The Land of Song PART III
Disclaimers: see Part I
XI The Search
Cadhlaighn was waiting at the foot of the stairs. Gabrielle quickly changed into her armor and boots, and they went in. Cadhlaighn said, "Do you love me?"
Gabrielles surprise showed on her face. "What do you mean?"
"Im going to show you something. I just want to know if youll still love me, no matter what happens."
"Yes, Cadhlaighn. I love you."
"Then kiss me and stand away."
Gabrielle kissed her; then Cadhlaighn pushed her back, so hard she almost fell. Before her eyes a mist was forming around Cadhlaighns body, and a roaring sound was filling Gabrielles ears. The stable darkened, the light of the lanterns was dimmed by a deep fog, and Cadhlaighn was...gone...nowhere in sight. In her place stood a magnificent chestnut mare, tall and strong, a proud, beautiful animal. Her coat and mane shone, and the muscles rippled under her smooth skin.
Gabrielle stared at the horse, walked around her; a part of her mind was triumphant for having imagined that this might be. She whispered: "Cadhlaighn?" The horse nickered, and Gabrielle could hear a small voice deep in her mind.
This is me, Gabrielle. I am my mothers daughter.
"Do you do this often?"
At night, many nights. I run through the countryside -- it keeps me free, Gabrielle. Do you hate me?
"No, I dont hate you. Why would I?"
"Because I didnt tell you. I lied to you."
"I think I understand. Its not the kind of thing you share with just anyone."
Ill carry you anywhere you wish. Climb up.
"A saddle? A bridle?"
You wont need one. I wont let you fall. And I know where were going, or, if I dont, you only have to whisper in my ear. Come on, mount up!" The horse knelt, and Gabrielle sat astride her back; gently, the horse rose to its full height, and walked into the stable yard. Gabrielle heard the small voice again. To the sea?
Gabrielle put her hands firmly into the mane. "Yes!"
She had never been so assured on horseback. She felt as if Cadhlaighn -- she was forced to think of this animal with her friends name -- was grasping her, holding her tightly, warmly, lovingly; it was like being in her arms. She had no fear. She would never fall from this mount, as she had so many times when she first learned to ride. She felt the same closeness as she had to Xena when they had shared Argos broad back in the early days. The stride was smooth; she felt they were gliding just above the ground, freed from the bonds of the earth. She would not have been surprised to find wings sprout from the horses shoulders, and to take flight, like Pegasus. The grass flowed by like water. All this motion flowed in a silence, a self-containment that held just her and the soul of the animal she rode, who was also her friend and more. They might as well have been invisible, so little disturbance did they do to those places they passed.
Gabrielle could smell the sea.
It was the deep hour of the night, between midnight and dawn. The stars and the sliver of moon threw a pale light. As they crested the steep, razorback ridge, the phosphorescent lines of breaking wave revealed the boundary of the land. Gabrielle told Cadhlaighn to go down the other side, toward the beach. "Do you know where the battle was fought?"
Near here. I brought you close to the place. I think I know what you have in mind.
"I wonder why no one thought of this before. You all listen to the same stories."
I dont know. maybe its that we listen to the stories with our hearts more than our heads. We dont analyze them. We feel them.
"The tides coming in. Stop. Be still."
She listened with every fiber, every muscle of her body. She became a drumhead, sensitive to the slightest sensation of touch. Sound vibrated on her face, her thighs, anywhere the air could reach; the vibrations resonated with the sounds in her ears, guiding her hearing to the faintest, most distant of sounds. She could hear sounds behind the waves, the sound of Cadhlaighns breaths, her own; frogs rustling in the reeds; a snake gliding across the sand. She opened her mouth slightly; there was a soft fall of sand sliding down a hillside...there! A burble, a rumble...what she could only describe as a snort, down at the very limit of her senses. There. To the north. They rode along the beach. The beach narrowed as the slope of the ridge came close to the edge of the sea. The rumble grew to a rattle, and then a roar and then, as dawn began to show over the horizon, a spray of foam issued from a fissure in the ridge, a blast of wet saltiness as the tide drove up a narrow defile and into the mouth of a cave, a cave that pierced into the heart of the rock that made the ridge.
This is the place.
"I think so. We need to climb to the landward side. I should dismount."
I can carry you.
"I wouldnt ride any horse over that. Not even Argo. Not even you." Without further argument she dismounted, and Cadhlaighn said in her mind Wait.
The mist formed again about the horses body, and Cadhlaighn, in her human form, stood before her. They walked up the steep slope of the ridge, then down the other side.
"Cadhlaighn, we need to have a long talk about that."
"Dont you like it? I think its pretty good that I can do that."
There was a crease in the ridge, a narrow gorge that also ended in a cave mouth. She could hear the air, driven by the force of the tide on the other side, roaring through the opening -- shouting. "This is the same cave as on the other side; its a natural tunnel through the ridge. How far are we from the beach?"
"You know where the beach is!"
"I mean, if you measured it? How far?"
"About two furlongs to walk it."
"Okay. Then...hmmmm...this cave must be about a furlong from one mouth to the other, if it cuts across the base of the ridge. That old rhyme kind of makes sense."
"Howd you figure that out?"
"Fellow named Pythagoras. He was kind of crazy, but he had some interesting ideas."
"Never heard of him."
"Well, he was kind of a hermit. And he died a while ago. When I was a...well, its complicated. Anyway, want to go in and see whats inside?"
"Isnt that why we came here in the first place?"
By the time Cadhlaighn had gathered brush for makeshift torches, Gabrielle had a fire lit from the dry wood that lay about. It was full day by now and the fires light couldnt be seen very well. They lit the torches and entered the cave mouth.
It was immediately clear that the cave-tunnel was longer than Gabrielle had calculated. It serpentined from side to side, and rose and fell. The tunnel was as tall as two men, and almost as wide; even with the twists and turns it was suitable for the purpose Gabrielle believed it to have served. The blasts of air from the sea-side, funneled through the cave mouth, threatened to extinguish their torches.
After many steps a shaft of light became visible ahead of them. Cadhlaighn stepped forward with her sword drawn, but Gabrielle put a restraining hand on her shoulder. You dont have to prove anything to me. She wished for the telepathic link she had had to the younger woman in her animal form. They entered a vast, open space, as high from floor to ceiling as the watchtowers of Taragh; a hundred-year old oak could have grown in that space, root to crown and side to side, and there still would have been room to spare. Surrounding this vast expanse, at the level they entered, was a natural ledge that ran all around the cavern. From above there was a shaft of morning sunlight, presumably from a fissure in the cavern roof. Gabrielle took a step into the open space and felt her boot crunch an object beneath it. She bent to see what she had trod on; it was a bone. A human thigh.
They held their torches high to illuminate the shadowed edges. All along the ridge were the broken skeletons of men, most still encased in rusting armor, some with fleshless fingers clutching decaying weapons. Bones lay everywhere, jumbled together. Skulls littered the ledge.
Gabrielle wanted to be sick, but she fought for control. There was much here to learn, but first they had to find the object of their quest. Approaching the rim of the ledge, they could look down to the floor of the cavern below, and were awestruck by what they saw.
The floor of the cavern lay under the rising tide. Floating in the green sea water were hundreds of skulls, buoyed up by the air contained in them, emptied of water between tides. Presumably the tide left the cavern floor dry when it ebbed. There must have been many more skeletons of the dead beneath that brackish pool.
In the center of the cavern floor was a raised mound, and on this mound lay a giant head, tilted at a crazy angle atop the decaying remained of a four-wheeled cart. The head was huge, half again the height of a man, and as broad as a man was tall. It was hideous, though they could only see the back of it; the face was turned away from them. In the center of the back of the head was a slngle, fleshy eye, surrounded by caked dark blood and covered by a heavy, fleshy lid. The ropy, kelp-like hair straggled over the lid and skin the color of the stormy sea. Long ears protruded from the sides and pendulous lobes hung from them. If this aspect of the creature made them shudder, they could only imagine how ghastly the face must be to look upon.
Cadhlaighn put her arm around Gabrielles waist, drew close to her. "Old one-eye," she said. "But why all these dead?"
"They were placing it in the cave, hoping they could retrieve it and use it as a weapon," Gabrielle speculated. "Something happened -- the cart tilted, or the tide or the wind upset it. The eylid flew open, and the head spun as it toppled; whatever the power of the eye, it swept the cave, killing anybody it touched. Sweet gods!"
"Then the eye still can kill. Is that why you came here? To use it against them when they attack again?"
"Then, we have another problem. How do we get it out of here?"
"The same way they got it in -- at low tide, through the seaside entrance to this cavern."
"Itll take a lot of men."
"Maybe we can..."
Gabrielle whirled, drew her sword in the same motion, tracked the heights of the cavern with her eyes and ears. A white bird fluttered there, and slowly descended to the ledge two swords length from them. A mist began to form about the body of the bird.
"Its just my mother. She must have followed us here."
"I know its your mother. Get behind me, Cadhlaighn!"
"Why!? We dislike each other but thats..."
Gabrielle shouted at her friend, bared her teeth. "Stay behind me, Cadhlaighn! Now! She means to destroy you!"
XII. Gods and demons
Gabrielle swept Cadhlaighn behind her with her free arm, held the sword out with both hands, feet planted. The mist coalesced into the body of Meghn. Gabrielles expression was ferocious.
Meghn smiled bitterly, then laughed. "Well, well, the lioness protecting her cub! How vicious you appear!"
"You cant have her!"
"But shes not your cub, outlander! Shes mine!"
"To turn into a slave?"
"To liberate. To serve her people."
"As the slave of one of your Old Gods!"
"Old Gods? Surely not the Dannites. You understand nothing, you foreign bitch! You know nothing of the rightful rulers of this land!"
"Him!" And she gestured at the fallen head, forlorn on the cavern floor.
"So...youre in league with the Fomori!"
"In league with them? I worship them! They are my gods, they rule this world by right! Men have no rights!" Meghn lowered her voice to a sneer. "The Dannites are weaklings. Arts, poetry, medicine! Pah! Power rules! Your god, your Ares, he understood godhood! Power, strength...those that came after are pale and wanting."
"Ares gave up his godhood..."
"Because that warrior whore of yours had to go and have that brat of a daughter! How dare she! The little rat should have been drowned at birth!"
"The Fomori are evil."
"The Fomori are kings! Made to rule! Mortals are nothing, less than slaves!"
"Your mother slept with a mortal. You came from that..."
"Epona was weak! She was a goddess -- she ended up serving mortals instead of being served by them. That is exactly what I rebel against!"
"Why did you marry Strongbow?"
"I knew that I could bend him. He worshipped me, and I could do anything. Then she was born! She took his heart! Ahhh, but I won! I made a warrior of her! He would have turned her into a wet rag, a whimpering poet!"
"And you want to turn her into...him!?", Gabrielle screamed, giving a sidelong glance to the thing in the pit.
"Once he is in her, she can take the throne that is rightfully hers. Nothing will stop them. She has the right that all mortals will recognize, and Fladagh -- hell unite the Fomori and all the others that were displaced. This island will become as all the world once was, ruled by gods that know the meaning of power! Of fear! Of control! Mortals will again be where they belong -- playthings of the Gods. And from here...the world."
"And what do you get out of all this?"
"Power, of course. the power my mother once had, to order thing as she would, to punish the guilty and reward the worshipful. I will be the goddess that Athena and Aphrodite and Hera and Brigid and Brunhilde could only dream of being. What Xena would have become if you hadnt happened along, brat. So thank you! Thank you for taking her out of my way!"
Gabrielle felt the anger welling up inside her, but she was restrained from striking by her need to protect Cadhlaighn. She couldnt protect her fron the stream of abuse her own mother spewed at her; Gabrielle hurt, hurt for her friend, hurt at every poisoned word.
Cadhlaighn spoke, venom in her tone as well. "Now it comes out, mother! Now I see why all those years of training, fighting, battle tactics, command! You wanted a skilled body to dump your horror demon into! And when you didnt have a first son you took it out on me!"
"I made you a warrior to be proud of!"
"Well, Im not! I cant stand killing! Ask Gabrielle, she knows! It makes me sick! It revolts me!"
"Enough of this." Meghns eyes were afire, a wild look of abandon on her face. "Come here, child. You will take this dust, and you will be Fladaghs host...his consort!"
"What will you do? Because by my fathers heart youll have to kill me first!"
"Ah...not you, little one..."
Meghn extended her arm and a thin blue bolt extended from her fingertip, aimed unerringly at Gabrielle. A network of lines of blue fire arrayed around Gabrielle like a wire cage. Gabrielle felt herself being lifted up, up, until she hung over the center of the cavern. She tried slashing at the cage with the sword but her muscles wouldnt obey her...
