Disclaimers - The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
History - Some of the characters in this story (namely Zenobia and Aurelian) are based very loosely on actual historic figures, but their real stories are far more interesting than this... I encourage you to go read about them!
Violence - There is lots of violence in this one, but I wouldn't say it's much worse than what we've seen on the show. In fact, there's not much in this story that we haven't already seen on the show, but whereas RT said he took the characters full circle, I kind of felt he only took them about half way there. (If you're going to kill off a character, do it right. Well, this is my attempt. Although the story does involve death of a major character, I will say that X&G wind up together in the end...)
Subtext/Sex - Two women who are in love, but no sex.
Thanks - To my beta reader, Ellen, and the support and inspiration of the Bardic Circle. Also thanks to Jill, for being there to talk Xena with me, and, of course, to Kate, for putting up with me.
All comments are welcomed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Leslie Ann Miller
They come to me, drifting like dandelion seeds on the wind, thoughts from distant lands, tickling my consciousness.
Damn you, Xena, for this ache in my leg...Please, Eli, look out after my mother...Bless her for saving me...Xena killed him...Thank you, Gods, for all her help...Curse her for my suffering...Where are you, Xena? Are you still with her, protecting her?
That last one was Virgil, I think, wondering where we are. If I had eyes, I would weep. They say that the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. I just wonder how long it will be before they drive me mad.
I miss you, Xena.
Her thoughts are always the loudest, and my spirit shudders at the overwhelming sadness that fills the words and gives them meaning. I am drawn to her, bound to her, her shining soul a beacon in the gray fog that is my existence. Gabrielle. I see her now, leaning over the rail of the ship, vomiting.
I pull myself from the nothingness--what is spirit? what is soul?--and appear beside her. "I've shown you the pressure points for seasickness, why don't you use them?" I ask her.
She looks up with haunted eyes. "They don't help," she whispers, and I see for the first time how gaunt she looks, how thin and pale.
How long have we been on this ship? A week? A month? Where are we? It occurs to me that I have no idea. I also realize it isn't the rocking of the boat that is making her sick--it's everything else. It's her life, my death, our separation. The nightmares that won't let her sleep through the night. The world. The universe. Our fate.
Something's wrong, mother, I feel it. Please be okay.
Eve. I would go to her, if I knew how, but I'm afraid to leave Gabrielle--afraid of what she might do, what might happen.
I can't go on like this.
She hasn't spoken, nor thought of me directly, but I hear the words anyway. "You must," I tell her.
"Why?" she asks aloud, and a passing sailor looks at her oddly. She stares back at him, daring him to comment. The crew of the ship think she's crazy, always talking to the air, but they're afraid of her, too. Insanity is dangerous, especially in a warrior as deadly as she is.
"You have gifts to give to the world," I tell her again. I repeat the words, as I have done so often since my death, begging her to believe them. "You have your stories, your scrolls. You have many deeds to do in the name of goodness, many wrongs to right."
"I'd rather be with you."
"We are together."
"No, we're not. I can't touch you, Xena. Sometimes I can barely see you; you fade in and out. I didn't see you at all yesterday, or the day before."
This startles me. I did not know. My sense of time has diminished; my sense of reality is so...unreal.
"I can't smell you, or taste you..." she continues. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm not just dreaming you..."
I long to wipe the tears from her face. "You're not," I assure her as calmly as I can, wondering what will happen to me if she ceases to believe in me. Will I disappear entirely? Will I cease to exist? Is it her belief, her faith in me, that enables me to stay beside her, if only in spirit? I don't know the answers to these questions, and the possibilities scare me, so I push the thoughts aside. "I'm here, Gabrielle. I'll always be here."
She wipes the tears from her face and leans over the railing, her stomach heaving again. When she finishes, she looks at me sadly and shakes her head. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Xena."
I am stunned by her words and feel myself fading. Does she have so little faith in me? "I'll be back, love," I say before I am gone.
