Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I am just borrowing the characters to tell what I hope will be an interesting tale.
Violence: She's a warrior. Whaddaya expect? Yes, and there are a few choice warrior words.
Timeline: In the beginning.....
Thanks to Kamouraskan and my friend, Diane, for all their help and encouragement.
It's nice to know if anyone is reading this even if all you do is say, "Hey, I read it." So please, please, please send comments to: email@example.com
In the distance, dark clouds of smoke billowed upward, rising from somewhere behind the grove we were approaching. We slowed our pace as the mass of humanity swelled toward us. Most staggered along seemingly oblivious to the world around them, too weary to think, their instinct for survival urging them to mechanically place one foot before the other, propelling them forward. Their meager belongings were wrapped in cloth and hand held or strapped to their bowed backs. A few dragged them along in litters; other carts or stretchers held more precious possessions: those unable to walk.
I would occasionally lower my head, trying to peer into their faces, look into their eyes, but they continued trudging through the dust without acknowledging our presence, and I never saw their faces. I felt my chest tighten, tears stinging my eyes and burning a path to my chin, their despair gripping me.
Xena sat, her back straight and eyes forward, in Argo's saddle. Never once did she glance at the wretched forms stumbling past. Having traveled with her barely two moons, I did not know her well as she was reticent and rarely shared her thoughts. There were times I wondered if I had misjudged her desire to change and that the cold blood of a warlord still flowed in her veins, surrounding her heart with ice, allowing no compassion into her soul. Still, her quest for redemption had just begun, and change is a phantom difficult to capture.
An old man tripped, and I instinctively reached for him. I was surprised at how light he was; but his face was thin, his eyes and cheeks sunken, his clothes floating on his frame. He was starving. He stopped, laying the palanquin on the earth and checking the young woman lying restlessly in it. She was ordinary looking, dark hair and eyes, skin almost as bronzed as the old man's, and she had an infant clutched to her chest. Her face was flushed, and she was too weak to lift her head.
I placed my hand on the mother's face. "Xena, she has a fever."
Xena dismounted, reaching for the water skin and offering it to them.
"Let me hold the baby for you. You need to rest." I examined the small bundle in my arms. "He's burning up." I looked toward the warrior questioningly.
Xena studied me for a moment. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "it would be better for you not to get involved with these people."
I wondered how she could not care about them.
"Look around, Bard." Her voice was cold and hard, laced with contempt. "Shall we save them all?"
I observed the hundreds passing by. My voice held my anger for their circumstance. "I know we don't have enough supplies to help them all, or I would, Xena. But we can help these three."
She held my eyes for a moment as though trying to read my mind. "All right," she acquiesced, nodding in the general direction of my right. "We'll rest in that small circle of trees." Xena helped the old man onto Argo's back and, after whispering to the mare and stroking her muzzle, handed me her reins. She picked up the litter and began to walk toward the shade. I kept turning back to view the suffering throng wishing there were something I...we...could do to help them, but the numbers were overwhelming.
"I am Festus," he began. "I thank you for helping Talia and me."
"Your daughter's fever is high," I said. "When we stop, I will fix a potion for her."
"You are kind...."
"Gabrielle..." I injected. "And this is...."
"Xena." He eyed her suspiciously. "Not too many tall, dark haired, blue eyed lady warriors roaming around Greece." He turned to me, eyes holding a wary expression, but a sneer chiseled his lips. "The rumors. Are they true, or is she still a butcher?"
It was so subtle only I noticed Xena's back stiffen, but she said nothing and continued on. "She has changed," I said, my voice carrying a confidence I could only hope to be true.
He relaxed. "Talia played with my children, and her parents were our friends. They're gone now. Couldn't get food or clean drinking water. Her family, my wife and daughter. All dead. My two sons were forced by Lord Telkar to fight. They were farmers not warriors, slaughtered so Telkar could keep his lands." He spat on the ground. "Talia's mother-in-law was ill, so her husband was in Nylos seeing to her, or he'd be dead, too. She was too pregnant to travel then. We're going to him. They'll be safe, and there is nothing here for me now."
We arrived at the tree line. After building a campfire, Xena left in search of food. I set herbs to soak but used most of our water refreshing compresses for the foreheads of Talia and her infant, trying to lower their fevers. I finally left in search of refills. Finding my way to a small stream I kneeled next to it to fill the skins when my nostrils caught a smell emanating from it. I lifted my head to see a body floating along the far shoreline and several more tangled in reeds and dead stumps just upstream from me. Small splashes flitted around the corpses from the water life feeding on them causing them to move as though a spark of life still fluttered within. Suddenly the contents of my stomach rose to my mouth, and I retched in the grass until it emptied. My muscles continued to spasm, and I dry heaved. I wept through the contractions, anger flowing down my face, ill from the scene before me and from the evil of mankind. It was at least half a candlemark before my body's response calmed, and I could return to camp. Xena had arrived before me.