Pain. Exquisite, fiery pain lanced through her body, bending her backwards and drawing a howling scream from her throat. Her heart was exploding in her chest, her bones were being wrenched from their sockets...there was fire in her skull that would not let her go...she writhed and twisted in a sea of pain, howling in absolute and purest agony. It never stopped, never lessened, only increased. just when she thought the pain could never get worse, it did. More and more until she was deaf to her own screams. Nothing in her life was ever as painful, no wound, no birth, no sickness, not even losing her love, nothing hurt, nothing, nothing like this, and it was never going to end, she would be tortured for eternity...
She saw, through the blue haze of agony, Meghn extend her other hand and draw Cadhlaighn towards her, sieze her with that arm, thrust a vial under her nose...there were words between the girl and her mother that Gabrielle could not hear through the pain, and now added to the pain was fear, fear for the one she had come to love, fear and despair that she could do nothing to protect her new love. Pain. Pain...
She saw through haze, visions...a struggle...back and forth..the flash of steel...an arc of blood...swirling, roiling violence...more pain and yet more...then the pain stopped, Gabrielle fell to the filthy pool at the bottom of the cave, and mercifully lost consciousness.
She was lying on her back. Something stank. Rot, dead flesh, the sea, burning wood...a shipwreck. She was washed up on the shore. Xena died five days ago...how can I go home...Boreas...you bastard...
"Gabrielle? Darlin, wake up."
She opened her eyes. There was an angel bending over her, an angel with red hair. The pain in her body was gone, only a memory of endless agony. She felt she could move if only she wanted to. She was warm. She was lying next to a driftwood fire. There was blanket over her...no, a cloak. Cadhlaighn must have covered her...
"Sure, love, Im alive. And so are you."
"Are you still you?"
"Im always me. Im fine, just peachy."
"Meghn? She wont bother us any more. I sent her packing."
"I told her -- she had no power over me except hate. I refused to hate her, even while she tortured you. I pitied her. That was the worst thing she could get from me -- my pity. It was like poison in her soul. Shes gone."
"Why did she do that?"
"She knows I love you. She tortured you to make me do what she wanted. But I knew better, Gabrielle. I knew if I did what she wanted, shed kill you anyway. She wants you out of the way."
"Why? What did I do to her?"
"Bewitched her daughter."
"Me? I didnt..."
Cadhlaighn kissed her, and the kiss was the softest, loveliest kiss she could remember.
"You won my heart, Gabrielle. Ill have no one but you. No man, no woman. No...husband, no father for the child she wants from me. The son she wants from me. She hated you for that."
Gabrielle sat up. She was outside the cave, on the edge of the beach just beyond the cave entrance. As she returned to consciousness, she realized she hurt; not the searing pain she had suffered at the hands of Meghn, but the familiar pain of bruises and strains. I fell, she thought, and I landed in the water of the tidal pool, but I guess I got banged up. There was a sore spot over her right eye, and she touched it; sticky with dried blood. It stung.
"You were a pretty mess," said Cadhlaighn as she gently took Gabrielles hand from the wound. I washed off the blood and cleaned the wounds with clean seawater. Im told it keeps them from corruption. Im sorry, I tore off the bottom skirt of your tunic for bandages. You look okay in the jerkin. I was afraid you were going to drown."
"How did you get to me?"
"I climbed down. But thats why we came out this way. I didnt want to climb back up, not with you wounded and passed out."
"You dragged me through the tide stream? Against the tide?"
"Had to be done, it wasnt that deep."
"Well, Im all right. We need to be going."
"Aye. Can you ride?"
"I think so." Gabrielle stretched her muscles. Apart from bruises and scrapes she seemed whole.
"Then lets get back to Taragh."
"Not quite yet. Can we detour to the port?"
"Itll take another day. Why?"
"I need to find a bear."
There was a cozy inn on a country road leading from the port to Taragh, sheltered in a roadside grove of ancient trees. A young woman on horseback engaged a room, stabled a horse, ordered food to be sent up. She was a strange woman, thought the innkeeper, armed and armored and fresh from a fight. She paid in gold, strange gold, not the crowns and shillings he was used to. Nevertheless it gave a satisfying ring on the bar and it yielded to his tooth. Gold was gold, no matter whose face was on it. He served his patrons and asked no questions. He planned to live a long time.
Gabrielle liked the room. It had its own fireplace, and a large wooden tub all its own. She lit a fire and began heating water in the iron kettles. The bed was large and soft and screened by curtains; there was a sweet view of the garden below from the seat under the recessed window.
The serving girl brought the food, and, while wondering why this slip of a woman would eat enough for two, said nothing as she accepted the generous handful of coins. Gabrielle filled the tub, put the food within easy reach, lit two candles, undressed and got in; the heat softened her bruised, stiff muscles and melted away the last of the terror. She was excited and happy.
Cadhlaighn let herself in and slid the bolt of the door behind her. She smiled, wordlessly undressed and slipped into the tub with Gabrielle. She settled with her back against Gabrielles body and let the older woman wrap her up in her arms. Gabrielle took this opportunity to fasten her gift around her lovers neck, the deep blue stone on the gold chain. Cadhlaighn examined it with wonder, and turning, kissed Gabrielle in thanks. "I love it and you," she whispered. Her hand wandered down Gabrielles neck, across her shoulders, brushing her breasts. Both of them began a tactile, silent game that could have only one outcome, a game they both would win.
She turned Cadhlaighn towards her, ready to begin the teasing and touching that would bring her love finally to bed, finally to the edge, and finally over. It had always amazed her that, despite Xenas ferocity in battle and aggressive nature, she had always been the docile one in bed, letting Gabrielle take the lead in most of their lovemaking. It was something she had come to expect. Xena knew technique; but, once Gabrielle had learned what Xena knew, she found it exciting to become the aggressor, set the pace, keep her lover guessing and on the brink until she, Gabrielle, decided the time had come. There were times when Xenas unsubtle horniness had simply overwhelmed both of them; but mostly, the warrior princess gave the bards soul in Gabrielle free reign to turn into art what was always a lusty pleasure.
Now she found herself wanting to give in to Cadhlaighn; her redheaded lover was taking her own measures to please her. She watched as her partner bit into a sweet ripe cherry, tasted the sweetness on her own tongue as Cadhlaighn fed her the remainder. Followed with a kiss, she could imagine nothing more enticing. They fed each other, turn and turn about, punctuated with touches that radiated sensation from tiny, sensitive places to their entire being. Few words were spoken. Motion, contact was their entire conversation.
There was a smoldering fire in Cadhlaighns eyes that she had never seen before, and a hunger in Cadhlaighns expression that she had only seen in her last love, and then only in her most needy moments.Nothing excited Gabrielle more than knowing she was desired, that her lover needed her; it was time to take Cadhlaighn to bed, put them both out of their delicious misery.
Warm towels before the fire gave way to cool sheets; gentle strokes, playful pinches gave way to urgent handfuls and mouthfuls of warm flesh; affection gave way to passion. Cadlaighns ardor was strength waiting to be released, barely restrained. Gabrielle could feel wildness. The hands held power to crush, wound, destroy, but that power was restrained by love. There was submission; Gabrielle could read the pleading in Cadhlaighns whispers, in the glow of her green eyes. Gabrielle knew she could get Cadhlaighn to do anything she asked, and that whatever Cadhlaighn did would bring her closer to satisfying her own need. There was dominance; Gabrielle felt the grip of iron hands gently caressing her sides, her flanks, covering her skin with tingling excitement and fire, directing her own hands, the touch of her mouth, the curve of her body. Strength, urgency, and energy were pouring out of Cadhlaighn into Gabrielle. Cadhlaighn showed herself to be a master of counterpoint, gentleness against wanton power. Stop thinking, Gabrielle. Stop thinking and feel what this woman can do to you. Become an animal, stop trying to direct and control. Dont resist.
Cadhlaighns body covered Gabrielles, touching her at every point. Gabrielle placed her hands in special spots, pressing with her fingers at just the right places to drive Cadhlaighn out of control. Cadhlaighn moaned and the rhythm of Gabrielles touches was echoed in the rhythm of the redheads entire body. The rhythm of motion was irresistible, and without warning Gabrielle spilled over into orgasm, arching like a bow just at the moment when the arrow is released. Cadhlaighn joined her seconds later, each lover feeding off the other, climax driving climax until they lay apart, exhausted, the sweat drying, cooling. They came together again to share warmth, each feeling safe and complete in the arms of the other.
Her arms around Cadhlaighn, the younger womans breath upon her throat, Gabrielle realized that she was giving comfort to someone who sorely needed it. Cadhlaighn began sobbing, softly, shaking against Gabrielles body. Gabrielle held her tighter. The sobs became sounds, hoarse, throaty, heaving gasps that made Gabrielle feel as if Cadhlaighn would choke on them. That Cadhlaighn did not explain, nor need to explain, the source of her weeping was, to Gabrielle, a sign of love and trust; besides, it was obvious. Cadhlaighn was mourning the mother she should have had, mourning the final loss, the admission of the truth in her own heart that her mother had been a manipulative bitch, a mad traitor, and a witholder of that most basic of sustenances -- love. In her heart, her mother had died this night. Her flirting with Gabrielle, her blatant advances and her suggestion that they consummate their love affair immediately, her lustful acceptance of Gabrielles body, was a grasping at the very stuff of life, turning from one who had denied her emotional nourishment.
Gabrielle soothed, touched, cooed for her lover, anything that might add to her feeling of safety and of being loved. This was not new, although she had been shocked when it first happened. Xena had simply broken in Gabrielles arms one night, all the tension and self-deception and guilt boiling over into a weeping, howling tantrum that had come close to violence, not at Gabrielle but at Xenas image of herself. It had taken two days and two nights to reach into Xenas darkest places, and Gabrielle had learned much about healing of the spirit, as she had learned about the healing of the body, and in similar circumstance: in battle. The most important thing now was to get Cadhlaighn through the overwhelming guilt that she hadnt been a good enough daughter, to not let her blame herself for her mothers evil. She must learn from the experience, and not let it drag her down into despair of ever being worthy of her own good opinion. Cadhlaighns display was, in a sense, flattering; it had taken Xena almost six years before she could trust Gabrielle enough to let go so completely.
Why am I thinking of Xena when I have this magnificent woman in my bed?
Because Xena is your only standard of comparison. In all matters of love, your heart goes back to her.
Is that fair?
Maybe, someday, she would discuss that question with Cadhlaighn. When they had time to develop trust that quailed at no threat, had built a bond that could not be broken by jealousy or fear, she would tell her just what Xena had meant to her, and how Cadhlaighn had overcome that horrifying separation to build a new trust. For now, she would enjoy what this woman had to give, and revel in her own ability finally to give back. She was worried less about being fair than she was about being loving.
Cadhlaighn had stopped crying. Her breathing had become soft and regular and Gabrielle assumed she had fallen asleep. Then Gabrielle felt a gentle tingle as a finger made circles around her right nipple. The tingle expanded, grew to a bright ember in her loins, lightning in her body. Cadhlaighn kissed her as she turned her face toward her lover. Gabielles tongue sought out her partners nipple, and found its way, as if it had a mind of its own, across the slim stomach to the warm, moist hair, soft as fur, between the redheads legs. Gabrielle applied her tongue and lips softly, expertly, and Cadlaighn arched and twisted, teaching Gabrielle just how to give her pleasure without words. Cadhlaighns orgasm was a burst of sound, voiceless screams that only Gabrielle could hear, and a clenching of every muscle in her body. When it was done Cadhlaighn was as limp as a rag doll. Gabrielle started to get up to clean herself, but Cadhlaighn siezed her, pulled her in, and tasted her own musk on her lovers lips. She lay Gabrielle on the bed and,and applied the same activity to Gabrielles moist center. Uncounted time later, Gabrielle again burst into orgasm. Gabrielle pulled Cadhlaighn to her, kissed her, and moved her to the bed. She was enveloped in Gabrielles embrace, the older woman surrounding the younger with her body and her soul. Their eyes closed and they slept.
They left early, Gabrielle mounted on Cadhlaighns bare equine back. This disconcerting transformation was still difficult to take, although the one fear it engendered -- that it would interfere with their erotic relationship -- had not materialized. When Gabrielle was in bed with Cadhlaighn, she was in bed with a woman, unequivocally. Cadhlaighns womanliness was impossible to confuse with anything else. Lucky for me.
The ride led along the river that flowed around Taragh, down to the port, and on to the sea. The river was shallow here above the port, full of shifting sandbars and deadfalls that made it impractical to navigate. Occasionally flat-bottomed barges could be seen, floating downstream loaded with stone blocks, sides of beef, or sacks of barley for the river granaries, or being pulled upstream by teams of oxen, loaded with the various products of the port; by the smell fish was a major cargo. More than once they overtook teams of draft animals slogging along the path by the river, and detoured around them.
