamant… in her instructions."
Gabrielle chuckled. "That’s an incredibly diplomatic way of saying she’s as stubborn as a mule and twice as ornery."
The General coughed into his gloved fist, the noise sounding suspiciously like a choked off laugh. "Ah… yes. I’m acquainted with the woman’s temperament."
"If you survived the experience, then I think that means she likes you." She reached out to pat his arm and smiled. "Have your troops found the rest of Stephicles’ men?" Groups of captives had been marched passed her here in the courtyard and taken out the gate, to what fate she still didn’t know.
"We believe so, but we have a small patrol still keeping watch. Most of our efforts are directed towards finding an appropriate amount of wood. The ground is too hard for a mass burial yet, so I’ve organised a few foraging groups. We should have a sufficient fuel by late tomorrow." He looked over the rows of the dead as he spoke, a look of angry regret on his face.
The number of victims hit the bard again as she followed his gaze. All because of one man’s greed and ambition. It was such a useless, shameful, tragic waste of life. "They’ve been through so much. Can you take a couple of days to let them recover a little? Your soldiers keep bringing more bodies… perhaps we should wait to see if any more are found?"
Taelere shook his head slowly. "With all due respect for their loss and suffering, we can’t afford to wait. They’ve been lucky so far, but the threat of disease is too great to delay any longer."
The thought of disease run rampant brought her up short and she looked at the people lying by her feet with deep unease. "Oh."
"It’s been cold, so we’re likely safe, but it must be done with all haste," he reiterated. "I’ll post an honour guard for them and rearrange the shift schedules to account for them. Will you pass that along to Xena when you see her?"
Gabrielle nodded and accepted his deferential bow before watching him stride towards a group of soldiers at the gate. Her gaze went to the mysterious scroll held securely in one hand. What is this all about? the bard wondered silently, her curiosity fully aroused. Was this how you intended to say goodbye?
Josiah’s thin gravely voice announced his presence, startling her back to the task at hand. Unable to take the time to read it now, Gabrielle carefully stowed the scroll into her bag for later and with a deep, bracing breath, nodded her acquiescence. She pulled up the cloth up over her nose and mouth, and prepared a quill to take dictation. "Go ahead."
He pulled down the blanket covering one body. A tawny fall of hair and thick lashes were a colourful contrast to the pale, pale skin. "He be Adso. A likely lad, if all a-gangle with ‘is big hands an’ feet. Made the prettiest music ye’d ever hear, be it singing or with one of them wee lap lyres. The girls liked him right fine, though the boys thought him fey. Adso could hold his own though, he could. Why, I recall festival night two harvests ago when the lad sported a black eye, but still sang proud as you please, and the other lads fairing the same or no better…"
Gabrielle listened attentively as she scribbled across the parchment. The old man, older even than Laera, seemed to know the face of every person in the town. He was a living chronicle of the tapestry of Neapolis. A treasure in fact, and one she wished she could latch onto for the rest of their stay. Josiah’s wealth of stories would give life and flavour to the tale she planned on writing, for she had no intention of allowing the story of this town’s courage and strength to go untold.
The old man reverently covered the young man’s face again and moved on to the next. "Gods ha’ mercy," he sighed. "I told ye to come to the temple, ye tetchy auld fool." A face as wizened as Josiah’s stared blindly into the greying sky, and Gabrielle quickly glanced away from the sight of the caved-in skull. "This be Hirotumus, widower and wainwright, a dear friend…"
And so the list went on.
* * *
Darkness had fallen and the last of the dead that could be found in the failing light had been brought to the gate, identified and prepared for the morrow. Gabrielle frowned as another fat drop of rain plinked her in the face, and she wiped the annoying wetness away with a chapped hand. A gusting wind blew, alternately fierce then fading, snapping sharply at the shrouds and making the material wave and toss, and giving the dead the appearance of an uneasy rest. The movement, where there should be none, gave the courtyard an eerily disturbing air and made Gabrielle shiver. Someone had thoughtfully provided her with a cloak and she pulled the edges of the barrier closer around herself in the hopes of keeping out the cold.
She leaned against the wall, clutching quill and parchment, determinedly adding more detail to that given her by Josiah all the while fighting the elements. A sudden sucking gust threatened to pull the scroll right from her hands and Gabrielle glared at the sky, fractious and tired. She glanced at the gate for perhaps the hundredth time where a handful of guards still stood watch, hovering near the wind-whipped flames of a brazier while she paused to relieve some of the cramping in her hand.
Another raindrop threatened to mar the ink and with a frustrated sigh, the bard used her thumb to blot it away and squinted in the poor light cast from the torch overhead to re-read the last couple of sentences. It’ll have to do, she sighed to herself, finally admitting defeat. At least until I can get inside with some decent light. Gabrielle wanted to stay here until Xena returned, but the weather was making her vigil more and more uncomfortable. Just a little while longer, she promised herself. Maybe there would be some hot tea to be found in the kitchens…
A call of challenge rang out and Gabrielle rose to her feet in time to see a pale horse arrive in the courtyard bearing a heavily cloaked rider. The animal was a sight for sore eyes. "Argo!" The bard quickly took the vulnerable parchment bearing the names and snippets of stories and tucked it safely away in her bag along side the scroll from Xena.
Gabrielle came along side the horse, patting the mare’s graceful neck. "Xena," she called up in greeting and watched the warrior toss back the hood to reveal a tousled dark head. After worrying and wondering all day, any thoughts of nervousness fled when she their eyes met. The folds of the warrior’s cloak fell away, distracting her as a small boy emerged, but Xena was already swinging down from the saddle and lowering the child to the ground before she had a chance to enquire.
The voice was familiar and the bard looked closer. "Aren?" A dimpled grin met her question and the stable boy stepped closer. "Aren!" She had almost forgotten about him in all rush of recent events. But, obviously Xena hadn’t. ‘Some things to take care of’ indeed. Things like this were exactly the reason that Gabrielle admired the warrior. With all the larger concerns, it was so like her friend to remember the smaller, yet no less important details. "Are you alright?"
"I’m great," Aren replied with enthusiasm. "Xena came to the stable this morning and told me I was free. And then she asked if I wanted to go for a ride with her."
"Oh?" Out of the corner of her eye she watched Xena remove a pair of heavy saddlebags from Argo’s saddle and sling them over one shoulder. The mare sighed and shifted in place, plainly glad to be rid of all the additional weight.
"Yeah, and she even let me steer Argo and told me stuff about wood lore and said I can live here if I want to." His breathless account held an air of charmingly infectious excitement and even Xena smiled as she looked down on him.
The warrior reached out a hand to ruffle his hair. "You can live here if you want to, but only if Councillor Laera agrees, remember?" Xena reminded him.
The smile was irrepressible. "Yes, milady."
A dark brow lifted. "What did I tell you about calling me that?"
"Sorry, Xena." The smile transformed itself to an unrepentant triangular grin.
"Uh huh." She turned her attention to Gabrielle, her expression softening a little. "Hey."
"Hey yourself," Gabrielle replied suddenly feeling a little shy under Xena’s direct gaze. "Was he your errand?"
Xena patted the saddlebags draped over her shoulder. "One of them." The warrior looked beyond her to the rows of bodies and then turned Aren towards her to straighten the boy’s clothes. "Been busy?"
The bard observed the uncharacteristic behaviour and paused a beat before responding, trying to deliberately avoid looking behind her. Xena’s body language told her to play it cool and not call attention to the silent occupants lying in courtyard lest it frighten the boy. "Yeah. Should we get him settled?" At the warrior’s nod, Gabrielle stepped forward and slipped an arm around Aren, taking comfortable control of the situation as she interposed her body between him and the bodies. "Sounds like you had some adventures today. Why don’t you tell me about them on the way to the temple? There’s someone there that we’d like you to meet."
The child’s happy chatter was a bright spot in her day, second only to the warm and grateful look Xena gave her over Aren’s head, and slowly the horror and sadness of the day was pushed back, giving her bruised and aching soul some much needed peace.
* * *
They found Laera in the temple where the old woman was holding court over organised chaos as the townspeople took refuge in the sheltering confines of the stone building. Food had been set out in a communal buffet and the large room had a tired, but happily relieved feel to it. Xena and Gabrielle were recognised on sight and hailed by those they passed with many ‘gods bless yous’ and other expressions of gratitude. Their arrival sent out a ripple of attention and it was hardly any time at all before Laera needed to wave people back in order to allow the trio further access into the room.
"I was wondering if I’d see either of you today," Laera said and seated herself down gingerly onto a bench lined with cushions. "I’ll have a few reports to go over with you, but first… who is this you’ve brought to me?"
"This is Aren." Xena gave him a gentle push forward. The boy bobbed a quick bow and then stepped back into the warrior’s comforting shadow. "He was a slave in Stephicles’ army and served in his stables. He showed considerable bravery in helping Gabrielle and I escape past his camp when we left for Kozani, and now he’s looking for a new place to live."
Laera’s expression turned formal and contemplative as she looked Aren up and down. "If you’re looking to stay with us you could not have asked for a better sponsor, young man," the old woman informed him. "And your actions on our behalf will not be overlooked. However, everyone here must earn his way. We cannot take in an idler."
"Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am. Of course not," Aren replied with a grave seriousness out of keeping with his young age. "I pull my weight. I’m good with animals and they like me. I’d work real hard and wouldn’t be any trouble."
The councillor gave him a level stare as if judging his merit based on the earnestness of his expression, and finally nodded her head, the flinty look giving way to a smile. "I’ll take you at your word, Master Aren. Tonight you’ll eat and sleep here, and tomorrow I’ll have someone take you to General Taelere. I’m sure his troops would appreciate assistance with their mounts. After that, we’ll find a more permanent place for you with a family. You’re way too thin, lad. Go on, now, and get yourself something to eat." She made shooing motions with one hand, hastening him on with an encouraging smile. The councillor watched him go before turning back. "He’s not the only one who’s too thin. Do I need to give you both orders as well?"
Xena smiled wryly. "Eating is probably the last thing you need to order Gabrielle to do."
The bard backhanded her in the midsection and gave her a beady look. "I can’t help it if I eat enough for two. I’d like to see anyone else try to keep up with you on less."
Laera chuckled, enjoying the pair’s easy banter. "I can well believe it. A body could get tired just watching the two of you." She fell silent for a moment and then became more serious. "Speaking of tired… things have been going well here. We’ve had no more reports of injured coming in. Kiran’s militia were given leave to stand down and recuperate. I believe many of them checked in on their families. There’s been only two incidents of raiders attacking people. The patrols have been quite effective and seem to have found the rest. And I owe you a further word of thanks." Laera directed this last comment to Gabrielle. "We heard what you’ve been doing today. It’s not an easy task you’ve laid yourself."
"No," Gabrielle acknowledged grimly, aware of Xena’s heightened interest. "But I think we’ve identified everyone. General Taelere says that we should have the pyre lit tomorrow sometime. They’re still gathering the wood."
"How many?" the councillor asked quietly.
The bard pursed her lips, mentally reviewing the pages and pages of names and tightly written text meant to serve as a memorial. "Two hundred seventy-two," Gabrielle murmured finally. "One hundred and forty-five men, eighty-eight women… and thirty-nine children." Her voice broke on the last. Their deaths had been the hardest to bear and the most difficult to record. Even Josiah was unable to identify many by name, most being unrecognisable due to tender age or violent injury. The one little girl she had tried to rescue from the collapsed house had been there and she had nearly fallen apart again at seeing her so grey and still. She felt Xena’s presence at her back, strong and comforting, and she took solace in it as she rubbed a hand against her tired, gritty eyes. "I’m so sorry."