"Not much out there. I found a small rabbit and a few roots. Gabrielle?" She took a step forward. "What's wrong?"
"We need more water, Xena, and the stream...." I couldn't finish the sentence. Gulping shallow breathes of air held back the bile in my stomach; but the scene repeated itself in my mind, and my knees felt weak. The color must have left my face. Xena reached for me, and the world went black.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, I chided myself as my eyes opened. How can I expect Xena to let me travel with her if I throw up at the sight of death? Gods, she's a warrior.
"Feeling better?" Xena glanced at me from her position next to Talia and the baby. She placed a fresh, wet cloth on each forehead, then stood and walked to me.
"I'm sorry, Xena. I don't know what came over me. It won't happen again, I...."
She lifted her hand. "Stop, Gabrielle. This kind of death is new to you. This is why I keep telling you to go home. I know what you saw, and it'll only get worse. You don't belong here."
"I'm not going back. Forget it. These people need help, and another pair of hands can't hurt."
"We'll see, Little Bard."
I hated it when she called me that. For two moons she had antagonized me any way she could, and for two moons I continued my journey with her. It would take more than words to drive this bard away. I only hoped I could steel myself for what we would encounter the next few days.
"Yes," I responded, "we'll see."
I saw the slightest movement in the corners of her lips. The warrior constantly controlled her reaction to situations; it was a mask she wore to contain her emotions. Yet, I felt I was beginning to read through the subterfuge, and I sensed a growing respect for my determination to endure. She was beginning to like me...or, at least, tolerate me.
So I thought. She took a step toward me, and I held my breath almost anticipating her turning me over her knee. Instead, her voice softened.
"Gabrielle, I need to find a clean water source. Can you handle things here for a while?"
I was offended. "Yes, of course."
Xena shook her head. "I didn't mean it that way."
"Oh. Well.....," my voice trailed off. "I'll take care of Talia and the baby. And between Festus and me, I'm sure we can handle the rabbit and roots."
With a few strides, the warrior disappeared into the forest, water skins dangling in her hands. I took the remaining water and refreshed the compresses on our patients' foreheads. Talia managed to sip slowly at the herbal remedy, and taking a clean cloth, I dipped into another cup of the solution and squeezed it into the infant's mouth. It didn't seem to help much. Application after application, sip after sip, the medication failed, and the fever raged on. As I tended the ill, Festus occupied himself by combining the rabbit and roots into a fairly palatable stew. When it had cooked, he fed the young woman first, then handed her the child to nurse. We fared in silence. In his hunger, he devoured his portion then refilled his plate and ate slowly. His belly full, I convinced him to get some rest and continued my care of Talia and her child.
Xena returned late in the night, water skins full; but it was obvious that she had ranged far to find the water. I prepared a dish from the remnants of our meal, and she sat near the fire and ate.
"I know Festus wouldn't agree, but Telkar was right to fight this war. Telemann has used a slash and burn technique over the lands he conquered. And he took their stored grain and livestock even when villagers didn't resist."
"People will suffer this winter even if they surrendered peacefully?"
Xena nodded. "It takes a lot of food to feed an army, and you can bet Telemann doesn't care who suffers when he takes it from them." She studied the ground at her feet. "Telkar had no choice but to fight. He was trying to defend his people. Believe me, I know."
There was something that flashed across her eyes; but in the dim light, it was hard for me to recognize. I could only speculate that it was sadness or guilt. I could only hope it was sadness or guilt.
As she finished her meal, I checked on Talia and the infant. She still burned with fever, but his body was cold. I realized he was dead. Holding him against me and swaying back and forth, I rocked his lifeless form. Something within me screamed at the injustice of it. After a while, Xena laid down her plate and came to me. She took the boy child from me, and I followed her to the mother. Xena stood over her, and Talia knew. She lifted her arms toward her son, and the warrior placed him there then backed away toward the fire. The mother pulled him to her breast. Her body trembled, and I sat next to her, wrapping my arms around her and the child. Whatever he was to be to the world was gone, and together we mourned his loss. Not long after, Xena disappeared into the woods.
The sun had just breached the horizon when Talia gave up. I held her in my arms and cried not just for the young woman I barely knew, but for the world that fostered such suffering. When I could no longer shed tears, I laid her down on the pallet and left in search of the dark warrior. I found her on a knoll not far from the campsite. She was pulling herself from a hole in the ground as I approached. Her skin glistened with sweat, and I thought I detected weariness, not of the body but of the soul, in her eyes.
