Disclaimer: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually, as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Post FIN, I guess, though I have kept specific references to a minimum.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
My website is at http://dreamcatching.netfirms.com/kam/index.htm
Thanks for corrections and encouragement to the members of the Bardic Circle and Tavern Wall, especially Extra, Jaden, Dawn, JLynn, Jordon Falconer, Floyd and Sue. More thanks to Claudia, Morgane, Steph and Bardeyes and Fanfiction dot com. For rereading this countless times, Abardreader. And my thanks as always, to the great Mary Morgan.
Annia held her breath. The boat so close now, that she could see the downy blonde hairs on the nape of the neck of the woman passing directly below her. She raised the sword slowly, her muscles already clenching as they anticipated the downward stroke. She swallowed, a voice inside her mind shouting NOW! NOW! NOW... and froze when there was a cough behind her.
She had been so focussed on the blonde, that she only now realised that the darker woman was no longer in the boat. She knew, somehow, without turning, that the other woman had not only managed to get behind her without her noticing, but onto the very same branch. That should not have been possible for a mortal. She shivered before moving her head slowly around. There was a dark figure backlit by the sliver of rays of the sunrise, which caught on a gleaming sword inches away from Annia's own throat.
The blonde woman's sharp call from below cut through the leaves and almost through her state of panic. “So what were they doing up there, Xena?”
Annia's eyes widened at the name. Xena?
The shadow replied dryly, “We haven't gotten that far. Yet.”
“Anyone we know?”
The woman moved closer to Annia, and she could feel the pale eyes examining her face. She still held onto her own sword, but tried to compress her body into the hollow of the branch.
“Actually…” the dark woman said.
There was a snort from below. “You're kidding. Who do we know around here that would be trying to jump us from a tree?”
The pale eyes were still scanning her, holding her in place. “Remember Annia from the Coliseum?”
There were sounds below, a rustling of the reeds she knew meant that the boat was pressing into the shore. “She was trying to ambush us? Why?” the blonde asked.
The warrior moved even closer, yet the sword near her throat did not waver throughout the approach. Annia could see the face clearly now. To her shock, it was not the woman in the cells, but the expression, the movements, they were all very similar.
Annia's mind was racing within her fear-stoked paralysis. This woman, this Xena, was the same height and colouring as the woman from the Coliseum, and her movements were the same, it had to be the same woman.
But it was not.
“Could you let me handle this!” The tone in the woman's voice, it too was the same as she remembered, the same note of asperity.
No offence seemed to be taken by the woman below, for a laughing voice drifted upwards. “Knew it. The honeymoon's over!”
In response to the laughing words of the blonde, Annia saw a memorable smirk appear on the face only inches away from her. A smirk that had been imprinted on her memory. And the stance with the sword, lazy but completely assured, it too was known to her. This was the same woman. Which meant, it was not truly a woman at all.
“So it was just a part of the game, wasn't it?” Annia whispered.
Confusion brushed across the dark woman's face. “What?” She drew back the sword just a slight distance and stared at Annia as though she was an unwelcomed puzzle. “Listen.” And the voice dropped to a low register. “I'm not very patient with people that try to kill my partner. I'm going to try and think that this was just a misunderstanding. But you'd better drop your sword before you make any more mistakes.”
Within her mind, the voice of the slave warned; Be quiet, accept, bow down . But the anger that had burned so brightly moments before had only been banked and she found herself shaking her head.
“No.” It felt good to say the word and she repeated it, loudly. “No!” As her voice rose, so did she, leaving the shelter of the branch to face the warrior. “I've had enough!”
The dark woman slowly moved down the branch, which encouraged Annia further. “You, whatever you are, you and your kind, you think you can continue playing with my life. This really was just another game for you, just another way to drive me mad! Well, you've succeeded. Because I don't care which of us dies now, but it will end now!”
She punctuated the end of her rant with a swift thrust of the sword, expecting the expert in front of her to deflect it easily. And she closed her eyes, anticipating the offensive counterattack that would surely end her life in a moment.
However, instead of taking the aggressive strike, the warrior must have responded to some other instinct and withdrawn her sword. In the cramped space, she had been forced to use her arm to ward off the thrust and Annia's sword glided along the dark woman's skin. When she opened her eyes, to her shock, the dawn's light revealed a thin red line on the woman's arm from which blood began to seep.
Annia stared in disbelief. “I hurt you? How?”
The warrior didn't even glance at her injury. She growled with an edgy menace, “We're too close with all these branches. I had a choice of deflecting your blade into your face or taking the cut myself. I won't do that again.”
She ignored the words, stared at the wound, demanding in an almost hysterical tone, “Why are you doing this? Stop bleeding!”
Having moved back into the pre-dawn darkness, only the eyes were visible, glowing blue chips of ice, but Annia saw them blink at her demand. “What?”
Annia's voice rose even higher. “Stop bleeding! NOW!”
The eyes closed for a moment before the warrior asked, “Or what? What is wrong with you?”
The slave could not stop herself from repeating her plea, crying out, “Stop bleeding!!! Stop it!”
Shaking her head, the dark woman called to the ground, “Gabri-elle!”
“Xena! WHAT'S WRONG?” The blonde woman was suddenly beneath the tree, and her eyes caught on the small amount of blood dripping from the other woman's arm. Almost instantly her hands were holding two small pitchforks, and there was anger blazing in her green eyes. Any lightness disappeared and with a voice like steel she stated, “If you've hurt her, you've made a big mistake. And your last one.”
In contrast to the smaller woman, the dark menace that had originally shrouded the tall woman now dropped like a cloak. She barked a laugh and said in what seemed a tender tone, “Queen of the Amazons.”
After a quick glance which must have reassessed the extent of her partner's injury, the blonde relaxed slightly and responded quietly, “Xena. Remember? There are no more Amazons.”
The dark warrior shook her head and said fondly, “Yes, there are. Wherever you are, there will be Amazons.”
Annia, her mind still in a tangle, thought to take advantage of their distraction and raised her sword again. Only to freeze at the growl from the blonde below.
The dark woman waved a cautionary finger down towards her partner. “Hey! I didn't call for that kind of help. More of the sensitive chat kind? Because I haven't a clue what's going on here.”
With a nimble series of hops and a swing, the purported Amazon Queen was crouched on a branch slightly above the two. She waited until the slave's eyes tracked her before speaking. “Annia, you're Annia, right? Put the sword down! You saw her in the Coliseum. You know how good she is with a blade. And you really wanna fight her? She could kill you!”
