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Gabrielle lay on the ground surrounded by the familiar, the stars sparkling down on her, the soft sounds of insects and small animals singing and seeking, the gentle ring of sharpening stone against sword. She gave a contented sigh and closed her eyes.
Fire reflected on the metal as Xena checked the edge of her blade. She looked toward where her friend slept and stopped her nightly ritual. Where had the time gone? The gray in Gabrielle's hair, the thin lines around eyes and mouth, marked the passage of years, but she was still beautiful, and the marks of time had not changed the beauty within.
Xena sighed. The path they had chosen in their youth was dangerous then; but now, it was terminal. She examined the scar on her right bicep. The wound almost cost her the arm, and although it healed, there was loss of strength. Movements had slowed, vision was not as clear. It was only a matter of time, tomorrow or two years from tomorrow, but soon enough. They already outlived many of the souls they knew, good and bad.
She prayed she would be the first to die. She could not imagine going on without the blonde at her side. How could she deal with the hurt, the loneliness? What if she strayed, surrendered to her dark side? Gabrielle would be lost to her for all time.
Xena rubbed her temples. She hated it when she thought. In her youth, she could think of strategies, placements of warriors and arms, force herself to stop looking into the depths of her soul, stop thinking of consequences, of salvation, allow herself to follow the strawberry-blonde, trusting her soul to the strong, able hands which so expertly wielded the staff. The last few years, facing her mortality, the thoughts came unbidden, destroying what little peace their journeys and experiences had created for her. Thoughts of losing her dear friend consumed her. Yes, better she die first.
She returned to her sword, not that it needed to be sharpened more, but Xena found solace in the sound. She tried to block out the thoughts, but her mind continued to work. Hadn't she done enough to save her soul, her karma? Wasn't it time to rest? The Amazons, dwindling in numbers, plagued by wars kindled by those hostile to their lifestyle, had decided to leave their country. They traveled to a land rich in jungles, inhabited by people of darker skin, where rumors of ancient, giant animals abounded, and villages were distant. They built a new home in a place so far from others of mankind their existence would be as questioned as that of the gigantic monsters. Perhaps the two of them could travel to the Amazons, build a new life far away where no one had heard of Xena or the bard. No. Her mother had died, and she rarely saw her brother, Torris, but Gabrielle still had close family ties here. It would not be right to ask her to leave never to see them again.
Xena put her sword in its scabbard and sat next to Gabrielle. She nudged the sleeping bard. "Gabrielle." Another nudge. "Gabrielle."
Lids opened to reveal a sea of green. Gabrielle rubbed the sleep from her eyes, blinking rapidly to help her become fully alert. "What is it, Xena?" She looked around, expecting trouble. Finding none, she gave Xena a puzzled look. "What's wrong?"
"Gabrielle, we need to talk."
Gabrielle almost laughed. "I thought that was my line."
"Gabrielle, you've got to go home."
"Xena, I am home."
"To your parents, your sister, Lila, and her family."
An edge of frustration and irritation sharpened her voice. "No. We've discussed this before."
"If you stay with me, you're a target for anyone wanting to make a name for himself. You'll be safe at home."
"And you don't think they'd come to Potedeia? Xena, I've placed a few good knocks in my time, even killed…." Gabrielle paused. "I wouldn't be any safer there. Besides," she smiled, "this is where I belong." She patted a strong hand and smiled. "With you to protect me."
"I'm not as fast as I…"
The voice softened. "I was teasing, you know. I can handle myself in a brawl, and I am not your responsibility. Look at me. I'm not that naïve, unprepared girl that started this journey with you so long ago."
Xena's hand rubbed lightly against Gabrielle's arm. "If anything happened to you…"
"Xena, we've seen enough to know there's something beyond this life. Something beyond death. This path prepares me for the next, and I will not sway from it. I believe we live over and over again, so it is necessary we die over and over again. At least try to take some comfort from that." Orbs the color of the sea gazed steadily into those of deep sky blue. "Death holds no fear for me."