I nodded a yes. A sudden realization struck me. "You knew?" I asked. Then as a statement I offered, "You knew they couldn't be saved from the beginning, didn't you?"
"They were too far gone when we found them."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I tried to tell you."
"Yes, yes, you did." Our eyes meet. "But I would have done nothing differently."
She gave me a small, sad smile. "I know." She pointed to the deep aperture in the ground. "I'll prepare them, and we can bury them here. The grave is deep enough to keep animals away."
"I'll help you."
"I will help you, Xena."
She signaled her acceptance, and we returned to camp. Nothing in my life prepared me for this sorrow. I had no more tears to shed, but that did nothing to lessen my distress. My heart ached for Talia, her child, and all the bodies I had seen along the way. Although I tried, I could not understand the hate, the greed, the lust for power that had caused such great misery. It was then I realized I could never truly understand Xena, for that was part of her. Just as the good she now achieved was part of her.
We cleaned the bodies, and Xena placed the infant in his mother's arms. They were wrapped together for burial. It seemed fitting since the child had spent more time within her then separate from her. When only their faces remained exposed, we woke Festus and gave him time alone to grieve. After a while, the stoic warrior stood next to the dead while I offered what consolation I could. There was none to be had for he wept not only for Talia and the infant but also for her family and his. Xena stepped forward closing the material around their faces and lifting the cloth wrapped corpses into her arms. I wondered if she simply had enough of the old man's weakness or if she could no longer bare the sorrow.
Festus and I followed her to the knoll and watched as she lowered the corpses into the grave. I said a prayer to Hestia and Hades, and the warrior started to push the dirt into the opening. Festus stopped her, insisting that he alone should do this final service for them. It took him a while as he rested several times, but he would accept no help. Unable to endure the scene any longer, I returned to the camp. I think Xena stayed for fear the exertion and trauma might prove too much for the aging man.
Festus returned alone. He said nothing, but curled near the fire and drifted into sleep.
Almost two candlemarks later, he awakened, and the warrior returned with roots, berries, and a large fish. Although it was more than enough, she apologized for being unable to find anything more as though it were some measure of her place in life or her ability to care. Sparce conversation sprinkled our last meal together then we cleared the campsite. I handed him a parcel of trail rations for his journey. He took them and hugged me tightly.
"Thank you. You've done so much," his voice cracked, and he looked at Xena. "Both of you. I'll tell Raeni how you cared for his family, and we'll never forget."
We watched as he left. He turned back once then we went our separate ways.
As we traveled, the refugees dwindled in number, but the body count increased. Scavengers swarmed from sky and land and feasted on the banquet laid before them. Each course had once been a living being, loved and was loved, hurt, laughed, desired, dreamed; and now they were fodder for beasts. A chill spread up and down my spine.
At first the wails of survivors were common, but as we approached the village they began to fade. These carcasses had lain dead longer and either had been mourned or had no one left to mourn them. Xena stopped. I held my breath, listening. The wind carried it to us, a soft, frightened cry. The warrior dismounted, and I followed her off the path. Some distance from the road she reached into a thicket. She pulled away the bushes revealing a body and, beside it, a young girl of 6 or 7 seasons and an infant. The woman had bled to death from a stomach wound, but her face was battered. From her waist down she was naked, and it was obvious she had been raped. The youth whimpered when she saw us and tried to back away, pulling the baby with her. Xena clenched her jaw, and scooped both up in her arms.
"Two more for your care, Little Bard. At least these have a chance," she said handing me the infant.
"What's your name?" I asked the older child. She looked at me, eyes widening, then turned to Xena.
"We won't hurt you, I promise." Xena fidgeted under the girl's gaze, and I stifled a chuckle. The Warrior Princess, once Destroyer of Nations, intimidated by a tot.
A small hand went up to the warrior's head and tugged the dark locks. "Marus," the shy voice offered. Xena's expression screamed drop-bolt-and-run.
"And is this your sister?" I asked, trying to distract the girl. Anyone else would have had a hand removed for such a gesture.
"My brother, Cleon." She tugged at the swirls on Xena's armor.
The warrior handed me the child, swung onto Argo's back, and plucked her from my arm, lifting her and settling her on the saddle. A dark brow nudged her hairline. "We do what we must do," she said in reply to my unvoiced question. She gave the mare a nudge.
Suddenly feeling the horse move, Marus began crying, turning and clinging tightly to Xena's armor with one hand and reaching toward the bush with the other.
Xena's eyes darted swiftly towards me, asking for help.