Annia shook her head. “N-no.!” she stuttered. “That would not happen! Because that would spoil your play with me!”
The Amazon looked over to her partner. “What is she talking about?”
The dark woman rolled her eyes. “This would be why I asked you to talk to her.”
“Fine, first thing…” the blonde woman said. Annia was not quite sure what happened next, but her sword was snatched out of her hand with a swift move by one of the pitchforks. She watched it fall to the ground with widened eyes. The warrior raised her free hand and shook it in a gesture of frustration. “I could have done that!”
The Amazon simply smirked and told her partner, “Not as nicely. Now you too. All weapons get put away until we can figure out what's going on.”
With some grumbling, the warrior sheathed her blade, and the blonde, with a quick spin of the pitchforks, placed them deftly under her toga and into her boots.
Yes, these were the two who had rescued, no, allowed her to escape. She felt a cold shudder go through her slight frame and her hysteria began to ride higher. “You will blame me for making her bleed,” she mumbled. “She should not be bleeding. Why is she still bleeding? Make it stop!”
The warrior looked to the offending wound. “It's just a minor cut.”
“Mortals bleed. I will not play this game. I will not play anymore. And I cannot make Gods bleed!”
“Gods? We're not Gods,” the blonde stated firmly.
Annia spun to face her. “No? How foolish do you think I am? Your faces are not the ones in the Coliseum. Did you think I am such a fool as to not remember your faces? That I could not tell that you have changed your bodies? You have given yourselves away!”
The warrior seemed embarrassed. “Oh, right. Forgot about that.”
“You admit that you are not mortals then?” Annia demanded.
There was a casual shrug. “We're very mortal, we just forgot about the body changing stuff.”
Annia could feel her eyes bulging
“It's been a really busy couple of days,” the warrior added.
“Like you wouldn't believe. Lots of other stuff on our minds,” the blonde Amazon pointed out.
“But,” the warrior insisted, “We're not gods, okay? This is just what we normally look like.”
The blonde seemed to be about to interrupt. “Ummmm…”
The dark woman rolled her eyes again. “Oh yeah, we're not supposed to forget that she's really ninety or something.”
“I just wanted to point out that it's not what we normally look like, just what we looked like when…”
To Annia's further astonishment, this lecture was halted and she turned about to see that the dark warrior was rocking her head back and forth somewhat comically while making a sort of chattering motion with her hand. Annia expected the Amazon to be offended, but her response seemed to be only an affectionate smile .
“Fine,” the Amazon finally spoke. “Maybe we can get back to the topic at hand. Why someone we rescued is trying to kill us and is hysterical because we're not Gods. Okay?”
The dark warrior said nothing but folded her arms across her chest in what seemed like some kind of truce. Both turned to face Annia once more.
Annia could only shake her head. Their tone and manner seemed insulting, but there was affection in every word. But now they waited on her and she could not find the words. “But you must be Gods. I thought… I thought I finally understood…”
The warrior shrugged and gestured for Annia to look up to the blonde. “Talk to the Bard. Sensitive chats, still not my department.”
The blonde pursed her lips. “You're not getting out of this so easy. You can help. Show Annia your right hand.” The darker woman stretched her hand towards the slave, who tensed and withdrew as it neared her. “Palm up,” the smaller woman instructed.
“Annia, look at those fresh calluses. That's from rowing us since last night. And that bruise above the palm, would a god get their hand caught in an oarlock?”
The darker woman looked slightly offended and grumbled, “Next time we try a new design of boat, you can row first.”
“Annia.” The green eyes locked onto hers, nothing but earnest sympathy within them. “We're not Gods. The faces and bodies you saw us with before, well, it's a long story. But we fought one of those gods, and we won. And because we won, we're back the way we used to look, without, well, those disguises.”
Then the blonde squatted to move closer to Annia, who stilled, but did not back away this time. “We were… brought here, to fight a God, because it was something the Gods wouldn't do themselves. Getting you or the others out of the Coliseum wasn't part of their plan or anyone's game. We let you guys out because we needed a diversion and… because it was the right thing to do.”
“Not a plan, or… but you… You were brought here by the Gods?” Annia stammered.
“It's not a really big honour, trust me,” the warrior interjected.
The blonde woman snorted. “Hardly.”
“But in the Coliseum…”
The warrior dourly interrupted this time. “Like she said. It was a trick. We needed a diversion.”
“From Mars? You needed to distract the God?” There was an exchange of glances before a quiet nod.
Now, with the light having risen higher in the skies, she was able to examine their faces. There seemed to be no deceit in either of their expressions, which gave her some flickering courage. “Then you fought the Gods for man and Gods? As did Heracles? Or Perseus?”
The blonde woman made a gesture of uncertainty before agreeing, “Yes, but like she said, it's not the honour you might think it is.”
The words slipped through her lips. “You're… heroes.”
The blonde gave an amused glance at her partner. “She's not really big on that description, but yeah, she is.”
The warrior shook her head and admonished, “After all we've been through, you still talk about me being the hero?”
The Amazon shot her a glance but quickly returned her eyes to Annia, who swallowed before daring to ask, “And what do you want with… me?”
The blonde woman took her hand and held it, despite the shiver the slave made at the contact, saying gently, “We don't want anything from you. But we might be able to give something. Like help. If you accept it. I know you have no reason to trust anyone, especially us. But you need to be practical. We passed men and dogs back a way, looking for escaped slaves. We have a boat heading away from them and… you must be hungry. We have tons of food.”
Seeing that Annia was growing calmer, the dark woman had already begun to climb towards the ground, but paused to look back with that familiar smirk, “Yeah, the little squirrel here bagged a lot more than just nuts this time.”
Before the dark woman could turn away, an olive struck the warrior in the exact center of her forehead. Annia quickly glanced at the blonde, but she didn't seem to have moved. The warrior was not fooled and with a glare that chilled Annia, that made her want to run very far away, said quietly, “Don't. Start.”
The Amazon appeared not to have noticed this terrifying transformation, and continued to talk to Annia as though there had been no interruption.
“ We were at a big party last night, and I snaffled a… few, you know, bags of stuff. I also got some mead, some jars of spiced wine…” She waggled her eyebrows. “ We were saving it for deipnon, but we should at least eat the salads before they spoil. ”
“Uh huh. Because it might spoil. Right, ” the warrior growled from below them. Another olive must have been cast, for there was an outraged “OW!” from below.