This country was deliciously green. There never seemed to be a completely dry day; even on the sunniest, hottest days of this high summer, a mist hung in the air that softened every color and blurred every edge. The landscape seemed shrouded in a fine patina, like seeing a painting while squinting at it. The river was a golden green and brown, and the sky was blue; it was perfect weather to ride, and walk, and be together.
Near the middle of the day they stopped at an inn, purchased bread, cheese and beer, and traveled on to a place where they could rest on the bank. Cadhlaighn tired of being a horse, and, in her deliciously female form, stretched nude in the sun on a sandy bank, Gabrielle equally bare beside her. The colors of her tattoos seemed most vivid in the sunlight, and she and Gabrielle exchanged viewings of each others artwork. They swam for a while in the cool water, dried again on the bank in the sun; then they retired to a sheltered grassy glade, out of sight of the road and the river. There they repeated the previous nights miracle, making love in the soft, damp grass under the spread of a willow tree. When they had rested and dressed, Cadhlaighn decided to walk the rest of the way, both for the company of her friend and to allow them to enter Taragh with stealth at nightfall; she had departed without a word to her father, and she didnt feel like facing him returning from an unauthorized adventure. She would have to talk to him to discuss his wifes betrayal; that wouldnt be made any easier by parental displeasure. By the end of the several hours, Cadhlaighn and Gabrielle had exchanged enough stories to be able to recount the biography of the other. They sang to each other, and told jokes, and kissed often. For Gabrielle it was a whole new world, falling in love again after more than eleven years since the last time she had done so. It was exciting, joyful, serious and playful; she experienced the same feelings Xena had awakened in her, but with a different flavor, a different tone. Somehow, she knew this was right, Xena would approve, and all was right in her soul.
Kyloides had covered for them both. There was no suspicion at all that they had been gone. They had both contracted some unpleasant fever that necessitated isolation, constant care by one skilled in the art of physic and a trusted confidante of the king. He took them bowls of broth that were never consumed, tea and soft bread that was welcomed by many a dog, and warm milk that kept the cats of the night watches well fed. Many were concerned how deeply the infection had settled into Cadhlaighns lungs. Her normally musical soprano sounded rough and coarse from behind her locked door. Gabrielle slept through the entire ordeal, ignoring most knocks and merely grunting through the door from time to time. Only what could be expected from an outlander, right enough.
XIII. Destructions Eve
"They will come. Soon."
"By the autumn. Before the snow falls. I know theyll come from the west and south. They might come from the sea again, but thats dark to me."
"Cadhlaighn, how do you know?"
"Gabrielle, I hate to have secrets from you. But Im the commander of the Kings army. I have to know where the enemy is, and I have to protect my sources of that information. You pledged your service to my father. When it comes right down to it, Im your commander. You have to take my word for it and not ask questions. I could make that an order, but I wont. I trust you with my life. Trust me with this. Understand."
"I do. Trust you, I mean. Cadhlaighn, I love you, but I dont understand you sometimes. Sometimes you seem so -- fresh, innocent. You remind me of...me, of how I was when I left home. And then there are times like just now, when you get hard, tough. Then you remind me of..."
"You can say Xenas name, Gabrielle. Im not jealous."
"I dont want to keep comparing you and Xena. Its not fair."
"Inevitable, though. I dont mind."
"Maybe you should."
"I only can try to be the best I can for you, here and now, and hope that keeps your attention. I cant order you to stop thinking about her."
"I wouldnt obey it if you did."
"So get over here and show me you love me. Touch me. Thats an order." Her impish smile lit up her face.
Gabrielle rolled over in the bed and surrounded her lover with her body. "Your wish," she whispered, "is my command. Maam."
Summer was maturing into August, and it rained almost every other day. During the weeks since their expedition to the cave, Cadhlaighn had worked to strengthen her army, make up in tactics and fighting qualities what they lacked in numbers. She knew the enchanted men had special value, and formed them into a special unit. They came to be called "The Giant-Killers", and wore a special badge of a single bloodshot eye with a lance through it. They were a strange sight, these aged men, formed up for battle, fighting through practice with all the vigor of youth or of gods.
Their secret weapon had arrived one night by barge, coming upriver under the command of Ursus, the erstwhile bosun of their sailing ship. The monstrous thing had been covered with canvas and taken to a shed, padlocked and guarded, in the dead of night; its existence was only known to the king, Cadhlaighn, Gabrielle and Ursus himself and his band of sailors, whose rigging skills had moved it out of the cavern and up the river without exposing the evil eye. Neither Gabrielle nor Cadhlaighn had any desire to return to that awful place.
During those weeks Gabrielle divided her time betweeen two places; the Kings council room, where she, Cadhlaighn, Strongbow, Kyloides, Phadhaeus, commander of the Giant-Killers, and another general named Omannach met together to discuss the coming war with Glwan; and in bed with Cadhlaighn.
Cadhlaighn had represented Gabrielle to the others as skilled from long experience in battle, and had taken Gabrielle as her aide, foil, and advisor; no one had objected, although the king had questioned her closely about military matters. Gabrielle had learned enough about strategy and tactics from Xena to give a credible account of herself, and her position on the War Council had been accepted.
Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn lived openly together in Cadhlaighns house, slept, ate and talked together, and if anyone objected no one had had the nerve to say so. The only question had come, again, from Cadhlaighns father, at the end of the long interview that brought Gabrielle to the War Council. The aged king with the strong voice and spirit had looked deep into Gabrielles eyes after they had been left alone in the Council chamber.
"My daughter says she is in love with you. Do you know of this?"
"Yes, my lord. I know it well." Gabrielle was always inclined to be formal with Strongbow.
"Are you in love with her?"
"With all my heart, my lord. Shes precious to me."
He smiled wistfully, his gaze wandering. "I was in love once...I cannot deny that it has a life of its own." He looked searchingly at Gabrielle. "You feel this love is in no way unnatural?"
"No. my lord. It is the way we are, Cadhlaighn and I. It as natural for us as another way might be for others."
"I agree. How we love is of no consequence. It is that we love at all. Does she treat you well?"
"I have no complaints, my lord."
"Treat her well. I love her, also. I know there were things...lacking...in her upbringing. I have only one regret about your union."
"That she will not have a child. She will be a queen without an heir."
Gabrielle didnt share her doubts, gleaned from pillow talk, that Cadhlaighn was at all anxious to assume the throne. To be queen was not her crowning ambition. But she held silence. The king sighed, and for once he spoke as a tired old man, resigned to defeat.
"Go then. Share her love. Things will be as they must be. Youre welcome to be with her on the council -- she trusts you as she trusts no one outside her family."
Gabrielle had bowed herself out, and had become a part of the royal family in all but official public acknowledgment.
As soon as she began meeting with the council, she found herself at odds with, of all people, Cadhlaighn. Gabrielle was convinced that Taragh could be held as a fortress against any army, any siege, for a very long time, maybe forever. Their link by barge with the sea could be a lifeline; and with adequate preparation food could be stored, the walls more stoutly defended. Cadhlaighn, on the other hand, believed that the only way to defeat the enemy was in open battle. The better-trained armies of Taragh could be used to greater advantage on the field, as could her cavalry, of which it was thought the enemy had few or none. Phadhaeus agreed with Cadhlaighn, while Omannach sided with Gabrielle. Kyloides waffled, but tended to favor the defense; his arts were better suited to siegecraft and fortification. The king listened, and absorbed the information brought to him, and would one day soon decide. Often the arguments in council became bitterly angry. One day, after Cadhlaighn had made a particularly heated defense of her position, Gabrielle said "Dont you see youre speaking from inexperience? Ive been in pitched battles. I respect your fighting skill, Cadhlaighn, but have you? Battle is terribly risky. You need to see it before you talk with such authority."
Cadhlaighns face went pale, then red, as if she had been struck. Before she could reply, Kyloides asked Gabrielle, "Is that what the Warrior Princess would have done?"
"I dont know, but I believe she would have taken the most prudent course."
Cadhlaighn slammed the table. Her eyes blazed. Leaning across the table she shouted in Gabrielles face, "I believe the Warrior Princess would be very disappointed in you!" She stalked from the room, anger trailing after her like smoke.
Gabrielle had looked around her, seen the embarassment in everyones eyes except the king; Strongbow betrayed his pride in his daughters strength, and sadness that she had quarreled with her lover; in many ways Gabrielle was his daughter-in-law, and he didnt want either her or Cadhlaighn to be unhappy. Gabrielle hesitated a moment longer, then retreated from the chamber. She went to the house and found Cadhlaighn there, on the bed in the bedroom they did not use.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed, gently touched Cadhlaighn on the shoulder. She stroked her lover gently.
"If you think youre going to seduce me, you better think again," Cadhlaighn said, her voice muffled by the pillow. "That hurt."
"Cadhlaighn, love, I didnt mean..."
The redhead turned over, sat up, her green eyes on fire through tears. "Dont you ever accuse me of inexperience! Dont you ever patronize me! You dont know this country or its people! I understand our way of war!"
"I know. But are you sure youre ready for the battlefield? Commanding..."
"So now you think Im a coward!"
"I dont think that. No, no...but I know that things can happen in a battle that no one expects..."
The eyes screamed, the face contorted into a death mask of anger. "Ive seem more battles that youve ever..." Cadhlaigh stopped, breathing hard, trying to calm herself.
"More battles than...what? What do you mean?"
Cadhlaighn was more composed. She ran her hands through her unruly hair. I mean...in the stories. Yes. Many of our stories are about battles, battles in our own country. Ive been across this island and back a hundred times. Believe me, Gabrielle, I know what a battle here would be like. I know.
"Gabrielle, please, try to understand. This is my country. I love it more than I love anything, even, Im sorry, even more than you. And I believe with all my heart that if we let them bottle us up here, were doomed. Theyll ravage the countryside, enslave or devour every person in the province. I know what the west and south are like. People are slaves, and livestock. There are no villages any more. All the people live on huge farms, like prisons, and they work from sun to sun until the soldiers lock them up in barns at night and take some off to slaughter. Kyloides was right; the Fomori do feed on human flesh, and Glwan provides it to them. If we meet them in battle, at a place of our choosing, we stand a chance of saving our homeland."
"But..." Gabrielle was unsure of how much she should say. "Cadhlaighn, I love you, I respect you. But the truth is the truth. You are outnumbered. I know battles are won by superior organization and weaponry and bravery and command, not necessarily by numbers. But I remember Ares saying he was always willing to favor the biggest army. And...five to one? At least? And these Fomori? Im so afraid youll all...be slaughtered."
A strange expression flashed across Cadhlaighns face, a flash of comprehension. "Youre afraid for me, arent you? Afraid Ill die on the battlefield. Afraid you cant protect me, afraid I wont come back. Arent you?"
Gabrielle hung her head. "Yes. I am."
"Gabrielle, I love you so. I asked you to be my advisor because I trusted your judgement. But is your judgement about whats best for our country being clouded by your love for me? Gabrielle, there are only three things I love in this world: my country, my family, and you. If theres a conflict, I must separate one from the other. Either you must become crystal clear about the nature of this war, or you and I must separate. I could no more separate from you than...oh, its impossible. We must agree to work together. Without fear."
Gabrielle could no more separate from Cadhlaighn now than she could live in the sky. Cadhlaighn had become as necessary as air; her daily touch, their nightly trysts, were her life and blood. Xenas voice in her mind was still, and Gabrielle found she didnt miss it. Perhaps because Cadhlaighn was so much like Xena in bed. The resemblance was uncanny. She had had a few casual lovers during her journey across Asia, women she had seduced or been seduced by for the same reason she had turned to drink and opium. They had each been different; but the affairs had lasted at most a few days, so she really couldnt compare. As far as she could remember, though, none of the women she had bedded had been this much like her greatest love. Cadhlaighn was a treasure she wanted to hold forever.
She was home. They would win this war and she would settle here, in Taragh, for the rest of her life. She and Cadhlaighn would grow together, be a family. They might even adopt some orphan child. They would grow old together.
This is my home. And I love it. She began to consider Cadhlaighns strategy more, and fear for her lovers life less. A death in battle would be better than a lifetime of fear.
Gabrielle watched her lover sleep. Cadhlaighn lay on her back, naked in the humid, hot afternoon, her pert breasts firmly peaked, one slim, shapely leg bent slightly over the other. Her arms lay at her sides. Gabrielle had come to crave this sight, as surely as she craved the cool swims in the river after a hot day on the parade ground, training troops. The days were alike; rise before dawn, a Spartan breakfast, train during the morning hours while it was still cool; swim; an equally sparse lunch, then rest until sundown; a convivial dinner with the king and court, or officers of the army and their women; then bed, and love, and oblivious sleep. These afternoons alone were her favorite time of the day, even more than the night, because she could take in the full naked glory of her lover in the light of the sun.
