THE ROAD SOUTH
The day of departure finally arrived, and Gabrielle brought Tillit to the bedroom she shared with Beowulf. At the end of their bed sat a sea chest in which the two kept the accumulated treasures of their lives. For a while, the warrior rummaged in the depths of the trunk, searching among the pouches and mysterious bundles wrapped in leather and skins. Finally she found the item she sought. Tillit stood patiently waiting as Gabrielle unwrapped a necklace and held it out to her. Hundreds of beads formed a crescent at the throat, an inner arc of blue cradled by surrounding rust brown.
"Tillit, we are going to visit the Amazons. When you were born, Xena's daughter passed on to you the Right of Caste that I had given her at her birth." Tillit listened with her full attention as her mother spoke in a soft intense tone. "This necklace represents your status as a princess of the Amazon Nation. It was given to me many years ago, and someday you will pass it on to the one you choose as your successor. It marks your claim to the leadership and your place in Amazon history. Those who see it will know your status and where it comes from."
Tillit looked from the necklace to her mother and noted the sad faraway look in her eyes. Gabrielle was remembering a day over forty-five years before, when it had been placed around her own neck, in the hut of the recently murdered Princess Terries. She'd had no idea of what it meant to be an Amazon or a princess. She would learn soon enough. A wry smile shaped her lips as she moved to tie the cord around her daughter's neck. Soon Tillit would learn the reality behind all the lessons she'd been taught. She would learn what it meant to be an Amazon Princess.
After Tillit had left to nervously recheck her own packing one more time, Gabrielle dug a little further in the sea chest. From the bottom she lifted a well-padded pouch, and she slipped the drawstring cord to open it. With surprise, the warrior realized that it had been years since she'd opened that pouch. Too many memories and too much heartache lay within it to approach it very often. For a moment she held the dark urn, feeling its weight and tracing the curve of its side with a trembling finger. Her vision lost focus and the highlights shimmered as tears filled her eyes, and finally she clasped the last remains of the Warrior Princess to her breast.
"I know I promised, Xena...promised to take you home. It's just that so much has happened, and the years passed, and and I couldn't ." For a while she sobbed, but when she finally calmed herself she continued. "Xena, I will take you to rest with your brother and your mother one day even if it's the last thing I ever do."
With reverence Gabrielle rewrapped the urn and carefully set it back in the chest. From another drawstring pouch she withdrew a weapon, feeling its weight and checking the razor sharpness of its circular edge. It had been a long time since she'd carried it, yet she had no fear that her skill with it had diminished. From the first time she'd used it, it had flown unerringly to its target and then returned to her hand. The combined version of the god-forged ring was the tangible evidence of the Warrior Princess' legacy, passed on to her. Gabrielle knew that like Xena before her, she had become the Chosen of her mentor; a mortal emissary who would carry out an immortal mission in the world. Like war, the Greater Good was a cause that would always drive mankind. She clipped the chakram to the belt at her waist and finished repacking the trunk.
Gabrielle took Tillit on her great adventure. The girl had never been so far from home, nor on so long a trip. They expected that it would be early summer before they returned. They started out riding two horses and a using a third for their gear. Tillit chattered more than Gabrielle had ever heard her speak in other words, she asked a dozen questions per candlemark, on everything from the customs of the Amazons to the value of the unfamiliar plants she saw along the way. Gabrielle was almost thankful to answer her. It kept her from dwelling on coaxing the Utma's dagger from Backari again, and what the ensuing vision might reveal.
For the first three weeks they traveled happily, camping at night and mostly living off the land. Being spring in eastern Germania, game and fish were plentiful. Fresh water was easy to find, and most nights they didn't have to rely on their travel rations. Gabrielle found it a new experience to have her daughter do most of the camp set up. During the years with Xena she had been in charge of it, and afterwards she had been travelling alone. Now, Tillit gathered wood and water, cared for the horses, and did much of the cooking. Gabrielle spent time hunting and gathering, and patrolling the area for danger. In comparison to the constant threats she had faced years ago with Xena, this trip seemed trouble free. She'd had a similar experience on her previous trip with Eve. In the end, Gabrielle had to admit that the "barbarous" lands beyond the Roman Empire were safer than Italia, Aegyptus, or her homeland of Greece.
On the twenty-second day out, they were camped by a peaceful stream. Wisps of cloud threaded the gauntlet of stars above. Gabrielle and Tillit had dozed off to the crackling chuckle of their fire and the whispers of running water, gnawing secrets from the stones nearby. It was a perfect night for dreaming, and Gabrielle dreamed.
In a cave beside a rugged coast, where surf crashed ceaselessly against a rocky shore, a tired and ragged man took refuge from the night. He was a disgraced warrior from long ago, shamed and forgotten by kin and enemies alike. Once he had been a general and done a god's bidding. Now he was a starving wretch. He crawled into the hole in the side of the hill expecting to spend a cold wet night among the worms. In the darkness he began to smell a whiff of smoke. Finally he crawled into a larger room, hidden for centuries from all human eyes. He could not believe what he felt beneath his chapped and gnarled fingers in that lightless place. A metal cup; he couldn't believe his fortune. If it were pewter he could trade it for a hot meal. If, by the gods, it were gold he wouldn't think of it until he saw it in the light. He collapsed in exhaustion and slept fitfully; unconsciously aware, perhaps, that he was trespassing in another's realm.
In the morning he crawled from the cave and saw that the cup was in fact made of gold. It was of ancient workmanship, wrought by one of the many lost peoples of Norse legend. He bore it to the nearest town, and sold it for a purse of coins. So odd was it that such a wretch should bear such a treasure, that the shopkeeper immediately sent word to the nearest Thing. By chance, it happened to be the council that met in Kaupang.
That night the sky came alight with fire, and a roaring of great wrath echoed across the land. No sooner had the cave's owner discovered the theft than he rose in vengeful anger, intent on destroying the thief and all who gave him comfort. Such a thing had not happened in generations beyond count. So it was that with horror and surprise that the people watched a Northern Dragon of ancient times ride the night air, breathing flames, and incinerating every place in which it detected the thief's scent. Gabrielle watched all this, not knowing if it was something to come, something that was happening now, or a vision from the long lost past.
Gabrielle awoke confused rather than alarmed, and only mentioned the dream to Tillit in passing, late the next afternoon. It was one of those dreams that might be a flight of fancy, lifted from a legend and recycled by a creative mind. It certainly had nothing to do with her mission. Two more nights passed without any dreams of dragons, and so Gabrielle concentrated on teaching Tillit about the lands around them. They were within ten days' ride of the Amazons, and the flora and fauna would be the same. On the third night, Gabrielle again saw the Northern Dragon.
She was inside Ubchulk's tavern, and in the common room, the Thing was holding an emergency meeting. The people were hysterical, for a calamity had befallen them. Not three leagues away, moving inland from the coast, the firedrake's destruction was threatening the town and its outlying homesteads. The great wyrm flew overhead; it's breath igniting fields, barns, and homes, as the people fled in terror. Gabrielle saw many of her neighbors and friends, and she saw her husband, finally bringing the gathering to order by the strength of his will. She watched as the Thing's deputies dragged forward a ragged man in chains, and when his face was lifted, she recognized Teuboldt. A golden cup was also placed on the table before Beowulf, and the story she had seen three nights before was told.
Gabrielle listened, becoming increasingly more frantic since it was obvious that the dragon had to be stopped. She felt she knew what would happen next. As they had in the past, the people turned to Beowulf. He had been their champion and leader before, and he was still the most renowned of their warriors. She heard her own name mentioned, and saw the disappointment on the faces of the people when he told them that his wife was weeks away to the south. She heard him reassure the Thing. She heard him propose a plan, to take a dozen warriors to hunt and kill the dragon. She saw ancient weapons being inspected, heirlooms from past days; a round metal shield, and a two-handed sword of polished steel.
She heard the silence, before even one man would nervously volunteer, only broken when Wicglaf entered the room and upbraided the Vikings, naming himself the first to accompany her husband. She smiled warmly at his courage and loyalty. It had been the same, twenty summers before, when they had fought for the ring.
This time when Gabrielle woke up she was shaking. She was torn between leaping on her horse and dragging her daughter back to Kaupang as fast as she could ride, or continuing on their journey, knowing that she'd never get back in time. She was still sitting by the campfire, shaking her head in indecision, when Tillit woke up and saw her. Gabrielle didn't need much prodding to tell what she had seen. She'd always found comfort in talking about problems, (unless they were embarrassing personal issues concerning the person asking the questions), so she readily confided in her daughter. Tillit's response was to leap up and start stuffing their campsite into their saddlebags. Gabrielle watched her frantically running in circles. Oddly, it calmed her, maybe because she realized that someone had to keep her head. Finally, she began to think, and that made it worse.
They were twenty-seven days' ride from Kaupang. Riding their horses to death would shorten their time to perhaps sixteen days. Beowulf would hunt the dragon within the next day or two. She wouldn't even arrive home in time for his pyre. The thought of that brought helpless tears to her eyes. She had lost her first husband forty-three years before, on the day after their wedding. She had lost her soulmate in a heartbreaking quest for atonement. Eventually even Xena's ghost had abandoned her. She'd killed her own first daughter, Hope, and still couldn't help feeling guilty about Hope's part in Solon's death. She had even killed Eve. Her destiny seemed to include losing both her husbands, in restitution for killing both her soulmate's children. Across the years rang the prophetic words that Eve had spoken at their parting in Indus, beware the Northern Dragon's rage.
Since Xena's passing, she had become one of the greatest warriors of her time. Even unarmed, she was one of the most deadly people to walk the known world. Gabrielle had regained her lost faith, and she had reopened her heart to life, but now all she could look forward to was the death of her husband. She could almost taste the ashes of his pyre. As her heart broke yet again, an anguished moan escaped her, and she crumpled in the dirt on her side.
The moan jerked Tillit from her frenzy, and she whipped towards the sound, watching as her mother's body heaved with wracking sobs. The image of Gabrielle's face, staring sightlessly into the dirt, blurred through her own tears, and she charged forward, throwing herself over her mother and cradling her in her arms. Her embrace was as desperate as a death grip, and then her body too was convulsing with heartbreak. It was more than the Goddess of Love could bear.
Aphrodite appeared in a flash of pink hearts, each bearing a blood red crack, a new effect that went unnoticed. She looked as sorrowful as she had ever appeared, even more so than when she had once protected Gabrielle's dying body in a burning house. Many had prayed to her begging for her favor, and many had worshipped her, but of all mortals, only Gabrielle had truly called her a friend. The goddess cared for the once Bard of Potidaea, not in the obsessive way that her brother had cared for Xena, but with sincere concern and a deep desire to help. She reached out and tenderly laid her hands on Gabrielle and Tillit's cheeks.
Both mortals felt their hopeless pain diminish. Their violent sobbing abated, to be replaced by hitching breathing and silent tears. They blinked and looked up into the compassionate blue eyes of the Goddess of Love.
"Oh, Aphrodite," Gabrielle gasped, "I've foreseen Beowulf's death, and I can't do a thing about it."
"Are you sure?" The goddess asked seriously.
"I know he can't overcome a dragon and I'm way to far away to help. I can feel the cowardice of the men who will go with him. There's only one of them who will stand by him."
"Gabrielle, what you've foreseen is his challenge, not his actual death, right?"
"I've seen the Northern Dragon, Aphrodite. It flies and breathes fire. Nothing can protect him from its rage."
"Are you so sure, Gabrielle? Are you so sure you're too far away?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Little one, I won't lie to you. He may die and he may survive, I don't know. But he does have a chance. Do you really know the full potential of your powers yet? Didn't someone once tell you that, 'anything is possible'?"
Gabrielle sat in silence digesting what the goddess had said. Her lost hope slowly began to grow again in her heart. "No, and yes," she admitted to the goddess at last.
"Then you see, there is a chance." Aphrodite said with a small smile. "And didn't someone once tell you that, 'in this family, we make our own destiny'?"
The Goddess of Love waited just long enough to see the beginnings of a smile on her friend's face before adding, "your daughter's a real cutie," as she disappeared in a sprinkling of unblemished hearts.
The dragon was no different than it had been a moment before. Gabrielle was no closer, and Beowulf's company was no less cowardly. But much had changed during the visit from the goddess. Gabrielle grasped hope again, and her determination to not give up without a fight had returned. There was a chance. She could see it now. She felt the same spirit that had driven her soulmate to defeat so many enemies, even when the odds seemed hopeless. It was the will to drive oneself beyond what a mortal was always taught that a mortal could do. It was the spirit that had allowed her soulmate to find victory in her final battle, though another might have only perceived defeat.
Never again will I let my doubt paralyze me, Gabrielle promised herself. Never again will I let my fear become despair. I will be all that you were, my soulmate.
Tillit watched the change in her mother, and she felt her hope for her father's fate renewed. The goddess had spoken to Gabrielle like a friend and a teacher, and she had never seen a goddess before. Tillit knew the goddess believed that her mother might still save her father; she knew the goddess had faith in her mother's powers. Surely if a goddess believed, then it must be possible.
Gabrielle and Tillit mounted their horses and rode fast toward the Amazon camp. Now there was no doubt in Gabrielle's mind about what she needed to do. They would arrive at Aliah and Backari's tribe within a week, and somewhere along the way, Gabrielle would fight a dragon. That the dragon was over 600 miles to the northwest no longer mattered.
For two more days, while Gabrielle and Tillit rode, Beowulf drove his men in search of the dragon. They could attack it only on the ground, and that meant at its den. Only one man knew where the beast's cave lay hidden. They prodded and threatened the chained man, until his fear of them outweighed his fear of the dragon, and he led them to the cave, with its entrance tunnel by the rocky coast. Teuboldt pointed with a shaking hand towards the opening in the hill, the chain on his arm clinking with his tremors of fear. There he froze, all pretense to courage evaporating, and no threat would force him closer. The cave mouth was like a splotch of night among the grasses, from which smoke and the reek of brimstone churned. As the warriors watched, a gout of reddish flame roiled from the cave entrance, and a roar of malice rumbled along the seacoast. They had arrived in the early afternoon.
Beowulf's plan called for a two-stage attack. He had taken it upon himself to approach the dragon from the front, intending to distract it and wound it if he could. He also knew that his attack would galvanize the spirit of his men, who would attack from above the cave mouth, sweeping down on either side to slay the beast from behind. It seemed to be a reasonable plan, if your name wasn't Beowulf. The warrior knew that his chances weren't good. He'd had to place his faith in the ancient shield, believed impervious to dragon fire, and the sword that the bards called the Dragon's Bane. Both had renowned histories, but neither actually had been used against a dragon, so far as anyone could remember, except in song. Beowulf armed himself and moved to challenge the monster, while his men slipped towards the hill from behind with quaking stealth. As he walked, Beowulf thought of his wife and daughter so far away, wondering if he'd ever see them again. He seriously doubted it, and he sent his thoughts out to them.
My beloved wife and dearest daughter, he told them gravely, seeing them in his mind's eye, today I hope to free our people from a scourge in dragon's form. I have a plan and some men. I have some ancient and renowned weapons, but I have little real hope. I have no regrets about serving our people as a warrior, except that it shall separate me from you. Pray for me my love, and take care of our son. I wish I could see you all one more time. Look for me in the halls of Valhalla.
Riding at a canter through shaded woodlands far away, Tillit felt a tremor, but Gabrielle heard every word with her heart. She brought them to a halt, and dismounted, handing her reins to her daughter. Gabrielle found a log just off the trail and settled herself, sinking into a state of emptiness with only a couple of breaths. On the trail Tillit waited, holding the horses and keeping watch. She could tell from her mother's eyes that she was far, far away.
Gabrielle allowed her will to disappear into the emptiness she sought. In stillness and without desire, she found peace. Clearly she saw her husband approaching the mouth of the dragon's den, already sweating from the heat of the flames that rolled out of the darkness. On the hill above the coast, she saw Wicglaf leading ten warriors to the top of the slope. They gazed down on the wave beaten shore, where the smoke obscured their leader, and she felt the courage melting from their hearts. Clearly she felt the ground trembling as the dragon strode into the tunnel, making its way to battle the foolish mortal who stood in challenge at its doorstep.
Across hundreds of miles, Gabrielle wove an unseen shield to reinforce the ancient heirloom her husband bore. The Northern Dragon reached the mouth of its lair and blasted the figure of a man with a lashing tongue of flame. The rocks on the beach were scorched, and steam exploded from the surf, but the fire didn't bite on the warrior, and the shield held. The dragon advanced within striking distance, and again flames licked the man. Though he crouched in the shield's shadow, no harm came to him. Despite feeling a renewal of strength in his heart, Beowulf was more amazed than the dragon.