“ But then, a lot of the stuff could go bad before then…” the blonde blithely continued.
The sardonic rejoinder, “Food? Spoil? Around you? Like that's ever gonna happen,” was this time accompanied by a speeding olive which struck the Amazon Queen in the centre of her forehead.
The blonde rubbed her forehead, closed her eyes and her lips pursed slightly. When she raised her eyelids it was to smile rather sweetly and say, “Grab some olives, Annia. Lots… of olives.”
The Amazon must have seen the bewilderment and no small amount of fear in Annia's eyes, for she added with a wicked grin, “You wanted to take her on, right? This could be a bit safer than a swordfight.” Annia swallowed hard trying to sort out this latest insanity. The blonde Amazon lowered her voice and urged, “We have some time. Xena will hear the dogs long before they get near. And this is what freedom is. Playing when you can, just because it's fun. That's freedom. Not just watching. Not just keeping your head down, trying not to be noticed because being noticed can be the worst thing.”
Annia face took on the flush of wonder. “You… know? You've been…”
The blonde nodded. “I know. And I know that it ends today. For you, for me and Xena too, this is a brand new beautiful day. A new start. I promise you. So… let's have some fun, okay? And,” raising her voice slightly, “We can beat her. We have the strategic advantage of the high ground.” This time, Annia saw the flick of the Amazon's thumb that sent the olive zipping through the leaves.
“Oww!” came another outraged cry from below. But it was followed by two olives which pelted them both on the arms. “You think the high ground is an advantage? Where do you think the boat and all the food are?” The warrior laughed from below as two more olives pelted them both.
“For how long, Warrior!” the Queen called back, scrambling up the sturdiest branch and once her shining eyes had caught Annia's, she pointed to the opposite side of the tree.
‘ Madness ', Annia thought, and yet as she moved to the branch indicated by the grinning blonde, she found that smile spreading to her own lips. Somehow, these two seemed more alive than anyone she'd ever met. There was elation and delight in life and living that radiated from them as though it were some fever and she was surprised to find she wanted, needed, to be infected with just a simulacrum of this madness.
She was slow at first but despite her exhaustion and by gathering her nerve, soon the two blondes were clambering about the tree like monkeys, while olives whizzed all about them. Missiles came and went until her hands were slippery with the oil squeezed from the green fruit. The largest groupings of olives were on the outer branches, which were less sturdy and left them exposed to the warrior's unerring aim. So Annia found herself working as a team with the blond, each taking turns in attacking while the other stockpiled missiles. It was play at such an unreasonable moment that she found herself almost hysterical again, but this time with laughter. Not even wondering when she had ever laughed that way before.
In fact, she was quite proud when it was her diversion which ended the mock battle. She had distracted the warrior for a crucial moment, calling to the far reaches of the tree for the Queen, giving the impression that the blonde was in a different portion of the tree than she actually was. When the warrior moved instinctively to shield herself from that position, the blonde dropped directly on her from above. Amidst smothered giggles they disappeared from Annia's sight into the reeds underneath.
She heard the blonde say victoriously, “I told you we had the advantage of height!”
“You have never…” the warrior grunted, and she stood up, now with the smaller woman laughing in her arms, “had the advantage of height!”
Annia watched them, wondering at their ease. This was the warrior of such deadly skills, one she'd seen free dozens of slaves by crashing through an iron barred gate as though it were wattle and daub? This was the Queen of the legendary Amazons? Laughing and playing as children?
That Queen's solemn promise of moments before came to her . “…it ends today. For you, for me and Xena too, this is a brand new beautiful day. A new start. I promise you…”
She slouched into a crotch of the tree, feeling the smooth bark against her back, hearing their laughter. Breathing in their freedom as if it were a scent on the breeze.
But at that moment, the warrior stilled, and let the blonde slip quickly to the ground.
The dawn light suddenly seemed chillier, as off in the distance, baying dogs could be heard. Annia's fears returned from where they had been hidden for too short a time. She cursed her foolishness, wondering how she could have forgotten her circumstances so easily. Her expression must have revealed those thoughts for as she began to climb from their perch, the blonde called to her, “Hey! Don't you start regretting a few moments to have fun. You have to seize them! Something I'd forgotten and you should always remember!”
The former slave considered the words and nodded, but could not reply, burdened by a dry mouth and pounding heart. By the time she had descended from the tree, Xena already had the boat out of the reeds and alongside a small stone abutment.
The blonde stepped into the boat first and turned to Annia. “So let's start again. My name's Gabrielle. Like to share a meal and a ride out of here?” and she smiled while extending her hand. Annia was surprised at how much of a balm that smile was to her. Slaves seldom were greeted with smiles in Rome . Despite her returning anxiety, it was not as though she had many choices, so she gripped the surprisingly strong hand that was offered and allowed it to draw her on board.
As she moved awkwardly to the stern bench, she became aware of the dirtiness of her clothing, the tangles in her hair. She also noticed that the partners were watching her, exchanging concerned looks. Perhaps they thought her clumsiness indicated an injury of sorts. But when she sat, resting an open palm on her stomach, they again traded glances that indicated some deeper understanding.
The dark woman took her place by the rudder, and her attention turned to the river and its currents. The blonde woman poled them out of the shadows of the olive trees until they regained the Tiber 's channel. She waited until they were centre stream again, before adjusting the sail, sliding across from Annia to balance the craft, and setting her warm green eyes on their passenger.
Despite the kindliness of the gaze, Annia huddled, in a futile attempt to hide her torn and soiled clothing, the tangled blonde tresses that contrasted so severely with their fashionable, if oil streaked, garments and their fastidiously brushed hair. If not Gods, the women were both fit, more than women would normally be in her experience. As beautiful as any goddess she had seen in murals or statuary. App arently prosperous, if their expensive robes and the quality of the small craft were any indication. She watched the shore move away much too slowly.
Gabrielle began to rummage about the sides, before coming up with a series of sacks from which she withdrew two goblets. “We only have two cups for drinking, so we'll have to pass them around like a potio, if that's okay?”