Gabrielle stroked her womans hair, admiring its many shades of red and auburn. She noticed a silver hair. She herself had captured a gray hair or two, but she was past thirty, and who knows what effect Celestas tears might have had. Some said gray hair was caused by worry, and gods knew Cadhlaighn had seen enough to worry over lately. Managing an army of eight thousand foot and a thousand horse, plus directing the defenses of the city itself, anyone might age before their time. She never failed to be impressed by Cadhlaighns ability to organize, lead, inspire the men under her orders. Of late she had been full of commanding energy, knowing the dire peril of her home and the awful consequences were she to fail. She had a presence, a style of command that was irresistible. She never had to use brutality; she could intimidate recalcitrant soldiers, and at the same time win the loyalty, even the love, of her subordinates. It was as if she was born to lead.
In early September the raids on outlying villages increased. They were just men, not Fomori, and Cadhlaighn sent out small bands of her troops to deal with the attackers. Glwans men, one-for-one, were a poor match for the fighters of Taragh, now superbly trained. The advantage Glwan had was in numbers; he seemed to command at least five times the number of Strongbows host. And of course, his allies, the Fomori, were his trump card. Not seen since the second battle, they were nevertheless a constant brooding threat and a presence that Cadhlaighn and her generals had to account for in their calculations.
"Hes trying to spread us out," said Cadhlaighn, looking at a map after a series of particularly damaging raids. "He keeps hitting us all around our borders, and he knows that if I respond to each attack I lose concentration, and then he can move on Taragh unopposed. If we had more men we might mount an offensive, but as it is..."
"What about the north men?"
"Glwans cagey. Hes not attacking the north. The northmen are not going to come to our aid unless theyre threatened. Hes playing the divide and conquer game. He might even have concluded an alliance with the northmen, but I think if he had, Id have heard of it. No, the northmen are playing their own game, and may even be waiting for us to be beaten. The man who is their king doesnt like us very well."
"Part of the alliance was a marriage promise. Phadheus was supposed to marry the north-kings sister. But when she got a look at him, at how old he appeared, she broke off the betrothal. Their king -- his name is Aerigh -- said wed deceived him, that Phadhaeus had died in battle and we put another older man in his place. Things have been pretty cold between the two provinces since then. Glwans as much a threat to them as he is to us, but they have their pride."
"It seems to me that pride is killing this island. Who cares who marries who and who gets jilted? Its not anything to go to war over. It seems so petty."
"Its that, true, but theres more besides. You heard my mother, that day in the cave, the day she...left. This is about the old ways and the new. If Glwan wins, the Fomori will gain the ascendancy in Shannaught, and people will be their slaves, their toys, under the arbitrary rule of inhuman, uncaring gods. Since the Twilight, men and women have had the freedom to govern their own affairs, for their own purposes. That is what we stand for. True, since the Twilight people have governed poorly, the world is in petty fragments wracked by petty wars. Rome was the last great nation. But men, women, human beings are making the decisions for war or peace, not gods. The day of gods is over. We need to make that stick in these islands."
"Its like what Xena said about the afterworld."
"A dream I had. I think it was on the journey here. Something about how the afterworld is on the brink of a change, but the change cant happen until the old gods and demons are completely destroyed. She said a lot of that had to happen here, that this was a focus of the mystic, the supernatural."
"Well, it was a dream, but you have that last part right. We are battling more than just men."
"Will we win?"
"You know, I could have you hanged for treason just for asking that question. Except that its the second-to-last thing I say to myself every night. The honest answer, my lovely love, is that I dont know. If we can hold Taragh, if we can convince the north that its in their interest to defeat Glwan, then, perhaps. The Giant-killers are one weapon. That Thing out there is another. And we have good intelligence. My darlin, I have to leave for a few days, there is some scouting to be done that only I can do. Will you survive without me?"
"Barely. I might have to take Kyloides to my bed if you dont return quickly."
"That does it. I wont go."
"Go anyway. It might be a refreshing change. And dont do that to me or Ill have you right here on this table."
"Dont. Mmmmm. Youll tear the maps."
"Come to bed. Then you can go."
As they got into the bed Gabrielle asked "Whats the last thing?"
"The last thing?"
"The last thing you say to yourself at night."
"Oh. Gabrielle loves me. It gives me the peace I need to sleep."
"Its true. See?"
"Mmmmm...oh. Aye, yes, I see..."
While Cadhlaigh was on her scouting mission, Gabrielle was given command of the forces that would defend Taragh, and she consulted with Kyloides on ways to defend against the Fomori. If they could not be beaten in the field the last fight would be here. Ballistae and trebuchets were placed along the walls, Camouflaged pits were dig with sharp stakes planted in them, and ditches filled with oil were dug beyond the river moat; catapults that threw blazing kegs were targeted on the ditches. Food was laid in storage as the harvest progressed. By the middle of September Taragh was prepared to withstand a siege of many weeks. While she worked Gabrielle gave much thought to Cadhlaighn, out there alone, searching for the enemy. She ached for her love in body and spirit. She blazed with unfulfilled desire, and hurt with loneliness. She felt no need for anyone else; she had no wish even to satisfy herself alone in bed at night. Fantasy paled before the reality. Her desire was very specific, and only Cadhlaighn could slake it.
Two weeks after Cadhlaighn had left, Gabrielle was sitting on the ramparts with Kyloides, looking at a drawing of a water pumping system that some men were building. Satisfied that the construction was proceeding according to plan, she looked up in to the bright blue sky. The day was hot and cloudless; September had been unseasonably so. There were three crows in the sky, circling. She hated these birds, they made her insides crawl. Perhaps because she had seen clouds of crows descend on the carrion of too many battlefields. They were just scavengers, not evil, but she loathed them none the less. As she watched a hawk appeared from the western sky, above the crows. The bird of prey stooped on the largest of the black birds, killing it with crushing talons. She had seen hawks kill before and this was in no way unusual; what followed was. Dropping its freshly killed victim, the hawk turned on the two remaining crows, killing one in level flight and pursuing the other in a climb, stooping from on high again to shatter the third victim. All three crows fell to the ground with no attempt by the hawk to feed. How curious, Gabrielle thought. She had never seen a predator kill wantonly, for the sake of killing. Could there be such a thing as a psychotic animal?
After dinner she returned to her empty house after dark. She entered her bedroom in time to see a shadow descend on her windowsill. She pulled the chakram from her belt and was about to throw it when something held her back. The shadow remained motionless. She lit a candle; there in the window was a large red-tailed hawk, of the kind shed seen earlier today.
For a moment fear gripped her, fear that this was a reincarnation of the evil Meghn. She was about to throw the chakram again when a familiar dark mist formed about the bird, and it felt like someone she knew...before her eyes the bird changed into...Cadhlaighn.
"Hello, my love."
"Cadhlaighn, is it really you?"
"Its really me. Im sorry I startled you. I thought it was time you saw another of my...skills." She smiled wryly.
"How do I know youre not Meghn in disguise?"
"Each of us has only one avatar in each domain, land, sea, and the air. Meghn was always a dove, or a white horse, or a dolphin. Even after she lost her mind, she could never change to anything else. Even if she were to disguise herself as me, she would be a dove when she changed. Im always a hawk."
"Why a hawk?"
"I dont know. Why do I have red hair and green eyes? Its the way I was born. In the water Im an eel."
"Prove youre Cadhlaighn."
"You always giggle a little when we start to make love."
Gabrielle smiled and came to her, held her, kissed her. "Theres only six people who know that, and two of them are dead, three are thousands of leagues from here, and the other is...you. Youre you. Welcome back. Ive missed you."
"And Ive missed you. But we dont have time for loving now. We must see my father, call the council."
"Whats the matter? Oh...Glwan..."
"His army is marching. The Fomori are with them."
Cadhlaighn traced a line on the map with her daggers tip. "Their main body is following the valley of the Shaghn. Theyre burning towns and driving villagers before them. Thank all fortune we had most of the harvest in before they moved. Theydve burned a lot of grain if theyd come a month ago."
Kyloides observed, "They had to get their own supplies in. Demons may not eat grain, but men do, and Glwans army is mostly men. Do you suppose hes feeding the villagers to the Fomori?"
Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn both shuddered. "Its likely," Cadhlaighn whispered. She gestured at the map. "He has two other columns, both small, south and north of the Shaghn valley. Screening columns, to protect his flanks."
"Can we withstand a siege? Gabrielle?" The king looked at her.
"My lord, we can stand a siege of up to twenty weeks before we run out of food. If we hold the river open Ursus and his sailors promise we could hold out indefinitely. But they can burn the town."
"What do you recommend?"
"That we meet them on the battlefield."
Cadhlaighn looked at Gabrielle in surprise. Not taking her eyes off her lover, she said "I agree!"
The king frowned. "Gabrielle, youve opposed this choice. Why do you change your mind now?"
She addressed the king, but looked at Cadhlaighn. "My lord, if we fight a siege here, the best we can do is not lose. We cant win; we can only convince them they cant win. They withdraw and build their strength. If we meet them in a stand-up fight, theres a chance that we can beat them, destroy their army for good. A small chance, but a chance. We could lose, but we could lose here, too." She looked grave. "The dangers just as great. My lord, Ive been working on defending this city. We can defend it, but we cant strike back."
"Then give your orders, daughter. And Ill ride with you."
"Im your king, your commander, and your father. I will ride with you."
"Aye, my lord."
"I have no inspiring words for you. You all know the stakes. All I can say is fight well in the name of our people. And to you, Gabrielle, Kyloides. Youre not of our people. But youve served me with all the loyalty of my own family. Youll have the gratitude of the people of Shannaught even if no tongue is left to sing of your deeds. Fortune favor you both."
Gabrielle knelt before Strongbow. Kyloides knelt beside her. "Thank you, my lord," she said. "For everything." She stood; Cadhlaighn took her by the hand and they went out to order the army.
They rode together from one contingent to another, talking to the officers, clarifying the orders that had gone out an hour before. They would move out at dawn. The army had been on edge for weeks, so little new preparation needed to be done. Three hundred men would be left behind as a garrison; Gabrielle felt that that would be sufficient to defend the city. Mounted scouts came and went, reporting on the enemys movements now that they had been located. Soon bivuoac fires were banked, men rolled in blankets and the army slept. They would need the rest.
Kyloides and Ursus labored long after the rest had slept. Kyloides had sent Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn home; there was nothing the two women could do with them, and they would need to be rested and fit in the morning. Besides, Kyloides knew the commander and her aide needed to be alone with each other. Work proceeded in the guarded shed until nearly dawn.
Gabrielle lay in Cadhlaighns arms, awake. She thought her love was awake, too, although neither had said anything for a while. Their loving had not been fully satisfying; there was an edge of fear, an urgency to get it done, that sapped much of the pleasure from what might be their last time together.
"Yes, love. Im awake."
"What...how would you feel if I asked you to stay here with the garrison?"
"Id feel that there were only two people who could ever even try to keep me out of trouble. Youre not Xena or my mother. Neither of them was too successful, anyway."
"I dont want you to be hurt. If you were here Id know you were safe."
"Until they came here. What about me? How will I feel knowing youre in your first big battle, fighting those monsters? Ive only seen a head of one, and Im terrified of them. No. Eragh is a good commander and she can lead the garrison just fine. I go with you, fight with you, live or die with you."
"I could order you."
"And youd have to hang me for mutiny before you could stop me from coming anyway. Give it up, woman. I go with you."
"Good. I want you with me. But I want you safe."
"Theres no safety anywhere, now. Not now."
"Then love me again. Like you mean it, this time, like well have years and years of it and you want to make it the best!"
"I love you...!"
They treasured the remaining darkness, until sleep finally took their sated bodies in the hours before the dawn.
XIV: Warriors Playground
The march slowed as the day grew hotter. Soldiers fell out of the ranks to fill skins at small creeks. The provosts had a busy time of it, sweeping up the stragglers, but most of the men were good-natured about it and soon caught up with their units. By evening there had been the minimum number of casualties; one man killed and another injured in a knife fight over the bottle of wine which had fueled the argument, and another trampled to death during a spontaneous horse race; his horse had also broken a leg and had to be slaughtered and butchered. There were no more than the usual number of fist fights, weapons accidents, and falls for a routine military march.