Days and nights pass unnoticed. Time is a dream. I float on a sea of thought, thoughts of me, thoughts of Gabrielle. I drift, like the ship, but I have no rudder, only an anchor. It is love, Gabrielle's love for me, towing my spirit in her wake. What will happen to me should that love ever fade or fail? I take comfort in knowing that somehow, someday, we will both be reborn and meet again in future lives.
Gods, Xena, I wish you were here.
With some surprise I see that she is standing in the entrance of a temple. When did we leave the boat? Gods, but she looks thin. I must convince her to take better care of herself, before she becomes a ghost. I catch my choice of words and chastise myself. I would not wish this existence upon her. I would not wish it on anyone.
I follow her into the temple and see my daughter kneeling in front of an altar. As if sensing Gabrielle's presence, she rises and turns.
They do not speak, but rush to embrace, crying. Eve knows, without Gabrielle telling her. Their thoughts are too painful for me to bear, and I leave them alone in their grief, consumed by the guilt of having so badly hurt the two people I love most in the world.
She doesn't believe me, Xena.
Gabrielle is standing beside two horses, one laden with supplies. She is leaving, heading west. Eve stands beside her. Eve cannot see me, and she didn't believe when Gabrielle told her that my spirit was here. She believes that the God of Eli has claimed me. I went to Heaven once, after all. It pains me that I cannot prove to her otherwise.
"I know," I tell Gabrielle. "Tell her I love her anyway."
"She says she loves you," Gabrielle tells Eve through her tears.
"Tell her I'm proud of her," I continue.
"And she's proud of you," my bard repeats.
Eve tries hard not to cry, but fails, though I sense she is weeping more for Gabrielle than for me.
Mother, wherever you are, look after her.
"I'm right here," I say in her ear. "And I will."
Gabrielle looks at me, puzzled.
"She asked me to look after you." I smile at her, knowing she will appreciate Eve's concern.
Gabrielle wipes her face with a trembling hand. "She does look after me, Eve," she says sadly, then turns to mount her horse.
Eve stares at her, thoughtfully.
But it's not true, I realize. I don't look after either of them anymore. How can I, as a ghost? All I can really do is look on.
This is so hard, Xena, Gabrielle thinks, kicking her horse into motion, leading the other by a rope. I feel her grief at saying good-bye to yet another person so dear to her. She does not expect to see Eve again. How many good-byes have there been for her over the years? Too many; some spoken, like today, many more left unsaid. Too few happy reunions.
"I know," I say, sharing her grief. Too hard, perhaps. Too hard.
She travels in solitude, actively avoiding the company of others. She eats, dutifully, honoring a promise made to Eve, but I can tell she takes no pleasure in it. She takes no pleasure in anything, it seems.
"Gabrielle," I say, appearing beside her one evening as she stares deep into the flames of her campfire.
She looks up, startled. She smiles at me, and I see relief in her eyes. "You're back. It's been nearly a week, Xena. I was afraid..."
A week? It seemed more like hours. Maybe a day. Or perhaps an eternity. Was there any difference? "I'm still with you," I assure her, sitting down. "I can't seem to keep track of time."
"Why do you leave? Are you out saving lost spirits? Doing good deeds in the lands of the dead?"
"No," I shake my head. "I don't know why you can't see me. I'm always here, watching you. I just lose track of things sometimes, of...myself, I guess. And then I come back." It occurs to me, "Maybe the thoughts drive me away."
"The thoughts of me... I hear when people think of me. There's a man in Thrace who curses me every morning because I broke his leg and it still aches. He's one of many, I'm afraid. I never realized how many lives I touched before. Well, I did, in a way, but it's different to hear them all thinking of me. There are so many... Sometimes I even hear the thoughts of those in Hades..."
"The dead hear the thoughts of the dead?"
"And you leave to escape them?"
"Perhaps. Maybe. Yes. No. I don't know, Gabrielle. It all seems so unreal." Like a dream--or maybe a nightmare.