Annia nodded in what she hoped was an appreciative manner until her jaw dropped as the food was brought forth. At first it was the familiar fruits and even some cheeses. But then, delicacies Annia had prepared but never had the chance to eat appeared. Then there were also some that she was not familiar with. Basic grains were all the kitchen staffs were offered, for meat was only for the wealthy. “What are these?” she asked, tentatively.
“Dormouse, stuffed with pig and pine kernels,” Gabrielle answered, making a face. Xena snatched one and bit into it lustily, saying, “Nice and crunchy.”
Gabrielle shuddered theatrically, “Yuck.”
“So says the woman who ate a whole stuffed sow's udders by herself last night. Annia, don't follow the bard's example. She hasn't been living off the land for the last few days. Eat slowly. And start with the grains and fruits,” the warrior advised.
Annia nodded at the advice but it was hard to obey when the horn of plenty continued to spill out such riches, and her dinner companions were so passionate in their enthusiasm.
Although the boat was not all that large, the two smaller women managed to lounge in the Roman fashion while passing platters about. Xena remained at the tiller deftly snatching portions as they passed by.
Gabrielle handed her one of the goblets and said gently, “This doesn't have that much alcohol in it. Xena says she's seen what happens when women who are expecting drink too much, but this should be okay.”
“How did you…?” But when Annia followed Gabrielle's gaze, it turned to her hand, resting on her belly, unconsciously caressing the still unseen life.
“How far long?” the Amazon asked.
She smiled, sadly. “Only a few months. My husband, he…” and she shook her head, unable to continue.
Gabrielle squeezed her hand and asked, “Are there family, anyone who could help?”
Annia shook her head. “I only know other slaves. And if they were to help… even if they wanted to… There would be trouble for them. My master is very powerful. Above the laws. If he knew I had a child, he'd, he'd say I was taking his property. He could, would, claim him. They will look for me… He and his friends, they are very powerful, like Gods themselves, and no one can hide a child from pursuers of such capability.”
“Been there,” grunted Xena.
“And done that,” agreed Gabrielle and they exchanged apologetic expressions that served to only confuse Annia more, if possible.
The mood was deliberately changed by Gabrielle who produced another plate. “Yoo goffa fly de fliced eggs!” she enthused with a filled mouth
The warrior smirked and ordered, “Swallow, Gabrielle. Swallow?”
The blonde put her hands up, frowning, which soon melted into an expression of rapture. “Oh yeah… Like I just said, you gotta try the spiced eggs!”
“If there are any left,” Xena complained, “You'll leave me with just the olives. Why are there so many black olives?”
“Romans always gotta have olives.”
A quick hand snatched a sugar treat from one of the plates. “You're not getting all of these. Did you get the recipe for them?”
“The libum? Oh yeah, it's just cheese, bay leaves, an egg, honey obviously. We can pick that stuff up on the road, easy! But you're supposed to save them for the moretum,” Gabrielle cautioned.
“Is there going to be anything left for tomorrow?”
“We got tons of salsamentum. Salted fish and lots of ham. They'll stay fresh for a while.”
The warrior rolled her eyes and told Annia, “Suuuure. Nevermind what I said before, eat what you can, while you can.”
Annia was laughing openly now, and with it came the confidence to ask questions. “You said this was all from a party?”
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. “Well sort of, the Pontifical College doesn't really have what you'd call parties.”
“It was a party, Gabrielle. A bunch of politicians celebrating the big win,” Xena grumbled.
“Xena… They wanted to thank us.”
“They wanted to celebrate their victory over the priests of Mars. And we weren't all that welcome, showing up looking like…us.”
“I think it was more the Domina,” Gabrielle said softly. At Annia's expression, she tried to explain, “She'd had a Vestal die…”
Annia was surprised that she was not aware of this stunning news. “A Vestal died? I didn't hear that!”
“Well, the College is going to keep it quiet. Two reputable witnesses swore that Vesta Herself was involved, and with the proof of that involvement in their faces, it was decided that the girl's death was ordained by higher powers. Which made it harder for the Domina, as the girl who died, she was one of her favourites. I… well, I looked like her when I first… arrived. When she saw me as I am now, I think it was as if, as if the girl had died again.”
She was silent for a while, before Xena added, “She still insisted you take everything you could carry, so she couldn't have been that upset. Not with you, Love.”
That last word, or was it a title, spoken with such tenderness, jarred Annia. Love, at least sex between men, was commonplace in the Empire, but several philosophers had firmly stated that love between women was not possible. Certainly in the physical sense at the very least. Another belief refuted, for it was blindingly clear that the philosophers must be wrong. Looking again, she could see it in each of their actions, even in their competition. Competition which ended when support was needed, the right word flowing instantly almost before it was asked for.
Had her husband and she been like that? When their lives had allowed, perhaps. But too often there had been moments in their shared slavery that no words or actions could relieve. She found herself once more being dragged into a sombre mood which must have been noticed, for Gabrielle plucked a ‘V' shaped bone from one of the poultry dishes and extended it towards her saying, “My grandmother used tell us to make a wish, and then we'd pull on the ends and the person who got the largest part would have their wish come true.”
The warrior grunted a sound that sounded like an opinion. “Uh huh.”
“Warrior, don't make fun of my family traditions, or you won't like my wish,” the Bard threatened, though there was a smile close to the surface.
Gabrielle rummaged about in another sack. “And, there's a bunch of bones I saved for soup, so… a ha!” And she displayed two more identical bones. “Okay, we'll do them all at the same time, think hard about your wish and then…”
Xena checked the waters before leaving the tiller so they could form a ring with the three of them, each hand holding onto one branch of the bone. A sense of some ancient ritual seemed to swathe this childhood game. They closed their eyes as they prepared to tug on their portion.
Annia broke the silence by wishing out loud, “I would wish that this were real.”
Xena lowered her hands. “What… do you think this is still a game?”
Annia shook her head emphatically. “No. I can see you are… that this, for this moment, is real. But it is only this moment. Life is not like this.”
“That's true,” the blonde Amazon conceded. “But even so, all the more reason to enjoy the moments. Make a better wish.”
Again the circle was formed. Each closed their eyes and pulled. When they looked to see the result, each held one of the larger portions of the bone.
“Yes!” Gabrielle cried, delighted. “That worked out great! So…?” She looked across to her partner, eyes filled with curiosity. “What did you wish for?”
Xena hesitated, but unable to resist the demand in the sparkling eyes inches away from her, she finally said, “I wished…that… I wished that I would never hurt you. Not ever again.”