Now he hefted the two-handed sword, and with his right arm he struck the dragon's neck with his mightiest blow. He sent a silent prayer that the sword would prove as strong as the shield. Gabrielle heard the stroke ring against the dragon's plated armor of scales, like Thor's hammer striking the anvil. She watched as a shard of steel splintered off the polished blade. The dragon recoiled from the blow, but showed no wound. The stroke would have beheaded a prize bull. Now the monster was enraged, and instead of flames, it attacked with its fangs. Quick as a snake and even less expected, its head snapped forward, and its twin ivory harpoons pierced Beowulf's mail coat. Like a viper, it injected a poison into his body, and Beowulf sank to his knees in amazement and shock.
Across the miles Gabrielle felt his shock no less, for she had not anticipated the dragon's tactic. She hadn't known its capabilities. Now she knew fear again, but determination forced her spirit to battle on. Above the cave mouth she heard the running footsteps of ten men, and she knew that her husband had been deserted when they had seen his fall. Then she heard Wicglaf's voice, cursing them for their cowardice, before she heard his footsteps as he charged down to the beach.
Faithful friend at need, bless you, she thought, and she surrounded him with power. The dragon only noticed him when he ducked behind the ancient battle shield with Beowulf. Again the dragon blasted the huddled figures with fire, but it did them no harm. Again, steam exploded from the surf. Behind the shield, Wicglaf could see that Beowulf was already slowly slipping into a stupor as the venom did its work. Now the dragon moved in, thinking to rip the shield from its prey with its teeth, but as it moved in, Wicglaf leapt up and slipped his sword, point first, between two of the dragon's scales. The sword went in hilt deep, as the man cried out to his leader to attack with him.
Beowulf knew he had nothing to lose. He felt the chill and the lightheadedness from the venom in his veins. Somehow he found the strength to rise to his feet, and he took the notched blade with both his failing hands. As the dragon's head swung past him, trying to wrench the sword from Wicglaf's grasp, he leapt forward and slammed its tip into the dragon's gaping mouth. He did it as his final act, with the image of Gabrielle's face in his mind's eye. Gabrielle sent him the strength to overcome the dragon's poison, with all the love in her heart. Although the ancient blade snapped at the hilt, it had struck home, dealing a fatal wound to the monster's brain.
Though she was far from her body, tears flowed down her cheeks. Gabrielle cried for her husband, as his lifeless body slipped to the beach, coming to rest on top of the shield. The Northern Dragon keeled over on its side, its death dearly bought. Through her tears, she saw Wicglaf drop to his knees to examine Beowulf. And then she withdrew.
The sun had shifted, and she noticed absently that the shadows had advanced in a jump as she blinked. Tillit was standing with the horses, and Gabrielle could see her shoulders hitching and hear her sobs. The look on her own face had been as plain as any shouted words heralding Beowulf's death. She had lost another husband, but Tillit had lost her only father.
They rode no further that day or the next. The loss weighed too heavily on their spirits to allow them any desire to travel. In the firelight at their campsite, they stared into the flames; each lost in her thoughts and memories, lying side by side in their bedrolls, reclining against their saddles. When a fitfully sleep finally came, it found them huddled together seeking solace in each other's comforting embrace.
On the third day after Beowulf's fall, they continued on their way, knowing the Norseman had been committed to the flames after his time of mourning. Now, at home, the bards would be composing songs in Beowulf's honor, while the people of Kaupang were celebrating in a drunken haze. Perhaps his cowardly companions would be reviled in verse. Gabrielle and Tillit rode fast and in silence, no longer taking joy in their surroundings. Tillit had lost the excitement the adventure had promised, wishing only to be home. Gabrielle's heart was still breaking, but now it was for her son, Lyceus, alone and so far away. They were still in a somber mood when they rode into the Amazon's camp, in the afternoon of their thirty-fourth day of travel.
The Amazon greeted them respectfully at first, but soon perceived the sorrow that lay on them both. Backari shepherded them away from the curious crowd and into the privacy of her hut. Queen Aliah joined them soon after. Gabrielle related the story of her husband's death, only to be greeted by stupefied amazement and superstitious suspicion. Aliah and Backari could barely believe Gabrielle's claims about her abilities, and they were so uneasy about outsiders that they received Tillit with unexpected coolness, eyeing the necklace she wore. In fact, they made her feel little more welcome than they had Eve, sixteen years before. It wasn't long before Gabrielle felt her patience ebbing, while her daughter had lost all enchantment with them.
Before things could get any worse, Gabrielle suggested that she and Tillit should rest for the remainder of the day before conducting any further meetings. Aliah and Backari readily agreed. They called a pair of warriors to show their visitors to the guest's lodgings and bid them a good night, though over three candlemarks of daylight remained.
"I can't believe how provincial they are," Gabrielle remarked once they were alone.
"This sucks," Tillit complained, "they're treating us like outcasts or disgraced warriors, not like royalty."
"Part of it is that this is a backwater. Twenty years ago, the best of this tribe left to go south with Queen Cyane. The ones who remained resented it. They didn't want to leave their homelands, and they valued them above being part of the nation. Most of them were barely your age. I think since then, things have just gotten worse. They've grown into their isolation. Honey, this is not really a good representation of Amazon society."
"Gods, I hope not. If it is, I don't think I want to be a part of it at all."
"I guess I can't blame you for feeling that way. You should see the Greek Amazons."
"Actually, I'd just rather go home," Tillit said, "can't we just finish here quick and go?"
"Well, I guess so. All I really have to do is talk with the Utma. I hope Backari will cooperate. Last time, things didn't go too smoothly." Unconsciously, she grimaced.
"You think she'd actually try to stop you?"
"I doubt it, but then again, I don't really know these people that well. I know what their roots were; that much we had in common, but where they've gone since then, well, that..." Gabrielle trailed off with a shrug.
"I don't really feel hungry or anything," Tillit said dejectedly, "I guess I'll take a nap."
While Tillit slept, Gabrielle sat on a bench outside the guest's hut. She watched the village activities, deciding that this was the least welcoming group of Amazons she'd ever met. In return, the passing villagers stared at her, keeping their distance. At first Gabrielle smiled her greetings at them, but they remained sullen looking, and finally she gave up and ignored them. Instead, she examined her surroundings.
The village was composed of the same dozen-and-a-half huts that had existed when she'd visited sixteen years before. Now they seemed a bit worse for wear. The thatched roofing looked disheveled, the paths and central area were unswept, and the spaces around the huts lay strewn with refuse. Varia and Cyane would have had a fit, she thought. It told her that morale and discipline were failing, and she wondered if the spiritual life of the women was as bad as their mundane life. Did they still have the cohesiveness and dedication to perform the rituals and honor their traditions? Or were they degenerating into an all-female tribe of warriors and hunters, slowly losing their identity and roots? What would happen when the current leaders, who had grown up as Amazons, passed on their offices? Would the next generation honor their heritage? Would they even survive as a group?
The thought made her glance around again, checking something that had been only an impression before. Sure enough, the only warriors she saw were in their mid-thirties or older. There were no teenagers, and no children. Perhaps those of her escorts who had left Kaupang pregnant sixteen years ago had borne only sons. Perhaps they had left the tribe and taken their children, or perhaps the children had died. This tribe was dying out.
Sadly, Gabrielle came to the conclusion that the best thing these women could do would be to reassociate themselves with the greater Amazon society. To do it, they would have to leave these lands and their queen would have to abdicate. They would still be regarded as renegades from Cyane's tribe. Unfortunately, the whole reason they were in this predicament was that they had refused to remain with the members of their tribe that had left twenty years before. Finally she realized that, like a child, they had been allowed to find their own path. They didn't seem happy, and they knew where their sisters lived. To move or to stay would have to be their choice; or would it? Well, Gabrielle reminded herself, she really only needed to talk with the Utma. She already had enough problems of her own.
She got up and went back into the hut, finding Tillit shifting and softly whimpering in the throes of a bad dream. She joined her on the pallet, wrapping her daughter in her arms and soothing her with words of comfort. Slowly, Tillit calmed, and her sleep became peaceful. Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes. Eventually, she too slept.
She was looking down the halls of time, looking at a lineage of people whom she knew were her descendants. There were men and women fanning out before her. The appearance of some was recognizably akin to her own, but others looked nothing like her. Her sight stretched far ahead, into the millennia yet to come, and there she glimpsed her doppelganger, dressed as an adventurer from the period in her dreams. Beyond this woman, standing two generations further ahead in time, was a smiling girl with mousy brown hair and weird canvas shoes. In shock, Gabrielle's viewpoint slammed back into her present time and place in the line.
Then she looked behind her, and she saw a line of people there as well; her ancestors. Past her mother and father stood grandparents she had never met, and behind them, becoming increasingly dim, were a lineage that seemed to stretch back into the depths of time. If she had cast her viewpoint back far enough, she knew who would stand at its focus. Alone in all of humanity, her line included a closed loop, starting with its end. Others had come before and others would follow, but a part of her had traveled back from the future, and would again. She felt humbled, and she felt that she was a part of something vast and ancient. And it came to her that it was her destiny to insure that it could be.
Something else about the vision disturbed her, although she'd been happy to see the image of the smiling man that Lyceus would become. He would be tempered by loss, but would never lose the love in his heart. She found that he would write the lifetale of his father, Beowulf, and that his words would be read for centuries to come. Beyond him stood many children of her lineage. She felt unsettled when she awoke, but, she thought, at least she hadn't dreamed again of Armageddon.
The next day, when Gabrielle requested the Utma dagger, Backari was horrified and Aliah refused. They remembered the results when Gabrielle had last held it, and they had fearfully kept it hidden ever since. Despite all of Gabrielle's arguments and appeals, neither would budge. Finally, Gabrielle could see only one answer, and with a sigh, she demanded the traditional solution, hoping these women still honored tradition.
"Aliah, as a queen of the Amazon Nation, I challenge you for the rule of this tribe."
The whole camp went silent in shock. Even twenty years ago, Gabrielle had enjoyed a reputation as a competent warrior. She had been the soulmate and student of the Warrior Princess. She had led the nation at Helicon, and she had helped fight the gods. Now she was demanding a royal challenge by combat, and their queen, Aliah, could either fight a legend or abdicate and accept the victor's justice. Around them, the eyes of the Amazons stared at their queen, and Aliah could feel their weight.
The question went deeper than even the challenge. Would they cleave to the old ways and maintain their identity, or would they fall upon their guests, forever branding themselves as renegades? As renegades, guilty of regicide, they knew they would become the focus of a vendetta by the rest of the nation. The queens of the south would avenge their friend. It would be their right and their responsibility to insure justice under the law. They would all be hunted down like dogs, even if it took generations. Wasn't it just like this traveling woman to force change on the tribe? She had done it before when she had traveled with Xena, and she was doing it again now.
Tillit couldn't believe that her mother had challenged the queen. It was like something from one of the scrolls. She looked at the calm sad expression on her mother's face, and the look of panic on Aliah's. Then she looked at the two-dozen warriors around them and realized that these women actually might attack them. Unconsciously she felt the scabbard at her back and the Valkyrie's dagger at her waist. She held her breath.
Aliah looked at the weapons Gabrielle bore; the katana at her back, the sais along her calves, and the chakram at her waist. She knew from old stories that her first weapon had been the staff. As the party challenged, she could choose the weapons for the challenge. She gave thought to naming first blood by sword, but her own sword skills were only average. Like most of her northern sisters, Aliah was an excellent shot, but archery was out of the question no one was that insane. That left chobos, which she had never even been passable with, and bare hands. She was a head taller than Gabrielle, and at least five years younger, and so she made her choice.
"Your challenge is accepted, Queen Gabrielle, I choose combat with bare hands."
Tillit breathed a sigh of relief, and Gabrielle smiled. Her goals were already half achieved. This tribe would remain a part of the nation and continue to honor Amazon traditions. Though it was subconscious on their part, the warriors breathed a sigh of relief as well.
"Queen Aliah, your conditions are accepted and welcomed. Let the challenge commence in a quarter candlemark, or when the practice ground is ready."
It took closer to a half a candlemark to clear away debris and sweep the area, but with everyone pitching in, the practice ground was eventually ready to receive the challengers. Aliah and Gabrielle had removed their weapons, and wrapped their hands. They entered the ring of warriors and began to warm up. Aliah jogged in place, swinging her arms to loosen her shoulders. She watched as Gabrielle began to move in slow motion, each movement smoothly blending into the next, as she sank into some sort of trance. It was an exercise to center the consciousness, something Xena had taught her long ago in Chin. The other Amazons watched her with curiosity, their eyes sometimes flicking to Tillit, who stood alone, apparently little worried about the outcome.
Finally Aliah asked if Gabrielle was ready, and received a nod, "yes", in return. Backari walked into the center of the practice space, standing between the opposing queens and addressing the tribe.
"This is a Royal Challenge of Succession. Queen Gabrielle has challenged Queen Aliah for the rule of this tribe, and Queen Aliah has accepted. The challenge will be fought without weapons, and will be decided by the death or submission of the loser. If the loser remains alive after the challenge, the victor will decide her fate. Are the combatants ready?"
Gabrielle and Aliah nodded. Backari was very disturbed by the emptiness in Gabrielle's eyes and her absolute lack of nervousness. She means to kill Aliah and she has closed her heart, she thought, we should've just given her the accursed dagger.
"Begin!" Backari commanded, moving quickly out of the ring.
Aliah moved in, circling Gabrielle in a fighting stance, her fists up, her footwork assured. Gabrielle simply turned in place to face her, her hands up and ready. Realizing that Gabrielle was waiting for her, Aliah flicked a left jab at Gabrielle's head, trying to force her to move. Gabrielle turned the blow aside with a quick snap of her forearm. Aliah moved forward, advancing to press her attack. Deliver yourself to me, Gabrielle thought as she leapt forward to meet her. Suddenly the blonde queen was way too close and Aliah tried to back up, but it was too late. Gabrielle's fingertips bit the sides of her neck, applying the nerve pinch, and Aliah crashed to the ground, choking.
"I have cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Gabrielle told her in a soft voice, "and you will be dead in moments if you do not yield."
Aliah began to see fuzzy patterns across her field of vision and a trickle of blood ran from her nose. Her head was beginning to throb, as though she were held in a choke hold, but Gabrielle was standing calmly above her, waiting for her answer. From somewhere in a forgotten story, she remembered that Xena had used this technique while questioning enemies. Aliah realized that Gabrielle must have learned the technique from her soulmate long ago. She recalled that the Warrior Princess had never let her prisoners die. She stared up into the blonde queen's eyes and saw nothing there. Then her vision was swimming with black spots as she began to lose consciousness. She was still expecting Gabrielle to reach down and remove the pinch when her body slumped as her heart finally stopped.
Backari charged into the ring and felt the fallen queen's neck for a pulse, even as Gabrielle knelt to join her.
"Backari, she is truly dead, but there is still a chance," the blonde told her. "Hold her nose and breathe into her mouth. Give her air, and I may be able to restart her heart."
Backari nodded and lowered herself to begin the artificial respiration. Around them, the other warriors stared in shock. Their queen was dead and now they were trying to bring her back to life? Already the fight had been strange enough. They'd expected a long bruising battle. As Gabrielle watched the dead queen's chest rising with the forced air, she placed the heel of her palm above Aliah's heart and began leaning her weight on it in a rhythmic pattern. It might work, and it might not. She hoped she was right about another detail.
Between breaths, Gabrielle could hear Backari muttering under her breath, and she strained to hear her words. As she'd hoped, the shamaness was praying for Aliah's life, begging her spirit to return to their tribe. But the dead queen's body remained still and unresponsive as her spirit prepared to journey beyond the mortal world.
"This can only go on for a short time," Gabrielle urgently whispered, "and every moment that passes makes her chances less. Her spirit is at peace and she must have a great reason to return to the struggles of life."
Backari's entreaties lost their formality. Now she was begging Aliah to return to life. She was begging and demanding the lost queen's spirit to fight for its life and return, and her voice was filled with emotion. As her tears fell to anoint the dead queen's face, she begged Aliah to return to her. She was begging a lover to return for the sake of their love. Finally Aliah's spirit heard.