Cadhlaighn was leading her army to the east end of the valley of the Shaghn river, which opened into the fertile plains of the west end of Strongbows domain. The end of the valley was marked by three hills, one on the south and two on the north side of the river, the north two forming a kind of saddle near their peaks. The river hugged the south hillside, leaving a broad flat floodplain north of it a third of a league wide. In this weather it should be hard and dry, perfect fighting ground for cavalry. With her greater striking mobility from the mounted men, and both her flanks protected by the river and the hills, and the Thing that none of those who knew talked about, she hoped to neutralize Glwans weight of numbers and the awesome power of the Fomori.
As they rode together thigh to thigh near the head of the column, Cadhlaighn shared her tactical plan with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle, like a good staff officer, commented and critiqued to help refine the plan. She knew that a plan would probably not survive contact with the enemy -- something Xena had passed on -- but it was fatal to go into battle with no plan. Cadhlaighn shared what she had learned about the enemy.
"Glwans army is mostly infantry. The few mounted men he has are commanders of their own contingents. There are some archers. And of course the Fomori. From what I saw the army looks like about thirty thousand men and five thousand Fomori. I think theyre less disciplined than we are. A lot of them are mercenaries from Britannia or Gaul, former soldiers from the Roman army, or bandits and brigands from Shannaught. If we hit them hard, give them a scare, their fragile morale might break. We have to keep them bottled up, where they cant bring their superior numbers to bear."
By evening they could see the entrance to the valley ahead of them, Behind the hills a pall of smoke hung in the air, and as dusk descended they could make out the glow of fires farther up the valley. It appeared they had reached the valley mouth before the enemy. The army took up positions.
Cadhlaighn deployed her infantry between the riverbank on the south and the twin hills to the north, with the cavalry a bowshot ahead of the infantry in three batallions. At Gabrielles suggestion the two batallions of longbowmen were placed on the slopes of the flanking hills facing the enemy. They could shoot over the heads of their own infantry into the oncoming enemy, and be sheltered by the wooded hillside. Gabrielle remembered how effectively Yodoshis archers had used this tactic. But, then, they had been fighting one woman.
As darkness fell the army was strongly positioned. They had to hold the mouth of the valley, let Glwan batter himself against their lines, use the cavalry to create confusion and panic, and then strike a single hard blow. They would harry and pursue the damaged fragments of Glwans main army, being prepared to turn and face the flanking columns, separated from the main battle by a high range of hills and scarps. Unless Glwan was willing to fight in the dark -- far more dangerous for an attacker than a defender of ground -- nothing would happen until the first light.
Gabrielle sat by her fire, alone. She knew Cadhlaighn would join her soon, after the army had bedded down. Sure enough, a hooded shadow emerged into the ring of firelight. She was wearing the same hooded cloak she wore when they had first met, on the road from Amphipolis, months ago that seemed like lives ago, passed in a dream. Cadhlaighn sat beside her, smiled to notice the blankets already unrolled by the fire. Gabrielle kissed her before she could speak. She didnt want to talk. She wanted flesh, and warmth, and life, and pleasure. Talk could come later. Tomorrow. They had a lifetime to talk. Gabrielle was always surprised at how wantonly sexual she became when she was with Cadhlaighn. She always promised herself that shed be more discreet, more reserved, but she never could be. She pulled her love down into the blankets on the hard ground, each undressing the other, becoming not one being, but two beings in complete harmony.
When they were done, Gabrielle felt a flush of fear.
"No, Cadhlaighn, I mean it. Dont die on me."
"Believe me, my love, I dont want to. Martyrdom isnt for me. If only my death could stop Glwan, Id give my life gladly. But Id rather live, especially now." She hugged Gabrielle closer. "I love you so much."
"You cant know how much...let me tell you a story. One upon a time there was a girl who lived in Poitidea..."
"Ive heard this one."
"Not this way. This girl fell in love with a tall, strong, beautiful dark and evil woman and followed her everywhere, and for three years she never could show her love how much she loved her. Shed say it at least once a week, finally every day -- I love you, and the other woman always misunderstood, because the girl didnt show her love. Finally, after the dark woman struggled to bring the girl back from death, the girl realized that her dark friend loved her too, and that she had understood, but hadnt known what to say in return. And so the girl took the dark woman in her arms and they kissed, and for three years they never stopped kissing. Even when many years had passed while they slept, they still awoke to each others kisses. And then the dark woman died. Died dead, never to return. The girl stopped living, merely existed, until she could find an honorable way to die. Cadhlaighn, that day we first touched each other, the whole world changed. For the first time I didnt need to die. And when you kissed me in Taragh I knew that I wanted to live. I wanted to live with that kiss on my lips every day. Thank you, you foolish, beautiful girl, you gave me back my life. Never leave me."
"I will not. I will not leave you. I love you. I need you."
"I love you."
They awoke three hours before dawn. They rode out to the rear of the army, where Kyloides and Ursus met them. Ursus crew was with them, and a great wagon on six wheels, pulled by fifty oxen. The wagons top was twice man-height, and appeared to be a framework covered by canvas. They directed the drivers to thread the wagon through the sleeping army until they came to the center cavalry batallion in the front of the position. The wagon was placed in the midst of the horsemen, who, when they formed up, would hide the wagon itself, although its cover would rise above their heads.
The army waited. The morning mists lay heavy along the ground, sifted through the trees. The light grew imperceptibly. Sunrise would be late here, the horizon masked by wooded hills. It was autumn-cold. Gabrielle shivered. No matter. She had learned how not to be cold.
She could now see, in the half-light of dawn, a line of trees less than a league down the valley. She expected to see the enemys troops advance through those trees. They would have the forest at their backs. Very dangerous -- for them.
The trees moved.
She looked closer. The trees moved. Slowly, toward her, and swaying side to side. It was not an illusion born of fear and fatigue. She closed her eyes, opened her mouth, listened with her whole body. A rolling tread, as if of some great animal, rumbled throught the ground. Voices at the deep end of her hearing grumbled in the distance.
They were closer, and they werent trees. They had legs. Arms. Gigantic heads.
Glwan was putting his most terrifying troops in first, in order to shock the army opposing him and swat them out of the way like flies.
She heard the arrow before she saw it. Her hand came up and it had the arrow in it, a hair from her cheek. She heard the wind again; another arrow appeared in her right hand, this time inches from Cadhlaighns breastplate. She threw the arrows on the ground.
More were coming. Most of the arrows went over their heads, landing among the infantrymen behind them. Here and there horses went down. Cadhlaighns banner bearer raised the red standard, and arrows began to pour out of the trees on the hillsides. The stream of arrows coming at them shifted to the left and right, and then thinned and stopped, while the arrows of Taragh continued to land among the enemies archers.
The Fomori still advanced.
Visible now, dwarfed by the Fomori and advancing in front of them,was a line of armored men on foot, their armor black, their faces seamed and red. Cadhlaighn signaled the archers. The men went down. Another flight of arrows, more men fell. A green signal flag went up; the left flank of the cavalry advanced, charged around the flank of the advancing infantry, met them from the side. The infantrymen tried to turn to face their attacker but their lack of discipline made them clumsy and disorganized. They received the charge in disarray, and fell back into their own advancing lines. The cavalry continued to roll up the flank, hacking and thrusting its way to the center of the enemy line.
A flash, a roar, a crack of thunder; the horsemen were blanketed in a sheet of flame, a cloud of blue fire pierced with blue bolts of lightning. The Fomori had unleashed their power. Dead men of Taragh lay on the ground, bodies of men and horses smoked and burned. Mingled among them were bodies of Glwans men; the Fomori had broken the attack at the expense of the lives of their allies.
There was a rustle of movement in the front of the infantry lines. Cadhlaighn and Gabrielle rode along the front shouting orders. Strange devices emerged from the ranks; slim wooden frameworks, on wooden wheels, pushed by an infantryman like a wheelbarrow. Supported on the barrow-like frame was a long vertical iron pole, sharpened to a point at the top and bottom. When the soldier set down the handles of the barrow, the bottom end of the pole stuck in the ground.
The enemy infantry had reformed and were advancing again, Fomori in their wake. Gabrielle looked up at the giants with a tremble in her belly. Just to see these creatures was terrifying. Tall as trees, each demon was a hideous patchwork of scabrous blue and green skin. The legs of each monster were the size of tree trunks, and the arms hung down almost to the ground. Each creature bore a club or mace in his hand. Their heads were long and oval, their faces repulsively flat, split by liver-colored lips through which showed massive pointed teeth; from their heads hung dark-green growths the color of seaweed and glistening with slime. From each head bulged a single huge bulbous eye, sea-green in color. They moved heavily, but with purpose and speed. Their strength was equal to their size.
As she watched, a creature caught her in his huge eye and extended his hand toward her. A blue glowing ball sprang from the monsters palm, stretched into a long bolt, and headed straight for her at the speed of thought. She was standing next to one of the strange poles that Kyloides had built. She flung herself to the ground, but the bolt passed over her, to the tip of the iron rod, and was conducted harmlessly to the ground. She could feel the hairs on her body stiffen, and there was a sharp odor in the air. But the lightning had missed her.
The reformed infantry was approaching within a couple of swords lengths of the Taragh line, and the creatures unleashed their bolts all along the line. The men of Taragh held their ground. The bolts were attracted by the iron poles and channeled away from their targets.
Cadhlaighn was shouting orders. Gabrielle saw Phadheus and his men, the Giant-Killers, draw up in the ranks behind the infantry. The cavalry on the right was harassing the enemy line, staying out of range of the Fomori bolts. Gabrielle rode to the head of the center of the Taragh line, dismounted. Waving her chakram over her head, she shouted "Get them through! Cut a way for the Giant killers!" The men cheered her, brandished their weapons, ready to attack the advancing rabble. She threw the chakram by the crossbar and ran after it. Men surged out behind her.
The chakram struck the helmets of six men in the front rank of the enemy, and they sprawled on the ground. It spun across the arm of a seventh man, severing it, and returned to her hand. Exchanging the chakram for her katana, she saw the enemy closing the distance with a rush, and then she was in the pocket created by her first kills of the day. The enemy was all around her and she let the bloodlust well up into her and command her body and her mind. She hated battle, and didnt seek it; but when the fire was lit within her she was deadly to all who came within her reach. When she was like this, she fought without regard to her own safety. If an opponent appeared in front of her, that man went down. The katana was red with the blood of her victims. She was in truth so frightening that she was in only minimal danger. Any normal fighter would flee at her charge or be cut down like ripe hay. Only one as berserk as she would stand a chance of stopping her.
Such a one appeared in front of her now, a great man, head and shoulders taller than Gabrielle, and broad, armed with a great hammer. His eyes were glazed, there was foam at the corners of his mouth, his armor was festooned with strips of leather from sword cuts. He swung the hammer; she ducked. He swung again; the razor edge caught his wrist, severing the hand. Wielding the hammer with one hand, he landed a blow on Gabrielles left shoulder, staggering her and robbing her of her wind. She fell to the ground, rolling to avoid the hammer blow that smashed into the ground beside her, rolled up onto her knees, and brought the sword down on the back of her foes neck as he bent, slicing right through to remove his head.
The enemy faded away in front of her. There was a clear path to the giants...
She bellowed at the top of her lungs. "Phadhaeus! Now!"
Five hundred aged men in armor, their formation bristling with long halberds, trotted past her through the gap that Gabrielle and her men had cut. Strongbow was in the lead, his great bow in his hand, Phadhaeus by his side. The king let fly an arrow, and it sank into the thigh of the leading giant. The creature swept the ground with his club, staggering, catching the corner of the phalanx and smashing two of the heroes to pulp. The giant-killers broke into a run. A hedgehog of long axes surrounded the giant, slashing at his legs, while Strongbow poured arrows into his feet. The giant staggered, tottered. Dark-green streaks flowed down his legs; his blood. The giant fell with a ground-shaking thump. He waved his club about him, killing another man by random bad luck. Two of the halberdiers thrust their weapons into his single enormous eye; the giant convulsed, men ran to avoid being crushed by the great body in the throes of death, then the monster lay still.
The other giants threw their bolts of lightning at the giant-killers, but when they struck the old men they did not kill, but instead seemed to be absorbed. The Giant-killers seemed to grow in size, surrounded by a glowing aura of pearl-white light. Their appearance changed; they became youthhful, luminous beings, arrayed for battle with shining silver weapons, flowing locks and blazing eyes. They converged on another of the giants, and used the same methods to bring him down. The king himself dealt the death blow to the one-eyed monster.
The giant-killers were good at what they did, but there were too few of then -- only five hundred -- and too many of the giants, perhaps two thousand in this first wave. Cadhlaighn was off on the right, fending off a movement by the second wave of enemy infantry, now being cut up by the right batallion of cavalry. The king was engaged; the decision was Gabrielles. She rushed back to where the center horse batallion waited, still unengaged; they had seen how suicidal it was for horsemen to try to fight Fomori. She struggled between the horses to the great wagon, climbed up and went inside.