Gabrielle's eyes closed and she reached for her partner's hand, and Annia noted that she found it without needing to open them. The warrior softly nudged the smaller woman's chin with a finger, asking softly, “Gabrielle?”
The Amazon's free hand played idly with the fold on Xena's robe before she whispered, “I hurt the most when you're in pain. So I wished…That this is truly a new start for you. That you're finally free of your past.”
They heads were so close, and both moved to touch the other's lips tentatively, then withdrew, conscious of the eyes of the woman near them. The warrior slumped slightly, allowing her forehead to rest against the smaller woman, so very gently. Annia realised she was holding her breath. Both seemed to take a pause, drawing strength from the presence of the other, drawing strength to pull away.
“Sorry, Annia,” both muttered, and she knew they were worried that she might be upset, or jealous of their happiness.
She shook her head, a finger brushing at the tear that for some unaccountable reason had appeared in her eye. “No, this is a goodness. I have been raised surrounded by so much greed and hatred, and I lost my love… that to know there is still love, that there can be love… No… this is all good.”
The blonde reached out to take Annia's hand again, squeezing it to say what words could not. Then she cocked her head and asked, “So, you changed your wish, right? What was it?”
“It may not be a possible wish,” she caressed her belly once more as a benediction. “I wished that my child should grow up… free.”
She looked up and found herself joining in a smile that ran about their circle..
Gabrielle raised her goblet, saying, “I think we should drink to that!” As she refilled each of the glasses, keeping the jug for her own toast. “To making our wishes come true.” But even as they clicked their vessels against each others, the sound of dogs baying caught their ears and Annia's expression grew shuttered again.
Gabrielle secured the jug and placed both hands on the slave's shoulders. “Annia, I told you, a new start. Anything is possible. And we really can help. Where would you like to go? If you could go anywhere?”
Annia wanted so much to believe, but instead shrugged, saying, “Does it matter? Is there anywhere far enough?” and she twisted her face away from the direction she'd come, away from the nightmare that had been Rome .
Gabrielle asked casually, “Ever been to Ostia ? There are ships leaving there for anywhere you can imagine. It's just a bit further downstream.”
“I hope they finally got around to dredging it?” Xena interrupted.
Gabrielle ignored the question and instead removed her hands to squat in front of Annia again, asking quietly, “You're worried that no where is far enough, right? You're scared about being caught, brought back to him? You said your master abused you. I thought under the law you could take him to court?”
“They do not matter to him, because,” Annia paused and lowered her voice to whisper, “Because… he is the Emperor's heir.”
At their shocked response, Annia began to explain. They allowed the boat to drift quietly, with a light breeze under the warming sun, while Annia described her life within the house of the Emperor's son and heir. She told of how she had been treated and what kind of man she had been abused by. About his associates. How impossible it would be to escape him.
Gabrielle became angry. “This is the heir? To Marcus Aurelius? What was he thinking?”
Xena was thoughtful. “This has to be Ares' doing. Think about it. A coward, but with a huge ego? Easily influenced…?”
“That doesn't sound like one of His usual favourites,” Gabrielle questioned.
A pensive look came over the warrior's face. “Ares said he had everything planned from this moment on. I think he wasn't planning on just pulling the strings this time. I think he was planning to be sitting in the big chair up front while watching the puppets dance.”
“So now that Ares is gone, what's going to happen?”
“It'd be like building a tower and then pulling out the main support.”
Gabrielle shuddered. “You are talking of the fall of the empire? The empire's a big tower. Thick walls. Could it fall that easily?”
Xena shrugged. “Not tomorrow, maybe not for centuries, but everything crumbles, Gabrielle. Gonna happen someday.”
Annia had been trying to follow the conversation and had grasped one point. “But if Rome were to fall…? Many of the people defends against… I have been told that they are savages, savages in the millions!”
Xena nodded. “And that's how it'll end. Province by province. When they grow weak, the end will come from sheer numbers and pure meanness.”
“And what will happen to all those great walled cities and the people in them?” Gabrielle asked.
“You know. You've seen it. Slow rot and finally masses crashing over walls. Some will survive. By running. Probably for the swamps and cliffs where they can't be followed. Some will build forts in the provinces away from the centre. Off in Britania, for example.”
“And what darkness will descend?” Annia was aghast at the images they were creating in her mind.
“Not everywhere,” Gabrielle said. “Something will remain. Some will save their ideas, their knowledge. Take their scrolls, saving them.”
“And they'll also take their scheming and plotting…” Xena grumped.
“But that has to be better than savagry?” Annia asked.
The food lay forgotten by even Gabrielle now. She sighed and said, ““You're saying that Ares has created a world that without him will be conquered by the horde?” Gabrielle asked.
“Some places, yeah. The soldiers will withdraw, the empire will contract, leaving cities defenceless. And they'll either surrender…”
For reasons, that Annia did not understand, something surfaced in Gabrielle's eyes and her expression hardened. In a stern voice, belying her apparent youth she stated, “But if we do, Xena. If we face another horde, just so you know…”
Whatever it was, the warrior knew immediately and made a calming gesture. “Gabrielle…”
The Amazon was having none of it. “No, you listen. This new start has some rules. I'm not that kid anymore and there are lines this old lady doesn't cross. If that's what's coming, and we get caught in it? No matter how bad they are, no matter what they do, we find another way.”
“Gabrielle! What if there is no other way?”
“Find another way. I mean it, Xena. I love you, but I will not massacre a whole people just to live. Not this bard. You will find another way”
Annia watched curiously as it seemed this argument would cause one or the other to look away, but instead there was only a simple nod and, “Okay.”
“Good.” Gabrielle relaxed slightly which relieved Annia, despite having only a dark glimmerings of what the conversation might have meant. Gabrielle had already moved on to consider their options. “So then what we have to figure out…” And whatever she might have said was lost as Xena held up her hand, her whole attention to the air about them.
Annia watched as Gabrielle also stilled, and her nostrils seemed to twitch. But regardless of whatever it was she sensed, she looked to her partner for confirmation.
Xena turned to face Annia. “You just got yourself a boat.”
Annia felt as though the craft had once again lurched suddenly and she was somehow far out to sea. “Why…?”
“Someone's sort of calling for us,” Gabrielle answered, or did not answer, from Annia's point of view.
“Unless, you'd rather not?” the dark woman asked. “New lives, you know.”