"Easy, Marus," I said, reaching up and gently rubbing her back. "We'll come back for your mother later."
The girl seemed to accept my words, and her sobs ebbed. I knew she didn't comprehend that when we did return, it would only be to retrieve a body.
Once more Xena settled the child into her arms. She glanced down to me. "If you get tired carrying the baby, let me know."
Sometimes the warrior underestimated me. I was, after all, the daughter of a farmer, and my life was not easy. Hard work was a constant. "We'll see which of us tires first."
I smiled up at her.
"Is that a challenge, Little Bard?"
"Not at all, Xena. It's a question of patience."
We entered the village less than half a candlemark later with an exhausted child, a screaming infant, and one very frazzled warrior. Most of the hamlet had been turned to rubble, burned by the fires of the invaders and ransacked by their looting. I stayed with Argo and the children while the warrior wandered through the few remaining buildings seeking information. She returned, and we continued our journey to the far side of the town where we found a large, stone temple dedicated to Athena. People were streaming through the doors, and we joined them.
Within the temple walls and to the left, we found the sick and injured being treated. The right side was filled with, we were told, refugees and orphans. The desperate stumbled from person to person, seeking parents, children, husbands, wives.
"Marus!" A slender brunette ran toward us. She wrapped the child in her arms, hugging her tightly, and then smothered her face with kisses. Reaching toward the infant, she lightly touched his form as though checking to be certain he was complete. "Cleon. I didn't think I'd see you two again." Her eyes questioned me and then Xena. "Their mother?"
Once more Xena's jaws clenched; but while I studied the stone floor, she held the woman's eyes. "I'm sorry."
There was a gasp, and she drew the children close and wept over their forms. "My sister...." Her shoulders shuddered with her anguish.
I could think of nothing to say, so I held her in my arms and let her cry. Xena eyed the walls uncomfortably, slowly sidling away from us and disappearing into the throng of people. It was some time later before the woman, Kala, calmed. Together we found food for Marus and were trying to create an artificial nipple through which Cleon could nurse milk from the goats when a lactating mother who had lost her own child offered herself. As the woman held him, she swayed slowly, humming a child's song. The weight of the infant in her arms, the feel of him at her breast nuzzling and tugging for his food, appeared to grant her a small measure of solace.
I left them and circumvented the temple interior offering what help I could, changing bandages, feeding those who could not feed themselves. Whatever needed to be done, I did, until I was too weary to continue. Seeking a respite, I sat on a small stool and studied the scene framed in the window before me. To my surprise, the sun was already below the tree line. As I rested, mesmerized by the peaceful picture, I felt Xena's presence. My vision never left the window, but peripherally, I could see the blood she was wiping from her hands and knew where she had been.
"It's the weak who suffer, isn't it?" I asked already knowing the answer. "The old, the young, the infirm. The women." I closed my eyes trying to block the image of Marus' mother lying beaten, raped, and slaughtered, on the ground. "They suffer the most in wars."
The warrior said nothing, but I felt her hand on my shoulder.
"Maybe you're right about me," I said dejectedly. "I don't have the stomach for this. Maybe I should go home. I feel so helpless and...and useless."
She gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "You're not either of those, Gabrielle, but what I think doesn't matter. It's what you think that's important. Give yourself more time."
My sigh was heavy. It was burdened with the disquiet of my heart. Xena stood to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"We promised Marus..."
"Can't it wait until morning?"
"You don't have to come."
Yes, I was beginning to understand her. Most would not have seen it, but I did. A look of pain flitted across her face.
"It'll be dark soon, Gabrielle. Even in the bushes, wild animals...." Her voice trailed off.
"I'm going with you."
I rode with Xena on Argo so we could travel faster, and we reached the body just before sunset. Xena covered her with a large cloth she had brought and laid her across the saddle tying her corpse in place. Though it was still light, I knew it would be dark before we could walk back to the village; but I felt safe with Xena.
"These people deserve better than this," I said as we weaved through the bodies.
"The village has been disorganized since the attack. Tomorrow I'll get a few of the able-bodied men together. There are too many to bury, but something has to be done or we'll have a problem with disease. We'll have to build funeral pyres."
"I'll help you."
Even in the growing gloom I could feel her scrutiny. "No, it's better for you to stay at the village and help."
"Better for whom?" I know she heard the anger and hurt in my voice, but hers was calm in reply.
"There is no healer tending the sick and injured. I have..." she physically winced, "...experience with mass burial, so I need to be here. You, on the other hand, have learned much about healing and can help the villagers. I'm not ‘assigning' you there because you can't ‘handle' the pyres. I am asking you to be where you can do the most good."