"I wish it did to me," she says softly, and reaches to touch my face. She sighs when her fingers pass through me. I want you back.
"I know. I'm sorry."
I watch over her as she prepares for bed, curling up beside the fire. Eventually she drifts off to sleep, but it isn't long until the nightmares claim her. I would give anything to be able to wake her up, but I know from past experience I cannot. I cannot shake her awake, and she does not hear my voice.
When she cries out my name in anguish and pain, I can bear it no longer and seek the peace of oblivion.
Caesar is coming, Xena.
She is standing on the walls of Alexandria, watching the dust turn the sunset to flames over the western desert, dust given life by the marching feet of an army. There is a new queen of Egypt, Zenobia of Palmyra, and a new emperor in Rome. And Aurelian is coming to reclaim the land of the Pharaohs.
Gods be damned, where are you?!
"I'm right here," I say, appearing beside her. She looks at me, and I am surprised by the anger I see in her eyes. "What's wrong?"
"You know, sometimes I wonder if this is worse than you just being dead and gone. I keep thinking you'll appear any day, but then you don't. And then I wonder if you're gone for good, if I'll ever see you again. It's like losing you over and over again." She grates the words, her hands twisted into fists. She picks up a small piece of stone and throws it over the wall, toward the desert and the rising dust. "That's Rome out there, Xena. If you're going to be here for me, now is the time."
"I am here for you," I say, taken aback.
She tries to push my chest and goes right through me. She throws her hands up in frustration. "No, you're not! You're not here, Xena. You're not here. Maybe you are just a figment of my twisted imagination!" She starts pacing the wall.
I walk beside her. "No, I'm not, Gabrielle. I'm real. I'm here. You're not imagining me."
She continues to pace without responding, running fingers through her short hair.
"Okay," I say slowly. She's upset. I understand that. Gods know how I would be holding up if our roles had been reversed. But she sounded desperate for me, too. She needs me, or at least she thinks she does. "So, you say that's Rome out there?"
She stops pacing and stares out at the darkening desert. "Yes. They're coming to take back Egypt."
"You've fought the Romans before, Gabrielle. You know their strategies, their tactics."
"If the reports are accurate, Zenobia's forces are outnumbered twenty to one. She's over extended herself. Even with the city defenses, Alexandria won't hold. She doesn't have much of a navy to defend the harbors. It's a losing battle, Xena."
"Perhaps. Do the Romans bring a fleet?"
"None has been reported, but you know they will."
"Yes. You're right. So how do you defend the harbors and the walls when you have too few ships to do the job?"
"Zenobia could block the Great Harbor...sink a ship or string chains across the entrance. That would leave only the Eunostos Harbor to defend. There's no way to block it."
"Still, that would be half the problem solved..."
"Of the harbor front, anyway."
"She could position catapults on the lighthouse island. Catch any ships entering the harbor in a cross fire."
"The Roman fleet would have to disable them before attacking the main city."
"Too bad they can't use the lighthouse for defense... Wait, perhaps they can... There's a huge mirror in there, isn't there?"
"I believe so. I seem to remember Cleopatra telling me it is the largest mirror ever made."
"Big enough to catch a ship on fire if the light were concentrated on a wooden side or deck?"
I grin. Very clever, Gabrielle. Very clever indeed. "Very possibly."
"If so, they could use it to attack the Roman fleet long before it got into catapult range."
I nod, smiling at her.
She smiles back, a touch of excitement brightening her eyes, her previous anger at me forgotten. It's a brilliant idea, and she knows it. "Now I just have to find some way of talking to the Queen to tell her our ideas."
"Your ideas, Gabrielle. And you'll find a way," I tell her, knowing it was true. My bard is very resourceful. "I told you they needed a girl with a chakram here," I chuckle.
I wish I could have met you, Xena. I am named after you, you know.
Zenobia. I wonder who added the "obia" to the name. I don't like it.
Gabrielle is good, but we could certainly use you.