Laera covered her mouth with a trembling hand to contain the deep sound of pain, shaken by the tally. Almost three hundred people… gone. So many families torn apart. So much potential destroyed. How would they recover?
"You know as well as I do that nothing will bring them back." Xena’s voice came quietly from over the bard’s shoulder as if hearing the councillor’s thoughts. "Many of them sacrificed themselves so that the rest of you could survive and go on. Spring is right around the corner and with your stores depleted and the number of people capable of preparing for the planting reduced, you’re at a disadvantage here." The warrior shifted. "That’s the bad news."
"Is there good news to be had?" Leara asked bleakly, wondering what kind of future her people would have ahead of them. Athena had seemingly disappeared shortly after the two women had departed yesterday. At least, no one she had asked had seen the goddess leave, so there had been no assurances from that source. Not that she wished to speak with the deity; with all her shortcomings Laera was certain she would barely be able to look the goddess in the eye.
Instead of answering, Xena pulled the heavy saddlebags from her shoulder and dropped it to the stone floor where the thud of impact attested to its weight. Long fingers made quick work of the leather stays and with a flip of her wrist Xena revealed the contents of the packs to the steady light cast by the lanterns and torches nearby.
Gabrielle heard the older woman gasp and leaned around Xena to watch as Laera dipped her hands into the bag, bringing forth a pile of coins that fell like gold and silver raindrops between her fingers. "Dear goddess!" the councillor exclaimed, her eyes jerking from the dinars up to Xena. "Where did you get all this?" Both saddlebags, large and deep, appeared to be filled to the brim.
The bard reached down and picked up one of the coins. Dirt and mould flaked off into her palm when she scratched at its surface, and the answer to that question became instantly clear. Gabrielle knew its dark and bloody story, of what it was likely costing the warrior to stand here now and give it back. She rubbed the rough metal with the pad of her thumb, cleaning away the crusted filth to reveal the burnished surface underneath, its detailing still vibrantly intact. The significance of the metaphor resting in her hand was not lost on the bard, and she turned to look at Xena, imagining just a little more of the darkness giving way to the light as the warrior took another difficult step forward. Gabrielle caught Xena’s quick glance her way and she offered her friend a look of encouragement and reassurance.
"From Neapolis," Xena stated flatly, her face hard and controlled. "It all belongs to you." It wasn’t strictly true. The town, much smaller then, had yielded perhaps half of what sat before the old woman. She had supplemented it by ransacking Stephicles’ camp for whatever was left in his war chest and emptying out the other secret cache she had left in the area other than that left in the cave she had shown Gabrielle. It was with a sense of aching shame that she turned the money over to its rightful owners. The knowledge that it would be more than adequate to help them rebuild, feed them, and see them through the coming year did nothing to assuage her feelings of guilt in either how she had acquired it, or in what resulted since. Nothing, not even the look of admiring pride from Gabrielle could lessen its intensity.
"But…" Laera continued to stare at the wealth resting at her feet, plainly at a loss for words.
"We’ll be at the funeral tomorrow. Good night, councillor." The warrior inclined her head respectively and then turned to leave. "C’mon, Gabrielle."
"What? Xena?" Confused by the abrupt leave-taking, the bard looked back and forth between Laera and the warrior’s retreating back. "Um, excuse us," Gabrielle said quickly by way of an apology and then followed after the other woman. She had to jog to catch up with Xena’s longer stride, and she glanced upwards trying to judge her friend’s mood based on the limited clues available and truly, there wasn’t much to go on beyond the tightness around the eyes and the air of uncomfortable intensity surrounding her friend.
Gabrielle’s eyes were drawn to the people as she passed them, marking the range of expressions and emotions. Even in the face of death and tragedy, the Neapolitan’s resilient spirit seemed to be reasserting itself. Sadness was present, certainly, but quiet smiles and laughter were visible too. It was heartening. All the more so after becoming more intimately acquainted with the townsfolk whose lives had been ruthlessly cut short. She smiled and waved distractedly back to those who hailed her, but the bard’s eyes, growing ever more concerned, were all for the warrior whose straight-backed saunter masked a pain that was becoming more and more evident to her practiced eye. Those Xena passed drew back, sensing their greetings were unwelcome and many a cordial greeting died half uttered.
Even the light seemed reluctant to touch her, and Gabrielle watched Xena leave the room, abandoning its warmth and companionship, to enter the darkness of the wretched night beyond its boundaries without hesitation.
She paused at the door with her hand on the wooden frame and looked back into the room. These people would welcome her here. Whether she wanted to admit it to herself or not, they regarded her with as much admiration and gratitude as they did Xena. They would draw her in, listen to her stories and she knew innately that she would be able to touch them. Ease their pain. But the sight of the lone figure in the rain called to her. There’s someone else who needs me more.
And it took no more thought than that to send her into the darkness after Xena.
* * *
Gabrielle shut the door to their room softly behind her and moved to the fireplace while Xena removed her armour and dropped it with unusual carelessness by the bed. The rest of the metal plating followed suit and the bard frowned with deep concern. Their ride back to the council hall had been governed largely by silence and tinged with an awkward discomfort that Gabrielle wasn’t certain how to broach. The room held a chill she wasn’t even sure a fire could dispel, but she was game to try. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Xena tossed her sword on her side of the bed and scrubbed her hands through her hair, scattering beads of moisture across the wooden floor. "Talk about what?"
C’mon, Xena, you know I know you better than that. "You’ve been tense and upset ever since our conversation with Laera, maybe even since you got back. It was a really brave thing you did. I can only imagine how much I’d dread having to confront my past like that." The blue eyes snapping up to meet hers told her that she had hit the target in one shot. "Is that it?" she asked, trying to decipher the inner machinations of her friend’s mind and the pattern of emotions running deep beneath the breached exterior.
Xena quickly recovered her composure, her face resuming its expressionless mask though her eyes were wary. "It’s nothing."
"I don’t think so," Gabrielle disagreed quietly. She finished building up a fire and brushed off her hands as she got to her feet. "If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be this angry with yourself over it. Xena, you never treat your stuff like that." The bard pointed to the warrior’s belongings. She walked over and dropped a hand on the weathered scabbard. "You know you’ll feel better if you talk it out."
Xena watched the bard seat herself on the edge of the bed, her expression full of gentle compassion as she waited. In the quiet darkness, broken only by the crackling fire and the shifting lines of light and shadow, the warrior paced the room slowly, her jaw working as she struggled with herself. "It’s all my fault!" she burst out savagely. Xena breathed hard and fast as if the effort of confessing this deeply held secret were a battle to be fought and conquered.
"What is?" Gabrielle leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, resisting the urge to go to her just yet.
"All of this!" Xena flung her arms out. "This is all because of me."
They stared at one another while Gabrielle’s mind raced to interpret the deeper import of the vague, yet obviously vital clue to the warrior’s motivations. She spoke aloud, slowly, trying to feel her way through the quagmire. "You mean to say that Stephicles’ attack on Neapolis… and Ares scheme to get his hands on the Spear of Mercy… are your fault?"
"Yes!" Xena nearly shouted. She left the bedside and began to pace the room.
Gabrielle’s brows knitted together as she tried to see to the heart of Xena’s feelings of guilt. Even after turning the issue over in her mind to examine the angles, she was still at a loss. "How is that possible?"
"If I hadn’t attacked them they wouldn’t have gone to Kozani for help. The Spear made them a target that Stephicles couldn’t pass up and that Ares would give anything to control." Xena settled herself next to the fire, but her agitation wouldn’t let her remain there long and within a moment or two, she returned to her pacing. "Now almost three hundred people are dead."
Ah. Following the path of Xena’s convoluted logic, it made more sense to Gabrielle now, but she had to tread carefully. Or do I? Maybe some bluntness might help for a change. "Xena," she sighed. "I’ve always known you need to be in control of situations, but this is just plain arrogant."
"What?" Xena snapped, becoming dangerously still.
Well, in for a dinar… "You seem to have this need to take everything on your shoulders whether it’s your responsibility or not. Everyone has choices. Laera. Stephicles. Ares. They all chose their own destiny and to think that you somehow dictated their action and brought about the current situation… Xena, it’s too much. You can’t blame yourself for that. You’re not a god. You don’t control the Fates." She paused to see if any of this was having an effect, but from the hard mask on the warrior’s face, Gabrielle wasn’t banking on it. She’d be lucky if Xena didn’t just leave the room "You’re only human," the bard continued in a softer tone. "Yes, you did a terrible thing, but look at everything you’ve done to make up for it. And you heard Laera yesterday… she forgives you. You need to accept that and let everything else go before it poisons you."
Xena shook her head, unwilling to let herself off so easily. She turned away, unable to endure the look of entreaty and understanding in Gabrielle’s eyes.
Gabrielle saw Xena begin to draw away from her, the physical distancing only an outward mirror of the emotional recoiling occurring within. Oh no… I’m not going to let you do this, the bard decided and rose to her feet. In a few easy steps she was by the warrior’s side and laying a firm hand on the tall woman’s rigid back. "You’ve been forgiven, Xena, but you’ll never find any peace until you find a way to forgive yourself. You saved these people-"
"You saved them," Xena interrupted and mentally winced at how that sounded. The warrior found herself suddenly angry with herself, with the bard… with the whole damn situation. She let out a frustrated growl and threw herself down on the hearth and dropped her head into her hands.
Oh, Xena. Gabrielle took a breath and re-evaluated the situation. She swiftly knelt down in front of the warrior and tried to get her to acknowledge her presence. Feeling some trepidation, Gabrielle slowly laid her hands on Xena’s knees. "That’s what you told Ares, but you know it’s not exactly true. And if you don’t believe me then listen…" With a deep breath, the bard began to catalogue the warrior’s achievements over the last week. She spoke only loud enough for her voice to carry between them, watching for her moment to capture the pair of sceptical blue eyes that slowly appeared as Xena lifted her head and held her with the sincerity of her words. "And whatever your past deeds, you’ve earned the forgiveness that Laera’s offering. You just have to allow yourself to accept it," the bard finished softly, willing Xena to believe her.
As hard as she resisted, the sharp edge of her anger was still blunted by the bard’s voice, leaving her feeling rudderless in the stormy sea of her own mixed emotions. Xena smiled grimly at the bard, her eyes taking on a look of wistful longing. "I wish it were that easy."
"It is. Just stop resisting it," Gabrielle insisted with conviction, but it seemed that no matter what she said, the long-felt pain was only eased, but never mended. I’ll just have to keep trying. In the meanwhile, it’s probably time to lighten this up. "Stubborn warrior." The words were spoken with a smile, turning her usual curse into a heartfelt term of endearment.
Xena couldn’t help but give a real smile, small though it was, in return.
"You’re still the hero in my book."
The look of open admiration and affection was plain to see and the warrior swallowed, not certain she was truly worthy of the sentiment. But maybe… just maybe I still have a finger-hold on that pedestal after all. If she can still see me that way… Then perhaps the rest of it was possible too. "Yeah? Well… so are you. I can’t believe how well you fought against Stephicles, especially at the end. If I hadn’t been looking for you, I don’t think even I would have heard you coming." It was impossible to miss the way Gabrielle’s face lit up at the praise, the adorable way she bit her lip and ducked her head with self-conscious pleasure. The bard’s youthful innocence, even in the face of all they had been through, brought a full and genuine smile to Xena’s face at last. "I couldn’t have done this without you… partner." Shame on you, Xena. You shouldn’t enjoy making her blush like that.