The dead queen's body gave a jerk and she gasped for breath, fighting for air as the blood coursed through her veins. She was alive again, and now she demanded that her body support her spirit. Backari was practically crushing her in a hug; tears of relief streaming from her eyes. She cast a quick glance at Gabrielle, giving her the first smile the blonde had ever seen grace her face. Then her attention returned to Aliah, and she kissed her and held her tightly as she recovered.
Gabrielle stood up and moved a few paces away to give them room. She sought out her daughter. Tillit was watching her with an expression of amazement on her face. She scanned the other Amazons, and realized they were struck dumb with awe. Their old queen had been defeated, killed, and then returned to life. It seemed that their new queen held life and death in her hands. Though they were horribly confused, for the first time in a long time, being Amazons had immediacy and importance. It was again an identity to be proud of; an identity that transcended hunting, and warfare, and survival. It was something beyond the mundane that touched upon the deeper mysteries of life and death, mortality and immortality, fate and destiny. Something that had once been theirs, but that they had come to fear. Yet there was still a part of the challenge to complete. The victor had to decide the loser's fate, but they were hopeful, for Gabrielle had already chosen life once.
It took a while, but finally Aliah stood beside Backari, while the warriors encircled them, awaiting their new queen's decision. Gabrielle looked each of them in the eyes, and then took a deep breath.
"It is my first decision as your queen, that the Dagger of the Utma shall be turned over to me. In visions, I have learned that the first Cyane was both my ancestor and my descendant. I therefore claim the dagger as a family heirloom." Gabrielle's proclamation was met with a gasp, and she raised her hand for silence before continuing.
"This tribe is in decline. I see no young warriors in training, and I see no children. The village has not increased since I visited last, over sixteen years ago. I would not see this tribe disappear. Therefore, I am ordering you to prepare to move south, where you will join yourselves to the body of the Amazon Nation. You will live by the laws of the nation, and you will honor their leaders." Again a gasp met her decision, and again she gestured for silence before continuing. She had only one further decree.
"I appoint Aliah to be my regent over this tribe, and to rule it in my stead, until such time as this tribe is again part of the larger Amazon Nation and under the rule of its queens and council."
The warriors looked at each other with uncertainty. Aliah was still their leader, at least temporarily. Gabrielle had claimed the dagger and good riddance to it. But the command to join the southern Amazons was unexpected. They had refused to go before, and they weren't in any hurry to go now. Still, it was true that their tribe had not increased in numbers, and Gabrielle's opinion that the tribe was dying had been whispered before. All in all, things were much the way they had been, but nothing was the same. Gabrielle had again presided over changes in the tribe, as she and Xena had before, and as her distant ancestor had done at the start. It was a part of her destiny.
Later that night, after Backari had handed over the Utma Dagger, barely concealing her fear and loathing of it, Gabrielle had instructed Aliah, giving her parting orders to her regent.
"Aliah, don't wait too long to make the move south. The tribe is willing to embrace change right now, and before they become complacent again, you must move. I remember this tribe, almost forty-five years ago, when I came here with Xena and her baby, Eve. It was vibrant and alive then, and I would see it that way again. In the nation to the south, though a coalition of queens and council rule over all, the tribes keep much of their original identities. Lead your sisters, Aliah, and bring them to a new life."
Aliah was quiet, more thoughtful than she had been in a long time. Dying and returning to life was sobering, and now she was looking ahead to the decades after she and Backari were gone. Finally she agreed to leave within a month, while the weather still favored travel. It would be her first real adventure in many years, and deep inside, the prospect was beginning to excite her.
Gabrielle returned to the guest's hut where Tillit was waiting. It had been a long day, and both of them were tired. They planned to begin their return trip home the next day, and Tillit had already packed most of their things.
"Mother," Tillit asked in the dark as they prepared to sleep, "do the techniques you used today on Aliah usually bring a dead person back to life?"
"No, hon, usually they can't work. The person has to be very recently dead, their body must be undamaged physically, and their spirit has to have a strong reason to return."
"So how often have you actually seen it work?"
"Only twice. Once when I died and Xena brought me back, and once when Xena died and Eve and I brought her back."
"So does that mean only soulmates can bring each other back to life?"
"I don't know, but I believe that the deceased's spirit must have a very strong reason to fight to return. It must be someone the dead person loves that must call their spirit back, and the body has to be given air and blood in the meantime."
The answer seemed to satisfy Tillit, because after that she was silent, and soon Gabrielle heard her slow breathing as she slept. Throughout the village, others whispered in the dark, and if a vote had been taken, it would have shown that most of them were ready to move south. Eventually the village slept in peace. None of them saw the flickering light as Gabrielle raised the Dagger of the Utma overhead.
It was the same as she remembered it. The vision appeared with explosive force. One moment she had been in the Amazon's guest hut, the next moment she was with the Utma in her yurt. Cyane hadn't changed a bit, but Gabrielle hadn't expected her to. This time, Cyane saluted her by performing a shuffling step, ending with her canvas shoe loudly slapping the ground. She was leaning forward over the foot with her arms spread wide. "Tuhhh duh!" she happily pronounced. Gabrielle was perplexed.
"Never mind," the Utma muttered, before smiling at Gabrielle and asking, "so what can I do you for today?"
"Well," Gabrielle began, "it's about my dreams again. I remember the first two were about things that happened in 1945, and the last one was in 1956. You mentioned seeing something called, "Diskuvuri", in '97? What I wanted to know was if that was 1997 or 1897."
At first the Utma looked at her like she was kidding, then she giggled.
"You've got a good memory for details, Gabrielle. I saw a documentary about atomic war, on a TV show called, 'Discovery', in 1997. Probably a repeat. There wasn't any such thing as TV in 1897. Hell, they didn't even have radio back then."
Almost everything Cyane had said was unintelligible to Gabrielle. The only part that she understood was that the Utma had been talking about 1997. In her timeline, the world hadnt been destroyed in 1956. She had to make sure though, because so much of what the Utma said was weird and didn't make sense.
"Cyane, where you were from, the army didn't worship Ares, and the world hadn't been destroyed before your time, right?"
"You got it! I guess my past is a much better place than your future. Wouldnt want to be you, either. That God of War sounds like a royal pain, not to mention, he's a thief."
"Well, I guess that settles it then. I have to do something to stop him, or before your time, the world will be destroyed."
"That's heavy," the Utma conceded. "I wish you luck."
The vision seemed to collapse into itself, and Gabrielle found herself standing alone, back in the guest hut. Not much later, she joined her daughter in the realm of Morpheus.
She was in her home, in the bedroom that she and Beowulf had shared so happily for seventeen years. Every detail was familiar to her eyes. Even each mote of dust floating in the air was in its proper place. She should have been at peace, but the hairs on the back of her neck were tingling, and an electric energy filled the space. Suddenly the air in the center of the room shimmered, and with a flash the God of War appeared.
Gabrielle was stunned. She hadn't seen him, except in one dream, since before she had gone to Japa and lost her soulmate. Now Ares here was in her home, standing still while he looked around, taking his bearings, but also searching. His eyes scanned the shelves, the desk, and the bed. He looked right through her without a shred of recognition, and moved on. Finally she saw his glance come to rest on the sea chest that lay at the foot of the bed, and Gabrielle's heart froze in horror. She watched as he walked the three steps to it, lowering himself on one knee. She moved to slam her palm into his face as he lifted the lid, but her hand passed through him and he didn't even notice. She screamed in frustration as he lifted the urn from among the treasures of her life and checked the contents. The pale ashes of his beloved Warrior Princess lay within, unchanged. Gabrielle would have killed him, though he was a god, if she had been awake and this hadn't been a dream. A triumphant smile grew on Ares' face as he closed the lid.
She stormed after him as he left the bedroom, crossing the hall to the room the family used for a variety of activities. Again she watched, seething with resentment, as he stole from among the things she held dear. He picked up the bag of scrolls she had rewritten, and then he allowed himself to laugh. His laughter echoed as he vanished.
She was there when he reappeared in the room of the cave that had once held the vortex. He reverently laid the urn on the altar and turned towards a stone sarcophagus, carved in his own likeness, which hadn't been there before. Finally he spoke as he shifted the lid to open the coffin.
"Ahhhh, Xena, welcome home at last. You know, back when Eve was feared as the Bringer of the Twilight, I had this coffin made. It was a contingency plan. I had hoped to sleep through the destruction, but then I became mortal. I'm sure you remember the story," he joked. "Now I guess this coffin will be a fitting tomb for the remains of my Warrior Princess, at least for a while. After all, you always had a place inside me. Oh, and if you get bored, here's some stuff to read."
He had gently set the urn inside the massive stone coffin and negligently dumped her bag of scrolls in at the foot. Then he'd shifted the massive lid closed and vanished again.
For the second time, Gabrielle awoke from a dream boiling with rage. She felt as if she had been raped by the God of War. She didn't doubt the dream for a mmoment, and the Utma had called him a thief. If she went home, she knew she would find the urn and her scrolls gone. Even as she stood by her pallet in the guest hut of the Amazons, her scrolls and the precious urn with her soulmate's ashes lay in a stone coffin in Ares' tomb.
She had intended to return home that morning with Tillit, but now they would have to make a detour. They would be heading south to Greece. Somehow, someway, she would find that temple. She would take back what he had stolen, and she would find a way to stop him from realizing the future she'd seen in her dreams. In spite of what Xena had believed, on this morning Gabrielle was perfectly willing to kill the God of War.
With haste born of anger, she awoke her daughter, packed their belongings, and bid the Amazons farewell. They were amazed at the change in her demeanor and cringed at her wrath. All suspected that this was the result of another meeting with the Utma. Now, though it broke her heart, Lyceus would have to wait a bit longer for their return. Tillit trailed after her mother, confused and full of questions. Gabrielle silenced her with a glance. They took the road south.
It had been almost twenty years since Gabrielle had traveled in Germania, but there were parts of the road that seemed unchanged. Instead of moving northwest towards home, she and Tillit rode southwest. They crossed the Vistula River from Sarmatia after four days of travelling the northern steppes. Then Gabrielle directed them south, towards the Dukla Pass, to cross the Carpathian Mts. They rode fast, but made sure to rest their horses, for they had a long way to go. First she had a mission in Greece, and then a journey back to the Norselands where Lyceus waited. Leaving him alone for so long following Beowulf's death tore at her heart. They would be lucky to arrive home before winter.
"Mother," Tillit finally asked as they forded a stream, "where are we actually going, besides going south?" The princess had restrained herself for almost a week. She'd been practically tiptoeing around her mother since leaving the Amazon camp.
"I thought we'd visit my friends, Varia and Cyane. I want you to see what the Amazon Nation is like, and the village you saw was not a good example. Besides, they may know what's been going on with Ares in Greece. I haven't seen them in nearly twenty years though," Gabrielle said, with a touch of uncertainty, "and a lot may have changed."
Tillit was overjoyed to hear this. Now she'd get to see the real Amazons, and she was looking forward to it with enthusiasm rivaling what she'd felt at the journey's start. She had noticed that her mother still seemed a bit grim though, so she tried to appear serious and didn't belabor her with questions.
After eight days of travel, Gabrielle and Tillit looked up at the mountains that marched in an unending row before them. From the gently rolling foothills, ever-taller peaks grew; finally forming a snow capped barrier that twinkled in the bright sun. Gabrielle pointed out a notch between two distant mountains, and told her daughter that in two days, they would cross the Carpathians at that alpine pass. Tillit stared in wonder at the scenery. Somehow these mountains were different from those of the Norselands. Maybe it was because she was able to view them from a distance across so much flat land. Maybe it was because the landscape just seemed so pristine. Maybe it was the quality of the more southerly sunlight. It was a mysterious and subtle difference some would have attributed to the presence of different gods.
Later that afternoon they were crossing a field, still heading south. The landscape was giving Gabrielle little chills. Finally they approached a wood, and near the tree line stood the last overgrown remains of a burned out homestead. From the look of it, at least a couple dozen years had passed since it had been occupied. Not even a trace scent of smoke remained. Tillit reigned in her horse when she noticed that her mother had stopped. A sense of peace and residual melancholy enfolded the scene. In the afternoon warmth, only the breeze stroking the tall weeds and the buzzing of insects could be heard.
Gabrielle was staring at the ruins with a distant look in her eyes and a sad expression on her face. She was reliving the memory of a day with her soulmate; blackberries, morels, roast quail, and a family of skunks. They were another small family who had lost a member to an unforeseen fate. For a moment, she wished she'd pursued those five men to their deaths, then she shook herself and coaxed her horse into a trot. Tillit followed, suppressing the questions on the tip of her tongue.
Gabrielle recognized that she was traveling back in space, retracing the route she'd taken to reach the Norselands so long ago. Until she reached the Amazon lands, the trail would be the same as the one she'd used riding north. There would be the same campsites, villages, and towns. Maybe even some of the same people. But she didn't fool herself. Though she might return by the same road, she would never be the same person. This past was far behind her, and the Gabrielle who had camped and ridden in these lands was a part of that past. There can be no going back, she remembered whispering to her soulmate, while looking down at the Amazon village. And once again, things looked different because she saw them with different eyes. No, one could only move forward.
By day's end they had ridden through most of the foothills, and on the next day they camped midway up the side of a mountain. The second day found Gabrielle and Tillit at the highpoint of the Dukla Pass only a bit past noon. Below them, to the south, the land fell away through ridges and valleys, until it stretched into the distant hazy plains of the Pathissus River. Some two hundred and sixty miles due south lay the Danuvius River, and the Roman Empire. Five hundred miles southeast lay Macedonia and the Amazon Nation, on the border of Moesia Inferior. It was a breathtaking view, almost as though the world was spread before them and they saw it with the sight of gods. Beside her, Tillit sat, gazing at the panorama in wonder. Ahead lay the places she knew from her mother's scrolls, lands of story and legend. Gabrielle gave her a nudge, and they started down the trail leading from the pass. They were riding towards their destiny.
Over the next eleven days, Gabrielle and Tillit retraced the rest of Gabrielle's earlier journey. They came down on the south side of the Carpathians and crossed the wide valley of the Pathissus, heading southeast. The trail led up into the western highlands of Dacia, across the central plateau, and then through the southern mountains to the western edges of the plains bordering the Danuvius River. When they crossed the Danuvius they entered Moesia's uplands, and two days later they crossed an invisible line into Macedonia. They had ridden hard and fast, and made record time.
Now they traveled lands within the home range of the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard of times past. These wooded valleys and ridges had been the setting of many adventures, and Gabrielle saw many familiar landmarks. They teased her senses in a bittersweet way, recalling memories stretching back across fifty years. She had returned to Greece, and knowing the country, she was on her guard. Whereas before, on her trip north, Gabrielle had traveled with Xena's ghost at a leisurely pace, now she rode in great haste with her daughter.
On morning of their second day in Macedonia, they crossed a small stream, and Gabrielle dismounted, motioning Tillit to follow her lead. The call of a bird broke the stillness. After a few moments of carefully sensing her surroundings, Gabrielle clasped her hands above her head, and Tillit mimicked her example. The young warrior could barely suppress her shock when six masked warriors dropped lightly from the trees and surrounded them. Even Gabrielle was impressed. They had been silent, and without being able to hear behind sounds, she would have missed them like any other intruder.
"You know our border, and you know our greeting of peace," the apparent leader stated, before asking, "who are you? What is your business on Amazon land?"
"I am Queen Gabrielle, and this is my daughter, Tillit, who holds my Right of Caste. We come in friendship. I hope to meet with your Queens Varia and Cyane, if they still rule here. They are friends of mine from many years ago."
After staring at them for some time, the leader removed her mask. Her action was followed by the rest of the border guards. They were all young, probably only toddlers the last time Gabrielle had been here. None of them recognized her or her daughter, but from stories they had recognized her name, and they had recognized the chakram that Gabrielle wore. Here stood a figure from the tales and lessons of their history.
"Queen Gabrielle," the leader said, bowing her head in respect, "we would be honored if you would allow us to escort you to the village. Queens Varia and Cyane will greet you there."
"Thank you," Gabrielle answered with a smile, hoping to set the slightly nervous border guard at ease.
She was happy to see that the traditions of courtesy were still strong in the nation. Her daughter's slightly awed expression, as she examined the Amazons, didn't escape her eye either. Varia and Cyane's warriors are making a good impression on her, she happily noted. One guard had been sent ahead, as a messenger to the village, while the others accompanied them. The birdcalls prior to their first appearance would bring reinforcements to take their post. As Gabrielle often did when trying to make others feel comfortable, she chatted, telling a few anecdotes about past battles and asking a few questions. Behind her, Tillit had worked up the nerve to start questioning two of the guards, and their whispers and occasional laughter testified to friendships in the making.