The woman pisses me off. Ever since Gabrielle received an audience with her--how long ago?--she has been thinking about me incessantly. What would you do, Xena? How would you do this and that? It is driving me crazy. She wants to build an empire for her son. No, I correct myself, she has built an empire for her son. Now she has to hold on to it--and she wants my help to do so.
By all accounts, she is a smart and gracious ruler. Strong, but fair. She is greedy, but not in an entirely selfish way. She shares her wealth. The people prefer her to Rome. But she doesn't treat Gabrielle with the respect she deserves, at least not in her thoughts, and that makes me angry.
If you provide me guidance, I will build a temple in your name to house your ashes.
"Oh, for crying out loud," I mutter to myself.
Gabrielle looks up from where she is stacking bundles of arrows for Zenobia's Arab archers on the city's south wall. "What's wrong?"
I notice the archers giving her a wide berth. She no longer even attempts to hide her conversations with me in front of others. She is resigned to the strange looks and ostracism.
"Zenobia promises to build a temple to house my ashes if I'll help her win the war."
My bard snickers. "Better watch out. You're going to be worshipped like a goddess before you know it."
"After turning down immortality all those times, you'd think people would figure out that's the last thing I want."
Gabrielle stands up slowly and looks at me, all traces of humor gone from her eyes. "Is this better than immortality, Xena? What you have now?"
I swallow and turn away from her, unable to meet her eyes. I don't know how to answer her, because I don't know what it is I have now. Immortality implies eternal life, and I am not alive--yet, I am still here. I don't know why I'm still here, though since it seems I am bound to Gabrielle, I suspect the answer lies there. If I had eaten the golden apple, or the ambrosia, I would still have a body, still have a life, still be able to kiss her, and hold her... I stop pursuing that chain of thought. I consciously made each decision that led me to this place, and I am unwilling to second-guess myself now. After all, if I were immortal, what would happen to me when Gabrielle died?
But...I could have given her an apple, too. We could have spent eternity together. Was this better than that? Why do I despise the gods and their immortality?
Because it is a lie. Change is the only universal law; all things will come to an end. Yes, even the gods, as I so aptly proved. "Immortality" only postpones the inevitable, allowing stagnation and preventing growth. Is it any wonder that the Gods are like spoiled children, unable to learn wisdom? Eternally young in mind and body. Even the so-called goddess of wisdom, Athena, lost all semblance of reason when faced with the prospect of her own demise. It wasn't wisdom that guided her actions, it was fear: the fear of a child afraid of the dark.
But what do I stand to learn from this half existence I have now? Is it a lesson worth learning? Is there value in this suffering? Wouldn't that childlike foolishness of immortality be better than this?
I turn back and meet her sorrowful gaze. "I don't know," I tell her honestly.
She fights with fury and desperation. Zenobia's scouts underestimated the size of Aurelian's forces. While the Roman fleet still hasn't taken the Eunostos Harbor, the walls of the city are besieged by wave after wave of Roman troops crashing against the defenses. It is only a matter of time before they are washed away like sand before the sea.
Gabrielle fights on the western walls overlooking a cemetery. The stone is slick with blood, and the sands beneath are buried under a pile of human bodies. Never before have I seen my bard so covered with blood and gore. It is a sickening sight, and yet I am proud of her. This side of the city would surely have fallen already if it were not for her courage and skill inspiring Zenobia's soldiers to stand their ground.
To the south, I see the city erupt in flames and hear the frantic blaring of horns. The south wall has been breached. The Roman troops in the cemetery give a glad cry and prepare for another assault.
A messenger staggers up the stairs to our position, slipping on the blood at the top of the steps. Gabrielle helps him to his feet, her bloody hands staining the bronze vambrace on his forearm.
"The lighthouse is taken," he gasps. "And now the south wall has fallen. The Queen asks you to join her at the east gate."
"The east gate?" Gabrielle repeats dazedly. "There's no advantage to gathering at the east gate. The palace would be a better place."