"P… uh… I…" Flustered, Gabrielle paused to gather herself and try again, this time opting to change the subject entirely. "So… do you feel any better?"
Did she? While not entirely gone, the suffocating sense of guilt and shame had receded, leaving her feeling hollow and somewhat drained. "Yeah," Xena answered truthfully. "How are you doing though?"
"That wasn’t laundry I saw in the courtyard."
The memory of her day came back abruptly and Gabrielle shook her head. "No. It wasn't."
With a patience honed on the battlefield, Xena waited. All she needs is an opening. And… maybe this… Xena covered one of Gabrielle’s hands with her own and squeezed gently in encouragement.
"I suppose I could have left it to any one of General Taelere’s troops. He’s such a nice man, by the way. Always so polite. Anyway, I started off in the temple trying to patch up anyone they brought in, but after a while no one new arrived and we had to figure out what to do with those who hadn’t made it. I helped some of the people taking the bodies to the gate and this old man, Josiah, was rambling about someone in the cart that he’d known. Soon he was talking about each of them. Telling little stories, things he remembered about them. And it gave me the idea to write something about all the people that had died. I asked Josiah if he would help and he seemed flattered that I asked. So we went person to person… I just… I just didn’t expect there to be so many of them." The multitude of pale and fragile faces came back to her. "Some you couldn’t tell how they’d died. They seemed asleep. But others…" Gabrielle shivered, especially in memory of the last; Hirotumus. "The children were the worst. So small, Xena, so young... How could someone do that?" she finished in a choked whisper.
Xena watched the tears form in Gabrielle’s eyes and held out her arms. The bard slid into the vee of her knees and wrapped her arms around her waist in a tight grip. "Some people have no conscience, no sense of values beyond their own needs or wants. That kind of disregard combined with any sort of ambition makes them self-centred, ruthless, and very, very dangerous." I should know, she added silently, having been just such a person. Once. But never again. "Cry if you need to," she whispered into the red-gold strands of hair beneath her cheek. "Afterwards we’ll get you in bed and you can get some rest. It’s been a long day." She felt warm moisture dampen the skin of her chest as Gabrielle found release in quiet tears and the comfort of her arms. There hadn’t been much time yet to think through what last night had meant, but Xena was content to put that aside for the time being. It felt so good just to hold her.
At last, Gabrielle drew back and wiped at her eyes. "Sorry about that."
"Don’t be," Xena admonished her and lifted a hand to brush away a tear from the bard’s face. "Given all the craziness lately, tears are the most normal reaction I can think of. Don’t feel bad for needing to cry. Or for feeling so much for them… if more people did, maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t happen."
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed and slowly leaned into her friend, her forehead resting against Xena’s chest and her hands on smooth, muscular thighs. "Will it ever stop?"
It was a rhetorical question, yet Xena lowered her chin against Gabrielle’s hair and studied the wavering shadows as if divining the future still to come, giving the bard’s question serious consideration. She drew in a breath. "Not completely, but I think it’ll get better. Peaceful, caring people, people like you, will find a way to make it better. Not everything can be decided at the end of a sword."
"Nor can words resolve every conflict," the bard added and lifted her head to look into Xena’s eyes. "Sometimes fighting is the answer."
"Just so long as it’s not the first and only answer," Xena replied. She cupped the bard’s cheek in the palm of her hand, loving the feel of her skin, warm and soft, beneath her hand and the vision of Gabrielle’s youthful face devoid of pain and regret. "Are you tired?"
"A bit." Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded against the warrior’s hand, soaking in the sensation of the tender caress. She laid her hand over Xena’s, turned her face slightly and brushed her lips against the callused palm before withdrawing. It was brief and casual, allowing the warrior to make of it what she would.
Xena felt the kiss against her hand, so light and soft, that she wondered if she had imagined it. She closed her hand into a fist, trying to hold onto the sensation and followed the bard with gentle eyes as the other woman rose and began to undress for bed. Gabrielle’s body, outlined in firelight was enough to make Xena’s mouth dry and she averted gaze, unprepared to broach the matter until they were out from under the shadow of this latest mission. Leave it until we’re on the road, Xena decided, when we have more time to figure this out. Time wasn’t a threat; she knew how she felt. There had always been a kind of undercurrent of attraction between them, but for once in her life Xena had resisted acting on it, content instead to explore the more uncharted waters of friendship. It had proved to be one of the most rewarding decisions she had ever made and part of her wondered what complications might arise from tampering with that. Leave it, she remonstrated herself. You won’t solve it tonight.
"What on earth are you thinking that’s making you scowl like that?" Gabrielle asked her from across the room as she climbed nimbly into bed.
"I’m wondering what it’s going to take to keep you from stealing all the covers tonight," the warrior said to cover for her errant expression. Lest the bard decide to pursue it, Xena stood up and shucked out of her leathers with relief, peripherally aware of a pair of green eyes observing her with discreet interest.
"Well, I still get cold at night," Gabrielle complained with a smile and propped her head upon on hand. "If you can figure out a way for me to stay warm that doesn’t involve singeing my feet in the fireplace, I’ll consider it."
She smirked, hearing the veiled flirtation in the bard’s response. Subtle, Gabrielle, very subtle. The naughtier side of her nature, still tense and seeking release, would gladly have come out to play, but she quickly squelched the urge beneath a reminder of just who was involved here. One wrong move and all would be lost. I would be lost, Xena thought to herself, vowing to be careful despite the apparent evolution of Gabrielle’s feelings towards her. "You could start with closing the shutters," she suggested and did so, effectively blocking out the wind and rain.
The bed felt good after riding all day and Xena stretched her limbs to their fullest before slowly relaxing into the mattress. "You could wear more clothes to bed," she continued. "Add more blankets. Put a hot brick beneath your feet…"
"I get the point already," Gabrielle grumbled and rolled her eyes.
"… or you could stick a little closer and just share the blankets," the warrior invited, her voice light and unassuming as she stared up at the ceiling. For the space of several heartbeats there was no sound or movement beyond Gabrielle’s erratic breathing. The covers rustled and then the smaller woman’s body moved closer to her side, barely touching except for the hand she felt lain on her arm. Uh huh. And by morning you’ll be sprawled all over me. An image accompanied this thought resulting in a smirk. Not that I’ll mind, she added with a touch of guilty enjoyment. "Better?" Xena asked softly.
Xena’s close proximity, with her warmth and strength, was enough to alleviate the last of her cares and allow Gabrielle the chance to concentrate, albeit sleepily, on this very pleasant arrangement. "Mmhmm," she answered. "This okay?"
It was a question with layers upon layers of meaning. She knew what they both wanted and knew as well that to give in to that meant opening the door to a wide range of potential problems. Her guarded nature raged against it, loath to relinquish the certainty of her emotional isolation. But she was fighting a losing battle if ever she saw one. A pair of green eyes and a pure, innocent spirit had vanquished her long before she had even realised her danger. All that remained was to give in… "Yeah." Xena reached over to pat the bard’s hand where it lay atop her arm. The smile that followed gave Gabrielle’s face a quiet glow, and the younger woman snuggled a little closer.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle." The warrior let her eyes drift shut, feeling an unfamiliar contentedness steal over her.
Had only the bard been given to know the direction of Xena’s thoughts, the young woman would then have told her with an uncommon wisdom that, upon Love’s battlefield, surrender is the only sure path to victory.
Xena leaned wearily against the parapet and pulled off her gloves, grimacing at the sticky patches of pine-scented resin covering her from head to toe. She rolled her head from side to side, seeking to relieve some of the stiffness as she surveyed the expanse of field beneath the wall. Below her, the soldiers and townsfolk moved like determined ants to cut and pile as much wood as possible before the end of the day when the falling darkness would make it too difficult and dangerous to see. From her vantage, the woodpile looked like a wildly overgrown briar patch with its thick tangle of branches jutting every which way. It would hopefully be enough even taking into account the recent wet weather.
For once the clouds overhead seemed to have exhausted their seemingly endless supply of rain. The wind was brisk though and Xena lifted her head letting the breeze dry the sweat of exertion from her temples. The warrior narrowed her eyes, catching a slight scrape on the stairwell behind her. A glance over her shoulder revealed Neapolis’ captain, bandaged and limping, but moving stubbornly under her own steam. Yet another testament to the quiet will of these people.
"Xena." Kiran nodded in greeting. "Saw you heading up here and wondered if you might have a minute?"
"Sure. Haven’t seen you for a couple of days," Xena said as she turned and rested her back against the stonework. "How’re the injuries?"
The young militia-woman shrugged off the question. "They’re fine. But, that was a pretty incredible thing you did the other day. I thought you were dead for sure."
It was Xena’s turn to shrug. "Got lucky." Warriors. Xena tried to hide a smile, imagining Gabrielle’s affectionate sarcasm at the ‘I’m-too-tough-for-my-leathers’ attitude fighters always seemed to adopt.
"More than lucky," Kiran snorted softly, her expression turning serious. "If that had been me, I don’t know that I could have made that decision, but I guess that’s the difference between regular folk and heroes, huh?"
The admiration shone painfully brightly in the young woman’s eyes and Xena shifted a little, uncomfortable in its intensity. "You do what you have to do. There’s no time to think about it. But," she added thoughtfully, "I think you already know what I mean." Kiran had the look; that haunted look of having seen more than is right and natural for any one human being, that residual shock of remembered horror and disillusionment. She waited; sensing what was coming next.
"How…" Kiran paused, appearing to struggle in her effort to get the words out. "How do I live with it? With myself?"
Perhaps only another warrior would have understood, for Xena required no explanation of the simple yet deeply complicated question. Her first choice would have been to get Kiran drunk and let the young woman deal with her demons when the fuzzy barrier of alcohol could lessen the pain of memory. Current circumstances made that option difficult, so she went with the next best thing, wishing it were Gabrielle here doing the sensitive chat. Xena examined the captain’s drawn expression, the shadowed circles beneath her eyes, and had no difficulty discerning Kiran’s problem. "What keeps coming back the most?"
"Their faces," she answered softly and turned to look out over the valley’s expanse. "I can remember all their faces. Those I killed. Those I sent to their deaths. Sometimes, in my dreams, I can hear them blaming me for it even though I know they did what they did out of choice. I still gave the orders. I made them die."
"And they look at you with accusing eyes," Xena added as she, too, looked unseeing at the cloud swathed mountains, sparing Kiran the need to shield her emotions behind a mask of stoicism.
Kiran nodded rapidly. "Yes. And the blood-"
"You can smell it-"
"And feel it. And no matter how many times you wash your hands…"
"They never seem completely clean," Xena finished for her in perfect accord with the younger woman’s thoughts.
Something akin to relief showed in the captain’s eyes when she faced the warrior. "You’ve dreamt it, too."
Xena nodded. "Often." Yes, she knew that dream. Knew it almost every night with the intimacy of a lover.
"Do they ever go away?"