At that moment I hated myself and all my insecurities more than I hated Telemann and his craving for power. We continued our hike in silence as I was too embarrassed to say anything, and the warrior was a private, quiet person.
Several carts had intermittently passed us on the trail, but for some reason the one approaching us attracted Xena's attention.
"Are those Telkar's soldiers or do they belong to Telemann?" she asked eyeing the four men in the wagon.
It was dark, and at such a distance, I couldn't see well in the half-light of the waning moon. I think she had asked that question of herself, but I answered. "I...I don't know."
Xena did not seem to take much notice as they moved by us, but I knew better. The soldiers observed us warily, but continued on. She handed me Argo's reins.
"Keep traveling away from here, Gabrielle. I'll catch up with you."
Then I heard the muffled whimpering. She gave her warrior yell, and before they could react, had all four men on the ground. From the floor of the dray she pulled a woman, arms and feet tightly bound. Knowing Argo would not wander away, I ran to the hostage moving us both to relative safety under the cart. The sneer on Xena's face made my blood run cold, and I knew the Destroyer of Nations had been given free reign.
"Well, boys," her words were a visceral growl, "let's have a little fun."
They obviously had no idea what was in store for them. They circled her, a shaft of moonlight barely outlining their forms. One man towered over the others, and a second was short and husky. The third and fourth were both average in height, but one was slender and had something dark on his sword arm, probably a wristband. They lunged and parried, sometimes individually and sometimes as a unit, but she deflected their blows. I was hypnotized, always astounded by the ease with which she defended herself, even when outnumbered. Her left hand was extended, and her wrist motion kept the sword swirling lazily in the air. She stepped in a slow loop, but I could see a slight movement of her head as she kept track of each of the assailants. While she kept them occupied, I struggled to release their victim from her ropes; and when finally freed, she flung herself into my arms weeping uncontrollably, her body shivering with fear.
"Come on little girl," Thin Man taunted. "Get this over. We'll share you like we did the bitch, and then we'll fuck your friend."
They all laughed.
The chill in her voice almost froze her words in the warm air, and goose bumps traveled up and down my backbone.
"You," she turned, and the soft glow of the moon revealed an evil grin, "will be the first to die."
He thrust at her, and with a hideous roar, she decapitated him, his head rolling, eyes open, near my hand, and his neck spurting red liquid into the dirt near the wheel.
"What's the matter," she taunted. "Can't handle a woman who can defend herself?"
She blocked the maneuvers they rained upon her managing to leave a long cut on the arm of Average Man.
"Handle you? I'll eat you for supper," shouted Short Man and then added, "In more ways than one."
Once more they laughed, pouring blows she deflected with little trouble. She kicked two to the ground and then focused her attention on Short Man.
"Eat this," she spat, slicing his sword arm from his shoulder. She plunged her sword into his gullet, slitting the skin and muscle left to right; and he screamed and, with his remaining hand, grabbed for his intestines as they vomited forward. He collapsed at her feet, blood spewing from shoulder and gut; and she turned toward the remaining two.
They sensed their mortality, for even in the shadow, I saw their fear; I smelled their fear; I tasted it on the wind. They rushed her, and she sidestepped them, overwhelming them with a flurry of blows. Her blade found the chest of Tall Man, and Average Man ran. Reaching into her boot, she pulled a dagger and threw it into his back. He fell. She turned her attention back to Tall Man and urged her sword upward. Blood and organs dribbled from him, and I heard the ‘whoosh!' as she carved her way upward through his lungs. She looked at him with an air of contempt and kicked him off her weapon.
"Nothing like a good blade," she said as she cleaned it on his garments. Reaching the body of Average Man, she shoved the dagger deeper into him with her foot, and satisfied he was dead, she used the same foot to hold his carcass down while she withdrew the knife.
"Yep," she said wiping it and checking it for nicks, "another good blade."
The warrior strode toward us, and as she walked into a shaft of illumination, my breath caught, and the woman cringed back against me. Xena's face was filled with rage and hate, and she was spattered with blood. She hesitated and then stepped back a few paces.
"I...There's something I need to do." With that she turned and was gone.
After a while the woman, Sallen, relaxed and shared her story with me. Her husband was killed trying to protect his family; and her two daughters, old enough to work and young enough to be virgins, were taken to be sold at top price in the slave market. Her captors had repeatedly raped her the three days she had been with them and were attempting to decide whether to kill her or try to sell her into prostitution. Since she was middle-aged, they doubted they could get much for her. I hated those men and was glad they were dead; yet part of me would rather have seen them in prison. The conflict in my emotions confused me.