"Kyloides! Nows the time. Get this thing going!"
Ursus called his riggers and topmen to work. The canvas sides of the framework rolled up as quickly as sails in a squall. The great head,now exposed to the light of day, sat mounted threateningly on a round platform on the wagon bed like a cake on a turntable, ready for slicing. Above the head, lashed to crossbeams, was a complex arrangement of pulleys and ropes. Part of the crew fell to these lines with a will, while others tailed on to lines that led from under the turntable.
Gabrielle pointed out the Fomori giants to Ursus and Kyloides. Kyloides stood on the platform with the lid of the eye above his head, the eye protruding fron the back of the massive skull. He sighted through a round circle of wire mounted on a staff. The head was turned until the eye was pointing at the nearest giant.
"Now!" He cried, and the sailors hauled in practiced unison at the tackle, and the heavy eyelid was lifted. When the eye was fully uncovered a white-hot beam streaked from it, a straight line of brilliance across the battlefield. When it struck the first giant in its line of flight, the monster exploded into a thousand fragments, as if there was too much energy within him for his body to contain. More orders, adjustments, and the beam traversed across the troop of giant demons, blasting each one in turn. Sometimes the beam touched more than one monster at a time and then both would explode in a shower of debris.
The giant-killers took advantage of the confusion to bring down two more demons, but the beam from the Eye was causing mass destruction. The troop of giants scattered, stepping on the human infantry that was advancing behind them. There were more giants somewhere on the battlefield, but this contingent was, for now, ruined.
Almost a thousand demons had been destroyed in that first onslaught. Their human allies, dumbstruck, turned from the battlefield. What would have been a rout was stemmed by the arrival of a body of a hundred mounted men at their rear, brandishing weapons and streaming banners.
Gabrielle saw the leader gesticulate, and three soldiers who had been running away were lifted into the air and dashed to their deaths on the rocks. A wall of fire sprang up before the retreating troops. They turned to face the men of Taragh, quailing before the wrath of their own commander.
Glwans soldiers formed ragged lines, and in three waves advanced through the wrecks of the great giants. Glwan, riding behind them, goaded them on. Gabrielle rushed to her own lines, and ordered the cavalry forward. The horsemen attacked at different points, breaking into the lines for a few seconds, then withdrawing, reforming, charging again. No one attack was decisive, but the disarray they caused slowed the advance and made the enemy easier prey for the archers.
Glwan was throwing balls of fire from his hands like stones. Not as devastating as the lightning bolts of the giants, they nevertheless caused damage to horses and men. The flanks of his army were being shredded by the constant cavalry attacks, but the center, within range of his magic, was intact and getting closer. Gabrielle shouted "Get ready for them! Theyre going to hit us! Hold your ground!" Cadhlaighn rode toward her, her face dirty and streaked with blood, and added her commanding presence to the defense of the center.
The Eye was still shooting its destructive beam over the heads of the infantry, now aiming at the demons that followed in the soldiers tracks. One after another the demons were destroyed. The giant killers were cut off from their targets by the infantry advance; Phadhaeus and the king led their men to cut a path through the enemy as Gabrielle had done earlier in the battle. Between the fire of the Eye and the god-men giant-killers, the Fomori were being slaughtered.
There were two battles raging now. The fight against the Fomori was blazing up in the rear of the enemy, and the infantry lines clashed at the mouth of the valley. Cadhlaighn dismounted, slapped her horse, and prepared to fight on foot. She and Gabrielle stood side by side; as the rabble of their foes came up to them, they were deafened by the clang of steel on steel.
Gabrielle didnt think, didnt pause, but wielded her sword as if it were a part of her body, striking men down. Cadhlaighn fought like a madwoman. A sword scratched Gabrielles arm and the blood welled up, crimson in the soft morning light. The sight of her lovers blood enraged Cahdlaighn, and she became a flurry of motion, sword arm, knife arm, feet flying into the men around her. Before them grew a crescent of bodies, dead and wounded, and the fight lapped around them as their enemies tried to find a way to advance and not engage these wild, deadly women.
The Taragh infantry, pressed by superior numbers, took heart from the bravery of their general and this strange woman from beyond the sea. Gabrielle had won the respect of the men in the army because of her efficiency, cleverness and agility on the practice field; now, seeing her blooded, that respect turned to awe. They had never seen one not of their own fight with such ferocity. And a woman! Cadhlaighn, too, rose in the esteem of the men she had led for five years but never commanded in full battle. No man of Shannaught had ever excelled so in combat.
Gaps in the ranks closed as soon as they were filled. Captains of units remembered their orders and took advantage of the confined space that protected the flanks, concentrating their force on the endangered front. The infantry held, protecting the great wagon and its deadly cargo, which poured out a stream of death at the giants who threatened the entire army.
Glwan sat on his horse opposite the center where Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn battled, goading his men with shouts and curses. How dare these upstart whores stand in his way! He hurled a fireball at Gabrielle as she spun around to flatten an opponent; the flaming ball struck her full on the chest, scorching her surcoat and burning it away. She was engulfed in flame.
Cadhlaighn wailed her name. The fire faded and Gabrielle stood unhurt; the dragon on her back glowed brightly, then faded. Akemis charm still held its power. She grinned at Cadhlaighn, who was about to rush to her side. Cadhlaighn put an elbow into an onrushing enemy, and slashed another to the ground. They fought on.
Glwan, livid with rage at this insect that he couldnt kill, changed targets. He unleashed a stream of fireballs at the high framework that held the great Head of Fladagh, determined to destroy this thing that had so damaged his battle plan and his seemingly invincible allies. Fires broke out all over the great wagon; ropes and tackle burned away, and the great eyelid closed. Within seconds the entire wagon was ablaze, and Ursus sent his crew to the ground. He and Kyloides were the last to jump.
Gabrielle seized her chakram, hurled it at the sorcerer. Her foe saw it just in time, and deflected it slightly; it struck the neck of his horse, spilling the sorcerer to the ground. He sprang to his feet. There was no one between him and the two women. He was a dangerous-looking man, Glwan, not tall, but broad and thick, like a wall with legs, firmly muscled and powerful. he was bald beneath his helmet, no fringe of hair showing; his skin was florid and his eyes the deepest black. He hurled another fireball, this time at Cadhlaighn.Gabrielle tensed to jump into its path, knowing she could absorb the fire, but before she could move, Cadhlaighn leapt high in the air, avoiding the flaming projectile, twirling head over heels while howling a throaty, high pitched ululation that made Gabrielles hair stand on end and her heart leap in her chest.
Cadhlaighn came to the ground in front of the sorcerer, close enough to strike at him. Glwan drew back and drew his own sword.
Gabrielle was stunned. She stood stock still, watching, paralyzed with shock, as her lover confronted her enemy. No one used that battle cry. No one living.
The battle had opened up around them, and waves of soldiers swept by her, so hotly engaged as to not notice her. She was focused on the single combat in front of her with all her energy. She held the chakram but was unable to get a clear throw as Glwan and Cadhlaighn roiled about each other. Glwan was strong, far stronger that Cadhlaighn. He grinned over his thin goatee, shouted at the redhead.
"Bitch! You and your acrobatic tricks. And you think you should be queen...youre nothing but a bastard whore!" On the last word he rushed her, but not directly, sidling in, getting under her guard with blinding speed. he was preternaturally fast for one of his girth. Gabrielle made to throw the chakram low, to cripple him in the feet or ankles, when Cadhlaighn, without looking at her called "Gabrielle, no! Stay back. I can handle this!"
And the voice was Xenas voice.
Cadhlaighn advanced on the big man, sword raised in both hands. He struck downward; she parried overhead and spun, almost catching him in the side with the edge, but Glwan also spun and parried her away. She raised her leg and kicked him to prevent him from exploiting the opening. He staggered back, and in a flash was at her again. She parried half a dozen strokes from all sides, retreating until she could find an opening. Letting go the sword with one hand, she closed inside his guard and boxed him soundly in the temple. He staggered again, but before she could follow up he was on guard, intercepting the stroke headed for his throat. They clinched, shearing-guards locked, and her face was in his. Gabrielle heard him say "Queen! What right have you to be queen!"
"Youll never live to see it! Im not queen yet!"
"And never will be. But you didnt hear...ah...did you!" They thrust apart as neither could wrest advantage from the clinch. They stood a pace apart and he spat the words at her "Your father is dead!"
Cadhlaighns face flushed a bright red. "You lie! He cannot die!"
"The usurper is dead! He was devoured! Blor snatched him from the ground and ate him! He was ground to pulp between the giants teeth -- no magic can bring him back from that!"
Xenas savage, killing features could be seen behind Cadhlaighns flush, her eyes took on a blazing blue glaze; her low growl was prelude to a charge...
She rushed the man, her sword a blur of motion, clashing faster than her heartbeat with her foe. She was pressing him, when he began to glow, and his body burst into flame! Cadhlaighn recoiled back from the heat, her hand in front of her face.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle, throw! Throw it!"
Gabrielle snapped out of her trance, hefted the chakram and threw in into the flaming apparition before her. It struck through the flames, glanced off -- and return to the hand of Cadhlaighn rather than her own.
Wide-eyed, Gabrielle watched as Cadhlaighn threw the chakram from the edge, in Xenas style, and saw it slice through the sorcerers protective inferno to unerringly find his throat. The spinning disc sliced through his neck like a sword through rain, passing away in a great loop before returning to Cadhlaighns hand. The flames went out; Glwans head rested for a moment on his body; the eyes blinked once, twice, unable to believe or comprehend his death. Then the head rolled to the ground, and the stocky body folded like a flour sack. Glwan was dead.
Cadhlaighn stood for a moment over the body of the fallen man, her chest heaving with exertion. Gabrielle went up to her. She touched her womans bloodstained cheek. "Cadlaighn?...Xena...?"
Her love kissd her passionately, then more gently. "Im Xena, Gabrielle. Nice to see you again." They embraced, holding each other as hard as possible. Gabrielles eyes filled with tears. "Why didnt you tell me?"
"And have you lecture us about the consequences? Gabrielle, it was a split-second decision. I had to fight to come into Cadhlaighn, and she had all she could do to help me."
"How? Gods, how did the two of you unite?"
"The dust, Gabrielle. Kyloides dust, in the cave. Cadhlaighn, tell her."
The womans voice became higher, the lilting accent returned. "Meghn wanted me to take the dust, unite with Fladaghs spirit. Shed keep torturing you until I did...Gabrielle, nothing I ever saw hurt me so much. I couldnt stand to see you in such pain."
"So you took it."
"Aye, I did. And in that split second when I still had a choice, I chose to reject Fladagh. I could feel his spirit -- it was a savage, slavering presence, awful, violent -- and I called the one soul I knew of that could help me and keep him from me. Xena."
"And you entered her body...like you did with me...And thats why you had to kill him. Youre immortal, like the Giant-Killers. But...he was immortal, too. Joined. He could have killed you, too, right?
"Aye. I sensed a dark soul in him -- but I dont know who. Perhaps well never know.
It was becoming clearer to Gabrielle. "Oh Xena, youve been there all this time?"
The deep throaty voice -- "Yeah, lover. All this time. Dont worry, there wasnt anything you and I didnt already do together. Youre still very good."
"Oh, gods what...Cadhlaighn, I have to ask...would you have..."
"Yes, Gabrielle. I would have loved you even if Xena werent here. I already did. I told you the night of the feast, before Xena came to me. Maybe not as expertly; she told me a lot about you and what you like. But just as much, just as deeply. I love you."
"Will it always be like this? Can you leave, Xena, go back to the afterworld?"
"Can we argue about this after the battle? Theres a lot of fighting to do yet."
"Oh...yes. We must. But answer me this. Can you? If you want to?"
"If Cadhlaighn wants to, yes I can."
"I see...lets go finish this. Find a horse."
"I like your taste in girlfriends."
Cadhlaighns voice became ascendant. "Find a horse? I am a horse!" And the mist gathered again.
Gabrielle smiled through her tears. She mounted and they rode toward the sounds of fighting.
Bodies lay everywhere. It was hard to separate the bodies of friend and foe; they both wore the same utilitarian armor, had the same visages, the same colors of hair. many had the same family badges, fighting on opposite sides. The only clearly identifiable victims were the Fomori. There was a trail of giants bodies leading up the valley, victims of the deadly ferocity of the Giant killers. While this battle might end in victory, no one would ever call it easy. King Pyrrhus would have understood, Gabrielle thought.