The walk passed quickly and soon they approached what was obviously a much-enlarged village. Whereas before, the valley had comfortably held the entire settlement, now huts had crept halfway up the slopes. Many trails of smoke drifted upwards into the afternoon sky, bearing with it the scent of cooking food. Strings of banners hung from tree to tree. They could hear the voices of many people up ahead, and from somewhere more distant, swords rang from the practice field. To Gabrielle's eye, it seemed as though the population had more than tripled, and all the growth had remained orderly. To Tillit, it was astonishing, inspiring, and beyond anything she'd ever imagined.
When Gabrielle and Tillit finally entered the village, their escorts reported to a captain, and then set out to return to their post. The captain was another Amazon that Gabrielle didn't recognize, but she had gotten word from the messenger guard and was expecting them. She asked if they needed anything, or if they wanted refreshments. Gabrielle and Tillit both accepted water. When Gabrielle asked after the wellbeing of her friends, the captain smiled and told her that they were just trying to find the council members as well, for a proper royal greeting.
Gabrielle remembered her last arrival, when the two queens had met her, with their warriors, at the entrance to the village, and proclaimed a night and day of celebration. It appeared that, with the nation's growth, protocol had become more formal. Now she and her daughter would be received, not only by the queens, but by the entire Council of the Amazon Nation. Gabrielle had to wonder if it wasn't just a more extravagant means of announcing a party.
"So are the celebrations here still as, uhhh rousing as I remember?" Gabrielle asked the captain, remembering her smile when she'd inquired about friends' health.
"Queen Gabrielle, I suspect you will be able to judge that for yourself," the captain replied, winking and adding, "after a couple days' recuperation."
Gabrielle chuckled. In spite of the increased formality, it seemed that her sisters still enjoyed a good party. She wondered if her friends were still as raucous as they had been.
"Just one piece of advice," the captain offered, "if Queen Cyane makes her herbal hangover remedy, you might want to pass it up and suffer. In all my life I have never tasted anything so wretched."
Gabrielle suspected that the recipe, if examined, would bear startling similarities to Xena's old formula. She remembered that the healer, Espurgia, had watched her mixing the herbs, and had walked out laughing. She probably added it to her pharmacopoeia as a deterrent to getting drunk. Healers, she thought, always seemed to find amusement in torturing their patients' taste buds. Xena certainly had.
She was still thinking about her last visit, when a warrior arrived to summon them to the council chamber. With a smile for the captain of the guards, Gabrielle shepherded Tillit as they followed the warrior through the village. The central parts, which were more for communal functions, had remained pretty much unchanged since her last visit. The healer's hut, library, and the reliquary were the same, but the dining hall and kitchen had been enlarged. The cleared central meeting space was larger too, but Gabrielle couldn't remember anything that had been knocked down to make the room available.
After crossing the meeting space, they were ushered to an opening in the rock face of a grotto. The guards at the entrance stood aside and saluted. Gabrielle and Tillit returned the salute and entered, walking down several stone steps and into a large, high ceilinged chamber. This was the same place where Eve had received her pardon from Varia and the other queens, shortly before the bloody battle at Helicon. It seemed like an age ago to Gabrielle. The space resounded in her memory with the words of her challenge to Varia. Tillit was staring around, wide-eyed. From her mother's scrolls, she knew this room was the seat of power of the Amazon Nation.
An aisle led into the center of the chamber where seven high-backed chairs sat in an arc. Completing a larger circle outside them were another dozen chairs. Before the chairs lay an open space of ten feet, within which stood a small table. Around the room, masks and banners hung from the walls. Behind the chairs, a natural chimney in the rock provided an updraft to vent the smoke from a raised hearth. Guards stood along the walls and at the two doors leading from the room.
The inner arc of chairs held six women who varied in age from mid-twenties to late-forties, and Gabrielle happily saw that Varia and Cyane occupied a pair of seats flanking the empty central chair. In the outer circle sat a dozen women of even wider age. The youngest probably no more than twenty-two, the oldest perhaps sixty-five. Gabrielle recognized only one face, that of the healer, Espurgia, now slightly stooped and gray-haired, but clear-eyed and attentive. She seemed amused to see Gabrielle, probably remembering a younger and less sober queen. That was not one of my best days, the blonde thought, but returned the healer's smile.
Gabrielle and Tillit made their way to the cleared area within the circle of chairs and saluted the Amazon leaders with both arms crossed over their chests. To Gabrielle's surprise, the entire assemblage rose to their feet and returned the salute.
"Welcome, Queen Gabrielle," Varia said. She remained standing, speaking for the leaders. "The Amazon Nation is honored by your return after so long, my friend. I hope the years have treated you well. You have often been in our thoughts."
"Thank you all," Gabrielle responded, "the years have been long, but they have fled fast. Much has happened since I saw you last. Often, the welfare of my sisters here has been in my mind. I hope all stands well with the nation."
"The nation is strong," Cyane told her, "we have grown, known peace, and triumphed in war. Many sisters have joined us as you probably saw. Almost twenty winters have passed since your last visit. Then you came alone. Today, I see you have brought a warrior with you."
Gabrielle smiled, knowing the Amazon's curiosity about strangers who might be recruited. She turned to her daughter with pride, and introduced her to the Queens and the rest of the Council.
"This is my daughter, Tillit. Her father was the warrior, Beowulf, a hero of the Norselands. She has been trained as a warrior and knows the Amazon ways. She holds my Right of Caste."
There was a happy murmur of surprise and many smiles lit the faces of the Amazons. Tillit was surprised when the eighteen leaders of the Amazon Nation rose to salute her as they had her mother. Again, Varia spoke for them.
"Princess Tillit, welcome to the Amazon Nation. We hope you will find us a source of inspiration. Your presence gives us faith in the continuity of the Amazon ways for another generation to come. Consider us your sisters, and this village a home."
The reception stood in stark contrast to the chilly greeting they had received from the northern tribe. Though Tillit was a bit overwhelmed, she managed to speak words she knew her mother would find appropriate when formally greeting the Council.
"Thank you for your hospitality and your welcome. I am honored to count you as my sisters, and I am proud to call this village a home. My mother has taught me the Amazon ways. I will do my best to uphold Amazon customs and conduct myself as a warrior of the nation." She finished by saluting the leaders with both arms.
After the rest of the introductions were made, Cyane gestured Gabrielle to the vacant seventh chair, while a chair was provided for Tillit in the outer circle. Gabrielle was a bit surprised that the central seat had been offered to her, but Cyane explained to her in a softly spoken aside.
"Gabrielle, we recognize the seniority of your Right of Caste. None of us here stand within three generations of your position of leadership. Consider it a traditional formality if you will, but you are due the seat of the High Queen of the Amazon Nation."
For another two candlemarks, news was traded, and the visitors learned what had transpired in the nation since Gabrielle's last visit. In turn, she filled them in on her life.
The Amazon ranks had swelled when several far-flung tribes had joined the nation in the years after Helicon. Other women had joined, rather than continuing to live in the Roman Empire outside. It was known that the current emperor, Nero, still maintained the peace that Claudius Caesar had agreed to with Eve. At least so far, though several women who had lived in Rome spoke about the rumors of his quirks. Nero fancied himself an artist of many skills, an opinion not borne out by his performances. At least he had good advisors.
The nation had weathered two wars and claimed victory in both. The first had actually been an intense series of running skirmishes with slavers, fought in the areas around their borders. The Amazons had been sought as allies by the local militias, and they had gladly helped rid their neighbors of the roving bands of opportunists who sold humans.
The second war had been fought against the army of an outlaw, a warlord sought by Roman legions as well. She had attempted to hide her troops from those legions on Amazon lands, and the Amazons had exterminated them and handed over the dead to a Roman legatus. For this, they had earned good will from the Romans. The whole affair would have been unthinkable just twenty-five years before. Gabrielle realized that the peace with Rome was Eve's legacy to the Amazons; part of her atonement for her crimes as Livia. It was much like the peace that her mother, Xena, had achieved between the Amazons and the Centaurs, as atonement for her crimes against both.
After this, the Council listened in silence as Gabrielle told of her life in the Norselands. She could still tell a story and she held her audience spellbound. Twenty years were compressed into the candlemark of telling. They barely breathed when she related the battle with Odin, her vision of Beowulf's battle with the dragon, the impending arrival of the remnant of the northern tribe, and the thefts by Ares. At the end of her tale, she rummaged in her saddlebag and brought out an object wrapped in a skin. She presented it to the Council, unwrapping it, and laying it on the central table.
"Here is the Dagger of the Utma, the first Cyane," she proclaimed to the silent women. "I entrust it to the safekeeping of the Amazon Nation. It is a powerful heirloom of my family, and you are my family."
It was a dramatic end to her revelations. In the coming days there would be many council discussions, to question and digest the news of both sides, but at that moment, the long awaited announcement was made by Varia.
"Members of the Amazon Council, shall we vote on the proclamation of a day and night of celebration in honor of Queen Gabrielle and Princess Tillit?"
There was a unanimously affirmative chorus of voices.
"The proclamation is passed without dissent." She happily announced, gesturing to several attendants to go and spread the news. It was already late in the afternoon, but she had faith that her people's preparedness would let them meet the challenge of arranging a party the next day.
The council had already begun to break up. Some members came to speak with Gabrielle and Tillit, while others went out to attend to their duties. Among those who stayed was a woman Gabrielle had never met. She was tall, wiry, and her skin was as dark as ebony. She wore bright gold rings, bracelets, and a necklace that practically blazed against her skin. Her tightly curled hair was neatly divided and braided with shells and small carvings. She introduced herself as La'shaunti, the Seer and Shamaness of the Amazon Nation. For someone who could summon visions and worked with the disturbing spirit world, she was the most mirthful Amazon that Gabrielle had ever met. If she, ex-bard that she was, had thought she had a way with words, she was humbled by the effortless puns, double-entendres, and insinuations La'shaunti produced in her common speech. She didn't actually tell jokes, but her expressions, malapropisms, and veiled references gave testimony to her deep insight and agile intelligence. La'shaunti was everything that Alti could never have been. Gabrielle could only assume her spiritual abilities matched her verbal abilities and position. As shamaness, she would have custody of the Utma Dagger. Gabrielle was eventually rescued by Cyane.
"Gabrielle, we have prepared the hut that you and Xena occupied many times." At Gabrielle's look of surprise, Cyane explained. "Actually, La'shaunti told us to, 'prepare the den of the Eastern Dragon', several days ago. Of course we just stared at her until she came out and said to get your hut ready," here, Cyane rolled her eyes. "I'll show you to it, since we had to move it to expand the meeting ground. Why don't you and Tillit follow me." She said as she led them towards the entrance.
"You moved the hut?" Gabrielle asked, somewhat astonished that they would bother.
"Of course," Cyane told her, smiling, "everyone always pointed it out, saying, 'Queen Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess slept there', so we couldn't demolish it. It had become a landmark. It's one of several we've preserved or rebuilt for the sake of history."
Gabrielle could only shake her head as they came back out into the daylight. Now she took a moment to study her old friend. Cyane was still slender and graceful. Her hair was still long, still shiny pale blonde, but there were laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and a more serious depth within them. She was still quick to smile, but the years of responsibility had tempered her more carefree and youthful expressions with maturity. She had always been a good person and an ethical leader, a dependable friend and a courageous warrior. Now, Gabrielle could perceive the added wisdom of experience within her.
"Cyane, in the council I heard of the nation's progress, but how have the years treated you, my friend?" Gabrielle asked.
"In truth, Gabrielle, I have few regrets," Cyane told her seriously, "I found a home here and my life has been here ever since. I feel great satisfaction in the growth and strength of the nation," she said, glancing at the bustling village around them. Finally she turned back to them, smiling, and cast her gaze on Tillit. "If there is anything I have missed, it is motherhood." For a moment a look of sadness and regret crossed her face before she banished it with a smile.
"I know it's not the same, Cyane," Gabrielle told her softly, seeking to comfort her friend, "but you have been a mother to your people."
"You're right," Cyane said, "and I love them all."
They continued walking towards the center of the village, and Cyane pointed out the various communal huts to Tillit, while Gabrielle followed, listening. Tillit seemed a bit overwhelmed. This was nothing like the northern village they had seen before. Along the way, many women greeted them, and their friendliness impressed her as well.
Finally they came to a cul de sac of five huts just off the central meeting ground. Because of the sheltering foliage and encircling outcroppings of granite, it was quieter here, with little foot traffic. It was as though it existed separate from the living village; a mirage from the past, that for Gabrielle, was populated by ghosts. The structures showed their age, mostly in their silvery weathered timbers, and the weavings and leather that were decorated with older style designs. Gabrielle remembered the first hut they came to. She had entered it often enough long ago. It had been the home of her regent, Ephiny, and it looked unchanged after forty-five years. The next hut brought tears to her eyes.
It had once been the hut of Terries, the murdered sister of Queen Melosa. Gabrielle had acquired it through the Right of Caste when she had officially become an Amazon princess. In the early years, she had lived here with Xena during their visits. They had continued to occupy it sporadically during the time that Ephiny had ruled in her stead, refusing larger quarters because they didn't want to trouble their hosts. When they returned after a twenty-five year absence, they had been surprised to find it still standing, being used as a guest hut. Gabrielle had requested it while Xena stood by smiling. During the battles with Ares' army, Prince Morloch, and Bellerophon, it had been their home base. Gabrielle hadn't been able to bear the thought of staying in it again after returning from Japa, before her journey north.
"We moved it intact," Cyane was telling her, "and we didn't change a thing inside or out. Just about the only thing that isn't original is the thatch on the roof."
Gabrielle barely heard her. She knew what she would find inside. It was difficult, but she controlled the trembling of her hands and pushed aside the leather door hanging. Inside, light gently filtered through the louvered shutters, propped half-open in the windows on either side. The timeless scents of the roofing straw, mingling with wood and leather, colored the air. The smells and the quality of lighting drew her back through years of memories.
Near the front, three chairs surrounded a small table with maps of Helicon still laid out on it. No fourth chair graced the side nearest the entrance, for no warrior would sit with their back to a door. Beside the maps sat an ink well, several quills, and two flattened clay weights. The wide sleeping pallet dominated the space towards the back, and even the furs and blankets on it looked the same as in her memory. On the wall behind the pallet hung a queen's mask, carved in an antique style, a practice staff, and a short sword with a yellowish grip in a leather scabbard. Beside it sat a small chest of three drawers with a round bronze mirror above it. On the other side of the pallet stood a wash stand with a basin and pitcher, while underneath it sat a chamber pot. Along the walls, baskets and crockery held collections of personal goods.
She walked into the hut almost reverently. Tillit quietly followed her in, staring at everything, but Cyane remained in the doorway. Gabrielle went to the chest and opened the bottom drawer. She hadn't meant for her tears to start again, and didn't really notice them until her vision blurred. Cyane had been right. Everything was as it had been. Neatly folded in the drawer lay a set of Amazon leathers; two piece, tanned deep brown, and heavily embroidered with war beads, talismans and symbols. They signified a shamaness of the north, a master warrior of the south, the champion, and hopefully, life partner of an Amazon Queen. They would have fit a woman nearly a head taller than Gabrielle. She remembered how she'd quietly had them made twenty years before, but Xena had never had the chance to wear them. Shortly after Helicon, they had gone to Japa.
Cyane had turned away to give her privacy, knowing what she sought as soon as she went to the chest. Tillit saw the sad and distant look in her mother's eyes, and after a moment looked away. She didn't understand the significance of the clothing, but she knew a memory had taken her mother back to some deep source of pain. Instead, she examined the baskets along the walls. She noticed that a couple held rolled parchments, and she moved toward them for a closer look.
The carefully scraped hides that the parchments were made from had yellowed with age, and the knobs of the wooden spindles showed wear from long handling. Each was bound closed with a neatly tied cord. The subjects of their contents had been carefully noted on the outside, and these caught her eyes. Tillit tilted her head to read the lettering; it was in her mother's hand. The scrolls were a mixture of stories from many visits, spanning the years she had spent with Xena, along with studies Gabrielle had made of Amazon history and customs, and philosophical treatises.