“You'd consider that we…? I mean, I know you don't need to anymore. I mean,” and her tone changed, became somewhat cautious, “You found your redemption… right?”
The warrior must have known what that insecurity meant, and reached across and pulled the smaller woman into her arms. “Yes,” she whispered into the smaller woman's shoulder. “I have. Never doubt that.”
“So…” the bard continued, still as cautiously, but with less nervousness, “We could ignore it, I don't know, go back home, something like that, go to Egypt …”
The warrior pursed her lips. “Whole world open to two peace loving, ummmm… say, farmers?”
There was a long pause before both broke into sudden giggles.
“Not gonna happen, is it?”
“Not this lifetime. We have the skills…I guess, we need to use them.”
“Because we make a difference?” Gabrielle asked.
“We did once, and even if that time, those people no longer exist…”
“We have time to make a difference here. And now.”
The reflective expressions and postures held for a moment before melting
Gabrielle grinned again. “I was already getting restless.”
Xena returned the smile. “Me too. Just saying farmer...” The warrior chuckled, but as she stared across the water her thoughts strayed somewhere and her eyes darkened. She muttered, “Maybe it never was a search for redemption. Maybe it just me, hooked on the fighting, the kills...”
It was to Annia's ear, almost a plea or at least a question in the tone. If so, the warrior was not disappointed. The Amazon took her partner's jaw and turned it towards her, stating firmly in response, “No. You hear me? Maybe you still enjoy a good fight, even a good kill, but afterwards? You're just as drained as I am. That's what we learned apart, wasn't it? If we didn't have this,” and she gestured between herself and her partner, “to recharge, to refill, we wouldn't do it anymore. I know I wouldn't, wouldn't be able… to...”
A small twitch of a smile surfaced on the warrior's face. “And maybe I like showing off.”
The Amazon chuckled. “Yeah, you do,. And me too. But not because we need to prove anything. Not anymore?”
“Not to me. Never to me.”
“Goes both ways, you know that?”
This confusing dialogue was brought to a halt when Annia finally heard what the other two had perceived minutes before. A faint cry of anguish from far down the river. A plea for help. As they rounded another bend they could see distant smoke rising over the trees, smell the very distinctive scent of burning homes. Something they all knew only too well.
Both women turned to the former slave. “So as you can see, it looks like we're headed in different directions now,” Gabrielle said.
Xena cocked her head for a moment before disagreeing. "We've got a little time. I can hear armour. Soldiers, not raiders. More than a dozen. And it sounds like they've taken hostages, probably moving them up into the hills. We may have to wait till nightfall.”
The blonde's tone became resigned. “Soldiers? Roman soldiers? Hades, for once, we were getting along with Rome . And why would they want hostages?”
"Somebody has something they want." Xena shrugged
"Hmmph. Same old, same old. But whatever they want, it's not in that village. Doesn't smell like they left much."
"Of course,” Gabrielle agreed. “So, wounded over there, hostages heading uphill…?”
"We have to split up."
“We-e-ellll?" Xena asked.
“You're the better healer. Think you can trust me to somehow track a large band of grubby soldiers dragging hostages through woods?"
Annia blinked again, not understanding why the two seemed even eager to set off, or why Gabrielle would consider such a dangerous task so simple.
Xena only grinned more. "I think I can do that. As long as you promise…"
"I can keep out of sight. We don't want to test Destiny right away, do we?"
Xena looked to the sky. "Be dark in about three candlemarks. Take us both about that long to find out what's going on and meet halfway and..."
"…figure out what next.” Gabrielle completed. “Together?"
By this time, Annia felt as though her head might explode. If she could follow this strange conversation at all, it seemed as though these two intended to take on a complete column of Roman soldiers alone, for the sake of strangers.
“I'm sorry, but I don't understand. That way is trouble. Wouldn't it be sensible to be going in the opposite direction? Quickly?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Sensible, probably. But going away from trouble never really worked for us.”
Xena disagreed, “Like we've really tried all that hard.”
The perplexity the former slave was feeling, clashed her sense of debt for the heroism of these women. The women who had helped to free herself and the other slaves. She found herself asking, “Is there anything I can do?”
Gabrielle recognised the newfound courage being displayed. She rose and put a hand on the girl's shoulder, guiding her over to the rudder.
“You're very brave to offer, but I think learning to handle this boat, beginning a whole new life, and having a child, are enough for your platter now. And, don't worry about the boat, it's not stolen. The Emperor gave it to us.”
Annia swallowed. “The Emperor!”
Xena shrugged. “Yeah, and then there's all the other stuff the Pontifical College gave us.” She looked to her partner and received a nod. “Mainly fancy stuff that'll just slow us down. If you want it, it's yours.” She reached into a large satchel by the keel and pulled out a stunning and expensively woven toga. “Clothes too...”
“Xena's not really a toga person,” Gabrielle interjected with a teasing grin. “I think it's her sensitive skin.”
Annia found herself caressing the fine garment, before shaking her head. “But… This is too… it's too much. I can't…”
Gabrielle once again took her hand and captured Annia with the sincerity in her eyes. “A new start, remember? Don't let the past stop you from grabbing the good with both hands when it finally comes.”
For all her confusion, Annia could see that the other blonde woman was trying to tell her something very important. Something she was trying to pass on. So she nodded. “Then, I thank you. For it would be a change to have some good in my life. Since my husband…passed, it has been very hard. I do not wish to complain….”
“This baby was all I had. But even that was embittered by knowing that even before he was born, he was already a slave. And then, when after noon yesterday, when he was dying… the miracle occurred.”
“Miracle?” Gabrielle asked.
“Noon?” Xena prodded.
“I was trying to climb through some brush, and I fell. And I felt… Inside. Something was wrong. With the baby. I felt it, I knew I was losing him. But, the Gods saved him. Just after noon …”
Both partners seemed to freeze and even the dark woman seemed to be hanging on her words, as though what happened to her child concerned them all.
“Yes?” both almost demanded.
Annia paused, startled by of their intense interest, before responding. “It was as if, there were these lights, these sparkles, and I felt something, and it was as if it went inside of me and suddenly I knew it was all, all right. As if, whatever it was… somehow made him stronger. Saved him.” Annia looked to both, hoping that they might understand what she was unable to express. To her surprise, she saw that understanding clearly in their eyes. She continued, “I could feel him moving again and I knew, he… she… was going to be alright.” The optimism once more seeped away. “But he'll still be the child of a slave, and no matter how far I go… my master…he'll…”
The warrior stated firmly, with a trace of some emotion Annia could not place. “We weren't gonna let that happen before, so we're sure as Hades not going to let that happen now.”