There was an undercurrent of fear in Kiran’s voice that Xena wanted so much to soothe, but she knew the truth; born as it was of personal knowledge gleaned from more than a decade’s worth of death and destruction. She would not lie, the young woman before her deserved better than sugar-coated platitudes. "No. You'll never forget entirely. But... it eases," Xena told her quietly. "If you were to never pick up a sword again…"
"As much as I would like to, I don’t think it’s possible. I’m so tempted to bury the damn thing though." Kiran’s hands dropped to the hilt of her sword, her thumb stroking the pommel of the weapon, a look of distaste twisting her lips. "I hate it."
Those were the words Xena hoped to hear. She crossed her arms and gave the troubled woman an approving nod. "Good. The moment you get any kind of joy from slicing people open is when you’ll know you’ve crossed the line. That’s when you bury it and never look back."
"You haven’t ever…" Kiran stopped, shadows of doubt warping the comment into a question. She knew what Xena had been, but surely…
"Oh, yeah… I have," the warrior answered softly, a smile on her lips that was not reflected in the wintry cast of her eyes. "I was the Destroyer of Nations, remember? The feel of my sword ripping through armour and flesh was such a rush. Using people, terrifying them, only out for my own self-interests… I lived in the darkness that lies on the other side of that line, Kiran, and I liked killing people." The starkness of that harsh truth made Xena pause and she gave herself a moment to banish the tendrils of memory from a time when she had basked in the bloodletting. One breath. Another. And then her focus settled once more. "But you… you’re different. Your first concern has always been your people, hasn’t it?"
Kiran slowly nodded her head, horrified, yet fascinated by the older woman’s admission.
"You made hard choices, often at your own expense. And you did the best you could with the limited information you had, hoping to do the greatest amount of good for the most people. You know what that’s called?"
"What?" the captain asked even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"Heroism," Xena said dryly seeing the look of wariness on Kiran’s face.
The younger woman sighed disgustedly. "That’s what Athena said."
Ah. "Did she."
"Yeah, right after telling me that I had her favour."
And isn’t that how it always starts? Oh, kid, I think your ordinary life is long over. "Believe me, there are worse gods to be noticed by. Just steer clear of them when you can and follow your heart when you can’t."
"Sound advice," Kiran nodded, remembering well the scene from the temple and her shocked awe at seeing not one, but two gods in the flesh. "But I just can’t see how you can call it heroism when the hero pukes on herself in front of her troops, you know?" She confessed this quickly with a humourless laugh; the heat of her shame evident in her cheeks as she quickly turned to look down over the continuous flow of activity below.
Xena winced sympathetically. "When was this?"
"Stephicles was going to use a covered battering ram on the front gate. It wasn’t going to hold out much longer so I organised a volunteer group to disable it, or even take it if we could. The only issue was how to get outside without them picking us off one by one."
Being the strategist that she was, Xena listened closely, putting herself in Kiran’s position and working quickly through the possible scenarios, one after another. The solution her mind chose was a daunting one, a chilling one, one to take the measure of a soul. "So you took the tunnel."
"Yeah." Kiran swallowed hard. "There wasn’t any other way to make it work. I just… I didn’t count on how bad it was going to be."
Xena could well imagine. When she had set out to trap the men in the tunnel she had known with brutal vision exactly what she was about. She had seen the devastating effects of fire in other campaigns and knew well enough what it did to the soft, vulnerable surface of the human body. That in itself was horrifying. But to wade through the tunnel, push past the bodies… It made her flesh crawl to even think about it. "Kiran, in a situation like that, throwing up does not make you any less of a hero. You still went on in spite of it, didn’t you?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, I had to," Kiran said as if it were glaringly obvious. "I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I’d never seen anything like that before."
The captain shook her head, whether in disbelief or in an effort to shake loose the memory, Xena couldn’t tell. "You don’t know," she began softly, "just how impressed I am that you did that."
"What?" Kiran blinked at her, a veil of scepticism overlaying her shy yearning for approval from a warrior as accomplished as Xena.
"There’s not many people who could have come up with the plan, much more followed through with it given what was down there. That took as much courage and focus as I could have ever asked of anyone, myself included." The warrior watched as Kiran’s jaw dropped, stunned into silence by the compliment. "I’ll need as much when I go in there."
The small intake of breath revealed her anxiety at Xena’s announcement. "What do you mean?"
"Those bodies need to be removed."
"Can’t we just seal the tunnel up?"
Xena shook her head. "Not good enough. You get a rat through one of those side tunnels carrying a rotting, diseased piece of raider with it into the town and within days you could have a plague on your hands."
Kiran left her side and walked several feet along the wall before stopping to glance over the parapet. The captain turned to look back at her, her face all the more striking against the bruised clouds for its sudden loss of colour. Xena joined her, concerned by Kiran’s pallor.
"Xena… I… I don’t think I can go back in there," Kiran whispered apologetically, her finger barely touching the scorched markings that blackened the edge of the wall where they stood.
The fear and revulsion were as obvious as the captain’s sudden laboured breathing, and Xena reached out to lay a sympathetic hand on the other woman’s shoulder. "If it was important enough, you could," she told her with conviction. You’re tougher than you think you are. Just like Gabrielle, there’s more inside you than you can see just yet. "But you won’t have to. This is something I have to do."
"You? Why you?"
Xena adjusted a bracer. "Because I’m the one who put them there in the first place. And I’ve learned to clean up after myself."
"Gods," Kiran breathed and suddenly looked up at the sky. "That’s going to take you-"
"Most of the day. I know." The thought of what lay ahead was enough to make her insides tighten up into a nauseous and painful knot, but none of her trepidation was betrayed on her face. "Do something for me?"
"Anything," Kiran’s responded instantly.
The corner of Xena’s mouth quirked at the promptness of her reply. "Deliver a message to General Taelere and let him know my intentions. I’ll need some kind of material for shrouds and help carrying the bodies to the pyre."
Kiran stared at her for a long moment before straightening and slowly placing her fist respectfully over her heart with solemn dignity that fit her as it never would have a few weeks prior. "It’ll be done."
Their gazes met in rare understanding and Xena nodded. "Go now. I’ll be down shortly."
Kiran nodded as well and headed towards the stairs. Only a few steps away, the captain stopped and turned to look at Xena over her shoulder. "If you need it, call me; I’ll be there to help. It’s important enough."
The declaration was completely unexpected, yet was very much in keeping with the person Kiran appeared to be evolving into. Xena suddenly wondered about her and who she might have been before the storms of war had pounded at the gates and swept away all that was comforting, familiar and safe about her life. "Wait," Xena called, forestalling her departure. "I’ve been meaning to ask. How old are you?"
Her brows lifted in surprise at the question and Kiran blinked at Xena before recovering sufficiently enough to answer, "I’ll be seventeen this summer." And then she continued on her way, leaving Xena in possession of the battlements.
* * *
They gathered as the light failed, pressing close together as the last of the bodies were carefully placed upon the massive pyre. Gabrielle eased her way through the sombre crowd, her eyes in constant motion as she searched for the familiar dark hair and broad shoulders of her friend. She noticed that the Neapolitans spoke in quiet groups or stood in reflective silence as she passed them by, and she paused to touch or to offer a small word of condolence to those she knew. It was hard though, her eyes kept straying to the bodies stacked like wood atop the pyre, so many in number that they were laid two and three high. Is there even enough wood? It was doubtful, despite the nearly heroic effort put forth in the last day and a half by the soldiers and townspeople alike.
The bard finally stepped into a clear spot in front and stopped as she caught sight of the handful of people working determinedly at the side of the pyre to lay the shrouded corpses in place. Gabrielle wondered if the ashen cast to their faces was a trick of the dying light, or the effect of the gruesome, but necessary task. One man grimaced as he pressed his burden upwards and then stepped away, relieved, when other hands took charge and pulled the body up, setting it to rest amongst the others. The figure atop the pyre stood and Gabrielle took a step forward, recognising Xena’s distinctive outline against the darker backdrop of the mountains, but paused again and bit her lip. The set of the shoulders spoke of a deeply held tension and when the warrior turned around, a hard face with stony eyes looked back at her when Xena became aware of her presence. She felt a wave of concern at the expressionless control so obviously in attendance.
The bard lifted a hand to wave to her. "Xena," she called out and received a curt nod in response. Gabrielle watched her lean down to speak with someone before leaping down from her wooden perch to help lift the last body onto the pyre. Xena stepped back just as the bard came to her side.
"That’s it," Xena spoke to the volunteers clustered around her. "Someone let the council know we’re done here. Thanks for your help." They nodded and dispersed, leaving her there to survey the result of their labour.
Gabrielle waited a moment, expecting some kind of greeting or perhaps a look, but the warrior remained still and quiet. "Xena?" She reached out a hand to touch her, her worry growing as the silence lengthened.
"Don’t," the warrior hissed suddenly, making the bard pause in mid-motion. "Don’t touch me." She turned and Gabrielle gasped at the expression of pain that marred Xena’s waxen complexion, ageing her to a disturbing and unnatural degree.
"Xena, what’s happened? Are you alright?" She did reach out then, needing to connect with Xena regardless of her wishes, to ease this raw emotion that even now her friend was struggling to contain.
But again, the warrior drew away and refused to allow Gabrielle to touch her. "The tunnels needed clearing," she answered as if it explained everything.
Tunnels? The meaning became abruptly clear as Taelere’s words of caution against disease came to mind. She remembered the fire exploding from the sewer, the hot fingers of flame dancing up the wall and disappearing into great billowing clouds of black smoke that the driving rain did nothing to dampen. The men in there… the men trapped in there… and Xena had gone into the fire-blackened tomb… touched them… brought them back into the light of day… "Gods, Xena," Gabrielle breathed, able to bring the scene into far too clear a focus than she liked. "Are you-"
The answer was cool, remote, and Gabrielle knew her friend was anything but fine. The arrival of Neapolis’ captain forestalled any further questions and she watched as Kiran stopped and saluted the warrior. She hardly ever does that, Gabrielle thought to herself, startled, as Xena returned it.
"Laera’s asking for you both," Kiran murmured, her eyes shifting over to the bard to include her in the conversation. "She wants to get this over with as soon as possible."
The corners of the warrior’s mouth tightened into a humourless smile. "Don’t we all."
The captain’s eyes lingered on Xena’s filthy appearance, and Gabrielle wondered at the strange expression on Kiran’s face. "I didn’t hear from you. Was it bad?"
Xena stared back at her and then nodded. "I washed my boots, too. Twice, actually."
Reflexively, Gabrielle glanced down at her friend’s feet, confused by Xena’s statement given that the dark leather was covered in dirt, water scum, and things far too unpleasant to readily identify. She looked back and forth between the two fighters and wondered at the odd, not quite smiling look they shared that seemed so private and full of meaning that the bard felt unaccountably jealous witnessing it.
Kiran nodded, as if the warrior’s response confirmed something for her. "Glad to know I’m not the only one then." She bit her lip, her eyes taking a moment to examine Xena’s sleek form. "Do you want to just meet us up there?"
Xena looked down at herself and grimaced. "Yeah. Go with her, Gabrielle. It’ll be a few more minutes before this all gets started anyway."
"Wait-" She put out a hand, but Xena was already gone, lost in the slowly shifting crowd that parted before her as she moved away. "Damn," the bard muttered as the dark head receded into the distance.
"It’s this way." Kiran gestured towards the other end of the pyre and, at the bard’s nod, began walking, albeit slowly. The captain’s body bore numerous cuts and bandages, and though she walked with a limp, Gabrielle could tell that she already had that ‘warrior attitude’ going that excluded the possibility of complaint.
"How are you feeling?" Gabrielle inquired, just to test the theory.