Xena finally returned carrying two large, straight branches. Most of the blood had been washed from her body, and the anger was gone from her features. Using her knife to cut strips of cloth off the men, she then tied them to the branches creating a makeshift litter. Satisfied with its strength, she secured the body to it, strapped it to Argo's saddle, and helped Sallen onto the mare. Our journey was completed in silence.
The moon had trekked well across the night sky, and the horizons were beginning to brighten when we arrived at the temple. Xena helped Sallen from Argo's back.
"I'll find Kala, Gabrielle. Would you help Sallen? Maybe some food and medicinal..." She paused, unsure. "Sallen, I have herbs if you're afraid of...if you want to be sure...."
Sallen studied the design on Xena's armguards, unwilling to lift her head. "I will consider it."
I didn't understand what had just happened and was about to ask when Kala came running from the temple.
"Someone said you were here. I was hoping they were right," she called halfway down the steps. "You've been gone so long, I thought you had left. I wanted to thank you again for Marus and Cleon." As she approached, she glanced at the litter behind the horse.
The warrior cleared her throat. "Your sister, Kala."
"Celia." Her voice was barely audible, and her eyes watered. "You brought Celia home to us. Thank you, Xena," she nodded in my direction, "Gabrielle."
Kala knelt beside the body. Xena placed her hand on Kala's, preventing her from pulling the cloth aside.
"Don't. Don't open it. It's been a while."
"Oh, Celia!" The woman sat on the ground and pulled her sister's blanketed body into her arms. She looked up at us. "She was beautiful. A goddess to see. And she was kind and gentle. But I can't cry anymore. I have no more tears."
Sallen wrapped an arm around Kala's shoulder. "It's all right. You will one day." Her voice caught. It was a prayer offered for herself as well. "And your sister knows what's in your heart."
Xena unhitched Argo and brought her to the makeshift stable to tend to her. I sat on the steps with Sallen and Kala. The woman held Celia in her arms until the sun rose midway at earth's end, and then Kala summoned a passing youth and instructed him to find her husband. A short time later, Xena returned carrying the pouch of our medicinal herbs. Sallen approached her.
"Thank you, Xena, but I don't think I will need the herbs." She looked toward the temple doors, "I would like some food...and a bath." For several days Sallen had felt a deep need to scrub the feel of the men from her body, and, for her, it was the first thing that had to be done.
Xena acknowledged her words. "I'm glad we were there. Gabrielle, I'm going with the men to build the pyres for the cremations. Kala?"
"My husband has been sent for, Xena. We will bury Celia next to my parents."
I could feel the warrior considering me. "You should get some rest, Gabrielle," she surmised.
My heart sank. She had barked her orders, and I was dismissed. At least she didn't close her sentence with ‘Little Bard.' Gritting my teeth I faced her. "I will first help Sallen get settled. Then...." I let my voice fade.
One brow shot to her hairline. Her warrior mask was securely in place, and I could not read her expression with any certainty.
"Whatever you want," she replied evenly.
We went our separate ways leaving Kala to await her husband. As Sallen and I walked the temple's interior, I saw the same haunted expression she wore on the faces of several of the women and young girls, and I intuited it's meaning. I could think of no way to help them, as I could think of no way to help her. Water had been boiled to clean wounds and seep medicinal herbs, but there was none to spare for the luxury of a bath. Except for tears and a few sentences, Sallen had been quiet since she was first rescued. As the sun began to rise, she became more and more agitated in her need to cleanse herself. I inquired about streams or ponds nearby, but all seemed to be contaminated by death. A few of the local wells had been poisoned by the opposing army, so water was a scarce commodity. Finally, resigned, Sallen found a nook in the wall and eased herself down to the floor. Marus, chased by a youth about her age, tore down the aisle, tripping over Sallen's feet. She giggled as the woman helped her up, and then ran off, laughing. I offered to find nourishment for her, but when I returned with some venison stew, Sallen was gone; and I could not find her. Too tired to eat, I gave the food to the nearest needy being. A brief thought of rest flew across my mind, but when I saw the numbers requiring help, I forced it aside. There was a steady flow of want for me to tend, this one needing to be fed, that one needing herbs, her bandage needed changing, his wound needed stitching. It was an endless blur, but the faces of the three who had limbs amputated and the five who died would always be with me.
The tide of necessities ebbed, and the temple began to empty. By early afternoon, the infirmary area contained only six remaining victims. The others had either left with family or friends or died and their bodies taken for disposal. Disposal. How callous. Yet had I not developed a degree of hardness, I would have become insane with despair. I stepped outside and rested on the stone railing edging the staircase. A breeze cooled my face and toyed with my hair, and I closed my eyes, relaxing in its gentle embrace. I could hear my own breathing, and I lost myself in it, floating in the air. There was a flutter of wings, the sigh of the zephyr, and the faint sound of a rope creaking. Someone was coming toward me, making small, deliberate noises so as not to startle me. Xena.