“What do… why do you say that?”
Xena paused. “Because…a lot of things. I had a daughter…”
“A daughter? Where…?”
“She…” Again there was that hesitation. “She's gone. She was taken from me.” The warrior gathered herself, before continuing. “She was… special, like your child might be. And she was also raised in the city of my enemies, raised to fight. For them. For my enemies.”
“Special? How do you mean special?”
The partners looked to each other and again there was some sort of agreement reached.
“There's something else, something you need to know…”
“The… sparkles you saw?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yes?” Annia asked.
Gabrielle prodded her partner, receiving a frustrated glare in exchange.
After a futile search for words, the warrior closed her eyes and blurted, “You explain it!”
Gabrielle grinned and began to the warrior's obvious relief. “The fight we just had? It ended just after noon yesterday. The reward, what we really won, was… hope. A small chance at peace for this world. It's a violent place, with almost no chance for survival. So part of our deal, was that children, unborn children and those to be conceived, were touched with a part of … I guess…us. Parts of our destinies and maybe skills, because, the world is going to need them. We think that your child and many others, might be part of this chance to survive. Of hope. ”
Annia hands dropped both of her hands in a protective position about her belly. “So if as you say, my child has been touched this thing you did, has been touched by you, if she's special… how can might such as I raise him? What would you have me teach him?”
The warrior turned away. “Again, your department. I'm the last person to give advice about being a parent…”
“Xena?” Gabrielle nagged. “You couldn't even last one day. We said, we would remember the good.”
“Fine, but I still wouldn't give advice. I've had followers. Even the ones that knew of how I've tried to change…”
“There was this town… This was way back, probably when you were at the Academy. They'd heard your stories and they thought I was a role model. Can you believe it?”
There was a look on Gabrielle's face that said many things, but disbelief was not one of them.
“Well, they said they sometimes would ask, what would Xena do? I admit, I thought that maybe I had something I could teach them. Until one morning, I found them lynching a woman. Not because they'd seen her commit some crime, but on rumours. Not even rumours. Whispers! They were beating her because they thought that was bold and brave and what they'd learned from me. Without a thought of justice or truth… and they could claim they idolised me?”
The warrior made a disgusted snort. “No thanks. And you know how it was, the ones that followed my earlier days. They were even worse. They took the easy route to leadership. Playing on all the worst in man. Playing on the fears, the greed. We couldn't afford that then and we can't afford it now. Every time that happens we fall closer into the world that Mars created. So no, Gabrielle, I'm not going to give speeches about how to live or be a hero, okay?”
There was no hesitation in the Amazon's voice now. “Don't you see, Xena? You just did. What you're saying is, the right way to lead, is to inspire. Not to create fear. But to try to find that kernel in all of us that's the best. And that's what you've done with me.”
“After all we've been through…?”
The Amazon nodded. “Yes. You brought out the best in me, Xena.”
“You are the best in me, Gabrielle.”
Once again, tears were straining in the eyes of all the women, and Gabrielle took a deep breath before summing up to Annia, “So, that's a start. That's what you tell him. Or her. That this world will not survive unless you look for and inspire the best in people. Not to use fear even when it seems the easiest path."”
Annia looked up to see that Xena was directing the boat to the shore opposite the smoke.
“So, anyway, you'll be needing more than just new clothes and a boat.”
Annia looked to both of the travellers. “I don't understand.”
Gabrielle looked to the satchel. “Well, they'll be looking for Annia, won't they? A new start needs a new name.”
Xena began rooting about again and this time pulled out a few sheets of parchment. “The Pontifical College felt that we might need certain papers to establish who we are and they left them blank for us to fill in. I don't think we need them, do you, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle already had her quill out. She took the scrolls and scribed furiously for a moment and then looked to the girl. “Would you mind…How do you feel about the name… Numai?”
Annia was willing to accept any name that might take her from the nightmare of pursuit. “Numai. It's lovely.”
The papers were placed in her hands. “This will certify that you are a free woman, called Numai, originally of Rome . After the death of your husband in battle, you've decided to move to the countryside to raise your child.”
Annia looked at the parchment, her mind whirling. “Why Numai?”
“That was the Vestal, who I…” there was a pause that implied a series of words that that could not be completed.
“At least you knew her name,” Xena said quietly, but there was another emotion lurking behind the set face. “You said that one of your master's friends, was named Gratidius?”
“He was a great influence on my Master.”
“I have reason to think, he killed and raped a slave. Though it might have been a trick and he was innocent.”
“I cannot imagine innocent and Gratudius in the same sentence.”
“Would he rape and kill a slave?”
“Yes,” and though she struggled to keep her answer firm, her lips quivered slightly.
“Well, he won't be doing that anymore.” Gabrielle leaned over to look at the pin. “I sort of spoke to the Emperor about that.”
There was something in her partner's voice that seemed to catch Xena's attention. “You did what?”
“Look, Xena. Just because you managed to keep yourself from wreaking revenge on the bastard, didn't mean that it wouldn't bother you that that girl never found justice. So after you told me about it, I had a word with the Emperor. He agreed with me that Gratidius was guilty in his treatment of his… staff.” Again, Annia had a feeling that they were speaking some language she didn't understand, so much was implied by their words. “He's going to be spending some time in a large cell and with any luck, he's learning first hand what it's like to be flayed and raped.”
Xnea closed her eyes and then leaned over to offer Gabrielle a short kiss and a brilliant smile. Both of which had Annia blinking even more furiously than before.
“Always looking after me, huh?” the warrior stated.
Annia tore her eyes away from the women and back to the parchment in her hands. No matter how confusing all of this was, the words on the sheet were clear. She was free. Her child would be free.
Xena began rummaging around in Gabrielle's satchel. Finding the object she was looking for, she said, “Then he won't need this.” She opened her palm to reveal a jewelled Victory pin. Numai looked at it in astonishment. The gold and jewels were worth more than she herself had been sold for. “This… this could…”
“Help start out a whole new life? Take it. You wouldn't believe how hard I've tried to get rid of it. Maybe so I could have it now. To help another slave,” and once more the sun seemed to come out of that stern face.