The change was subtle, but Kiran seemed to move a little more smoothly. "I’m fine," she replied.
Uh huh. Another convert to Xena’s bevy of hero-worshippers. "In other words, everything hurts, you feel like Tartarus and wish you could be lying down somewhere very, very still, sleeping. Right?" The tinge of humour in her voice let Kiran know she was being tweaked, and the expression of protest transformed to a wry grin that Gabrielle took for agreement. "Even if I hadn’t been there, done that already myself, you have to remember who I hang out with. She’s a tough act to follow."
Kiran let out a small laugh, her hand dropping to touch her bandaged thigh. "Tell me about it. I’ve never met anyone like her."
"She’s pretty amazing," Gabrielle agreed, attempting to refrain from gushing about her favourite topic.
"Incredible!" Kiran suffered from no such restraint. "Gods, if only she could stay around for a while. There’s so much I could learn from her. I wish she could teach me everything she knows. About sword-fighting, warfare, horsemanship, woodlore… everything!"
Gabrielle listened closely, watching the animated way that Kiran spoke and how she came alight at the mere prospect, no matter how unlikely. Is that how I look when I talk about her? It’d sure explain some of the speculation about the two of us, I guess.
"You’re so lucky. To travel with her, I mean."
"I know." And she did. In spite of past doubts, or perhaps because of them, Gabrielle was more certain than ever that this was the life she wanted, dangerous and harrowing at times as it was. Poteidaia would have been safer, certainly, but also stagnant. She had never felt as though she fit in to the confining mould envisioned for her. Meeting Xena had altered the path of her life irrevocably, merely by the possibilities that such a strong, self-assured, independent woman represented. And, like a small bird thrust from the nest, she had discovered a whole world of such possibilities for herself if only she could find the courage to soar. And if ever I needed an inspiration for courage, I know I don’t have to look far, she thought to herself and smiled. "I’m incredibly lucky."
"If you don’t mind my saying, you two seem like a really odd combination of friends."
"It’s all about balance," Gabrielle told her. Though you don’t know how right you are. "We each contain something the other needs in different degrees at different times."
"Well, you sure did the other day," Kiran remarked. "If you hadn’t burst into the temple and knocked the stuffing out of Stephicles when you did, Xena might have been in trouble. You guys always do that sort of thing for each other?"
"Uh huh. Well, her more often for me than the other way around. If you think about it, I’ll bet there are people in your life that do the same thing for you."
The captain was quiet for several steps and then sighed. "Yeah."
Gabrielle pursed her lips and then inquired softly, "Who was he?"
Kiran stopped abruptly, unnerved by the ease with which Gabrielle had been able to read her thoughts. "How…?"
"I live with a warrior," Gabrielle reminded her. "Non-verbal communication skills are a pre-requisite for survival."
"His name was Aeneas. He was a recruit with me, my best friend. He never teased me for not acting like the other girls, never gave me a hard time for wanting something other than a horde of babies. We… we hung out together, hunted and fished, star-gazed. He made me laugh."
The bard reached out to lay a comforting hand on Kiran’s arm, noting how the other was almost oblivious to her presence as she allowed herself, for the first time perhaps, to think of him. "What was he like?"
"Fun," she answered immediately. "He was fun and adventurous. Curious. He could never let things lie. He always had to be the one to lift the rock, explore the well, or ask the questions." She laughed at some fond remembrance. "He was always scratched and bruised from getting into stuff he shouldn’t. But he was brave. And loyal, even when it meant supporting a friend he knew was wrong." Kiran looked away, trying to compose herself, but when she returned Gabrielle’s gaze the bard could see the tears in her eyes. "He gave me flowers last festival and danced with me. Me. Beanpole that I am, but he only smiled at me even though everyone else teased us. I saved them, you know. The flowers, I mean. Aeneas saved my life last week by taking an arrow that would’ve killed me. He was always there for me. Always. And now he’s not. He’s in the second row, three bodies from the end," Kiran finished in an anguished voice.
"He’s still there for you," Gabrielle said, feeling her own eyes moisten. "Don’t fight your emotions; you feel things for a reason and the release of grief is as important and necessary as cleaning out a wound. Don’t ever let yourself become so hard and tough that you can’t allow yourself to weep for yourself or others. If you loved him, he’s worthy of your tears." She paused for a moment before adding, "Even Xena cries."
Kiran lifted her head, her attention captured by the revelation. "Really?"
"Really," the bard insisted. "It doesn’t make you weak, Kiran… just human." She watched the young woman closely and hoped that some of what she said might help. She squeezed Kiran’s wrist reassuringly and released her. "Aeneas will be remembered. Tonight and for as long as song and memory prevail. I promise." She patted the bag hanging at her shoulder with its precious cargo of names scratched into rain-pebbled and bloodstained parchment. Its presence was comforting, but unnecessary. Each name, each detail, seemed permanently etched in her soul.
The captain nodded and stared towards the pyre. "I promise, too," she murmured, and Gabrielle knew that to whomever Kiran spoke, it wasn’t to her.
* * *
The scent of freshly cut wood and resin was strong in Gabrielle’s nose as she waited upon the rudely constructed dais that stood at one end of the pyre. Her boots stuck to its tacky surface as she shifted in place and wondered what had become of Xena. Even now the council was concluding the last of the necessary details and the front of the raised area was a sea of movement where people moved quickly to their appointed tasks. Dots of flame, like fireflies out of season, flickered and bobbed in the near darkness as torches were lit in readiness. The smell of burning pitch made her nose sting, but Gabrielle moved closer to the brazier at her side anyway. The cold was as invasive as the night-time shadows, creeping and subtle until the tips of fingers and noses seemed suddenly numb with it.
"Where is she?" the bard muttered to herself as she tucked the Spear against her shoulder and rubbed her hands together briskly near the wavering flames.
"I expect we’ll see her presently," Laera’s rasping voice drifted to her on the night air. The councillor joined Gabrielle and held her own gnarled hands before the fire. "She does have a knack for showing up just at the last, best moment, after all."
"I’ll say," Gabrielle agreed, knowing all too well how true that was. "I guess that means we’re ready then?"
The old women nodded and sighed, her expression wan and sorrowful. "I hardly know what to say to them."
Gabrielle looked off into the night and then out at the people gathered around the pyre. Not one heart among them had been left unscathed. What could possibly serve to heal them? "Neapolis has a council, but it’s you they look to for guidance and for comfort. I think… they are all your children, the ones you turned to after your own family died. Yours is a family in the best and broadest sense of the word and there’s untold strength in that." Laera’s hands trembled and the bard slipped her hand into the old woman’s grasp, holding it tightly. The skin was cold and the joints swollen with the weather, and Gabrielle wrapped her own hands around Laera’s in an attempt to warm them. "What would you tell a child, injured and scared? How would you comfort them?" she asked at last.
The anxiety in Laera’s face eased and she nodded in understanding. "Once a mother, always a mother."
Gabrielle smiled softly at her and shrugged. "Something like that."
Laera gave her a hug and stroked the long, blonde hair with one hand. "Thank you, Gabrielle. For everything. Neither Neapolis nor I can ever repay you for all that you’ve done to help us. Your courage and determination are more than a match for that of your warrior. Gods bless you both."
"You, too," Gabrielle murmured in return, feeling a warm glow of pride and happiness at Laera’s high praise. "Though… um… she’s really not mine…" She felt a light blush grace her cheeks, wondering at the councillor’s impressions.
"She’s her own?" Laera finished for her in an amused tone. "I think I’ve heard that one before somewhere. However, my dear, I must say that, if she were to be anyone’s it would be yours."
The bard’s mouth fell open in a perfect little circle from which absolutely nothing emerged. Laera patted her cheek softly and gave her a sad, tired smile. "I can’t think of the last time I met two such wise, intelligent people who were so incredibly deaf and blind. And that goes double for you."
The councillor’s pointed gaze lifted to a spot over Gabrielle’s shoulder and the bard swung around to find Xena standing at her back. "Xena!" How long has she been there? Speckles of firelight reflected off the warrior’s skin and it was then that she noticed the pearls of water and the blue-black of Xena’s hair slicked back away from her face. "You’re wet," she stated with exasperation. "Where’s your cloak? You know you make the world’s worst patient when you’re sick. Really, Xena, it’s a wonder you’ve survived this long without me…" The warrior endured Gabrielle’s scolding and puttering with an expression of fond tolerance, her eyes following the bard’s wild gesticulations even as the rest of her, though momentarily tamed, retained an air of dangerous stillness.
The old woman, wheezing with sudden laughter, became the focus of those narrow blue eyes, but Laera merely shook her head, not the least bit intimidated. "I rest my case."
A runner chose that moment to come to the Laera’s side. "Councillor."
"There’s… there’s someone who wishes to speak with you." The boy looked almost fearful.
Her greying brows drew together. "Who is it?"
"Sh-she asked to come up here."
Perplexed and vaguely irritated by his evasiveness, Laera gave her assent. "Yes, yes, bring her up here then. They’ve been after me all day with this concern or that," the councillor told Gabrielle and Xena as the boy hurried away. "Mostly wanted to make sure their loved ones are seen to ‘properly’. They’re so distraught that half of them no longer make any sense whatsoever."
"It’ll get better once they have a chance to mourn and move on," Xena said.
"I know. It’s difficult though. I feel adrift and alone."
A presence at the foot of the stage caught all their attention, and a woman of regal bearing ascended the planked steps. "You are not alone. Even in your darkest hour I was with you."
"Athena!" Laera and several others within earshot immediately sank to their knees in reverence. All except Xena and Gabrielle whose own relationship with the gods could be termed as far less respectful.
The goddess stood before them, arrayed in robes and armour much as she had appeared in every rendering the bard had ever seen of her. Firelight gleamed off the shining metal of her breastplate and the startling blue of her eyes. Perhaps it was only the poor light, but Gabrielle could have sworn that she looked older than before. Don’t we all? It was a look all too common of late, echoed in so many of the faces she had seen tonight. "You honour me, but please rise," Athena said, already reaching down to assist Laera to her feet. "I would to join you. If there are no objections?"
Like anyone would object. Though, she admitted, it’s polite of her to ask. How unusual for a god.
Athena suddenly glanced her way as if sensing her thoughts, and a tiny smile graced the corners of her mouth, like a private joke between them. The bard blinked and rubbed her fingers across her brow. Please, tell me that I only imagined that.
"Of course not!" Laera was quick to reply. "The honour is ours, my lady."
"Do not let me delay your preparations. For now, know that I share your loss. These people are my people as they are your own, and I grieve with you."
"I’m so sorry I failed you," the elderly councillor managed in a heartbroken whisper. "My pride… my doubts… I thought I knew best, but I couldn’t keep them safe…"
Athena smiled. "You never failed me. And doubts are merely grist for the foundation of faith. You always believed in something. In me. In yourself. In others. In the face of such incredible odds, you saved more lives than you realise. Be proud."
All at once, the strength leeched from Laera’s face, the indomitable will that had carried her so far stripped away leaving behind an expression of grief stricken vulnerability. Tears glistened on her cheeks, and Gabrielle realised that her likening the townsfolk to her children had been far closer to the mark than she realised. Having lost her family lost seven years ago, she had taken the responsibility of the town’s safety personally. With such horrific circumstances to deal with, whom else could Laera have turned to? From whom else could Laera have expected such praise? Laera was like a lost and frightened child herself, and Athena murmured to her as she enfolded the other woman in her arms and held her.