She smelled of nature, death, and sweat; and she stood before me, the moisture on her body glistening in the sun. I stared at her, too worn to move or speak, the rope the only sound. A child's swing, I thought.
"You didn't get any rest today, did you?" Had there been any other sound but that of the swing and her voice, I would not have heard her.
"Too busy," I responded economically.
She sat at my feet and together we absorbed the moment. Amid all the horror, here was peace, this instant of beauty. I wondered if that was why mankind struggled to survive. A quarter of a candle mark went by and we enjoyed the rustle of leaves, the calls of birds, and the rope. It occurred to me that perhaps it was not a swing. I sighed.
"Xena, do you think someone's left an animal tied to a tree?"
I moved my head from the wall against which it reposed and sighed again. My body was heavy with fatigue as I lifted myself. I was glad the warrior followed me. If it was a mule, I might need help convincing it to move. I just hoped it was nothing that would chase me or require me to chase it. We followed the sound and found one end of the rope looped and knotted around the trunk of a cypress. The other was thrown up and over a branch, and from its end hung Sallen's lifeless shell, an upended bucket at her feet.
"No!" My scream broke the peace. Birds darted into the air, and horses kicked and whinnied in the stables. "Oh, gods." A moan ripped from my heart as my knees buckled. My head fell into the dirt and I struck the ground over and over with my clutched hands. "No, no, no..." I repeated. Jumping up I threw myself into Xena, her armor a symbol of all the wretched creatures hungry for power and the soldiers that followed them. I pounded her with my fists. She stood, arms hanging limply at her side, jaws clenching and unclenching, as I poured blow upon blow into her chest; and she never moved, never tried to stop me. Picking up a large branch near my feet, I punched it into her; and when she doubled over, I took her sword before she straightened.
"This is your fault!" I accused, holding her weapon with both hands. I poked the blade into her chest with enough force to require her to shuffle her feet to maintain balance. "You should have known. You should have stopped her. How could I know she'd do this?" The point was at her throat, but Xena never flinched. I taunted her, "You're the one with all the experience. Didn't you see it coming?"
Her breath caught. "Yes," she whispered.
It was this she had been waiting, my rage against all she had been, against the horror and suffering. Desperate with fury, my body shook. She once was part of this madness, and I saw her for what she truly was. She turned her face from me. A growl rose from my chest, and I lifted her sword above my head. Bringing it down with all my remaining strength, I spun and sent the blade slicing through the rope and into the tree. Sallen fell with a dull thud. Body trembling, I clung to the weapon, unable to release it. My breath came in sharp, aching rasps, audible in the stillness. I felt the warmth of the warrior's body as she covered my hands with her own, and I leaned against her for support. A statue carved in the darkness, we held the sword until my breathing steadied and my weary bones sank to the earth.
Sheathing her weapon, Xena knelt beside the remains. She removed the rope from Sallen's neck and then lifting her, carried her body to the temple. Not once did she speak; not once did her warrior mask crack. I sat in the dirt, watching Apollo's chariot descend and Hecate claim the skies. Shafts of moonlight filtered through the trees and bushes creating a dimly lit painting. It was hard to imagine a woman had taken her life in this place. From a distance, I heard my name.
"Here," I called back, unwilling to move. Again my name was spoken, and again I replied until the voice found me.
"Gabrielle," Kala managed between ragged breaths. "Something's not right."
By the gods, I could no longer care; I felt numb. Standing, I waited for her to continue.
"Xena..." she said, trying to get control of her breathing. "Xena gave this to my husband." She held out both fists and opened them exposing handfuls of gold. I knew it was all that the warrior possessed.
"I don't understand..."
"She gave them to my husband, to Philip," her breathing was finally slowing. "It was in payment. He was to take you home to Potedaeia, forcefully if he had to. Gabrielle, she told him to free her horse and sell the saddle. He was to give you that money."
"Where is she?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen her. I looked for you as soon as Philip told me."
"Go back to the temple, Kala. I'll find her." There was no point having two of us wandering almost blindly in the dark. "Thank you for coming for me."
Fear gnawed at my belly. I had no idea where to search. I hunted in a circle around the temple, gradually expanding its diameter. In despair, I said a prayer to Athena and then thought of Artemis. Was she the patron Goddess of the Amazons? Xena was an Amazon, wasn't she? I didn't know. For over two moons I have been traveling with this woman, and I didn't know if she was an Amazon. There was so much more I wanted to learn about her, to learn from her, to understand. Please, dear Artemis, please....