The messenger swallows hard as Gabrielle almost casually pushes a ladder off the side of the wall. A ball from a catapult showers the walkway with flames behind him, and I almost laugh. He looks as if he might wet himself.
"Th-the Queen p-prepares to retreat to Antioch. She has 70,000 troops waiting there."
"She's running away?" Gabrielle asks, stunned.
The messenger doesn't answer, instead fleeing back down the stairs.
"It's a strategic retreat, Gabrielle," I tell her. "Live to fight another day. This battle can't be won."
"You would have found a way."
"I don't think so. Not even with Ares' help. Today belongs to Rome."
"And apparently so does Egypt. Xena, I can't leave now. Too many people have died here today."
I want to shake her, shake some sense into her. "Gabrielle, go to Zenobia. Live to fight another day."
She is crying now. "Is that what you would do?" she whispers.
"Yes," I say honestly.
She wipes the tears from her face, smearing blood across her cheek in the process, and gathers herself together. Drawing a deep breath, she sounds the retreat, and the soldiers remaining with her on the walls abandon their places, preceding her into the tangled streets of the city below. Behind them horns blare triumphantly as Roman soldiers pour over the western walls.
Alexandria has fallen.
They flee across the desert on camels, the light of a waning half-moon illuminating their way. Gabrielle rides beside the Queen. Three hundred cavalry, a mix of Arabs and Egyptians, trail behind. The infantry have been left to fend for themselves. The stars overhead are bright despite the moon, and they travel in silence.
It is almost dawn when Gabrielle stops her camel and turns around.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"What I have to do," she answers wearily.
"What are you doing?" Zenobia asks, using the exact same tone as me.
Gabrielle smiles. "I'm going back to the infantry."
"No," Zenobia says forcefully, and for once I approve of her entirely.
"They need a commander. You've ordered them to slow the Roman advance. How can they do that without a leader? They'll be slaughtered."
"They'll be slaughtered no matter what. I need you with me, Gabrielle!"
"Your guard is exhausted from the battle, Zenobia. You'll have to stop for a rest at the next oasis. Aurelian will be pursuing with fresh troops, fresh horses and chariots. Unless the infantry fights well, they will be little more than a brief distraction...nothing but a bump in the road, and you'll be caught before you reach Antioch."
Zenobia pales visibly at the thought. "I will send someone else, then."
Gabrielle shakes her head. "No, you need someone who will actually slow the Romans down. I can, and I will."
She's right, of course. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. "Gabrielle! You don't have to do this," I say. "There's no guarantee the Romans will catch up. You may be sacrificing yourself for nothing!"
She looks at me and doesn't need to speak for me to know what she would say. You don't honestly believe that, do you, Xena?
And no, I don't believe it--but I want to. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
But that doesn't stop Gabrielle.
Zenobia lets her go. Protect her, Xena. Protect us all.
I curse her name to the rising sun along with my own helplessness.
Look at them, Xena. Look at them, and tell me I have done the wrong thing.
What had been a group of three hundred disorganized, despairing, and therefore doomed soldiers had been transformed once again into a determined fighting force. She gave them hope, gave them courage, and now they look to her with worshipful eyes. She positions them on high, rocky ground, overlooking the road, giving them the greatest advantage they can gain against the Romans.
"You did what you had to do, Gabrielle," I acknowledge. It would not do to make her doubt herself now.
I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you've stayed with me through all of this. Stay a little longer... please?
Gods, how did she do that, sound like a fearless commander one moment, and a small, frightened girl the next? "How could I leave you now?" I smile, trying to reassure her. I don't tell her that I want to leave. I don't want to witness what I know is coming.
The sun is still high when they first see the glint of light reflecting off the approaching army. Soon we will be able to feel the rumble of hooves from two thousand horses moving fast along the road. It is a frightening feeling and a terrifying sight. The sound of thunder will not be far behind.