Ahead there was swirling violence. Fomori and the last of Glwans men who had chosen to stand and fight had formed a ring, and were fighting the men of Taragh surrounding them. Halberds slashed at the giants; arrows thumped into the mens bodies in the ring. It became smaller as men fell. There seemed no hope for the troops of the late Glwan, and by now Gabrielle was sickened of the slaughter. She was ready to empty her stomach again, but Cadhlaighn helped her stay calm.
She dismounted just out of bowshot of their own lines and Cadhlaighn transformed. She ran to the front of her troops and ordered them to stop fighting. "Hold!" Everyone pull back! Archers -- the next man who shoots will answer to me!" Gradually silence fell around the battle lines.
"Men of Glwans service! You lord is dead, as is my father the rightful king. I rule this island now, until I say otherwise or a new king or queen is decided in council. You men, if you surrender your weapons and give up your resistance -- you will be treated humanely. You will have the freedom of the island under one condition only, that you not bear arms of any kind for a year. After that you may do as you please, as long as you dont ignore the rights of the people of Shannaught to be governed by whom they will.
"Fomori! Return to the deep places and be gone. Your time is past. There is nothing left for you in the world of the living."
The men grumbled among themselves, then a few lay down their arms. Some were set upon by their comrades, but within minutes the remaining troops had surrendered. They were marched away from the ring and guarded.
A rumbling, powerful voice roared out, deep like the storm waves of the sea. "I will not retire like a coward, without a fight."
"Who speaks?", Cadhlaighn called.
A giant stepped forward, taller, if that were possible, than the others. He gave Gabrielle the feeling of a mountain that could walk.
"I am Blor, king after Fladagh. Who will fight with me, man to man?"
Cadhlaighn folded her arms. "On what terms?"
"Single combat," rumbled the giant, "me against any champion you choose. If I win, we possess Shannaught. If you win, I and my brothers will disappear from this land forever."
Gabrielle, standing behind Cadhlaighn, said "Dont, its a trick."
"Its a chance to get this over with without any more bloodshed. Give me that chakram."
"Gabrielle..." The deep voice.
"Ill fight you, Blor. And if I win, you disappear. Forever."
And if I kill you your people will serve us."
"What about these men?" She pointed to the prisoners who served Glwan.
"Mortals are all alike. They will serve us as well."
"Very well. We have a bargain, yes?"
The men and giants cleared a space for the two combatants. It could not have appeared a more uneven match, the compact, slim redheaded woman against the hulking, hideous demon towering over her. Then Gabrielle was reminded of a similar encounter she had witnessed...and smiled.
The two combatants circled around each other for a few steps, the human onlookers cheering for Cadhlaighn, the other giants standing passively waiting the decision of their king. Blor raised his great club, but before he could bring it down to crush Cadhlaighn, she unleashed the chakram straight into the monsters single eye. The beast dropped the hammer, flung his hands to his eye. Cadhlaighn siezed a halberd from Phadhaeus, slashed at the giants ankles with it, and felled him like a dead tree. He lay on the ground, moaning deeply in pain, blinded and crippled.
Cadhlaighn turned to the remaining giants. "Go now. Your king gave his word, you should honor it."
The giants began to sink into the ground, slowly, like candles melting. Their legs disappeared, then their hips, their torsos, and finally their great heads vanished out of sight under the bloody turf. When Gabrielle walked over that ground not a trace remained.
Cadhlaighn embraced her. "I wish they were all that fast."
Gabrielle said, "I thought you were crazy, fighting him. You could have been killed."
"That could have happened a hundred times today. It was an easy decision. Xena could throw the chakram, and I...It was my responsibility, Gabrielle. Im...in charge."
A group of men was approaching The leader knelt before Cadhlaighn and bowed his head. Unused to the honor, Cadhlaighn said testily, "Oh, get up!" Then, at the mans hurt expression, "Im sorry. I know...you honor me. Please, speak."
"We have your fathers sword. I thought you might wish to...take it..." The man was holding back his tears. Cadhlaighn let hers flow. She took Gabrielle by the hand, knelt, touched the blade. She wept without shame. "I love you, father. Thank you. thank you for loving me. Thank you for saving me. thank you for understanding me and Gabrielle. Everything. Everything. You were a good father." Gabrielle enveloped her as she mourned, and Cadhlaighn held her close.
She stepped away, said," Take it home. It will be part of his memorial."
The men of her army had gathered round her. They were too tired to cheer, too dumb with grief to weep. Later there would be celebrations, but now, the consciousness of blood was too sharp and new. Too many had fallen on both sides. Gabrielle wanted to begin tending to the wounded, but there was something else first.
"Cadhlaighn. I need to speak to the Giant-Killers."
The remaining warriors, some wounded, all filthy, gathered around her. She looked into the faces of age and saw heroism. Sacrifice. These men had turned their lives over to beings so strange, so other,that their experience could not be called human. For their country, for their people. It was time to end it.
"I speak to the old gods, Daghda, and DianCecht and Mannanan and the rest," she began. I know you can hear me and are listening. You have done your people a noble service. And now the need for that service is ended."
Phadhaeus stood forward, a light in his face, his voice not his own. "I speak as the first among us, the Daghda, the Good God. Why is it ended? Will we not be needed again?"
"The ages of gods and demons are gone. As the gods on Olympus are gone from the world, so must you be. Your time is past, and by being here you can only do harm to yourselves and those you claim to love. Your children have grown. You must let them be." She went on to recount the stories she had heard many times in the last months, stories of how the old gods had come to Shannaught in the darkest of times, and freed the land and given the people learning and hope. She spoke of how the Dannites had fostered the best in the people, teaching and admonishing, leading and shaping. And how finally, they had stepped away, giving their mortal children the final freedom of their own hearts and souls. How they had come back, imprisoned in bodies not their own, to do battle on the mortals behalf, one last time. "I know how tempting it must be, to live forever in this rich, green world. What world could be like it, be as sweet and kind and beautiful? But this is a human world, and all things change. You, the Unchangeable ones, dont belong here. Aging and death is our lot, for good or ill. We must endure it, forestall it if we can, and finally accept death and welcome it. You, all the gods, have started us on that road to be at peace with change. But that road is not for you. The Unchanging cannot exist in a changing world. You have been the Generous Ones, unselfish in your help. Make this last sacrifice for the children you love. Withdraw yourselves, give us our freedom, freedom to love, live, to make our own mistakes. We will not forget you."
The Daghda spoke again. "You say well, bard. I hear your words. And I must agree. Although," and a wry smile crossed his face, "this place is fine and good to live in. I can think of few finer places to enjoy in peace." A heavy sigh escaped him. "You have justice on your side. We must make our own world, and let you make yours."
"Thank you, Daghda. Live and love always. Phadhaeus?"
"Im here, Gabrielle."
"Do you want to be free of the Daghda? Will you let him go?"
"I will. But Ill miss him. Hes wise, and weve become friends."
"Do you all agree?"
With one voice they answered "We do!"
Phadhaeus closed his eyes, and held his arms out wide. The light in his face swelled and pulsed, engulfed his body and rose, like a great white flame, into a waverng column above his head. The same brilliance issued from the other Giant-killers, as the Dannites left their bodies and left the world of the living for their own far lands. In their minds, all could hear a last breath of words: "Die well!" And they were gone.
The men remained. Phadheus looked at his hands, touched his face. He now looked like a young man, healthy and strong, tall and muscular, with his sisters red hair and green eyes. The other Giant-killers also had become youthful again, and smiled at their own faces reflected in their swords and axe blades.
Gabrielle touched Cadhlaighns hand. "You, too, Xena."
More tears fell, from both womens eyes. This is a day for tears, Gabrielle said to herself. A few more wont hurt. Maybe theyll wash away the blood.
Cadhlaighn spoke with Xenas voice. "Must I go? Gabrielle, why shouldnt I stay? I love you, Cadhlaighn loves you...I love her. You can have us both! Think of it, Gabrielle! We can both love you until the day you die! Ive been so lonely...before I met you I didnt know what loneliness was, it was just my life. Then when I died it was torture, to be separated from you. I can only wait for you. I dont want to leave!"
"Cadhlaighn wants you to leave."
"I dont, Gabrielle."
"I like the idea of living forever. And I like what Xena gives me."
"What does she give you that I...I dont mean that. Why?"
"Shes fearless. She has nothing to lose. Ive never felt so strong, so much...courage! Im not a coward, Gabrielle, but Im always afraid I might be! Dont you understand? I never asked to be a warrior! Its the way I was raised! Just because Ive never known anything else doesnt mean I have the heart for it! Xena has that heart. Together we could do so much!"
Gabrielle grabbed her love by the shoulders, shook her roughly. She seized a handful of Cadhlaighns once-red hair, now streaked with white and gray. Her face was seamed with more than lines of care and fatigue. "Look at you! Youre getting old, fast, so fast! Do you want to spend eternity like this? Like your father? Do you want to look in the mirror for all time and see this?" She held up a sword, forced Cadhlaighn to look into it. Cadhlaighns head wrenched away.
"So thats what this is about! You cant stand to see me old. Gabrielle, I thought you wanted to spend your life with me! Youre in love with me because Im young, thats fine, but if I turn old you wont be able to look at me! Is that it? How can you betray me like this?"
"Cadhlaighn, I love you!!"
"You love the girl you used to be! You want to go back to that time when you were as innocent as I was when you met me, you want to live off my youth! I never would have believed it of you, Gabrielle! Never!"
Gabrielle threw her arms around the protesting woman, and her anger and despair were such that it gave her the strength to hold on to Cadlaighn despite her resistance. "Look at me, Cadhlaighn! Look at me!"
Their eyes locked. Gabrielle kissed her. "I want to look into your sweet face every day, young or old, in the morning when I wake and its the last thing I want to see before I sleep. I want to kiss you and hold you and keep you warm at night! I expect to look into your aging eyes for many years! I hope when I die Im looking into your eyes. But I want it to be you Im lying next to, not a ghost! I loved Xena, dear gods I did and do, but she doesnt belong to me any more! She belongs to eternity and thats where she must go! Xena! Do you hear me! Do you hear me!?"
"Gabrielle, I hear you. Let us go, youre hurting her."
Gabrielle let go. Cadhlaighn backed away and faced her. "Xena", Gabrielle sobbed, "Xena, dont you remember when you had to free Celesta, so death could reenter the world? Dont you remember how people suffered and could never find peace? You and she will be like that, growing older and older, and suffering every hurt, every weariness, no relief, never. You will go on forever. Ill die, and then youll still go on. Youll never find that peace. And what of Cadhlaighn? She has a whole life to live. Is it fair to take that from her, make her share it with you? Cadhlaighn, dont you want to live the life you make for yourself? Forever is a long time, but Xena will be making choices for you that should be yours to make. And finally, what about me? Youre my love for the rest of my life. How can I live with memories of Xena, live with her soul in my lovers body? Ill surely lose my mind. Xena, your staying is a bad choice for everyone. Cadhlaighn, youre not a coward, never, and what you feel is just the doubt of a good person forced to do bad things because she has to do whats right in the long run. Cadhlaighn, you saved your people today! Thats not the act of a coward!"
"Im not afraid of fighting so much any more, Gabrielle," she sighed. "Its something else."
"What are you so afraid of that you need Xena to help you with it?"
"Ruling. Being Queen."
"No one does that alone. Remember the stories of Good King Lyas? He ruled wisely, but he was surrounded by people to help him. You have all of us who love you. You can and you will.. The people love you."
"I know. Thats why Im afraid. Afraid of betraying that trust. Afraid of making a bad decision."
"Youll be a wise Queen. Without Xena."
Xenas voice: "She knows youre right. She just wont admit it."
"And what about you? Will you for once in your existence admit Im right?"
"I always said you were right. I just didnt always listen to you until after the fact."
"I know. Will you go?"
"Yes. I dont want to, but I will. Think of me. It makes me happy...there. I will miss you...love Cadhlaighn and think of me."
"Always. But remember I have someone to take care of. But someday, Xena...someday well be together again. Dont be impatient."
"Patience was never my best quality."
"Say goodbye, Xena. I love you."
"I love you. I love you. How many times can I say it? All the times I never said anything..."
"Its all right. Everythings all right, Xena, my love."
She kissed Cadhlaighn and it was Xena she kissed. Then Cadhlaighns body tensed in her arms. A pillar of darkness, glowing ice-blue-white in the center, rose from Cadhlaighn and dispersed on the breeze. The kiss went on, and she could tell when Xena departed and Cadhlaighn took over.
Cadhlaighn pulled away. Gabrielle looked in her eyes; they were clear and bright despite the tears. Her hair was richly red again, her skin smooth. "Are you all right?"
Cadhlaighn scowled, questioning her inner self. "I think so. I feel...empty. Like theres a part of me thats unoccupied."
"That will pass. Youll fill up that space again."
"Its a strange experience. Not unpleasant, just strange."