"Find peace, my child." The goddess pressed her lips to Laera’s brow and dried the woman’s tears. "There will be time to speak later. Do not let me delay your preparations further."
Laera drew back and took a moment to gather her dignity as she adjusted the insignia of office that hung from her shoulders. She inclined her head to Athena and then surprised Gabrielle by pausing to gaze at her with an almost disturbing intensity. "You were right," she said simply and walked towards the front of the stage, leaving the three of them alone together. Unless you count all the people trying not to stare at us. Speaking of staring… The goddess’ eyes had turned from Laera’s receding form and refocused on the two of them.
"You are surprised to see me?" Athena asked mildly.
Xena’s snort earned her the bard’s elbow in the ribs. "I… well, yes," Gabrielle confessed, while the warrior frowned and rubbed her midriff. "I didn’t think the gods would get so personally involved in something like… this." She felt helpless to find a word that would adequately encapsulate the devastation and loss.
"This." The goddess repeated the word and looked out upon the pyre with its sad and silent burden. "I do not make a practice of interfering directly in the lives of mortals, but Ares made it unavoidable. We do care, Gabrielle," Athena said, glancing back at the bard. "Perhaps not in a manner easily understood by mortals, but we do. It was always meant to be unobtrusive, but my brother has never grasped the art of subtly."
Another snort from Xena. "Ares wouldn't know subtle if it walked up and bit him on the ass."
Athena’s jaw worked a moment and Gabrielle swore that the goddess was swallowing a laugh. "How do you explain your involvement then?" she asked out of curiosity.
"When you woke to find me by your bedside, Ares was still technically playing fair when he offered his deal to Xena, which Xena accepted. Whether through Stephicles or Xena, Ares was still moving against Neapolis with the intention of obtaining the Spear. I was well within my rights to counter his attempt," Athena answered. "Your intelligent deduction, Gabrielle, along with your unswerving determination to follow after your friend gave me the opportunity I was searching for."
"So you arranged all this," Gabrielle stated, wanting to understand the strange and powerful pull she had felt from the moment the weapon had been placed in her hands.
Athena shook her head. "No. When you accepted my help I was able to heal you and offer you the tools to accomplish your task, but at any time you could have changed your mind, turned around, or gone a different way. From the moment the Spear was placed in your hands, you determined its fate as much as your own."
"Me?" Gabrielle blinked. "But the Spear-"
"-gains its power from its wielder," Athena interjected smoothly. "Its principle focus is mercy, compassion, both of which are enhanced by the motivations of him who possesses it. It is a weapon of peace. Of justice. Yours was a mission of mercy, Gabrielle, to save and protect those in danger."
"And when I fought Stephicles, the Spear knew that?" It was a vaguely creepy thought, as if the seasoned wood she held in her hands was alive.
"In a manner of speaking, yes. Pitted against itself, the Spear is entirely neutral, but yours was certainly the more righteous task."
"That explains how Gabrielle managed to beat him while I couldn’t." Xena gazed speculatively at the weapon.
"Exactly," Athena agreed. "Had she not entered the temple when she did, you might have succeeded in killing him, but he would have wounded you mortally as well."
"It would have ended it," said Xena evenly.
"It would have ended it, all right. But it wouldn’t have been the right ending," Gabrielle argued. "I almost lost you." She turned to Athena. "Thank you for what you did, for healing her."
The goddess shook her head. "I did nothing, Gabrielle."
She had felt it though. The powerful surge that had rushed through her to Xena… she hadn’t imagined that. "But-"
"I did nothing," Athena repeated. "The Spear is but a tool. The true power came from you, Gabrielle. It was always you. You have only to look inside of yourself to discover the source of that power. Guard it well." And with a nod to them both, the goddess followed after Laera.
Gabrielle stared after her a moment before glancing at Xena, praying that the warrior wasn’t about to ask what that all meant. Figuring out her own feelings was one thing, sharing them just yet was a centaur of an entirely different colour. "Are they always like that? The gods, I mean."
"How annoying. Interesting, but annoying."
"So… are you alright?" Gabrielle asked in an attempt to change the subject. "I’m miserable and cold just looking at you."
"Better now. The river was brisk though," Xena answered distractedly, her attention on Laera and the rest of the council as they drew together while the militia below the stage came to attention.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Freezing is more like it. Her goosebumps have goosebumps. But she does look a little less tense. More at ease now that Xena was back, she too turned her attention to the ceremony. General Taelere, resplendent in his full armour, stepped to the edge of the stage and gave a shouted command, his voice carrying easily across the field. She watched in amazement as the Kozani forces snapped to attention in unison, forming a protective ring around the people, their spears slowly angled away from their bodies. A peculiar detail piqued her curiosity and she leaned closer to her friend. "Xena, why are their scabbards empty?"
"They honour the militia, those that fell while protecting the town. The spears are lowered as a salute to those that remain, for their valour." As Xena spoke, the Neapolitans’ murmurings grew volubly as they witnessed the respectful display and turned towards the dais. Their shuffling quieted as Laera stepped forward, and Gabrielle bobbed her head back and forth trying to see past the other councillors until Xena’s strong hands on her shoulders urged her to stand in front of her taller body where she gained an unobstructed view. The elderly councilwoman appeared small and wizened as her flint coloured eyes gazed across the field. A terribly sad smile grew on her face as she looked upon her people, and Gabrielle's hands curled into fists as she felt Laera's struggle to find the words, her own chest drawing tight in sympathy.
"Winning…" Her aged voice at first was thin, but she paused to clear her throat and continued on in a stronger tone, "Winning, I was once told, means holding onto all the resources you can. Even if it hurts. We have held onto each other as tight as we could and prevailed, but the price… what a terrible price we have paid." Laera bowed her head a moment before finding the words to continue. "Not one us has emerged untouched and after today, when we start to rebuild, we will be reminded often of those we have lost as the holes in our lives, in our hearts, are revealed and keenly felt.
"This is a time of bittersweet joy. A time to mourn the passing of our loved ones, even as we celebrate our deliverance and the efforts of those who made it possible. We have learned that when faced with the fires of adversity, the mettle of one’s inner strength can emerge as a shining example of what is most noble and admirable in the human spirit. Captain Kiran and her militia have fought on our behalf, facing overwhelming odds and sacrificing themselves again and again that the rest of us might stay safe and survive." The crowd’s sudden cheering forced Laera to pause and the old woman beckoned Kiran to join her, which the captain only reluctantly did. Laera linked an arm with hers and seemed to stand a little taller next to Kiran, buoyed perhaps by the look of pride she gave her.
"We have also learned that friends and heroes are made in the most unlikely of places. Hope and death rode within the storm as Athena’s messengers foretold, but that message almost went unheeded, lost in the face of past fears and hatred. When Xena came to us, I could see only what she once was, not what she has since become. A bard with a story of courage convinced me that hope still remained. Thanks to them, help arrived in time and Stephicles and his forces were defeated."
Laera turned to look back at her and Xena and, as if on cue, Gabrielle felt hundreds of eyes fall upon her. The story of their deeds was fragmented, but she knew the townsfolk who had witnessed the confrontation in the temple had already begun spreading the tale, making it larger still with each retelling. The weight of their regard and the sounds of their cheers made her knees wobble, touched and overwhelmed as she was by their reaction. Hers was the task to tell the tales, not to live them, yet here she was sharing centre stage with Xena. As if sensing her emotions, Gabrielle felt the warrior’s hand settle upon her shoulder, her warmth and strength conferred to her in a single discreet squeeze. She glanced up and Xena gave her an almost imperceptible smile.
"We have learned the meaning of sacrifice, of strength, of trust and love," Laera continued when the people had quieted. "These lessons and others were hard earned and at such a price that one wonders how such heavy knowledge can be borne. Our loved ones have been lost to us, but such partings are not forever. We will speed them on their way and they will greet us again one day in Elysia. Tomorrow we will begin again just as we did years ago. They bought our freedom with their lives and we can’t despair and let their lives be wasted. Tonight they will be honoured, and rest assured; they will always be remembered."
That’s my signal. Gabrielle took a breath and came forward to stand by Laera’s side as the councillor nodded to the nearest torchbearers. One after another they thrust their torches into the bundles of wood. Anticipation smothered sound as all eyes looked on, breathlessly waiting for the flames to catch. A feeling of dread stole coldly over Gabrielle as even the best attempted results in only a smattering of sparks and thick tendrils of smoke.
"What’s the matter?" Laera asked the council in a quiet tone, her face giving away nothing of her concern.
"The wood’s too damp," Xena murmured from behind them. "It’ll never catch enough to burn properly."
Laera looked from one face to the next only to find equally blank expressions looking back at her. "Was this not obvious this afternoon?"
"We looked for the driest we could find," Taelere answered quietly, maintaining his stolid composure as always. "Alas, it appears it wasn’t as dry as required."
"There must be some solution!" Bettina burst out in an anxious hiss. The council huddled closer, their voices barely above a whisper as they debated the situation.
Gabrielle worried at her lower lip and watched as Xena paced to the edge of the stage, her hands on her hips as she contemplated the situation. Suddenly, the warrior was beside her, her hands reaching for the Spear. "I need this," was all she said, and then Xena was moving across the stage to where Athena stood, poised and serene, in spite of the growing upset. The bard hurried after her, curious, but suddenly confident; Xena would figure it out.
"Do you have the other half?" Xena was asking as Gabrielle drew close enough to hear.
"Of course," Athena replied. She pressed her palms together and abruptly pulled them apart, producing the flawless length of shining metal in a coalescing wash of gold light. "But what do you intend?"
Xena plucked the Spear tip from her grasp and held it against the wooden shaft where, in a small flash, the two ends fused together, seamless and perfect. "You said its purpose is mercy and compassion. Peace."
Xena’s eyes clenched shut, a furrow growing between her brows as she concentrated. The Spear burst into a fiery light in the warrior’s hands, the flames licking between her fingers and dancing along its head in a shimmering wave. "And its power comes from whoever uses it, and the more in line their motives are with its purpose…"
"The better it works," Gabrielle finished for her with a grin.
Xena shot the goddess a sly look. "Right?"
Athena merely smiled.
"Right," Xena answered for herself.
The council became aware of the goings-on behind them and Laera’s eyes widened as she realised just what the warrior held. "Just what are you doing with that?"
"Gonna lighting a fire even Zeus would be proud of," she replied and took several measured steps backwards until the heels of her boots nearly hung over the edge of the stage. "Everyone get back."
The moment the pyre was fully in view Xena changed her stance and hefted the Spear to just above her shoulder, her fingers holding it lightly as she found the centre of balance on its long shaft. The pause between standstill to powerful motion was so small as to not even exist, and Gabrielle felt the rush of Xena’s passing as the warrior sprinted for the other side of the stage. With each step the Spear’s fire crackled more loudly, more brightly, and the bard wondered how she could hold it and not be burned. At the last possible moment, Xena whipped her arm back and, with a roar of effort, flung the Spear like a javelin into the dark night sky.
Upwards it soared and exclamations filled the air as the people pointed, following the flames that streaked behind it like a comet as it arced overhead. The Spear plunged downwards, an arrow shot from the heavens, brilliant with unnatural fire. Its impact into the centre of the pyre trembled the earth and cast forth a heavy rain of golden sparks that sprayed across the mound, forcing back the night as columns of blue-white fire leapt up from where they landed. The fire rose higher and higher, crackling and spreading with almost frightening speed, enveloping the dead within its ethereal light.