She selected one, and went to the table a couple paces away, undoing the cord and unrolling it to read the opening passages. It was an old story, and the wording was different from the version her mother had reproduced in their Norse home decades later. The language wasn't as fluid, nor the descriptions so evocative as her later works, but there was a powerful rawness of emotion, conveyed in these earlier verses, that made the account compelling and immediate. It was more the work of an entertainer than a historian, and spoke to the heart and gut, rather than the heart and head. She read it with rapt attention, consumed by the story of how men had stopped dying while King Sisyphus held Death prisoner. Xena and her mother had eventually freed Celesta, restoring death as a surcease of mortal suffering, only to see her take Talus, a young man Gabrielle had felt the beginnings of love for. She hadn't known it then, but it had foreshadowed much heartbreak to come. Tillit felt as if she was reading from a personal journal, written by a young woman scarcely older than herself.
It brought an insight to Tillit. The Warrior Princess had been a hero, and of that there was no question. She had changed her life in spite of her guilt and perennial self-doubts. Xena had been an inspiration to many during her life, and through Gabrielle's stories, she continued to inspire others to do what was right. But her story had an equivalent epic of growth and heroism in the story of Gabrielle's life. Tillit had always thought of her mother as a strong woman with unbelievable skills and a truer heart than any she'd met. Now she saw the scared and idealistic village girl she had once been. The feelings that were conveyed in this early scroll had brought it all home. Gabrielle had started with little but her heart and her determination. Over the course of her life, she had become as masterful a warrior and as powerful a personality as her mentor and soulmate. She had gained complexity, and she had retained simplicity. It was a tale of growth and triumph she could only hope to emulate, and yet it made heroism accessible to an ordinary person. Still, she knew that her mother was beset by many demons and memories, many heartaches and pains of the soul. Her experiences had carried a great price, and it made Tillit more determined than ever to meet the challenges that she herself would face. In many ways, her mother was to her what Xena had once been to Gabrielle.
When she rerolled the scroll and set it back in its basket, she saw that her mother was still looking at the objects in the hut. She had lifted the mask from the wall, held it up briefly so she could look through the eyeholes, and then rehung it. Grasping the staff, she'd given it an experimental twirl, gauging its balance. She avoided the sword entirely and then sat down on the sleeping pallet, slowly stroking the blanket. Finally she looked over at her daughter with a sad smile.
"Guess I'm getting maudlin in my old age," she said with a half-hearted chuckle, "but in many ways, this was the closest place to home I ever had after I left Potidaea. It was the one place I kept coming back to a place I'd hoped we could have settled down one day. Of course Xena never wanted to stay in one place, and after Eve was born, well, Greece was kinda out of the question " she trailed off and looked down at her hands. "I'm glad you got to come here, hon; I'm glad it's still here for you to see."
"It's wonderful, mother," Tillit said, "I can't believe it's real. The things I've read this is all that and more. I just read your original version of "Death in Chains". It's different from the version you wrote at home. I want to read the other stories that are here too."
Gabrielle looked up at the mention of the story, and then spotted the scrolls in the basket. She went to it and started searching through the parchments, softly muttering to herself and finally selecting one and bringing it to the table. She undid the cord and rolled it out, holding down the ends with the clay weights. Tillit joined her to look at it. At first the symbols looked strange to her, until she realized that her mother had not written this scroll. The lettering was made in bold strokes, precisely aligned on the page into many short verses. The language was poetic, sometimes almost like a riddle, and the meanings were sometimes obscure. It seemed to be a collection of brief moral and philosophical sayings.
"Tillit, if I'd known this had survived, I would have come here years ago," Gabrielle quietly said. Tillit noticed that her mother's hands were shaking.
"What is it, mother?"
"Honey, Xena wrote this scroll, years ago, right after we had survived the most difficult events during our time together. She had just lost her son, Solon, and it was my first daughter, Hope, who had killed him. Xena almost killed me for it. After we straightened the mess out, I suggested that she write down what she'd remembered of the wisdom of her teacher. At first she resisted, but eventually she sat here, night after night, writing it down sometimes I don't even think she came to bed. Eventually, she finished it and she felt better, knowing that her mentor's words would survive outside of Chin. As far as I know, this is the only copy of Lao Ma's "Book of Wisdom", outside of the Kingdom of Lao. It's probably far from complete, but it's certainly the only copy in the west."
"I remember it being mentioned in your stories, "The Debt", and "Purity"."
"If you take time to read anything here, read this." Gabrielle advised as she sat down and began reading. After a moment, she absently whispered, "What it teaches is the key."
Tillit pulled up a chair and joined her. Together they sat, reading as the afternoon passed and the light faded in the small room. Eventually it became too dark to see, and Gabrielle sighed and stood up, stretching and looking for the oil lamps. She found the four lamps, but the oil had been removed to minimize the fire hazard, and so she sent Tillit out to the dispensary for a cask of lamp oil.
Tillit walked out of the row of historic huts and across the meeting ground. The change from quiet seclusion to a living community was instantaneous. All around her, Amazons were finishing up their day's work as evening gathered shadows in the valley. They called out greetings or jests to one another across the open space. A group of children and what looked like a young wolf scuttled across the far side of the clearing, chasing a hoop, while older Amazons clustered about the doorways of their huts trading gossip. A troop of tired teenagers about her own age walked slowly toward the dining hall, returning from their drills at the practice field. They briefly eyed her with curiosity and returned her wave. She hoped that maybe she could join them for training someday soon.
Tillit remembered the hut that Cyane had pointed out earlier, and headed towards it. It was one of the larger structures adjoining the meeting ground, and had a banner showing two hands exchanging a box hanging by its open door. Nearing the entrance, she heard several conversations from within. When she stepped through the door, she saw that several women were bringing the customers their requested supplies from the large area beyond a counter. It was like a village store, except that she didn't see any money changing hands. Ahead of her, an armed warrior was receiving a coil of leather lacing to go with the new pair of bracers already lying next to her. An older woman was thanking her attendant for bringing over a clay basin, while a third customer was asking for a steel striker to go with a flint.
Towards the center of the counter, an attendant seemed to be free, and Tillit approached her. The woman smiled at her, and then began questioning her since she'd never met her before. Curiosity about strangers had become an Amazon personality trait.
"Hi, I'm Laurel. I know I haven't seen you before, and I don't recognize your tribe from your clothing. Are you new here? Where are you from? Will you be staying in the village? Oh yeah, can I get something for you?"
"I'm Tillit, daughter of Queen Gabrielle," the princess explained, "we just arrived this afternoon and we need some lamp oil."
The older woman with the basin had jerked to a halt at the door when she'd heard Tillit's words and she turned back to watch the exchange. She'd spent all of her sixty-three years as an Amazon, and had lost a daughter at Helicon. Before she left, she'd heard enough news to fill the evening meal with gossip.
"Queen Gabrielle?" Laurel asked, trying to place her. She'd joined the Amazon Nation nine years before, when her village had been destroyed in the war with the raiders. In all that time no Queen Gabrielle had visited them. The name was vaguely familiar, but she'd never met a Queen Gabrielle or heard that any royal visitors were expected in the village. Finally she admitted that she was baffled. "Princess Tillit, I'm sorry but I don't recognize your mother's name. Has she been here before? Where does your tribe come from?"
"Well," Tillit hedged, "I guess it's been a long time since she was here last. This was her tribe, but she's been in the Norselands, and that's where we live now."
Laurel thought for a while longer, and Tillit watched as comprehension slowly dawned on her face. She had never actually met Queen Gabrielle, but she remembered old stories about her. She remembered that she'd died on the cross in the days of Julius Caesar. If the stories were wrong, and she was still alive, then she must be in her sixties or seventies by now. How could her daughter be in her teens, she wondered?
"Either I'm remembering the wrong Queen Gabrielle, or you're a lot older than you look," Laurel finally said, looking harder at Tillit, who giggled in response.
"As far as I know, there's only been one Queen Gabrielle, and I'm sixteen. My mother's had a strange life. Maybe you've heard of her soulmate, Xena of Amphipolis?"
"Xena, the Warrior Princess? But that was forty fifty years ago and they died."
"Yeah, they died several times actually." Tillit said, enjoying Laurel's shocked expression. "But she's alive and well now. Anyway, I shouldn't keep her waiting, can I have the oil please?"
For a moment Laurel wondered if this young woman wasn't completely mad. She also wondered if the oil wasn't needed for arson or some other prank. On the other hand, she'd certainly never met Tillit before and she couldn't place her accent. Still, she didn't want to take a chance on offending a visiting princess, so she turned and went to the supply barrel, filled a cask with a gallon of oil, and brought it back.
"Well, here you are, Princess Tillit," Laurel said, presenting the oil, "I hope I'll get a chance to see you again soon."
"Oh, I don't doubt it," Tillit told her with a smile, "I think there's going to be a welcoming celebration tomorrow."
"Really " Laurel replied, a grin spreading across her face. She always loved a party.
"And thanks for the oil, Laurel, see ya."
When Tillit got back to the hut, she found her mother pacing in the dark.
"Sorry it took so long," she apologized, "the woman at the dispensary had a few questions. It seems like a lot of people here think you're dead and she didn't recognize your name at first."
Gabrielle laughed for the first time since they'd arrived. "I suppose we'll be getting a lot of that from the younger women and the ones who have joined since I was here last. Don't let it worry you. After tomorrow, everyone will know who we are."
They quickly filled the four lamps and lit them. A warm wavering light filled the small space, tinting everything golden like a late summer's afternoon. A faint smell of oil accompanied the flames. It felt homey.
"I guess it's time for some food," Gabrielle announced, leading the way to the door.
Tillit's stomach grumbled in response to the suggestion.
"Like mother, like daughter," Gabrielle muttered as they walked out of the hut.
The dining hall hadn't been moved, but it had been expended. It was a bit of a walk, but Gabrielle and Tillit had no trouble finding it. They probably could have followed their noses, blindfolded, and still arrived. Being hungry helped sharpen their senses.
Their entrance was marked by a half-hush in the droning buzz of conversations, and a sweep of heads turning. Gabrielle saw Varia waving them to her table and led Tillit there, through a gauntlet of greetings and well wishing from the diners they passed along the way. Mostly, these came from older Amazons, many of whom Gabrielle recognized from years ago. The newer members tended to stare at them, as unobtrusively as they could manage, or whispered to their tablemates while sneaking glances at them. It had been much the same on the walk over.
Varia greeted them informally, rising to hug Gabrielle and clap Tillit on the shoulder before grasping her forearm, warrior fashion. Tillit could feel the steely strength in her grip. She reckoned the Amazon queen to be a few years younger than her mother, sharp eyed and commanding. Varia was still toned and fit, and could have probably beaten warriors half her age. She was about midway between her mother's height and her own, with deep brown eyes and lustrous wavy chestnut hair. Seeing her close up, Tillit decided that Varia was an inspiring figure, one that warriors would rally to in battle, and the Amazons had been doing so for over twenty years. Now she was smiling, gesturing for them to sit and join her for the evening meal.
At the table sat two of the other five queens, and several other members of the council. They too offered their greetings as the servers brought bowls of stew and another pitcher of ale to the table. Already present were a platter of roasted venison, a large bowl of salad greens, and a basket with loaves of bread. Gabrielle and Tillit filled their mugs and heaped food onto plates already on the table. Tillit dug in immediately while Gabrielle answered questions from Varia, catching up on informal news.
"I see your daughter has inherited your appetite," Varia commented, noticing that Tillit was already halfway through her first serving.
"Actually, she's usually hungrier than I was when you first knew me," Gabrielle said, "since she's still growing, and she probably did inherit my appetite."
"This is delicious, Queen Varia," Tillit gushed, spooning up the last of her stew, "it's so much better than trail food, even when the hunting is successful. This has spices in it, doesn't it?"
"Help yourself to as much as you want," Varia told her, "I think the cooks are constantly experimenting on us. I tasted thyme, bay, sage, and some of those peppercorns we've been getting recently. It is pretty good tonight."
"It's very good, Varia," Gabrielle agreed, finishing her bowl.
"They're getting better with horse meat," Varia deadpanned while beckoning a server over to provide seconds for her guests.
Gabrielle's head jerked up, and Tillit choked. Varia laughed. "Just kidding, you two. We don't cook horses unless things are really desperate. The first Cyane forbade it long ago."
Gabrielle couldn't help but remember the mousy haired kid that she'd met several times in her visions. That so many women through the years had cleaved to her shocked statement, " you're not supposed to eat horses ", seemed humorous now. Back in the Utma's time, there had been no other use for the "swift ones".
"And now you have brought us the true link to her, Gabrielle," Varia said in awe. "Her wisdom will be accessible to us all. I do have a question though."
"Sure, Varia, what is it?"
"When you presented the dagger to the council, you said that it was an heirloom of your family. What did you mean by that?"
"It's something I saw in a vision, Varia." Gabrielle said. "I was blessed to look ahead through the generations of my descendants, and I saw the Utma there, many years in the future. Then I saw my ancestors with the same vision, and she was there at the start. All those before her came from the paternal line of her children."
Varia was silent, digesting what Gabrielle had told her. Wasn't it just like her, she mused, to have a lineage as unusual as she herself. So, she was the descendant and the foremother of the first Cyane. With a flash of insight, she wondered if the future Cyane had been ripped from a soulmate, a reincarnation of the Warrior Princess or had she been summoned back through the ages to find the one who held the other half of her soul? She made a point to have La'shaunti investigate.
"I have had other visions, Varia," Gabrielle declared, "and those are the ones which disturb me. I have seen armies, in Ares' service, destroying the world. It will happen far in the future in the Utma's time. Yet the Utma has said that it hadn't happened in the world she knew."
"Gabrielle," Varia said, her attention riveted now, "you're talking about alternate timelines. Are you thinking about trying to change what will be?"
"I'm afraid I have to succeed, not just try. What could be is too terrible, and I have been sent these visions for that reason. I guess it's my destiny."
"Then it is cruel, my friend. Ares is powerful and it will be hard to kill him."
"Varia, I think killing him would be almost easy. I can't do that either. Mankind needs war and love personified by Ares and Aphrodite at least for a while yet. Xena believed it, and we saw what happened when one or the other lost their powers. I have to do something else, and I don't know what."
"But it's personal too, isn't it?"
"Yes." Gabrielle admitted. "I swear I will have Xena's ashes back, one way or another. Somehow I don't think he'll just give them to me, or keep from stealing them again, unless he's dead. There has to be an answer, but I just don't see it."
"I'll ask the others in the council, but if anyone can figure this out, it's you, Gabrielle."
"For the sake of the tens of millions I've seen dying, I hope you're right."
Again, Varia sat in silence. Gabrielle's destiny sounded like a suicide mission to her. One of many such missions, she thought, and knowing her, she'll survive. And then what? Once it's commonly known that she descends from the Utma, the nation will clamor for her leadership. I just wonder what else she's planning.
"Gabrielle, what will you do if you succeed in altering the future? Will you finally settle down with us? Will you and Tillit stay with the nation permanently?"
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to sit in silent thought. For Tillit, staying might be the right thing to do. For her, it wasn't possible. At least not yet.
"If I defeat Ares and survive, I will have to return to the Norselands, Varia. I have a son there, eleven winters old. He has recently lost his father, and even now he must be staying with the people of Kaupang near our home. He must be terribly lonely and terribly hurt. He loved his father."
"I see," Varia replied. What more could she say? Fifteen years before, she had become a mother for the first time. A couple in a nearby village was raising her son, happy to have his strong hands for their farm work. Her daughter, so agile and quick to learn, had died three winters ago of a barking cough and fever, at the age of ten. She'd had such bright hopes once. Now Tillit was the only living princess of the original Greek tribe. Queen Cyane had no daughter, and after Gabrielle's recent challenge, Tillit held the Right of Caste for the northern tribe as well. She could unify the nation in ways no one else could. Varia's tribe and Cyane's, both under a single undisputed queen. And she too was descended from the Utma. Within five years, she would be of age to rule the nation if she were here to do it. Varia wondered how much Gabrielle had taught her.
Various lesser topics filled the remainder of the meal, but eventually Gabrielle noticed her daughter struggling to remain awake. She stifled a yawn herself, and finished her conversations with the other queens. Then she and Tillit made their way back to their hut in the "historic district".
Shortly after returning, Gabrielle and Tillit dozed off on the sleeping pallet, and both slept thankfully and deeply. But not without dreams.
Tillit was in a high place, looking down on a building among rolling fields of crops. The fields made sense, but the building? That was another matter. Its walls were made from slabs of a pale stone, and banks of many glazed windows reflected back blinding highlights from the sun. The roof was flat, and colored a pebbly black. In front of the building a road led into a lot. It was paved a smooth black, and marked with white stripes. In the lot were many shiny metal carts with black wheels, but none had beasts to draw them. Crowds of young people were just leaving, and many seemed happy to do so.