Xena nodded and settled onto her blanket. To live over and over, die over and over, mourn over and over. It gave her no consolation.
Xena stood motionless in the stream watching the perch swim toward her. As it closed the distance to her legs, she reached down and threw it on the bank. “Breakfast!” she smiled to herself, gathering her fish. She took a deep breath. The smell of dew-tinged grass filled her nostril. Each day began the same and, unless they were called to adventure, they ended the same, but she loved it. The smells, the hunt for meals, the road dust swirling beneath their feet, she loved it all.
"Nice catch," Gabrielle noted, looking up from her scroll.
"Enough to satisfy even your appetite," teased Xena, reading the last few words on the parchment. "You know, I never understood why you bards talk about breaking hearts. Hearts don't break. People would die if they did."
"I think emotions spring from our souls, but people usually think of them as coming from the heart. To me, it's a breaking of emotions or spirit, but most consider it a breaking of the heart probably because that's the area where they feel the hurt."
"Well, I've gutted some men in my time, and I haven't seen any broken hearts or souls."
A smile crept slowly across Gabrielle's face. "It's a figure of speech. And maybe souls are invisible."
Xena snorted. "Maybe."
They cleaned the fish, and watching them cook, sat in silence, the comfortable quiet ofshared lives. After eating, they broke camp, packed, and began their wanders. The sun beamed down upon them, chasing away the morning chill. Birds began to find their voices, and a soft breeze wafted through their hair. Xena smiled her pleasure. Today would be another quiet day. She looked down at her bard. "How about a story, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle thought. "A long story today. Jason and the Argonauts."
Xena dismounted and walked alongside the bard as she painted verbal pictures of Jason's adventure. She spoke in lengthy descriptions and great detail, and the shadows were long when her story ended. Xena had remounted Ilai, and was looking for a campsite as they traveled. The sounds of wheels from an unseen wagon and a male voice singing of lost love reached their ears. The source of both was hidden by a small grove of trees wagon and man had not yet exited. A sudden shout broke the lazy spell. Xena glanced down at Gabrielle and, with a movement from her foot, sent Ilai into a gallop. Gabrielle ran behind them.
A group of eight men surrounded the wagon. One thief reached up and attempted to pull the driver from his seat. Xena arrived, leaping from her saddle and reaching for her sword, a wicked grin spreading across her face. She always enjoyed a good fight.
Left hand out, right hand twirling her sword, she slowly approached them. The men glanced one to the other. Though there was just one of her, they found her confidence daunting. Then another woman, staff in hand, stood slightly behind her. Once again the smelly brood looked to each other, then finding strength in their numbers, charged the women. Xena laughed aloud as her sword rang against another. She ran her blade through the man, kicked the second in a very painful place, and knocked the third unconscious. In the meantime, the villager had taken a large, heavy pot from his wares and joined the fray.
Gabrielle swung her staff efficiently, placing accurate blows on body parts, when she felt a squeeze to her throat and was unable to breathe. A ninth thief had emerged from the trees grabbing her from behind. It surprised her that she had not sensed his approach. A second man lunged at her. Placing her hands on the arm pressing her and using it for support, she kicked, but he ducked, and her foot missed.
From the corner of her eye, Xena saw the move, and sent her chakrum spinning. It found its mark too late, burying itself in the murderer's body as his sword cut through Gabrielle's. She sank to the ground as the surviving robbers broke and ran.
Xena cradled her friend's head and examined the wound, stifling a gasp. Tears stung at her eyes. "Gabrielle, I'll get my bag…"
"No, don't leave me. I know how bad it is." Gabrielle had seen the truth in Xena's eyes and held tightly to her hand. Blood began to ooze from the corner of her mouth, and it became difficult for her to breathe. "Save your soul," she whispered. "I'll be waiting for you. I love you, Xena." Her eyes remained open, staring at her friend, as her last breath wheezed from her throat.