"By the gods…" Gabrielle whispered, feeling the hairs on arms rise when she realised that the pyre shed no heat.
"Not this time," Xena shook her head and walked to the stairs. Without prompting, without warning, the dark haired woman took a deep breath and began to sing. Mournful and pure, Xena’s voice carried over the flames and out into the valley to mingle with the long and shifting shadows. It was an offering that tore at the heart, born as it was of the warrior’s grief and guilt, an unending remorse that was felt by all that heard it. She stopped upon the last stair, her head held high even as the tears crept down her face. But still she sang, her voice at first a burring rumble before climbing with liquid ease to the crystalline tones of a song of farewell that, sadly, was becoming more and more familiar to the bard at each new loss.
Oh, Xena. Gabrielle hurt for her, knowing the source of the warrior’s pain. Slowly she came forward, taking one stair at a time until she stood behind her friend, close enough to lay a hand upon her back, in comforting support. And then, as Xena had, the bard took a deep breath of her own.
"I sing the song of Neapolis," her words rang out, smooth and clear above the backdrop of the warrior’s voice. "I sing of her people, their struggle, and their enduring spirit. Let our lives be a testament to their memory that they shall not be forgotten…"
The list of names was long, the whole of the story longer, but Xena’s voice never faltered and Gabrielle spoke long into the night as the fires of mercy raged. On the wings of their twining voices the souls of the dead passed on, led by the rising sparks that lit their way.
Majestically graceful, the hawks glided across the sky, silhouetted against the golden bars of sunlight that pierced the constantly shifting clouds for the first time in weeks. It was a sunset so glorious that even the normally indifferent warrior couldn’t help but pause in her solitary stroll along the parapet to watch it. The mountains stood strong and imperturbable, blue and silver beyond the thick dark greens and browns of the winter clad woods and she could feel the world quieting around her. Even the bustling sounds of rebuilding had died away as the meal hour approached, and in the growing silence, Xena felt a moment of grace touch her where her self-imposed isolation was not a burden for once, but rather a blessing instead.
She leaned upon the battered and cracked stone wall and released a long, slow breath, wondering at the sense of peace that was filling her. The warrior looked out at the wildness of the forests, the contrasting stillness of the snow–touched peaks, and felt a kinship with the land she had not felt since her childhood. To before she had left home so many years ago. The playful winds of the coming spring tugged at her hair as though to remind her of a simpler, more carefree life, and Xena swallowed, wishing that this moment, melancholy and wistful as it was, could last forever. It never does though, she knew sadly. It never does. And I wouldn’t deserve it even if it did.
The thought dragged her eyes reluctantly downwards to the valley floor. The pyre had burned for days, consuming everything until nothing remained except for a scorched length of earth to remind them all of their loss. Even the Spear was gone, though Athena had reassured them that it was for the best, and Xena could only agree, knowing with a former warlord’s eye that such a prize would never be entirely safe.
And they’ve suffered enough, she thought as she glanced back at the town. The siege over and the fires extinguished, she could still see signs of the extensive damage. Homes had been toppled and crushed. Others were only ghosts of their former selves, leaving behind the fire-darkened bones of their wooden frames. Even the streets were just now becoming passable again after having been clogged with stone and debris. Did it look like this back then? Did I do this too? She closed her eyes and turned away, back to the fading sunlight that was fast lowering behind the mountaintops. That sense of peace she had felt, so ephemeral, so intangible, slipped from her entirely as the clouds, thick with shape and character, blocked the sun from view. Denied its light she felt weighted, bereft of anything but her darker self. Why? Why did you do it to them? For pride? For gain? Gods, Xena, why! Her demands gave way to tears, and she wept silently as she slowly collapsed to her knees against the stonework, angry and full of shame. Her arms hid her face from the last rays of sunlight that slipped through the clouds and bathed her dark head. "Why…?" she whispered thickly. "Gods... why?"
A hawk’s sudden and strident call wrenched Xena's eyes open. Its mate called back and she watched as they circled each other before diving together into the gloaming to finally disappear from view. She wiped the tears from her face and knew that no easy answers would be found. Not here. But… maybe I know where to start looking.
The warrior rose smoothly to her feet, self-consciously aware of her reddened eyes as she turned to meet the bard. A sliver of sun appeared between the mountains and the clouds at just that moment, striking the other woman full on to hold Xena in silent and breathless admiration. It struck glints of silver and gold from Gabrielle’s hair and gave startling light and depth to her moss-green eyes. So beautiful.
"I had a feeling I might find you up here." The bard’s wide smiling face greeted her as she approached. "Why are you hiding away on the walls? Laera’s holding dinner for us, but Aren has already volunteered to eat both our portions if we don’t hurry…"
She knew her face revealed far too much when Gabrielle’s voice, lively and as golden as the light that lit the clouds, died away to silence.
"Xena?" Gabrielle came closer, and the warrior felt the younger woman’s eyes examine her searchingly. "What is it? What’s happened?"
"I want to go to Cirra," Xena answered softly.
"Cirra…" A world of meaning lay contained within that one, single word. The bard’s eyes darted back and forth between her own, and she tried to smile reassuringly, but she could feel the tears stinging at the back of her eyes again. The smile turned pained, and the last thing she saw before her vision was obscured was Gabrielle’s look of compassionate worry. "Hey..." And then the bard’s arms were around her waist drawing her tightly against a smaller frame and she laid her cheek against the long, soft hair. Unable to stop herself, Xena slid her fingers into the loose strands and shuddered, trying desperately not to give way to the tumultuous emotion that begged to be released.
"But… why?" Gabrielle’s soft inquiry met her ears.
Instead of confusing her, she felt the bard nod against her shoulder. "When do we leave?"
"You don’t have to come with me." This was her journey, her penance...
"I want to. I won't let you go alone," Gabrielle insisted as she lifted her head and gently shook the warrior. "Your road is mine, and if you even think of leaving me behind, you know I'll just follow you anyway."
It was true, she knew, but the strength of the bard's sincerity, her willingness and concern still moved her, and Xena felt the tears threaten again. "Alright," she whispered and swallowed. "Tomorrow then." And when the bard slid back into her embrace and rocked her, the tears did come. The dying light caressed them one last time before withdrawing to an orange and purple glow that faded before their eyes, blanketing them together in the softly descending shadows.
* * *
The cheering continued even after they had passed through the blackened gateway, its joyous sound buffeting them gently as they made their way down the road and away from Neapolis.
"Wow," Gabrielle’s bubbling laughter came to her over her shoulder. "I can’t believe how many of them turned out."
"It was a nice send off," Xena agreed, in spite of the fact that she would have much preferred to slip away in the early morning hours and avoided the fanfare.
"Yeah, but I thought you were going to lose it when some of the councillors wanted to hug you twice. How do you get that exact look that says ‘touch me and die’?"
"Practice," Xena replied wryly recalling how the men in the council seemed more eager than others to bid them farewell.
"It wasn’t nice to scare them."
I know, but where else can I get my fun these days? The warrior smiled dangerously at the landscape. "They’ll live. Lucky for them."
"Tsk." She felt the bard’s gentle slap against her midriff where her hands lay loosely linked around her middle.
"Did you remember your staff?" Xena asked suddenly.
"Yup." The bard patted the saddlebag behind her. "It was nice of Athena to think of returning it. I’m guessing it was her… how else would it have appeared in our room right after the ceremony? And speaking of weapons… wasn’t the militia impressive? Kiran looked so different though. Not in an outward way, but there’s a… a depth to her now."
Depth. The bard’s perceptive observations of other people were often uncanny. To Xena’s mind, Gabrielle had found just the right word to fit the young captain who had stood upon the battlements and solemnly saluted them one last time, her brethren lining the wall to either side. Still haunted, still wounded, the captain had yet projected an aura of strength and nobility that was at once poignant and uplifting to behold. "She’s a reluctant hero."
"Like you?" Gabrielle asked gently.
"In a way." With luck, Kiran would never know the darkness as she did. But in truth Xena wasn’t worried; far better than most her age, Kiran had a sense of who she was and what she might yet become. She’ll be all right.
"She’s like you when you were that age, isn’t she? Is that why you spent so much time with her?"
Is that it? "She’s a good kid. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes I did."
"I don’t think she will." Gabrielle’s voice was low and confident. "She’s had a good teacher."
"I hope so."
"I know so."
That earned a smile. "You do, huh?"
"Yeah. She told me herself that she wished you could stick around to teach her everything you know," Gabrielle told her and Xena could tell the bard was smiling without even looking.
"Not another one," the warrior groaned theatrically.
The bard laughed, sending gentle tremors through her back. They fell quiet for a moment. Not an ordinary quiet, but one that set all her senses suddenly on edge. She braced herself when she heard Gabrielle’s indrawn breath, feeling suddenly and unaccountably uneasy.
Gabrielle spoke at last. "I have something for you."
"Hmm?" She projected an air of casual interest that was not felt in the least.
Gabrielle withdrew her hands and she heard a shuffling behind her as the other woman searched amongst their belongings. Her keen hearing detected something being removed and then all motion behind her ceased. She’s hesitating. What is it? And then Gabrielle reached around her and placed a scroll in her lap.
"Taelere gave this to me the day after we beat Stephicles."
Oh Hades, she cursed as she recognised the parchment. I forgot about that. Had she read it? "And?" It was the safest and most non-committal response Xena could come up with on short notice.
"The very fact that you did that says to me that you had more time than you implied. You took the time to write what you couldn’t say to me before you left."
"I…" I’m caught. She cursed to herself again.
"Something that important…" She felt the bard shake her head. "He could have been killed. The scroll lost. I might never have known about it."
A prickling sense of trapped panic made Xena swallow. This was not how she planned for this to unfold. She should have been dead when that scroll was delivered. As it was, the warrior was only wishing she were dead right now. "I-"
"I didn’t read it."
"You didn’t?" Indeed, when she picked it up and examined the seal closer she could see the thick wax was chipped, but still firmly attached. Xena wasn’t sure which emotion was stronger, relief or disappointment.
"It’s just… you wrote it believing you weren’t going to survive. It feels wrong to think of reading it now. The circumstances have changed. Maybe what you wrote... maybe it doesn’t even hold true any more."
The unexpected reprieve made Xena feel almost lightheaded and she suddenly wished they could have this conversation someplace other than in the saddle. "You don’t want to read it?" The scroll had been born of a continuous stream of consciousness, written in a stolen moment in Taelere’s study before joining the Kozani army in its journey to Neapolis. There had been no time to ponder or second-guess her choice of words, and it had been a frightening moment of brutal honesty as the quill scribbled sharp lines across the crisp parchment. Perhaps even one of the most honest moments of her life.
"Of course I want to. But what I really want…" She felt the bard lay a reassuring hand on her arm. "What I really want is for you to be able to tell me what’s written there when you’re ready for me to hear it. If ever. Whatever the case, Xena, we have lots of time now."
"Time…" she repeated in a whisper. The gift of the bard's trust and faith lay in her palm, and the parchment crinkled in her grip as she tightened her fist slowly around it. So much had happened, around them, between them... that Xena didn't even know where to begin. "Give me time."
"As much as you need." Gabrielle slipped her arms around her waist again and held her close, and Xena laid one large hand over the two clasped securely around her middle and patted them gently.
There would be time. After Cirra.