Annia reached for the pin, before withdrawing her hand. “You said that it belonged to someone else?”
“It originally belonged to Gratidius. He gave it to a slave as… let's call it a parting gift. And she… handed it… to me. All legal as I'm sure Marcus will approve.”
She felt the pin being placed into her hand, but she stuttered, “Marcus?” Annia was now feeling quite faint. “You call the Emperor, Marcus?”
Gabrielle pointed to her partner. “She wanted to call him Marky. Or was it Tuti Capo?”
Xena snorted in amusement. “Tutti Fruity, maybe.”
Annia was shaking her head. “ You have given me things far more valuable. You might need this, someday. Perhaps you might want to give it to someone who is closer than a stranger.”
“Nah,” the warrior grinned. “This feels right. There's no one left, no family…”
Gabrielle spoke. “The people we knew, they only live in our memories. Some of what they did, who they were… We're the only ones… it doesn't exist anymore. But we'll remember the best in them.” She massaged more tears from her eyes to look to her partner.
“And I think,” Xena took Gabrielle's hand once more, “that if we can do that for them… we can do the same for each other. Right? Remember the good. We can do that, can't we?”
“We can. We will.”
Annia was still trying to find the words, actually any words, to thank them, or to understand how this had happened, when Gabrielle called out, “I guess this is our stop. And I think my partner is gonna want these.” She held up some sort of armoured breast plate and leather accoutrements.
The warrior looked over the armour with a pensive gaze, the shine of the brass and steel indicating it had been recently made, or perhaps created by the gods, Annia thought with wonder.
“Nah, hand them to me once I'm in. No point in getting them wet, right?” Then with some footwork that was too fast for Annia to analyse, she was in the air, high above the boat, turning, in the air to her amazed eyes, and then slicing into the water hardly stirring a single wave. When her head and shoulders appeared, the water flowing down her ink dark hair, smiling, Annia was prepared to once more consider that a Goddess was emerging.
Gabrielle seemed almost angry. “The boat didn't even rock, Xena? How can you leap up from a boat in the water and not bounce it all over place?”
The warrior grinned and was about to speak when the blonde interrupted saying, “Don't you dare say, I have many skills.”
The warrior grinned unrepentantly. “How about I just say, I'll show you how later. Is that better?”
“Yeah, that's a lot better. Just as long as… And she took a deep breath, “As long as you remember…every once in a while, to show me the moon in the daylight and the cloudy skies.”
Annia looked about, scanning the achingly bright skies for a moment before asking, “But the moon is not out now?”
The partners smiled at one another before turning to her and Gabrielle said, “Yes, it is. You have to learn to trust that the moon is always there.”
Annia shook her head in an acceptance that she could never understand. Instead she asked, “Are all heroes mad?”
“It helps,” Xena chuckled.
“And there's the madness of love, Annia,” Gabrielle added cheerfully and she carefully moved to the side, carrying the armour.
The warrior touched her partner's hand and said, slightly smirking, “You mean like last night kind of madness?
Gabrielle blushed, then smiled. “Last night… It really wasn't too much, was it?”
The warrior looked away as she took the first of the leather accoutrements from the Amazon's hands. “Never. It was better than memory and…” Xena uncharacteristically stuttered, “It…It made me believe that we've always shared one soul.”
Gabrielle brushed her stinging eyes quickly before reaching to her partner. "Here… that's still my job, right?"
The warrior nodded, saying, “For as long as you want it.”
“Forever long enough?” the Amazon asked.
Just as casual as the reply, “Sounds about right,” The warrior found the shallows and straightened, standing tall, as the Amazon began what was clearly a familiar action. She pulled the shoulder straps over the broad shoulders and reached for the buckles. "Hold still, these are loose," tugging at the straps of the fasteners and making them tighter.
"There... “She slid around to face her warrior and received a soft kiss on the forehead which brightened the smile already on her face.
Gabrielle packed a few belongings into the simple satchel. She moved to the edge of the sloop, leaving Annia clutching the pin and the parchments. Once the boat was secure enough, she slipped out. Once alongside, she gave it a slight push out of the shallows, calling back, “The moon, the moon is love, Numai. And it's there, if you trust, if you look. Always look for the moon, Numai.”
But just before they began their swim to the opposite shore, they gripped each other's arms as she'd seen soldiers do, and yet their eyes held for a time. A frozen moment, their bodies and breath completely still in the rippling waters of the Tiber . Nothing but their gaze, withholding nothing from each other. There was no repeat of their previous kiss and yet Annia, no, Numai, realised that she'd never seen anything as intimate.
Then without a word, they broke apart and moved purposely towards different points along the shore.
And again the word fell from her lips. Heroes .
She pondered, in wonderment, There are heroes about ! And her heart lifted at this knowledge and she looked down to where her unborn child rested, asking, “ Could you be a hero? Despite the risks and the hardships and loss? If you were taught and guided and made to know the difference between justice and injustice…
“Would I want to teach you this?”
And even if she did, could this one child make a difference? What would the world know, what would the world care in the eons ahead if one child's struggle was for the greater good or not?
Because parchment decays, memory fades, libraries burn and the world changes …
For one moment she could imagine the vast acres of Rome as ruins, even see them covered by earth, and yet…
The forms of her era and the architecture beneath would alter the landscape subtly and the green things that grew over them would be changed by what was under them, and the colours of that growth might vary perceptibly. And the human mind… was it not as complex as the earth? Could it not occasionally feel that alteration in the contours, the buried memories long lost, to find that rightness, that spark of truth? That instinctual knowledge that heroes, that these woman, had once existed and shaped a hope for the future?
And she looked to the now far away figures lifting themselves out of the water across the river until they disappeared into the bush. And thought back to the city behind her. Thought of herself. A refugee, a former slave and a survivor of the worst brutalities of the Coliseum. A survivor because of these women. With her own story still to tell, whether history recorded it or not.
She looked down the river to see that she was steering out of the breeze, and adjusted her course as she'd been shown.
Yes . She could do this. She had known so many things in this world far worse than to raise a hero. She could follow their path and make her own… followed by her child, and her children's children.
Her grateful tears joined the Tiber as her boat slowly moved towards Ostia and the future.
It is impossible to thank the very many people who helped in the completion of this story. I only wish I had been capable of making it better for their sakes. My sincere thanks to all of them.
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