From the depths of Xena's being, the moan rose, leaving her
body and thrusting itself to the trees, echoing in the glade and sending birds
into flight. For a brief moment, Xena wondered that anything as painful as
a breaking heart could be so silent; and for the third time in her life, she
wept, holding the lifeless form tightly to her.
Fire reflected in the metal as Xena checked her blade. The sound of sharpening stone against sword sang in her ears, but it gave no comfort. She stopped and studied the flame. It was a night like so many others, the familiar stars and night sounds surrounding her. The same, but different from its earlier brethren. For almost three years now, the incongruity in her life haunted her, all the sameness altered only by the empty space Gabrielle once filled. Such a small space to create the vast emptiness within.
Her sameness had changed. She placed the sword in its scabbard and lay on her bedroll. She turned to look at the vacant spot nearest the heat and, in her mind's eye, filled it with the proper image.
Xena stood motionless in the water. The trout swam between her
legs before she noticed it. She hadn't been thinking of breakfast.
"I'm not hungry anyway," she said to no one. Leaving the pond, she returned to her campsite and gathered her belongings. Taking a deep breath, her nostrils were filled with the scent of dew-tinged grass. She mounted her horse and began her daily journey. The smells, the hunt for meals, the swirl of road dust beneath her had given her joy at one time, but joy seemed to be the thing she was missing most in her life, her constant companion the ache deep in the center of her being. Her sigh was heavy, weighted with a load she did not completely understand.
Soon she would be at Potedeia. The distance of Xena's wanderings had contracted to where she found herself always just a few days' ride from the village. Although Gabrielle's aged parents barely tolerated her, Lila, over the years, gradually accepted her presence to the point that children and, now, grandchildren called her Aunt Xena.
"Aunt Xena," she said out loud. She smiled. It was one of the few things that gave her happiness. She realized suddenly that she was filled with anticipation, the anticipation of going home. Home. Her home was gone, ashes in the wind, taken by a single blade, and Potedeia and Lila and her family were as close as she could get. There was a time when she thought she would be buried next to her brother, Lyceus, but things change. She had extracted a promise from Lila that upon her death her funeral pyre would be held within the circle of stone in which she witnessed Gabrielle's. Dust to mix with dust. Gabrielle. Her voice filled Xena's mind.
"Xena, would you like to hear a story?"
"How about Orpheus and Euridyce?" She began her detailed account.
Xena followed the story to its timely end, just as she arrived at the top of a hill looking down on Potedeia. "And you thought I never listened."
Xena leaned the staff next to her on the large stone. Shutting her eyes, she listened to the children playing, the thump and splash on clothes being cleansed in a tub, the soft rub of leaves in the breeze, and the more distant sounds of animals. The ache had disappeared; it always did when she was here. Here, where the silence carried a peace with it, and the sounds were soothing. Lila and her husband,Septanus, stayed with her parents so she could care for them; and their oldest daughter, Falon, and her spouse had done the same for them.
She watched as Falon straightened from the tub, lifted her toddler into her arms, and called her three-year old, then brought them into the home for their afternoon naps. Falon looked so like Gabrielle. She had read her aunt's scrolls and, after tucking her children into bed with a short fable, enjoyed entertaining the adults with more exciting fare. Xena would smile as Falon's embellishments to the stories made her and the young woman's aunt seem larger than life, surviving adventures no mortal could survive. Like the Amazons, she and Gabrielle were legends supposedly from a distant past. Most people thought her a namesake for the original Xena. If they only knew.
Life was a little easier now. Though the Roman patrols made her seethe with anger, Rome had brought some peace to its conquered lands. Only a few warlords survived, and their days were dwindling. Even the roads were safer to travel. The calls for her protection were farther apart, and she thought it just as well. If she had not yet saved herself from her past, she never would.
Lila was beginning to prepare the vegetables for supper, and Xena decided to offer to hunt. Septanus was a good man, but he was not a hunter and made up for what he could not kill by bartering with his neighbors. With luck, the extra meat she provided would hold them until her next visit. Before she could move, the sound of a horse running hard caught her attention. Horse and rider galloped over the same hill she had traveled earlier today. She walked toward the gathering of family members to await their arrival.