Now she was approaching the building, and she swooped low through a door and into a hallway paneled with many small metal doors. What point was there to them, she wondered, for they were way to narrow for even a child to pass through? On a wall speeding by there hung a sign, Columbia HS Southern Dragons, 1997 All-City Varsity Football Champions. She turned a corner and descended a stairway with tiled walls. From the bottom she heard sobbing.
In a small space under the bottommost flight of stairs, she found a figure huddled with her long legs drawn up to her chest, bound in place by her arms. Her shoulders shook with heartbreaking and bitter loss. Tillit felt compelled to comfort her, though when she reached out, she found that she could make no contact.
Still, it seemed as though this other had sensed her presence. Her head came up from her knees, her raven hair cascading back from a face Tillit recognized, but knew she'd never seen before. She's probably the same age as I am, Tillit thought. What could have made her so sad? The girl was looking around, hurt and confused, her pale blue eyes were red and watery. She was alone, but felt as if some kind spirit had joined her.
"Is that you Amy?" She whispered, her eyes hopefully searching the barren stairwell. "Oh, what happened to you? Where did you go? They said you were on your way home our friends saw you leave school. I was waiting in the parking lot for you, but you never showed up. No one's seen you since, and it's been three days. Amy, I'm worried sick about you. Please don't be gone please don't be dead ."
The girl bowed her head again, and her sobbing started afresh. It was all Tillit could do not to join her. Through her sobs, she whispered something more, and Tillit barely heard the words.
"I wish I could see you again, Amy I wish I'd told you that I love you."
Gabrielle had seen the future before, but nothing like this. Below her, the planet was a ball of colors, floating in the blessed inky night of space. All around her the stars twinkled, cold and beautiful, impersonal and inspiring. They had inspired her curiosity all her life, and they had inspired mankind to what she saw now.
Below her floated a framework, and she knew it was further away and much larger than it looked. She felt as though she could reach out and take it in her hand. She feared for its delicacy, all pristine struts and panels, tubes with windows and tiny lights without flames. It rested in the harsh light and shadow of space. It could only be the work of a sorcerer or a god, but somehow she knew that in this time, it was the pride of mankind.
Again she felt the sensation of compression, as of an arrow traveling towards her from behind, and for a moment, she expected to see an incoming rocket, a destroyer of worlds. She forced herself to confront it, turning to behold a wonder greater than the space station below her. There, gliding silently towards her, was a ship of the skies, something she'd dreamed of long ago, when her soulmate would kid her about her flights of fancy. And yet this ship was real. It gleamed silvery smooth, small wings at its sides, and a lighted window in its nose. No rocket flame followed in its wake, but she felt the power of it, and she knew it was under thrust. It would pass close by and she had but to wait.
Now the sky ship pulled abreast of her, and Gabrielle was treated to a view through the wide windows in its nose. She was amazed. Within the ship there was a room, cleaner than any she had ever imagined, where chairs sat before counters, winking with colored lights. In the central chair sat a woman, and Gabrielle knew her across thousands of years. Though she wore clothing that boggled her mind, the black hair, high cheek bones, and ice blue eyes were the same as those she'd lovingly watched across a campfire on so many lost nights. Surely she was some scion of her soulmate's line, alive and on an adventure in this distant future. Wasn't it just perfect?
Somehow, Gabrielle could hear this woman's thoughts, and her commanding presence felt almost too familiar to bear. Still, she couldn't tear herself away.
Strange that I come to think of you now, isn't it? Preparing to dock back here at Earth? It seems so very long since I was home. Yet even after thirty years, I've never stopped thinking about you. Funny, 'cause I only knew you for six years. Jr. high, and high school a long time ago now. In spite of all I've seen and done, you're still the mystery I'd give anything to solve. Where did you go that day, Amy? Where did you end up? I just wish I could see you again. And have I told you today that I love you?
Gabrielle knew this kind of loss, and her heart went out to this woman who wore stars on the shoulders of her uniform. She had lost her soulmate, a long, long time ago. Her heart had probably been alone through all the years since. What was she now? Forty-five? Fifty? She had replaced the loss of her heart with her dedication to another dream. Yet even after all those years alone, she still remembered, still wondered, still loved. It was a feeling she knew all too well herself. Discounting the time lost sleeping, she had only known Xena for six years. If Gabrielle could have done anything to comfort this woman, her soulmate's descendant, she would not have hesitated for a heartbeat. It wasn't perfect. It was heartbreaking.
In a flash of light, she was looking over a young woman's shoulder. She was older than Tillit, home on spring break from her last year of college. She lay curled on the bed in her old room, alone. She was staring into a book of faces. Southern Dragons, Class of 1997, the heading on the worn page said; though it was spotted with tears and curling.
"Where did you go?" The tall figure with the long black hair whispered to herself.
Gabrielle looked at the faces in the book. Three rows down and four pictures from the left was a smiling face with a heart drawn around it. It had been signed with a short message.
To Jamie, 4 Ever and Always, Amy. I love you, grrrrl.
It was the Utma.
When Gabrielle awoke with the dream fresh in her mind's eye, she looked across the pallet at her daughter. Tillit was staring out the window with a sad expression on her face. She seemed to be far away.
"What are you thinking, hon?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Oh, it's silly. I had a dream about a girl all alone, crying under some stairs."
"That's sad," Gabrielle agreed, considering her own dreams hadn't been very happy either. "Was she anyone you knew?"
"That's one of the odd things about it. I know I've never met her, but I felt that I'd known her. She'd lost someone, and her heart was breaking."
The sorrow Tillit was describing seemed all too familiar to Gabrielle. "What did she look like?"
"Well, she was sitting down with her knees drawn up to her chest, but I think she was tall. She had straight black hair, pale blue eyes, and she was very pretty, even though she'd been crying her eyes out. I felt so sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do."
"Was she looking for someone named Amy?"
"Mother?" Tillit looked at Gabrielle in shock.
"I dreamed of the same woman at two different ages. I'm sure she was a descendant of Xena's, and she had lost her soulmate, a girl named Amy. Amy is the Utma, honey, and this woman, Jamie, still loved and missed her thirty years later. She'd accomplished amazing things in her life, but her heart was alone in her loss."
"Mother, how can this happen? How could we dream of the same person?" Tillit had more questions, but she didn't expect an answer to any of them.
"Destiny. Certainly mine, and maybe yours too."
"So what are we going to do?"
"I don't know. I'd like to find a way to tell Jamie what happened to Amy it might ease her sorrow to know that she went back in time and won renown ."
"Maybe you could talk to the Utma again?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment. "Sure, why not," she finally replied. "We'll do it after breakfast."
The celebration day breakfast was a tour de force of morning foods. The cooks understood from experience that few Amazons would be up looking for a morning meal on the day following a night of partying. As a result, they cooked everything the day before and the diners loaded up on battercakes, bacon, ham, fruit filled muffins, sourdough biscuits, eggs, and buttermilk. Warriors didn't even bother trying to suck in their stomachs when they finally left. Throughout the afternoon, many of them would be competing and demonstrating their skills. They would have to avoid another large meal until evening, and so they carb-loaded the night before, and topped off their reserves in the morning.
After breakfast, Gabrielle and Tillit made their way to La'shaunti's hut. They found the shamaness stretched out in a hammock strung between the support posts inside. She had a huge grin plastered on her face. A thin smoke from her ceremonial pipe circulated lazily through the room. Sheaves of drying herbs hung from the ceiling, scenting the air, and racks along the walls held jars, boxes, and pouches. Many scrolls were stacked on a shelf, while cabinets held skin wrapped bundles and other artifacts. Tillit noticed a collection of cleaned and sun bleached skulls; human, animal, and monstrous. La'shaunti paid them only passing attention, tracking them with her eyes briefly and appearing to be in a moderate trance.
"What's up with her?" Tillit asked her mother in a whisper.
"Judging from the leaves and the pipe," Gabrielle said, "I'd guess she's seeking visions by smoking Diviner's Sage."
"Does it work?"
"I have no idea. I guess we could ask her later, but it would be pointless to try now."
"So what about the dagger?"
"Oh, it's on the table over in the corner," Gabrielle said, walking over to it and sitting in a chair.
Tillit joined her at a cluttered and rickety table, taking a second chair. They stared at the dagger. Finally Gabrielle heaved a sigh and lifted it, raising it overhead. This time they were both dragged into the vision as the Utma's yurt exploded into existence around them.
Tillit stared at her new surroundings. It was really primitive, and the fire didn't smell very good. The yurt itself, being made of thick felted horsehair, exuded a smell like a wet animal. The Utma was looking at them, a roasted rabbit haunch halfway to her mouth. She put it back down on a smoothed wooden plank and smiled a greeting at them, before swallowing the mouthful she'd been chewing.
"Ahhhh, what's up, doc?" The first Cyane asked with a goofy voice.
Tillit giggled and Gabrielle looked puzzled. The Utma used a carved toothpick to dig a meat fiber out from between her teeth. "Wascally wabbit," she muttered.
"Cyane, I've seen another dream and I wanted to ask you something," Gabrielle began.
"Sure, Gabrielle. The swami sees all, and the swami knows all," Cyane claimed.
"Actually, we both had connected dreams that were linked to you."
"Now that's freaky," the Utma admitted.
"You're Amy, aren't you?" Tillit innocently asked.
The Utma froze with a shocked look on her face. Then she started crying. Amy was a name from a past she had been ripped out of, an identity and a life that had been stolen from her. She'd been mostly happy as Amy. Her new life with the Churtumlics had been terrifying. With time, she'd adapted and found a place in their ancient world. Finding that place had required her to forget about being Amy. Just to adapt, she'd had to dissociate herself from who she'd been. The Utma suppressed Amy and became Cyane. Tillit and Gabrielle both felt horrible. Cyane was rocking back and forth, sobbing. Finally she managed to choke out a question. "Was that in your dreams? No one's called me that since I came here."
Gabrielle had scooted over to her and draped an arm across her shoulders.
"We saw your friend, Jamie, at three different ages, and she misses you," Gabrielle told her softly.
"Jamie? She really misses me?" Cyane asked in partial amazement. Her crying had diminished to soft hitching, "I mean, I had boyfriends, but I I've loved her ever since I first met her, but I didn't think she felt that way about me." The Utma flapped her hands beside her head. "She's uhhh, she's just so everything."
"I saw her three days after you disappeared, and she was all by herself, crying for you at the bottom of a stairwell," Tillit told her. "She said she wished she'd told you that she loved you."
Cyane sniffled, drawing on memories she'd locked up in a box inside. "We used to sit in the stairwell and talk and stuff. It was our private place at school."
"And I saw her several years later, looking at the Southern Dragons Class of 1997 picture book, and then again, thirty years later, and she still missed you." Gabrielle added.
"She really did, Amy," Tillit repeated, "she wondered all that time about what happened to you, and where you went. The first and last times, she said she loved you."
"I'd hoped to hear her actually say that for years," Cyane confessed, "I guess I knew it somehow anyway. She always made me feel special. She's the one I've really missed, being here."
"I wish there was something I could do," Gabrielle said, "some way I could let her know where you went. I think it would make her feel better, at least, not having to wonder."
"I know it would," Cyane said, "and if you ever get a chance, tell her I love her."
"I will, Amy," Gabrielle said, "and there's something else I dreamed of. You see, I saw my descendants and my ancestors, and you were there among both groups."
"For real?" The Utma asked. Gabrielle thought that she was already overwhelmed, because she added matter-of-factly, "well, you've freaked me out again, Gabrielle."
"Amy, I'm not sure what to do yet, but maybe I can change things. I mean that's what I have to do with the God of War and Armageddon anyway. Maybe I can change things for you and Jamie too. I'm sure she's related to my soulmate."
"Kewl, Gabrielle. I'm open to suggestions, and you know where to find me. Maybe we can do lunch," she said, glancing down at the rabbit haunch.
The vision started to fade. The yurt and the Utma seemed to disappear into a harsh flickering light. As they returned to La'shaunti's hut, they heard the Utma stuttering, "Th, th, tha, that's all folks."
They became aware of the shamaness coughing and a strong smell of burnt herbs. A cloud of smoke swirled around her. By the time they made their way out of the hut, La'shaunti was catatonic in her hammock. Outside, the celebration was beginning.
Gabrielle and her daughter walked back to the central meeting grounds, where the dances and many of the contests and demonstrations were being held. At first all they could see was a large crowd cheering. Being taller than her mother, Tillit noticed Cyane waving them over to a chest height platform where some of the council members sat. From that vantagepoint, at the north side of the meeting grounds, they could see that the crowd was standing in a ring, watching the demonstrations in the center. They'd started less than half a candlemark before, Cyane told them, and the two hadn't missed much.
Gabrielle and Tillit had arrived in time to see the end of a choreographed sword demonstration by six weapons instructors. It was an advanced training form, in which each warrior took her turn executing moves to defeat the other five in succession. When done by beginners, it was tentative, slow, and labored, for the movements were complex. At the speed the master instructors were moving, the whole performance seemed to flow naturally, like a fast and deadly dance. The performance concluded with the line of warriors bowing to their leaders on the platform, and to their audience. The onlookers rewarded them with a roaring cheer.
The next group entered the meeting ground as the sword instructors were leaving. This time, a lone warrior wielding two short swords, faced off against four Amazons armed with spears. Cyane, acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, announced that this was a light contact sparring match. A wave of comments could be heard from the crowd. Cyane continued, informing the audience that the lone warrior, Listheta, had wanted to test her techniques with the two swords she'd spent the last three seasons practicing. It wasn't an unusual request, but the weapons were, being somewhat shorter than the standard Amazon short swords carried by archers. Listheta's blades were about three hands long, sharpened on both straight edges, and came to wicked points. The cross guards were just under a hand wide, formed of steel rod. They were unembellished and looked highly functional.
"I wonder if she'll use them like you use your sais, mother?" Tillit asked.
"I very much doubt it," Gabrielle replied, "the only similarity is that she uses them in pairs."
The match began. The four warriors presented Listheta with a phalanx that she flipped over, drawing the flats of the blades across the neck of one spear woman who immediately withdrew. She landed and used the blades to parry the spearheads of her attackers, always keeping to one end of their line.
"She's gotten very good with them," Cyane commented, as they watched the second spear woman withdraw. "Her technique requires a lot of acrobatics though, so I don't know if we can start teaching these weapons to very many of our warriors."
"Her style requires a lot of space to use effectively," Gabrielle said, "in a close quarters battle she wouldn't have room to maneuver. Having a squad of warriors trained like her could be very helpful though, especially outdoors, as shock troops against small forces."
"Has she been practicing against swords?" Tillit asked.
"Yes, and she's effective against a single sword." Cyane told them. "She wanted to be able to apply them against Roman deserters or brigands, armed with spears and swords."
A third spear woman withdrew after sustaining a simulated chest wound.
"Gabrielle, I think it would be a great way to introduce yourself to our newer members, if you'd do a demonstration," Cyane suggested. She was smiling as she often did, and Gabrielle grinned back. It was a good idea.
"Sure," she agreed, "and I know just the thing."
On the sparring ground, the fourth spear woman had just been "stabbed". She and Listheta bowed to the wildly cheering crowd. Cyane rose from her seat and spoke to them and their audience.
"Your sisters thank you for perfecting a new weapon, Listheta. You make our nation strong with your contributions to our welfare." Another round of applause rose from the crowd. Finally Cyane continued. "Next, I am proud to announce a special demonstration by Queen Gabrielle, who has returned to us after an absence of almost twenty winters." The crowd cheered the news, predictably curious about their visitor.
Gabrielle came down from the platform and made her way to the center of the demonstration space.
"For my demonstration I need targets," Gabrielle said to the spectators, "are there four archers among you?"
After a rumble of comments and a moment of indecision, four women dressed as members of Cyane's tribe edged into the space with their bows and quivers. They moved to stand in a row, facing Gabrielle. The highest ranking among them addressed her.
"We await your commands, Queen Gabrielle."
"All I need you to do is fire four arrows, in a high arc, away from the sun. I'll do the rest."
"On your command, Queen Gabrielle," the lead archer replied, knocking an arrow and preparing to draw as the other three mirrored her movements.
"Archers draw," Gabrielle commanded, and the four bows flexed as the archers pulled the bowstrings to their ears. " And release." The four bows sang and the arrows leapt into the sky with a hiss.