Gabrielle uses surprise to her advantage. The Arab archers, nearly a hundred in all, stand up atop the hill and loose their arrows upon the first wave of unsuspecting chariots passing on the road below. Men and horses scream; chariots collide and tip over. I smile. If nothing else, it will take them hours to clear the road of the mess.
The archers have time to let more arrows fly before the Roman commanders start to shout orders. The Romans retreat, gathering at a safe distance beneath the emperor's banners. They will not be able to attack the steep, rocky hill with cavalry. They will be forced to attack on foot, or wait for the infantry and siege engines to arrive. I hope they wait. The longer, the better.
Unfortunately, it becomes evident that Aurelian doesn't want to delay any longer than necessary. It is clear they are organizing for an attack with the troops on hand. Rome has an efficient, professional, and experienced army. They quickly surround the hill, and I watch in admiration as they advance up the rough terrain, shields overlapped for protection against the archers and thrown rocks. When a hole opens up because a man has fallen, it's quickly filled from the ranks behind.
Gabrielle knows that they can't afford to let the Romans reach the top. When they near the crest, she gives the signal, and her forces charge the shield wall, driving them down. Bodies fly, blood sprays, and the Romans fall back, literally, in many cases; others are killed by more arrows in their disorganized retreat. Gabrielle calls her men back to the rim of the hill, knowing they will be slaughtered if they lose the ground, preparing them for another assault. They regroup, shouting and cheering in many languages. I hear them cry her name. They are fighting for her now, not Zenobia.
The scene is repeated, again and again, with more dead Romans left on the hillside, and fewer and fewer forces left defending. Finally, they swarm the hilltop, the defenders being too few to drive them back, and Gabrielle fights in a small ring beside her exhausted men. One by one they fall beside her. She is wounded on the shoulder and stumbles on the bodies underfoot, but still they can't stop her.
The hill is now covered in dead, so she stands on torn bodies, facing the Roman army alone. Blood drips from her sais. They surround her, but do not attack. She is a golden lioness encircled by prey.
"They're afraid of me, Xena," she says aloud in wonder, and I know she is experiencing the fierce exhilaration of being completely in control. The power of intimidation is intoxicating, even now, when the end is so near. Especially now. She feels alive like she has never felt before.
What I would give to be beside her now, sword in hand. We would slaughter these bastards like sheep before they overwhelmed us. And then we would die together, back to back...go out fighting to the bitter end. Rome would remember our glorious final stand for generations to come. Rome would grieve their missing sons.
Suddenly, Gabrielle laughs. She relaxes her stance and looks up at the sun, now well along its downward journey to the horizon. We've delayed them a day. Perhaps two or three, if they stop to tend the wounded. Is it enough, Xena?
"Yes," I tell her.
She smiles at me then, and looks at the enemies surrounding her. "I'm tired of this, aren't you?" she asks simply, and I'm not sure if she's talking to me or to them. "So... I'll surrender if you'll let me."
My heart freezes watching them, their lives suspended in the balance. I think, It might work. It might actually work. I almost dare to hope that she will yet walk out of this alive.
A Roman commander steps forward. "Drop your weapons," he orders, gesturing with his sword, "and we'll let the emperor determine your fate."
Gabrielle considers it, trying to decide if his word can be trusted. "Fair enough," she finally nods, and slowly lets her sais drop. She takes the chakram from her belt and looks at me. Don't worry, she thinks before I can say anything, I won't let them have it. "Ares," she whispers, almost a prayer, and throws it towards the sunset. It sings through the air above the Romans' heads, causing them to duck, then sails across the desert. With a final flash of light against the disk of the bloody sun, it disappears.
I realize that Gabrielle will never kill again.
The guards force her to kneel before the Emperor, pushing her down cruelly by her wounded shoulder. She gasps in pain, and her eyes water, but she does not cry out.
Aurelian watches her for a moment. I see no hatred on his face, no anger. Just a certain weariness, perhaps, that comes from holding the lives of too many in one's hands.