The young soldier surveyed the group as he dismounted, then he gave her a questioning look.
"I am looking for Xena of Amphiboles?"
With her mellow alto, she identified herself, "Yes, I'm Xena."
A look of surprise glinted in his eyes but was immediately eliminated as he snapped to attention. "I bring a message from General Gathus," he said, extending a scroll. "He requests you join him in battle."
"Krathos and Damarus have joined forces to attack him at Modra. The last of the warlords. Are they suicidal? Why would they…oh, the gold. I heard rumors of a gold shipment passing through there in the next few days." She rolled the scroll into its tight circle. "I cannot. That's a hard two-day ride, and I have things here to attend. Besides, he doesn't need me. Modra has a large, well-trained militia, and there's a Roman garrison just to the west of it."
"Xena?" Lila questioned.
Xena eyed the soldier. "Tell the General I…," she searched her thoughts, "I am in mourning."
"I will relay your message," said the soldier, mounting his steed.
Xena nodded and turned to the stables, thoughts of hunting abandoning her. She was brushing her horse when she heard Lila enter the stable. By the stomp ofLila's boot on the floor, Xena knew her voice would have an edge of anger.
"You dishonor her."
"What?" Xena turned and lifted a brow in her direction.
"Gabrielle would have expected you to join them in defeating those warlords. She would have thought it more important to fight then to be here to mark the date of her death."
Xena returned to her brushing. "If I thought they really needed me, I'd have gone."
Lila took a step forward, placing a hand on Xena's shoulder. Putting down the brush, Xena leaned wearily against the wooden stall. "It's not for her, it's for me. I'm not here to mourn her. I do that every day. I don't understand why, but at this time I think of who she was. And how glad I am that I knew her. I don't feel so….so…."
"Guilty?" Lila finished the sentence for her.
"I knew that each visit could be her last. A few years before she died, we talked about it. Xena, Gabrielle loved her life with you. She accepted the dangers and thought she would die…how did she say it…for the greater good. Dying for a cause, Xena."
"She should have been here with you. With her own children and grandchildren."
A grin spread across Lila's face. "Had it been left up to you, she would. Remember? You tried to get rid of her, but she followed you. This life, village life, would have killed her long ago. Bored to death."
Xena chuckled. "But I still need to be here. For me."
Lila patted her hand. "You're always welcome."
They galloped frantically closer, one in uniform, the other a civilian, until horses stopped, mouths lathering profusely, at Xena's feet.
"They're coming," the civilian she recognized as the village's mayor, proclaimed excitedly. "They're coming. Xena, we need your help."
Xena looked to the uniformed militiaman. It was the same young soldier who carried the message from Gathus.
"The armies…" His was a controlled excitement. "A spy informed the general that Krathos and Damarus learned of the ruse."
"The gold was not being taken through Modra. It is passing here, and they will stop at Potedeia to purchase more supplies and rest."
"I see. How long do we have?"
"Three candlemarks. But the general and the Roman garrison are on their way."
"The men guarding the shipment won't be able to protect it from those numbers. Will they be here in time?"
The young soldier bit his lower lip. "I hope so."
Xena looked at him. Worry swam in his dark brown eyes. "What is your name?" she asked, surprising herself.
The corner of her mouth twitched as she stopped a slight smile. No doubt the product of a Grecian mother and Roman father. It seems that some people can live in peace.
"Go back to the village and rest, Marcus, so when the time comes, you may do your duty." She turned to the mayor. "Get your people out of there. Abandon the city."
"They will not leave. Potedeia is their home. Most of them lived all their lives in its walls. They want to defend it."
"Then I will help you. I'll be there soon. Gather anything that can be used as a weapon. Lila, take your family and leave here."
"No, Xena, it is our home, too."
Xena lifted a brow, glaring at the woman.
"Don't give me The Look," she said, poking her finger several times into the center of Xena's armor creating a need for Xena to stop a smile before it could spread. "I know you too well and too long to be frightened by it."