Gabrielle waited unmoving as the arrows climbed, then suddenly she snatched the chakram from its clip and cast it hard after the arrows on an intercept course. The spinning ring whined as it closed on the arrows, the sound doubling as it split into its halves and sliced through the first pair of shafts. The halves of the chakram altered course and caught the second pair of arrows, severing them as well. The arrow fragments tumbled from their flight towards the ground. The chakram rejoined itself with a metallic ping, spun lazily overhead for a moment, and then sliced its way back through the air to Gabrielle's hand. For a moment the crowd was silent, and then they erupted in cheers.
When they quieted somewhat, Gabrielle held up her hands to silence them.
"Archers, I thank you," she said, "would you honor me with the flight of four more arrows, the same as the last?"
"By your command, Queen Gabrielle," the lead archer responded crisply.
This time Gabrielle paused before issuing the command to draw. The archers were facing away, and too many yards separated her from the crowd for them to see the emptiness in her eyes.
"Draw," she commanded, but this time her voice was hollow, "and release." The bows lofted the four arrows sharply into the sky.
She waited until they were safely aloft, just a heartbeat for them to clear sixty feet, and then they disintegrated, violently spraying splinters into the air. On Gabrielle's back, the Eastern Dragon briefly flared. The crowd was utterly silent, so quiet that they heard the arrowheads dropping on the hard, pounded earth. Only very slowly did a subdued buzz of comments begin to rise to their ears. The Amazons were baffled. The chakram they could understand; it was a unique weapon used with consummate skill, but this? They stared at Gabrielle, who shrugged, thanked the archers, and climbed back up the steps onto the platform. Cyane herself was speechless.
"So what's next?" Gabrielle asked with genuine interest. Beside her, Tillit giggled as Cyane's mouth moved soundlessly like a trout.
"Lunch?" Gabrielle innocently suggested.
Eventually Cyane regained control of her voice and announced the next demonstration. Eventually the Amazons employed denial and alcohol to explain away what they'd seen. Servers brought snacks and mugs of hard cider for the dignitaries on the platform, but they seemed a bit nervous around Gabrielle and Tillit.
A half-candlemark after Gabrielle's demonstration, Varia stormed up onto the platform and joined them. She was more than curious about certain rumors she'd heard.
"Gabrielle, what did you do?" She demanded with concern. "Are you still mortal?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle asked, confused by Varia's conclusion.
"Half my warriors are swearing you bewitched their vision, while the other half claim you have the powers of a goddess. Now what's going on?"
"Oh," Gabrielle said, now understanding Varia's outburst, "I demonstrated the power of the universe, I guess you could call it. It's something Xena did in Chin. She learned it from her mentor, Lao Ma."
Varia stared at her, then she looked at Tillit. The princess swallowed nervously. Gabrielle took another bite of a berry filled pastry and chewed thoughtfully.
"It's very useful," she continued calmly, "but it takes years of practice about twenty years for me. Anyway, I'm sorry if it upset the warriors. We've sorta gotten used to it."
"So is this how you plan to fight Ares?"
"Well, partly, if I can figure out how to use it without killing him."
"Or turning him to stone," Tillit added, trying to be helpful. Somehow it only seemed to make Varia more agitated. She sat nervously watching the demonstrations, while periodically casting glances at her visitors and whispering with Cyane.
Finally though, she calmed down enough to watch the rest of the afternoon's festivities without twitching. That the servers had switched from cider to ale didn't hurt matters either. Alcohol always seemed a good poultice for psychic upset among the Amazons.
As the afternoon wore down to evening, tables for feasting were set up around the edges of the meeting ground, with the center reserved for the drummers and dancers. Torches were set on posts throughout the village, and casks were lined up to be tapped. The sun had fallen below the high ridge to the west, leaving the village in a softening twilight.
Soon the shadows had lengthened, bringing night's doorway to the Amazons. While dancers adjusted their costumes, single drums boomed as the players tested the tension of the tuning thongs and head skins. The torches were lit, and the village blazed in the flickering light of many flames. Now the feeling of history and tradition settled over the sisterhood, fed by the waiting silence and the ancient quality of torchlight, unchanged since the Utma's time. All seven queens and the full council sat on the platform, and they rose as one and raised their arms.
The largest drums boomed across the valley and their echoes leapt back off the surrounding ridges. At the start of the second measure, the smaller drums joined them, weaving intricate, fast paced rhythms for the dancers. The dancers, who had been crouched, unmoving on the ground, leapt into motion, circling the open space and gyrating with precise abandon. When their feet stamped the ground in unison, it seemed as if the trees shook around the clearing, and the very air carried the shock wave like thunder. It was deafening, exhilarating, and hypnotic, all at the same time. Those who weren't performing stood along the sides of the meeting ground, swaying to the beat, mesmerized by the spectacle.
Tillit had never seen anything like it, and she let the sights and sounds wash over her, drawing her into its power. Gabrielle had never seen so many dancers or drummers in a performance, and she wondered what Amy, the Utma, would think of it. She would be proud, she finally decided, to see how her people had grown. Though she had been torn from her home at Tillit's age, she had led her tribe to victory and change. Gabrielle knew how proud she was of Cyane, her descendant and ancestor, but she also felt a deep sympathy for her soulmate, Jamie. I just wish I could think of a way to make things better, she thought, even if this is the way they have to be.
The dancers and drummers continued their performance for a quarter candlemark before the queens finally stood and again raised their arms. Suddenly, silence filled the night, as fully as the pounding drums had a moment before. The last echoes resounded off the ridges and faded into memory, joining the images of the dancers under the torchlight, to be remembered for many seasons to come. The silence stretched through several dozen heartbeats. When the queens sat down again, the starting signal for the banquet was given, and the feast began.
During the course of the banquet, as the ale and wine loosened her tongue, Gabrielle let the council know that she sought a temple in Macedonia. A Temple of Ares that she had seen in a dream. (Nightmare, more like. Wooah, that wine was pretty strong).
"Inside, it looks like a cavern, but what I saw was a room with an altar of war," she told her eager listeners. "The altar was backed by a giant skull, while above it was a bronze backdrop of rays, spreading from a giant ruby. Before the altar lay a massive stone sarcophagus, carved with the likeness of Ares, the God of War."
"It doesn't sound familiar to me," Cyane said, "but I haven't traveled much in Macedonia, and I certainly haven't visited Ares' temples."
"Nor have I," Varia declared. "Ares always came to meet me here, and I haven't seen him in over twenty years."
"There were only three known temples of Ares in Macedonia," said Karesh, an adviser on history and lore. "Years ago, before I joined the nation, I traveled some, and heard many stories. Ares was worshipped then in Therme, Pella, and Argilus."
"Therme I know well," Gabrielle said. "Argilus I visited once, (I hated that town), but Pella I've never seen. Do you know what the temple there looked like?"
"Sure," Karesh said, "it's built according to the Ionian order, on perhaps an acre of land, in rolling hills on the western side of the town. The building itself is of moderate size, and it is very old. Much worship centered there during the Peloponnesian War. So the legends say."
"Well, that doesn't sound too promising," Gabrielle confessed. (She just wants to hear herself talk)! "Do you know if any of these temples have vaults underground?"
"None that I know of," Karesh replied.
"I saw some things that might catch in your eye," La'shaunti offered from further down the table, "being the smokin' Sage of Diviners that I am."
Gabrielle looked at her hopefully after realizing what she meant. "La'shaunti, any help you can give would be very welcome." (Oh pleeeeease, you nut case).
"The swami sees all, and the swami knows all," she said with a wink. Gabrielle gulped, realizing that was what the Utma had claimed in her vision. "Nothing up my sleeve, doc," she assured Gabrielle, glancing down at her suede bikini top, "and I can assure you that borders change with the passing of wind the winds of war, anyway."
"Huh?" Gabrielle was pretty lost after that comment. (Can't she just speak Greek to me)? Then slowly, the meaning dawned on her. (Passing of wind, hehehe). Macedonia's borders would be redrawn many times in the aftermath of wars. It had happened before, and it would certainly happen again, between now and Armageddon Day. "So the temple may not be in what is now Macedonia?"
" It is almost certainly " La'shaunti agreed, " not."
"You didn't happen to see the altar room I described?"
"It was the same, but appeared different to my eye," La'shaunti admitted. "The one I saw contained no giant ruby. The skull had giant horns. But it was otherwise as you described, My Queen."
"Well, a ruby isn't the main point, if everything else you saw was the same, right?"
"Oh, but it will make a world of difference," La'shaunti assured her, "or at least, it will make a difference to the world."
"Ok," Gabrielle agreed, (finally a break!), "it must be the right temple."
"They are the same temple, My Queen, but that was no ruby. It was the mystical Eye of Hephaestus. So the legends say." La'shaunti winked at Karesh.
"The Eye of Hephaestus?" Funny, he had two when Xena killed him, she thought.
"Yes he did, My Queen," La'shaunti commented, addressing Gabrielle's thoughts and causing the blonde's jaw to drop. "This eye is another of that forge god's forgeries," La'shaunti explained. "The eye blindly sees what is set before it, and it will see no change. It is blind to the world of sight. So the legends say. But it can only be made to watch by another creation of the god of forgers."
"That would include the chakram!" Gabrielle excitedly exclaimed, drawing it from her hip and setting it on the table.
La'shaunti picked it up and pressed it to her forehead. "This one seems neither quite dark enough nor quite light enough. It will work eventually, especially since it's really two halves."
Gabrielle snapped the chakram into the two halves.
"No, not that way," La'shaunti admonished, "you must use the Dark Chakram only, because the eye is blind, you see? The Chakram of Light was made for killing gods, so the legends say."
"But I don't know how to separate the halves that way," Gabrielle admitted, (damn it), "I didn't think anyone knew how to do that after Xena joined them."
No one at the table had any suggestions to make after that. Few of them knew much about the chakram to begin with. Gabrielle had probably learned as much about it as anyone living knew, back when Xena had balanced the dark and light halves. That had been right after her resurrection forty-five years ago, and whatever else had been written in Kaleb's scroll was lost.
Gabrielle was stumped about what to do with the chakram and how the Eye of Hephaestus could be used in a plan. She sighed. (Double damn it)! If anything, she had more questions now than before.
"La'shaunti, do you have any idea of where the temple you saw is located?" (You ditz).
"Any idea? Yes and no. Yes, I saw a wide valley between tall highlands, where a river spanned by a bridge curves around a point of land as it runs towards a sea. A walled city stood on the heights of that point, above the river, where a road led from docks to a strong gate in the wall. The temple faced the city from across the river, perhaps half a league from the gate. No, I have no idea where this is. Does that help?"
Incredible, Gabrielle thought, (through the wine buzz). The God of War was really obsessed. (Wretch). La'shaunti's description could be only one place, and Gabrielle knew it well. The Seer had described the Stryma Vale, where the city of Amphipolis stood, overlooking the Stryma River. Long ago, it had been heavily fortified against attacks by Persia, Athens, and Sparta, and it had been the home of the Warrior Princess. It was probably the very same temple that Atrius had come home from, intent on slaughtering his baby daughter, Xena, all those long years ago. Gabrielle realized that she should have suspected this. Ares had brought Xena's ashes almost all the way home. (Thieving bastard). Well I'll finish the job, Gabrielle promised her soulmate. Finally I will bring your ashes home to rest with your family. And somehow, Ares will rest for eternity, just half a league away, across the river. (How cozy).
"So now the time of destiny draws near, my friend."
Destiny, huh? Guess you know how I always felt about that, Eli.
"Yes, I know. But things are different now, Xena. Gabrielle has accepted her part in the destiny of mankind, and you have a part to play as well, if you want the destiny you both share to be realized. Your reincarnations and descendants will be joined. It begins with the destruction of your urn. You accepted that, implicitly, when you accepted back those wings."
Knowing what hangs in the balance, I would have accepted it without the wings. Because our love transcends heaven and hell, Gabrielle, Xena thought. It transcends earth and time, and I will do my part because our love transcends destiny.
"Yes, you will do your part, my friend. Do you see that living the Way of the Warrior is also serving the Way of Love?"
"You see, Xena, it is the most powerful force, but it comes bearing so many faces, that sometimes, it passes like a stranger one has known since birth."
Then I shall grasp it without moving, and hold it in my empty hands.
"So you shall, and the Western Dragon will fly."
In the Amazon village, the celebration continued through the candlemarks of the night, and in the dark, many reeled, stumbled, fumbled, and were groped. As they had for generations, the celebrants entertained themselves, with feats to be laughed at when sober and duplicated while drunk. Unlike her last welcoming celebration, the queens retained their dignity to a great extent. Gabrielle in particular, reticent to provide an example of debauchery for her daughter, eventually made her way to the hut that she and Tillit shared. She found Tillit snoring on the pallet, having consumed ale in quantities similar to what a typical Viking girl her age would have consumed on a good holiday.
"At least she made it home," Gabrielle muttered. (Tartarus, at least I did too, hehehe. What is that? Gods, is that the sun coming up? Well, oops).
In the following days, Gabrielle and Tillit began to blend into the Amazon's world. Gabrielle spent time with the Amazon Council, sharing what wisdom she had learned with her sisters. Tillit joined her age mates in training, finding some parts challenging and some parts undemanding. Using her determination and persistence, she managed to start filling in the weak areas of her training as an Amazon Princess and warrior. She found that being a part of the life of the village was inspiring, and she was giving serious thought to staying when her mother went back to care for her brother. Both she and Gabrielle were aware that there was a mission that demanded the queen's attention, and it was a matter of destiny. It called Gabrielle even more strongly than her duties to the nation, and, though she'd have been loath to admit it, more strongly than the bonds to her home in the north. It was just as well. That part of her destiny was already achieved.
AMAZONIA THE WAR
Though life was good for the Amazons, much of the rest of the known world was not at peace. In Rome, the Emperor Nero was celebrating the tenth year of his reign, and his baser instincts had begun to assert themselves several years before. He had paired himself with an ambitious and scheming mistress, Poppaea, and divorced and exiled his popular wife. His honorable advisor, Lucius Seneca had been dismissed, as had the relatively honorable head of the Praetorians, Afranius Burrus. Nero's conniving mother, Agrippina, had already been beaten to death. When his exiled wife, Octavia, was found beheaded, the citizens, already disgusted with his excesses, came to despise him.
He had been young and impressionable, only seventeen, when he ascended the throne, following advantageous deaths in his family. As such, he was a figure ripe for outside influences. Nero drew the attention of one who longed to see a grandiose and incompetent emperor heading the west's largest army. It took years of machinations, but eventually Nero's better influences were overcome by appeals to his lust, malice, over riding willfulness, and self-aggrandizing nature. Blatant murder and intrigue ceased to be invisible political tools applied with discretion. They were applied regularly and seldom disguised convincingly. Within ten years of taking power, half of Rome lay burning.
Now the empire shivered as the rule of law was abandoned. While Nero played at real estate development, athletics, and performing art, his generals prepared to wrench territories from Rome. The beneficent rule of Nero's first five years was a fond memory. The peace of the Emperor Claudius seemed like a dream, while the glory of Augustus Caesar had retreated into myth. Now the thoughts of the consuls and generals turned to civil war rather than containment of barbarians, or conquering new territory. It was enough to make a God of War very happy. That the burning of Rome was blamed on the Elisians, and that they were persecuted as enemies of the state, made him happier still. Even lesser commanders became ambitious. When the legion commander at Serdica decided to march against the Amazon Nation, the God of War practically drooled in anticipation of the slaughter.
It was a fine day in early-June, when the eastern border scouts brought a tired woman before the council. She was past middle age, and her journey had been hard because of her haste and her lack of a horse. Somehow, she managed to straighten her worn clothing and arrange her dignity. When she stood before the chairs of the queens her gaze was level and her bearing was distinguished. It was not the first time.
"Greetings, Rhea," Queen Cyane said in welcome, "It has been many years since you left the nation to raise your children in the outside world. How is your family?"
"My Queen," the woman said, saluting Cyane with both arms crossed over her chest, "my husband, Vermiculus, has sought shelter in Abdera, with our two sons, their wives, and four grandchildren. My younger daughter fled, with her husband and their children, to Naissus. You already know of my eldest."
"Rhea," Queen Varia asked with obvious concern, "why has your family fled their homes? Why aren't you with them?"