I stumbled into a small grove, and there she was. The hilt of her sword had been forced between two large stones, and she stood before it, a sacrificial victim to the depravity of men and gods.
"Leave me, Gabrielle."
"Please," her voice cracked, and she turned to me. She was breathtakingly beautiful in her vulnerability, the woman that might have been. "I don't want you to see this, but you won't stop me."
"See it? And who would take your body when you are done with it, if not me?"
"Leave it. Carrion for the beasts. It's what I deserve."
My throat tightened. "Xena, we both know I can't stop you, but at least talk to me before you do this."
What could I possibly say to her? I had been so wrapped up in my own overwhelming emotions, I hadn't thought of what she was experiencing. I hadn't tried to pierce her mask or think of her pain and guilt. No, that wasn't true. I had thought her cold and uncaring.
"You've already said it, haven't you?"
I winced, remembering my rampage at finding Sallen's body. She gave me a weary half-smile and sank to the ground. I sat next to her.
"You were going to be my ally, my anchor in my quest for redemption, Lit...." She stopped and cupped my chin in her hand. "No, not that. You've seen too much now, Bard." She removed her hand and turned away from me, staring into the dark. "I know that's what you thought, and I hoped we could do it." She shook her head, once more seeking me. Even in the blackness, I could see her tears. "I...I did this," she choked. "Me. Your contrite warrior friend. I...did this...to people. Not caring. No remorse. And now I seek redemption. It would take lifetimes to wipe away my evil." She gave a desolate laugh. " I'll be in the darkest pits of Tartarus for eternity. The herbs I offered Sallen? Yes, I knew you didn't understand. They are known to cause miscarriage. I was willing to destroy an unborn child."
Her tears overflowed their small bank and surged down her cheeks. "She had been raped, Xena. To carry and deliver a child so conceived...You were offering to help her. It was her decision to make."
"In the end, it was what war did to her that mattered. And I did that to so many." She covered her face with her hands.
A thought came to me. "Xena? What would you accomplish with your death?"
"Justice. Punishment for the lives I took or destroyed."
"You'd be dead. So what?"
Confusion glided across her features. For a brief moment, her soul was open to me.
"Can your death bring back lives lost? Can it repair the damage to those who survived?"
"If justice is the administration of deserved punishment...and you yourself said it would take lifetimes to pay for your crimes...doesn't it seem that just sending you off to Tartarus would be too easy?"
I could tells she was shocked by my seeming betrayal.
"I don't..." she began.
"Think about Festus and Talia. We helped him and at least made her last hours more comfortable. And we brought Marus and Cleon to Kala and Philip. And how many lives did you save in the infirmary? Or by seeing the bodies of the dead to a dignified end before disease started? And you comforted Kala by bringing Celia back for burial. Xena, death is not the answer. There are many more you will help if you live your intended span. Justice demands you pledge your sword to honor your victims by serving the living with every ounce of strength within you. Justice demands you protect them until you breathe your last. A lifetime of struggle."
Her expression was of surprise and relief, as though a fog had been lifted from her mind, and everything became clear and defined.
"I believe you can redeem yourself, Xena. I believe not even the gods, selfish and self-centered as they are, could refuse you if you did all that. But even if it doesn't happen, knowing you did what you could while on earth would be of some comfort to you." Finally, Gabrielle, I thought, you have found some use for that silver tongue of yours.
"It can't be that simple. I never thought...." Her voice trailed off.
"Simple? Oh, it won't be simple. Xena, I saw your face when you killed those soldiers. Controlling that...wrath. It won't be easy."
"You have the harder job."
I was perplexed. "How?"
"If I do lose control, you're the one who'll have to stop me."
I gave this great consideration. "Good point," I said uneasily, not sure how serious she was. Through all the emotional chaos we had experienced, our tenuous bond had been disconnected, and now I needed to reach out. I had to lighten this load. "Xena, do you think Philip will give you back your dinars, and horse and saddle?" I teased.
"He can keep the dinars. They'll need it for food supplies this winter." Perhaps in answer to her own need, she growled, giving a most menacing, if not convincing warrior grimace. "He'd better give me back Argo and her saddle or I'll...."
"You'll scare the pants off him."
She gave a short, weak laugh, but it was glorious to hear. Retrieving her sword, she turned to me. Her eyes shone with fierce determination. "A lifetime of struggle," she repeated. She rested the blade in her hands, and even in the dim light, it glistened.
"To serve," she swore; and then looking into my eyes, she whispered into the night, "Redemption."