"You can bet it would have been unpleasant with Fladagh."
"Yes...but...maybe you adapt. I wonder..."
"I wonder if thats what happened to my mother..."
XVI: The Queen of Battle
The battle was over. The field was littered with dead; pyres were built and the bodies gathered. Gabrielle supervised the evacuation of the wounded. Some few could walk, others were dragged on travois. The survivors made a camp at the head of the valley, east of where the initial battle lines had been drawn.
As Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn walked up from the battlefield in the gathering dusk. they came to the spot where they had battled Glwan. As they approached they saw the headless body of the sorcerer, still where he had fallen. Standing on the body, crying to the sunset, was a gigantic crow.
Crows in profusion had descended on the dead, and the men detailed to gather the corpses for the pyres had a hard time shooing them away. The carrion-birds were voracious. This bird was huge. When it spread its wings the span of them was as long as a tall man. The beak was black with dried blood; the eyes blazed red.
As soon as Cadhlaighn and Gabrielle approached, the great crow beat its wings and cawed loudly. Cadhlaighn reined in and said to Gabrielle, "arm yourself."
Gabrielle took the chakram from her waist and looked at Cadhlaighn. "Trouble?"
"I dont know. Be ready."
The crow left its perch and flew toward Gabrielles face, claws extended and beak agape. Gabrielle threw the chakram but only caught a few feathers on the end of one wing; the bird kept coming as the chakram returned. A blur of motion from the side, and Cadhlaighn, now in her hawk form, struck at the crow with her talons. The crow staggered in flight, but recovered and climbed steeply, soaring far over Gabrielles head. The hawk rose to meet it. Circling in the sky, the two birds stooped and struck, each trying to knock the other down. Loose feathers floated to earth, black and red-brown. Finally one bird descended, in wobbling, uncertain flight; with alarm Gabrielle saw that is was the hawk. She came to ground and landed, awkwardly, and through the dark mist she could see Cadhlaighn reform into a human. She drew her sword and Gabrielle dismounted, drew, and stood beside her, ready to defend her love.
The crow circled down and landed before them. A flash of light, and the crow was gone. In its place was a woman, an ancient crone, with long, dirty gray hair that was caked with dried blood. Her head was huge, the same size as her body; it looked like a ritual mask, except it writhed and contorted with the life of flesh. The eyes were a brilliant green, the whites red. Her mouth was a vast hole, lined with white fangs that curved into sharp points. She was clad in battle armor, scored and scarred by many combats, covered by a ragged cloak; she held a long broadsword in her hand.
"Youve won your first battle, niece. That makes you mine!" The voice was the screech of steel upon stone.
Gabrielle said "Niece? Is this who I think it is, Cadhlaighn?"
"My aunt. The Braghan. My mothers sister."
Gabrielle swallowed hard. The Braghan. Daughter of Ares. Goddess of the battlefield. Chooser of the dead and drinker of blood. The nightmare tales come to life.
And she wanted Cadhlaighn.
"Ive been through this, aunt. Mother already tried and shes dead."
Gabrielle looked at Cadhlaighn in surprise. "Dead? You said she went away. You killed her! You lied to me, Cadhlaighn?"
"Xena killed her. After she came into my body...it was the first thing she did and I couldnt stop her."
"She was torturing you. Xena couldnt tolerate that, couldnt let her live. Blind rage."
"Why did you lie to me? Cadhlaighn..."
"Xena said you wouldnt understand. I wasnt sure who or how, so I kept my mouth shut. Gabrielle, Im sorry."
"Funny, Cadhlaighn. I do understand..."
The screeching voice broke in. "Enough of this! Shes not dead! Meghn is not dead!"
"I killed her..saw her killed! She..."
"Shes in me. I lived in her for years, making you what you are!.. I made her my follower, drove her to me...and then, when her spirit left her fleshy body I devoured her soul! I own her soul, she is in me and she rejoices for you, Cadhlaighn...all three of us will be one!"
"You are a liar! My mother never would have accepted you!"
"Ah but she did! Because I told her you would die at the hands of Glwan! I gave him his power! I summoned the Fomori!"
"I will never join with you, Braghan. Believe it!"
"And how will you stop me? Once Ive killed your little friend here...I can even kill you and eat your soul if I have to. Id rather not -- I want you to be on the throne, and I can rule through you. Bring us all back! All the gods -- back to the land...your body, your words, my thought, my will!"
"You will have to kill me! Before I serve you Id rather die! And youll have to go through me to get to Gabrielle!"
"Ah, but theres no Xena to help you this time! Youre a mortal battling a goddess, dearie, and you dont stand a chance! Accept my spirit into you or be destroyed! Choose!"
"I will not accept you!"
The broadsword swung in a huge arc. Gabrielle saw it coming, rolled on the ground, under the heavy killing blade. Cadhlaighn closed from the other side and struck the goddess with her sword. The armor turned Cadhlaighns blade, and the pommel of the broadsword thudded into her stomach, knocking her flat on her back. Gabrielle got to her feet, aimed, and threw the chakram. The weapon spun for the Braghans head, and as it reached her, the goddess opened her mouth --
--And the chakram disappeared. The Braghan had devoured it.
For the first time in a long time, Gabrielle knew fear. Not for her own life -- that had been forfeit for years. But for Cadhlaighn. She would die, or endure an eternity of torture at the hands of this creature, a helpless husk, a host for all manner of evil. She couldnt let that happen, she would pay any price...
The goddess charged at her, sword above her head, held for a killing blow. The katana flashed in answer. Gabrielle caught the broadsword by the tip, parried it around, and wrenched it from the Braghans hands. She attacked the Braghan with the sword...striking, striking...I love you..Cadhlaighn...I love you..forgive everything...
The goddess grasped Gabrielles body with her huge, clawed hands, lifted her off the ground. Gabrielle, her arms still free, slashed and slashed again, to no effect. The goddess put Gabrielles head in her mouth, bit down, biting her body in two with her knifelike teeth.
She took the remaining part of Gabrielles body in her two hands, and rent it into pieces, stuffing them into her gaping mouth. When she was done she grinned insanely at Cadhlaighn, her lips smeared with the blood of the blonde warrior-bard that Cadhlaighn loved.
Cadhlaighn howled. She charged at the monster, striking her and slashing, but the goddess danced away, fending her off but not killing, not until she was sure she couldnt seduce the girl into accepting her spirit. The Braghan didnt want her niece dead; she wanted her as her slave.
Cadhlaighn kept closing with her enemy, swinging the sword recklessly, blind with rage and despair. The Braghan, taunting, opened her arms wide, not defending herself, and screamed, "try it, try it, you cant kill me!" You might as well serve me! You might as well..."
The sword in front of her, held in both her hands, Cadhlaighn rushed the Braghan, all her weight and force behind the point of the sword. The point met the Braghans chest and thrust through, deep into her vitals, where, powered by its link with the spirit world, it severed the goddess connection to her life force; she grunted "..serve...me" as she staggered away, falling off the blade that had killed her. Her body began to dissolve in the air, limb by limb, until all that could be seen were the mad eyes, filled with panic; they vanished with a flash of fire, and the Braghan was no more.
Cadhlaighn threw her sword on the ground, put her fists to her eyes, and howled at the heavens. She could feel Gabrielle inside her, weeping, but trying to comfort her. There was no comforting for Cadhlaighn, her love, the love of her very life, was dead, and, though now within her, in a short time she would have to be gone...gone...what was life for, now?
She screamed in her mind. "Gabrielle! Why did you do this...Gabrielle, Gabrielle...How could you die? I promised to stay alive for you and you died! What will I do now? I love you...come back to me! Come back to me!"
And Gabrielle answered her, sobbing, but with gentle voice. "I cant come back, my love. Im dead, and I dont know that I can ever come back. We have our own union of souls. It was the only way I could help you defeat the Braghan. You had to have a link with an immortal, and the only way I could do that was to die. As soon as I died I called to you, and you answered and accepted me. Do you remember?"
"Yes, it was so very quick, but I remember. One moment I saw you die, and the next I heard you in my soul. But was there no other way?"
"None. She was a goddess; you and I were mortals. One of us had to be sacrificed to save
"I would have died for you."
"Too many have died for me. Too many have suffered because of me. It was time for me to pay all my debts."
"Gabrielle...what about the life we planned? Was that so easy to throw away?"
"No...of course not. But that life wouldnt have happened if I had let her have you."
"I love you, Gabrielle. Its all I can say. I dont know what Ill do without you."
"Youll make a life, my love. I had to -- I made many mistakes, but I learned much. I learned to be strong. Youre strong, much stronger than I was when I was left alone. Fortune was kind to me, and brought you. You can depend on it -- youre a loving person, and youll find another to love. I did."
Cadhlaighn fell to her knees, pounded the ground with her fists. "Gabrielle, Gabrielle, all I want to do is die. I want to die so much..."
"I will never forgive you if you waste your life like that. My darling, I told you I wasnt worth it from the very start. If you end your life now everything we had will have been in vain, everything youve accomplished today will be for nothing. Live for me. I will hear you when you think of me. Live for yourself, your people. Live for your loves yet to be."
"Cant we stay together?"
"Joined, like this? Forever?"
"Yes. Im willing to take the consequences, now."
"No. No, for all the reasons I gave Xena. I wont rob you of your life, I wont make you endure the world past all weariness. No, Cadhlaighn, no, when the time comes I must go."
"And never come back?"
"This is my one time. Unless you use the dust, and call me and force me to unite with you -- dont you do it! You know how dangerous that is. Have Kyloides destroy it. We cant be tempted. Already Im thinking how much I want you."
Cadhlaighn fingered the deep blue stone around her neck. "We have two dawns, dont we? and the sun is setting now..."
"Two dawns...yes." find a quiet spot, Cadhlaighn. Spread you bedroll, build a fire. Two dawns."
Xena lay in Gabrielles arms. They were surrounded by a bower of sweet flowers, under a weeping willow tree. Beside them a clear stream chuckled pleasantly. They were naked, as always, warm in the diffuse light that filtered through the leaves.
Gabrielle looked up, feeling lazy and slow after being loved. "Xena, that tree doesnt look quite right."
"Mmh. Then fix it."
"You need to help me. Im still not good at this."
"Just imagine it, Gabrielle. Imagine how it ought to be. Then direct your will at it, and itll be the way you imagine. Its not hard."
"I still need practice to focus. My mind wanders."
"You dont have a mind. Youre a soul, which is a mind without a body. Think the way you are. It helps."
The willow tree changed shape subtly, the leaves became a little more pointed. It ran through several abrupt color changes, emerald green to sapphire blue, before finally settling onto a dusky gray-green. "Thats the best I can do," Gabrielle said with a hint of frustration.
Xena looked up at Gabrielles "handiwork". "Not bad. Youre getting the hang of this. Are you hungry?"
"Never. But I could eat. But please, not fish again. Something else."
"Whats wrong with fish? I can do fish really well."
"Just bread and jam, OK? That orange stuff, you know, that you learned from Goliath."
A loaf of bread and a pot of marmalade appeared at Gabrielles right hand. She dipped her finger in the jam. "Very good. You do flavors so well. Its funny. I was always the one eating, but you can make things taste just right and you hardly ate anything at all."
"Yes, but your wine is super. And you never drank much...until..."
"I regret that. But it cant be changed now."
"Sad, Xena. I just heard a thought of me. She still mourns me."
"Is she still hiding in her rooms?"
"No, she went before the council and abdicated. They said she couldnt. So she created a regency, gave that to her brother. Shes leaving Shannaught."
"How do you know all that?"
"She was thinking of me the whole time. I could hear everything."
"Where will she go?"
"Im not sure she knows. She went to sea. Ursus and Kyloides are with her. We owe her so much. Cant we help her? Shes in so much pain...and Im responsible."
"No, Gabrielle. We cant interfere. Without gods, mortals have to make their own world. We cant interfere, any more than they can help us make this world as we wish it."
"I mourn for her, too, you know."
"I know. I mourned for you endlessly when I died. No one ever guaranteed that the afterlife released you from feelings. Sometimes I think I feel emotions more intensely now than when I was alive. Its part of being without gods. We can sense our world better, feel what is right and what is wrong."
"I know what I feel. All that matters...all that I can do is love you, Xena. Love you and remember."
"Were where were supposed to be, Gabrielle. Together -- forever."
"To build a world. I can live with that."
"So can I."
The ship sailed into the rising sun. The shores of Shannaught dropped below the horizon. The redheaded woman stood by the rail, watching her homeland disappear. She wept, and not just for her home. She wept for all the times that had been, and all those that would never be. She held the blue stone in her fist, willing the giver to come again. Failing that, she sent a song to the heavens, praying that it might be heard by her lifes love, and make her happy.
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