* * *
Replete after a meal of herbed rabbit and tart berries, Gabrielle sprawled upon a blanket before the small, friendly fire and moved the parchment into a more comfortable position. The slow, steady of rhythm of the sharpening stone against a sword blade was a pleasant counterpoint to the scratching of her quill as she wrote. Without even realising she had done so, the bard lifted her eyes to the woman across the fire. She enjoyed these stolen moments when she could watch her unawares, sometimes managing to catch the shift and flow of stray thoughts and emotions as they surfaced like a fish stirring the tranquil waters of a lake at twilight.
The whetstone stroked the blade with steady sureness, a process made mechanical from years of long practice. Gabrielle’s gazed travelled from the graceful flow of her hand up to Xena’s face. The warrior’s thoughts appeared to be far away as she stared vacantly out into the night. A slight frown suggested that she might be troubled, almost… sad, until Xena turned to meet her eyes as if suddenly sensing the touch of her gaze. And who’s to say she didn’t? Gabrielle thought to herself, aware of Xena’s preternatural sensitivity.
The air of preoccupation left Xena as her gaze came to rest on the bard. Her vibrant gaze was flecked with images of dancing flames and herself, and Gabrielle felt her insides tingle in response to the tender smile the warrior gave her before they both slowly, almost shyly, looked away and returned to their self-appointed tasks.
When we left them, the rebuilding was well underway, she wrote. General Taelere, as proper and gentlemanly as always, refused to leave until he was certain Neapolis could support itself. I wondered, briefly, if Laera's pride might protest, but she accepted his aid and I understand that the tents once occupied by Stephicles’ army will now house a much friendlier force. The prisoners from the siege have been taken back to Kozani for trial, but Taelere thinks that many of them will only be gaoled or put to work. I’m not sure I want to know what will be done with the rest, but he doesn’t seem disposed to leniency.
Aren has once again found himself in the stables, but this time he’s far happier in his work. When Laera can get him to leave the horses long enough to eat, sleep and bathe, he often stays with her, and I think that’s a good thing. For both of them. ‘Once a mother, always a mother’, and I think that goes for more than just Laera. Xena told me about Dimitra and her son, and she too has been spending time with the boy. It would be wonderful if they both could have a second chance.
So many people have suffered from the siege. Both Xena and I took turns to visit the wounded to help out as we could. Most of the patients look to be out of danger so long as the risk of infection doesn’t complicate matters. Physically, they seem well on their way to recovery. Mentally…
Gabrielle shook her head, recalling their anxiety, the nightmares, and the sudden, inexplicable tears.
Mentally, I think they will be a long time healing. Mira in particular worries me. While severe, the burns and the wounds seem to be healing, but Xena thinks she’ll hurt for a long, long time and lose some of her mobility due to scarring. The girl seems withdrawn and cries often, and I’ve wondered if she’ll even try to get better. Some don’t, I know.
The only time I’ve seen her come out of her shell to speak more than a word or two at a time is when Kiran comes to visit the ward. It’s an odd relationship they have. I can’t really say that they like one another, but I sense that they hold each other with a certain respect even when they’re quietly yelling at each other. Maybe Kiran will be able to help her where others haven’t. After all, it takes a lot of energy to argue with someone, and you can’t do that very well when you’re sick.
Xena was more than right to call Kiran a reluctant hero. The day after the funeral Kiran’s captaincy was made official in spite of her youth. She told me afterwards that she had made the mistake of "accidentally making suggetions" that people began taking for orders, and it all somehow progressed from there. It’s amazing how young she is for what she’s accomplished. It makes me look at Xena with new eyes when I think that once this had been her, giving everything to protect her home and her people. Xena is confident that Kiran won’t follow in her footsteps, and I trust her opinion. Even having lost her friend, Kiran will still have a place and a purpose, and an extended family as well. Though, I wonder if she’s noticed how lieutenant Dalis looks at her? How devoted he is? It’s so sweet how he manages to be exactly where she needs him to be all the time.
She paused a moment, her quill hovering over the parchment as she ordered her next thought.
Stephicles was executed shortly after the funeral. After lengthy discussion by the council, he was taken to the square before Athena’s temple and beheaded by someone in Taelere’s army. Many of the Neapolitans came to watch, but no one threw anything or jeered at him. It was eerily silent. I was shocked at how changed he was. The strong, commanding presence I had seen in his camp was gone and only a broken man, bereft of his god, his men and perhaps even his sanity remained. He laughed a few times as they tied his hands, almost desperately, I thought. I couldn’t bear to watch and left the square before he died, but Xena said it was over quickly.
His death brings with it a conclusion of sorts. An ending. I sensed a lot of relief afterwards, especially in Xena and Laera, and I think this whole thing has given them both closure where the other is concerned. Despite Laera’s announcement of her and I as heroes before the entire town I have my doubts that Xena has allowed herself to realise all that she’s accomplished for these people. There’s a powerful reluctance to accept the forgiveness that Laera’s so earnestly offered. And I think Laera knows what I know. Before we left, I overheard her say to Xena, ‘Remember what I said to you. You can travel the breadth of the world, but what you’re looking for isn’t out there.’ And then, she tapped a finger against her chest and gave Xena a knowing look that I’m not certain Xena knew what to do with. ‘Remember,’ she said again before hugging us both and waving goodbye.
A sound made her look up and she was surprised to find the warrior entering the camp from an entirely different direction. "Where did you come from?" she demanded to know and glanced back and forth between where Xena was and where Gabrielle thought she ought to be.
Xena smirked and slid her sword into the scabbard on her back. "I told you I was going to check the perimeter, but you didn’t hear a word. Are you almost finished?"
"Almost." Gabrielle watched as the warrior unrolled her bedroll near her own and began to shed her armour. "Need help?"
"Nah, I’m okay," she replied and began exmaining a metal clasp that wasn’t to her liking.
Gabrielle watched her movements, noticing the warrior’s need to keep busy, keep moving. If it weren’t for the armour, I’d bet she’d be pacing the campsite. Shaking her head a little, Gabrielle worriedly turned her attention back to her scroll.
This trip to Cirra is so important to her and I wonder what it is that she hopes to find. Answers. I know she’s seeking answers. But I fear that what she’s looking for can’t be found there. I can only hope that somehow, somewhere, she’ll find something to fill her heart besides the guilt she feels, to give her the peace she’s after.
Gabrielle sighed, put the scroll at the bottom of the stack reserved for Neapolis’ story, and put her things away in her bag. The staff was placed at her side, just so, and then she lay down in the bedroll next to Xena’s. She shifted a little in place to get comfortable and laid her hands along the belt at her waist. "Do we have far to go yet?"
"A few more hours travel. We should get there mid-morning."
To her ears, the warrior still sounded rather tense and still very much awake in spite of the fact they had travelled hard since dawn. As if hearing her thoughts, Xena rubbed at her eyes and blinked several times, frowning to herself as she worked. She’s pushing herself too hard again. She’s already so tired out. We both are, really. The passage of the sparks from the dying fire led her eye upward to the canopy of stars overhead. The logs had burned down sufficiently to see them and she let her mind wander amongst them, searching for shapes and meanings…
"Where!" Xena grabbed her sword and was halfway to her feet before Gabrielle could restrain her.
Laughing, she pointed to the sky. "Up there, a shooting star just went by. Wow, you really need to relax."
"I’m fine," Xena replied in annoyance as she laid her sword down by her side and picked up the clasp again.
"Aw, c’mon, Xena. Didn’t you ever look at the stars when you were a kid? You know, look for the gods and the shapes from old stories and tales?"
The crankiness in the warrior’s voice didn’t deter her in the least. "It’s easy. Lay back. Humour me, okay? Get comfortable." She waited for Xena to put her work away and then lay back with a sigh, grumbling the whole time. "Now, look over there, above the pines. See those two bright ones? They’re almost like eyes. And the five others that squiggle like that just to the left?"
In irritated obediance, Xena lifted her eyes and spotted the star cluster. "Okay."
"Don’t you see a dragon?"
"A dragon?" Xena muttered, her brows crinkling. "How on earth did you get a dragon?"
"See? There’s the neck and the tail, and his front leg is raised as if to strike…"
Xena crossed her ankles as she tilted her head closer to Gabrielle’s, following the line of her arm as she pointed. "Looks more like a fortress on a hill to me… with torches lining the catwalks." She blinked, blinked again, and then yawned.
"A fortress?" She squinted up at the heavens and surreptitiously smiled when she noticed her friend settling into the blankets. "You’re so literal. The stars are so much more than that. They’re distant and mystical... so mysterious. Even you have to admit that they’re lovely…" She turned to look at the warrior, only to find Xena already very close and watching her with tired, gentle eyes.
"Beautiful," Xena agreed, softly.
Gabrielle felt her a shiver go through her, and nearly started in surprise when calloused fingers linked with her own, clasping them warmly between them. "Thank you," Xena murmured. A small, wry smile shaped her lips and the bard realised that Xena knew what she had been up to all along and apparently didn't mind.
"You’re welcome." She bent her head down slightly and brushed her lips against the back of Xena’s hand, delighted to see Xena far more at ease than she had been all day. Her own hand was gripped almost imperceptibly tighter in response. Heartened, Gabrielle pushed Xena onto her back, laid her head on the other woman’s shoulder, and kept firm hold of the hand held within her own. "Stubborn warrior. Now get some sleep." She heard a quiet sound of amusement vibrate through her where she laid against Xena and felt the covers drawn over them both. It would have been very easy, held as she was here in such security and warmth, to let herself fall gradually into a deep and restful slumber, but she waited up instead. The deep firelight flowing over Xena’s skin was too mesmerising to miss.
And so it was that she watched sleep claim the warrior, relaxing the hard angles of Xena’s face into the softer lines of long forgotten innocence and youth. And maybe some part of her knew it when it happened, or perhaps not as it was never mentioned, but Xena smiled contentedly in her sleep when Gabrielle kissed her.
EPILOGUE - CHAPTER NINETY-EIGHT
Spring decided to arrive on the same day they did, and Gabrielle leaned on her staff and surveyed the valley with its burgeoning greenery and riot of colourful wild flowers. "So this is Cirra. It’s beautiful."
"To me it’s the ugliest place on earth," Xena said, her eyes full of dark and bitter memories.
"I don’t think you should keep punishing yourself for what happened."
"I’m not here to punish myself. I want to understand why."
"Why what?" She looked up at her friend, hoping that here, in this particular place, Xena might finally be disposed to talk.
"Why it happened." The warrior glanced at her and then back at the wild tangle of grasses and trees that had overtaken what had once been a thriving village. "Why I was who I was. And how I can ever atone."
"You’ve changed, Xena," Gabrielle stated with conviction. "Like this valley. Once it was a place full of death and violence. Now it’s full of beauty and life." She willed the warrior to look at her, to make her believe a truth that was so hard for her to see. "The same kind of change has happened to you."
Xena gave her only the ghost of a smile knowing full well what the bard was after. "I wish I could see it that way." A pause. "I’m going down there."
She could see Xena’s restlessness, the way her friend’s eyes flickered across the landscape. "I’ll wait here," Gabrielle offered as she mounted Argo, wanting to give Xena time to herself.
Xena nodded once and then urged the golden mare into a brisk canter. Gabrielle watched her ride down into Cirra in search of her past, in search of herself perhaps. Seeking her destiny…
My many thanks to you who have taken the journey with me. Comments, questions and feedback are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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