"You are Gabrielle," he says, finally. It is not a question.
She looks up at him in surprise. "Yes."
"I saw you in Rome once, in Caligula's court," he explains, answering her unspoken question. "I had no idea you were such a mighty warrior," he continues. "I thought your gift was with words. I was told you were Xena's bard."
"I was," Gabrielle says quietly. "But she also taught me the art of war."
"Mmmmm," he agrees absently, then stares off into the distance. "Yes, indeed." He looks back at her. "I didn't believe it when I heard of her death. I didn't believe it, that is, until I saw you wielding the chakram against my men on the walls of Alexandria. She is dead, isn't she?" This time, it was a question.
He nods sadly. He stands and paces before her, his hands behind his back. He lacks the usual arrogance of a Caesar, I notice. "The time of great heroes is over, I fear. Achilles, Julius Caesar, Hercules...Xena. Will the world ever see their like again?"
I want to shout at him, "Let Gabrielle go free, and you'll see the greatest one of all!"
"Julius Caesar was no hero," Gabrielle replies calmly, and I am startled that I didn't think it first.
Aurelian smiles. "To Rome he is. And I am Rome."
I sigh. So much for not having the arrogance of a Caesar.
"The time of the many gods is past," the emperor continues. "You are a relic from a bygone age, my dear, and therefore a problem to me." He sighs heavily. "You are dangerous. My men are afraid of you; Zenobia's men obviously love you. I can't let you oppose me, so I can't let you go free. I don't suppose a warrior such as yourself would want to be locked away in a dungeon for the rest of your life--and besides, I don't want to worry about you breaking free somehow--so I offer you this choice: death, or the Coliseum. If you choose the latter, I will dispatch of Zenobia and her little uprising while you busy yourself fighting your way to freedom as a gladiator. No doubt you'll become the hero of the Roman populace at the same time. Heroes, these days, are made in the arena--and I could certainly use your skills there."
My heart leaps. She has a chance to live. "Take it, Gabrielle. The Coliseum can be your podium!"
Gabrielle smiles bitterly, ignoring me. "You keep the masses happy by providing them with entertainment in the form of death. Killing as sport--no good will ever come of that. I'll have no part of it."
In my heart I had known what her answer would be, what it had to be, but it still hits me like blow. "No!" I cry, falling to my knees, and Gabrielle flinches, barely.
Aurelian's eyes harden. "An idealist to the end, then. So be it." He looks to the guards on either side of her. "Crucify her."
He turns to leave, but Gabrielle cries out, "Wait! Please!"
I hold my breath, begging her to change her mind.
Aurelian turns back to her, waiting for her to continue.
Gabrielle suddenly looks lost, deflated, frightened. "P-Please, may...may I beg a favor of you?"
"You may beg, but I do not promise to deliver," the emperor says coldly.
Gabrielle swallows, and nods slightly. "My camel is tethered behind the hill. In my bags, there is a pot. A pot of ashes. I would beg that you deliver them to Greece...to Amphipolis. There is a tomb there..."
I have no heart, but it is breaking. Surely it is. "Don't do this, Gabrielle, please don't do this," I whisper.
"Amphipolis?" Aurelian repeats, understanding dawning in his eyes. His shoulders sag, and the look of weariness returns. "Yes," he says quietly. "I will have them delivered." He turns to leave again, then stops. "And what of you?" he asks without turning around. "What would you have me do with your... remains?"
The tears are streaming down her face now, and she can barely answer. "I would be with her."
He nods once, then leaves.
They crucify her on the hill she defended.
I love you, Xena, she thinks as she is laid out on the cross. "I forgive you," she tells the guards as they make their preparations. They ignore her, but I know they will not forget her, ever.
The troops gathering bodies from the slopes look up when her cries of pain and anguish ring out over the desert as they drive the nails through her wrists and feet. When they lift her cross, the last rays of the dying sun illuminate her body.