Xena looked to the mayor, and nodded in the direction of Falon and her young husband and children. "Then let your young families take the elderly and your children to a place of safety." The young man started to object. "Potedeia is a small village. You have no trained militia, few weapons of worth, and few people to use them. This will be a slaughter. Get as many as you can to leave." She turned to the husband. "And the younger men need to go to protect them." There was no point in everyone dying.
As soon as Falon's family was on their way,Xena, Lila, and Septanus made the short trek to the village. The younger families had not been given a choice. As the future of Potedeia, they were told they must leave, and though many did not wish to, they understood the logic of it. They left knowing they would probably never again see alive those loved ones staying behind. Good-byes were sad and necessarily quick. By the time the three arrived, the village and outlying homes had been cleared of everyone except its defenders. The gold shipment had been moved to a storage room in one of the stronger buildings, and its guardians had joined the villagers.
"No one else would leave, Xena. They wish to fight for their homes," the mayor informed her.
Looking around at the remaining men and women, farmers, merchants, wives, Xena sighed. "You wish to die for your homes!" she yelled. "You have no chance! Leave while you can! If they arrive in time, the militia will defend your land. Go!"
"I will not!" one man shouted back.
They could hear the distant thunder of hooves blending with the thunder from the sky.
"If they leave, will you, Xena?" Lila asked.
Xena looked man who had shouted and to the shipment's guards. "Because they won't."
"Then we all stay," Marcus declared taking his place before them.
They stood, some with swords, others with pitchforks or knives lashed to poles like spears, while others held anything that could possibly be used as a weapon. The shouts from the raiders and the thunder became louder until the army of thieves descended upon them. Lightening flashes intermittently brightened the scene.
The excitement of battle consumed Xena. She lunged, and swept, and kicked while bodies piled about her. Each thrust filled her with joy, joy in the knowledge she was again redeeming herself. She sliced and sent a head rolling. One step closer to Gabrielle. A sweep and an arm fell. One step closer to Lyceus. A lunge and intestines poured onto the earth. To her mother. Another lunge and a heart opened. To peace.
She moved around the area leaving small groups of bodies like carelessly piled dead wood. The volume of noise increased as Gathus' militiamen and the Romans arrived screaming their wrath. She turned her head looking for another fight when she saw the spear streaking toward Lila.
"No!" The word burst from her and, leaping over bodies, Xena arrived in time to push the woman away. She felt the spear's sharp edge enter on an angle into her left side, splitting ribs, piercing her lungs and other organs, and exiting from her right. She collapsed to the ground wondering why she had not thought to use her chakrum.
Marcus, seeing her fall, called to a pair of trusted warriors, and they placed themselves around her. Picking up an abandoned dagger, he threw it, piercing the heart of the man who had wielded the spear. He would not live to boast of killing Xena, Warrior Princess.
"Xena," whispered Lila, cradling Xena's head, tears streaming. The skies opened, and the rain-washed blood pouring down Xena's sides formed rivulets of red draining away from her body.
Xena opened her eyes. The pain was exquisite in its intensity. Blood was filling her lungs, and she couldn't breathe. She knew she was dying. She couldn't speak, and there was so much she longed to say. How could she thank Lila for her years of friendship, tell her not to mourn, express how grateful she was to die in the arms of someone who cared rather than someplace far away, alone? She reached for Lila's hand, gave it a gentle squeeze, and, with a final effort, managed a small smile. In her darkness, she felt her eyelids close. Lila pulled her close and held her tightly, weeping as she had for her sister almost three years before.
It was so dark, the voice so familiar. "Lila?"
Yes, she knew the voice. "Gabrielle."
The darkness began to fade, and she saw Gabrielle, iridescent, a glow around her and within her, once more young as she was when they first met. She smiled that same beautiful smile, and the brilliance around her seemed to become brighter. She extended her hand to Xena.
"Come, Warrior, I have been waiting."
Xena took the hand in her own. She was home again.