"Oh, Gabrielle," I whisper as she forces herself to look into the setting sun. Was this what it was like for her, watching the sunset on Mt. Fuji, knowing it was the end of my life? Gods forgive me for putting her through that. Gods have mercy on me now.
"I'll join you soon, Xena," she gasps quietly.
The guards leave without breaking her legs.
The light fails.
It is the second afternoon since they raised her cross. Aurelian and his army wait for her to die. The emperor, it seems, is a man of his word, and he will make sure her ashes are delivered with mine to Greece.
It is a testament to the vitality of her spirit that she battles death with such courage. Even though I know she longs for release, her body fights the inevitable like the warrior she has become. She fights for breath, her chest heaving, the muscles in her arms and legs cramping from the effort of holding herself upright. The torturous sands reflect the burning heat of the sun, searing her skin to a deep, blistered reddish brown. Her lips are cracked, her head hangs forward limply, her eyes are closed, but still she struggles.
Why won't she give up? Zenobia has escaped, and Gabrielle is not afraid of death. Having experienced it before, she knows it's not an end. She knows I'm waiting , here, beside her.
But what the mind knows, the body does not. We spend a lifetime fending off death. We eat to live; we drink to live; we breathe to live. We fight to defend ourselves. We seek healing and comfort when ill or injured. It is the habit of our being, to live, to experience. Perhaps, simply, it is our greatest purpose, the reason we exist. And so my love struggles, even now, to survive a little longer.
Her mind tries to escape the agony of her torment by reliving memories, telling me stories. They are fractured, broken like her body, yet still they are filled with spirit and remembered passion...laughter...sadness...love. It is like she is speaking the puzzle of her life, piece by odd-shaped piece, emotion by emotion, giving them back to the world, the universe, giving the beautiful, heartbreaking picture that is her, past and present...Gabrielle. I asked her to live, to share her gifts with the world, but in watching her die, I see her give the greatest gift of all. She dies a hero's death, offering herself with no thought of holding back; she offers her love, her spirit, her words, her light, one breath at a time. She gives back all she ever took and holds on to nothing. All the stories she never told slip through her mind, her hopes and unrealized dreams, all briefly touched by thought and thus given existence. They are shared with me, shared with any who would listen. They are given and let go.
I have never seen such selflessness.
I died in an attempt to redeem myself, but I see now that there can be no redemption while I still hold on to my guilt. I am my own judge, jury, and executioner. Though it was a samurai's blade that took my life, I sentenced myself to die that day, and it was my decision to stay that way. I have condemned my soul to this nightmare existence in more ways than one. I thought it was my love for Gabrielle that kept me here, or her love for me, but it wasn't. It's my guilt, my self-condemnation, that keeps me from moving forward, from growing and moving on.
"Trust in your own goodness, Xena," Gabrielle whispers, then lets go with a shuddering breath. She dies there, on the cross, in front of me. I would die again, with her, if I could.
But her spirit is of light as it rises from her body, and I feel her joy as her hands caress my face.
"Follow me," she cries, and then she is gone. She is gone, like she never existed, but I hear her laughter in my mind.
Things are the way they are, Xena, the way they're meant to be. Let go!
"The good and the bad," I say, thinking maybe, just maybe, I was beginning to understand. Life and death, good and bad, they're just different aspects of the same thing, like different points on a circle. Suffering and joy--it's all in the perspective. Existence is all of these things, perfect in its paradox.
I am good and bad, mortal and immortal, perfect and imperfect. I am all these things and none of them. We all are. I define myself by what I hold onto: love, life, guilt. To move on, I must let them go. To move on, I must go full circle.
All things change, but selfless love endures.
A word from India enters my mind: Ankara. That joy in existence without which the universe would fall apart. Joy holds the circle together.
"Love and joy, Gabrielle," I whisper to her. I forgive myself for my failings. I turn loose my guilt.
And it is like the chains around my soul have been shattered, and the weight of the world has been lifted. I laugh, free at last, and follow Gabrielle.
It is a beginning.