"I came here to warn you of the advance of Legatus Galena and the Roman legion of Serdica. Four days ago, they began a march of perhaps seven days, with the declared intent of subjugating the Amazon Nation, and making it a tributary state of Rome. Queen Varia, it is said that Rome is in upheaval and civil war is possible. The old treaties are ignored. Many suspect that Legatus Galena actually seeks to seize Amazon lands for himself. Since they are independent of Rome, his act might not be seen as treason. Queen Varia, Legatus Galena is a despot, like many appointed by Nero. His troops are ordered to kill indiscriminately, and crucify their victims as examples to the rest."
News of a coming war was the last thing Gabrielle had wanted to hear. Now she would be obligated to help defend the nation, and her mission to Amphipolis afterwards would be more difficult. The lands would become much more dangerous with these threats to Roman law and order. The crucifixion part made her blood boil always did. Of course it was also possible that she and everyone else would die or be enslaved.
Is this a part of my destiny too, she wondered, as she studied Rhea standing before them? This woman had once been an Amazon, perhaps a warrior? She had renounced her ties to the nation, to raise her family outside, yet she had hastened here to warn us about the Roman advance. How far had she walked? She must be at least sixty, Gabrielle guessed, though I don't remember having ever met her. Had she come with Cyane's tribe? She had addressed Cyane as "My Queen", but had used Varia's name.
"Queen Gabrielle," Rhea said, snapping her out of her musings, "after all these years, I am amazed that time has treated you so well. You appear only a little changed from when I met you long ago, and yet I am old. Surely you are blessed by the gods. Again I thank you for your pardon. In the end, I banished myself."
Finally the memory came back to her. She had caused problems for Gabrielle, during the visit that she and Xena had made to the northern tribe, for Eve's initiation. Rhea had been fifteen, at most, with raging hormones and curiosity. She had done her best to seduce Joxer with the single-minded intention of learning how to produce a baby like Eve. The memory brought a smile to Gabrielle's lips.
"I don't know whether the gods have blessed or cursed me," Gabrielle told her, "both perhaps, but it's been my destiny. I see you realized your early dreams, Rhea, and I'm happy for you."
"Yes, My Queen," Rhea replied, "I know the years have blessed me, and I pray the gods bless my family and preserve their lives through this war of men."
"The nation thanks you for your warning, Rhea," Gabrielle told her, "despite the danger and distance, you have thought of your sisters and acted with the spirit of a true Amazon. We will do what we can to defend the nation, and reestablish peace in these lands."
She called me, "My Queen", Gabrielle thought, and for a short time I was. Funny, but I am queen of the remnant of the northern tribe again. So, the baby crazed teen was now a grandmother, Gabrielle mused, and is this really just a "war of men"? I haven't forgotten that Ares twice made plans for war against the Amazons, and almost got Varia to lead the nation against Rome. He'd convinced Livia to attack the Amazons. He corrupted Xena, Livia, Varia, and perhaps he's corrupted the Emperor Nero and Legatus Galena as well. If he isn't actively involved, he's probably celebrating, because of the way things are going. Somehow, though, this whole situation reeks of his plotting.
They had barely started to digest Rhea's news when another pair of scouts arrived. These two were from the northern border detail and they were excited. They saluted the council and then revealed that a tribe of Amazons from the north had just reached the border. They numbered twenty-seven, were all adult warriors, and had traveled on horseback, laden with their goods, as for a migration rather than a visit. They claimed Gabrielle as their queen, and said that they had journeyed to Greece at her command, to join the nation. The guards reported that Aliah and Backari had arrived with the remnant of the northern tribe.
So they did come, Gabrielle thought, and they must have left right after we did. They arrived just in time. Another few days and they'd have run into Galena and his legion. They would probably have been wiped out if they couldn't escape. Well, our luck has held out so far, and I'm glad they made it just in time to join the nation in its finest hour.
At the mention of Aliah and Backari's names, Rhea had been shaken. Now she stood as if entranced, listening with complete attention to every word of the border guards' report. It was as if she'd heard tidings of a ghost.
"Even now," one of the guards told the council, "they are being led here. Do you have commands for us?"
"I ordered them to come here, as I described when I first arrived," Gabrielle said, "for their tribe was dying out. They had stagnated in isolation for too long, but they are a part of this culture. They are a remnant of your tribe, Cyane. I only challenged for their leadership to achieve certain ends that I could see no other way to achieve. However, I was responsible for bringing them here, and I will do my best to make them a part of the nation. Please escort them to us. By law they must to swear fealty to the nation and the council."
"By your command, Queen Gabrielle," the guards replied before saluting and leaving.
"I'm glad you managed to get them to come, finally," Cyane said to Gabrielle with a smile, "they were impossible to convince before. You must have been very persuasive."
"Nahhhh," Gabrielle told her, grinning, "all I had to do was kill their queen."
The other queens blanched, Tillit giggled from her seat among the councilors, and Rhea fainted. For a moment there was confusion, as attendants rushed to revive Rhea and the councilors commented to each other. Between the news of Roman invaders and the new warriors, there was much to discuss. Finally, Varia called for order, and everyone settled into their seats to await the new arrivals. Rhea was revived and sat weakly in a chair along a wall, hovered over by an attendant. Gabrielle was confused by her reaction.
A half-candlemark had passed in planning the response to the threat of the Roman legion, when the northern border guards again came before the council. This time, they led a procession of women, dressed in buckskins and furs. Aliah and Backari were at their head, and they entered the circle of chairs, coming to stand before the queens. They seemed both surprised and relieved to find Gabrielle in the central chair.
"My Queen, we have arrived as commanded" Aliah said, greeting Gabrielle with a salute. When she looked back up, the hint of a smile played on her lips.
"How did your journey go?" Gabrielle asked.
"It was amazing," Aliah told her enthusiastically, "the view from the pass was breathtaking, and this is beautiful country. We arrived safely and in peace."
"I am glad for you and your sisters," Gabrielle told her. "You have entered the lands of the Amazon Nation, and these lands are ruled by this council, under the traditions and laws our people have established. I hope it will be your desire to stay here, as much as it is my desire that you will make this place your home. I must tell you however, that the nation stands at the brink of war with a legion of Rome, acting under a leader who would be considered a renegade, if Roman law still carried weight. The reason I tell you this is to inform your choice, for if you choose to stay, then you must swear to uphold our laws and accept our leadership. In all other things, your traditions and culture remain your own. Take a moment to decide among yourselves if this is acceptable."
"Thank you, My Queen," Aliah replied. She and Backari returned to their warriors and whispered briefly among themselves. It wasn't a long discussion. Soon Aliah returned and faced the council. "We accept the terms, and seek to join our tribe to the Amazon Nation."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at Aliah. Aliah returned her smile and motioned her warriors forward. They clustered together in the open space before the council, a bit cramped for space, and saluted the leaders. The members of the council returned the salute, and then Varia rose and administered the oath.
"Do you swear on the souls of your mothers, to uphold the laws of the Amazon Nation, to honor its traditions, and to obey its council?" Varia asked.
"We do," the warriors responded.
"Do you promise on the souls of your children, to care for your sisters in their times of need, and accept their care when the need is yours, respecting and treating all as family?"
"Do you ally yourselves, on your honor before the living and the dead, to give to this nation your strength, your hearts, and your wills, in times of peace and war? To defend the nation and your sisters against their enemies within and without, so long as you and the nation shall be?"
"Then you are accepted as sisters of the Amazon Nation, and you shall share the rights and responsibilities, the labor and the glory, and the pride and purpose of the nation." Varia told them. "Living space will be made available to you in our guest quarters, until you can construct homes of your own here. Members of the nation will show you the hunting grounds and communal facilities, and your skills will be applied for the common good. On behalf of the council and the nation, I bid you welcome."
Throughout the process, Rhea had sat silent and unnoticed in a corner, watching each move and hearing each word. The smile on her face and the gleam in her eyes had grown as the moments passed. She had looked over each member of the northern tribe when they had entered, nodding as if in approval. When they took the oath and accepted their place in the nation, she seemed to rejoice and her eyes glowed with pride. These warriors had once been young women she had left behind, with sorrow and foreboding, when she had followed the young Queen Cyane south. They had been little more than hotheaded teens and she had thought their survival doubtful. Soon, she too had left the nation, carrying hope and heartache, and she had never expected to see these Amazons again. Now there would be reunions beyond her mortal expectations. Was this the work of destiny, she wondered, that seemed to be such a factor in the lives of those she saw around her? Already her journey had served more purposes than she had foreseen. Perhaps she would understand more of it in the days to come.
Aliah and Backari, followed by their warriors, had turned away from the council and were heading back to the entrance of the chamber. They would be settled in the community and receive their duties, for the nation was on the verge of war. It was at this time that Aliah's eyes scanned the chamber and lit on Rhea, just rising from her chair to join them. Her eyes widened in recognition though so many winters had passed, and she rushed forward to meet her.
"Aliah, sweetheart, is it really you?" Rhea asked, her eyes brimming with tears.
"Mother!" Aliah wrapped her in a hug, her joy now even greater than a moment before. They had parted with disagreement, and she had felt the loss of her mother all the years since. It had left her grimmer and diminished the light within her, for being Rhea's firstborn; she had been lavished with love. This moment felt magickal, as if she had been rewarded for accepting her destiny within the nation. She had been reunited with both her people and her mother in a few short moments. Until Queen Gabrielle had challenged her, this possibility would not have entered her wildest dreams. Aliah couldn't remember when the future had seemed so bright. Strange, because they were on the brink of fighting an army that outnumbered them by a factor of five to one.
Rhea held onto her daughter, the most precious gift she had ever received. Having once experienced their separation, she had come to value family desperately, and she had left the nation when love brought her a second chance to be a mother. As the years passed and her new family grew, she had never stopped wondering what fate had brought her firstborn daughter. Now she saw that Aliah had survived, grown to be a warrior and leader, and had brought her sisters home, as the regent to one of their nation's greatest queens. Rhea couldn't remember when she had been so happy. Strange, for the rest of her family was far away, and the gathering darkness of the coming war lay between them.
Gabrielle watched the reunion and a glow of warmth filled her. No wonder Rhea passed out earlier, she thought. She could only have wondered if the queen I killed had been her daughter. Wait till she hears the rest of that story, she chuckled to herself. And then she had to also wonder if this was another part of her destiny. Her actions, for the purpose of obtaining the Utma Dagger, had set in motion this unforeseen reunion.
Every action has a consequence doesn't it, she mused, and it alters the fabric of events in ways that none can foresee. Yet such is the nature of choice and the exercise of free will. We fought so hard for that, didn't we, Xena? In the end, it all proves that anything is possible, a beloved voice from her memory supplied. She smiled. It is strange, isn't it, she asked the voice rhetorically, but then, we've seen stranger things. And now it will be the destruction of the Amazon Nation, by a despot with six thousand Roman legionnaires, which must be prevented. Yet I know that they will be gone like a dream, and someday, Rome too will be gone like a dream as well. Strange, but I guess I pity them, for they don't stand a chance.
During the next two days, scouts departed to spy on the Roman advance, and they returned to the council with their news. It was as Rhea had reported. The Legion of Serdica was on the march, burning homesteads and crucifying villagers. It looked like they might take three days rather than two to arrive, but this was little consolation. The Amazon Nation had scant time to prepare.
A standard Roman legion was comprised of around six thousand soldiers. Of these, perhaps four thousand eight hundred might be infantry. The infantry would be divided into ten cohorts; composed of six centurae per cohort. There would also be several hundred each of cavalry, archers, and slingers, and perhaps artillery as well. Attending them would be their officers, signalers, engineers, baggage train, servants, and non-combatants. The Roman legion was a small army, complete, deadly, organized, and nearly autonomous. There were perhaps forty such legions in the empire. As a military model, it would endure for thousands of years.
The Roman Empire had grown out of the earlier Republic through the machinations of Julius Caesar. When Octavian came to power, the senate named him Emperor for Life, and following his death, many Romans deified him. He was the greatest emperor that Rome would ever know. Gabrielle smiled, remembering the earnest young man who had once aided them by hiding Eve from the Olympian gods. In a way, the secular power he would one day wield, legitimized by the citizens' choice rather than by birthright, had been gifted to him through the Twilight and the failing of the gods' powers that it heralded. Like she herself, Octavian/Augustus had played the part that the God of Eli had set for him. And like the power Caesar Augustus had enjoyed, the empire of Rome was young.
By contrast, the Amazon Nation was ancient. Gabrielle had spent long hours discovering and transcribing their history. Nearly two thousand seven hundred years before, a girl named Amy had been summoned from the future to be the salvation of a tribe of women on the northern steppes, the surviving Churtumlics. It had been in the time before steel, before the age of bronze, when warriors armed themselves with stone blades, horn gouges, bone spear points, and tooth-encrusted clubs. Somehow, she had led them into a revolutionary partnership with horses, the "swift ones". Through that pivotal advance, she had elevated the tribe, both in war and in peace, and in doing so, gave them a new identity the Amazons.
Across the eastern steppes they'd spread, and in a thousand years founded the powerful city/nation of Themiscyra east of Anatolia. In those glory days, the nation's cavalry had thundered in their thousands across the plains. And yet eventually the city fell, the nation was defeated, and the survivors dispersed throughout the known world. The Dagger was sent into the spirit realm where it was guarded by a ghost. Another millennium passed, during which small tribes and isolated bands fought for their survival. Among them were those who had settled in an isolated corner of Macedonia, and those who had repopulated the northern steppes, their peoples' ancestral home. These preserved the magick and the lore of the Utma, and perpetuated her name among their royalty, Cyane.
In the last quarter century, a half-dozen tribes had banded together, dreaming of creating a cultural renaissance and insuring their safety. Around them, the Roman Empire grew, supplanting the power of the Greeks who had largely coexisted with or ignored them. Now the ancient Amazon Nation faced the young Roman Empire across a gulf of war.
What the Amazon Nation could field against the Legion of Serdica was a total of about twelve hundred warriors. In twenty generations, the nation had never been stronger. Fully a third were archers, and another two hundred, primarily from the eastern steppes, were peerless cavalry. The remainder was infantry, but they were not organized to fight in ranks and files like the Romans. Their tactics worked best in the wooded lands or rough terrain where the nation's component tribes had originated. The last thing they would choose to do would be to meet the larger Roman force on a cleared field of battle. It would be suicide, and recent history confirmed this. The blessing was that the Amazons had fought mostly in defense of their own lands, and these had never been cleared, giving the village a buffer of virgin forest many miles wide. Now they were being invaded and forced to defend. They would do so on their own terms; fighting on their own terrain and using their own tactics. This was the plan they agreed to, and the distribution of their forces occupied most of their time.
There would be the usual array of traps to waylay the advancing columns of soldiers. Any who marched in a formation would become easy targets, being close together and moving predictably. Pitfalls would be dug and log drops rigged. Swinging tree trunks encrusted with spikes, and heavy boulders, would be set to swoop out of the branches overhead, while avalanches would be prepared for the roads where they passed under cliffs. Arrows and darts would be poisoned; some to be fired by bows triggered by tripwires, while flammable oils would cascade over rock faces onto the enemy. Even simple things, like the burning of salt and minerals to produce noxious vapors, and the polluting of water sources, would be taken care of. Nearly invisible warriors would strike in the dark of night and then disappear. The enemy's provisions would burn, vanish, or be found poisoned. And horses would be stolen; this was a certainty, for the Amazons loved horses. It all sounded good on parchment, but there was a factor that the planners hadn't addressed. The front fought within the hearts of the warriors on both sides.
Gabrielle watched the details of the battle plan being drawn, and she couldn't see any logical failings. Varia and the rest of the council had deployed their assets, in an effective strategy of non-frontal assault, which maximized the nation's chances for survival. What they hadn't taken into account was the God of War. Ares knew their tactics, had walked their lands, and understood their leaders. He would be the wild card that could turn the battle against them, and there was only one response that she could think of. The Amazons needed a wild card of their own to neutralize him, and she saw that this would be another part of her destiny.
The next morning Queen Gabrielle rose in the darkness of her hut. A half-candlemark before dawn she walked to the path that led up to the ridge above the eastern side of the Amazon village. She ascended the path in the darkness, her footing assured by a sense that needed no light to see. She came to a boulder and sat down, facing the east.
Once, many years ago, she had sat here with Varia and Cyane in the failing evening light, wondering what she was looking for and where she would go. She had told them the story of Japa, shown them a sword, and declined their offer to settle with the nation permanently. It could not have been home then, and it could not offer what she desperately sought. Almost twenty years later she had come back and told them the story of the Norselands, shown them an heiress, and demonstrated a power. She had a mission now, and again the nation could not give her what she sought. Her home was in the north.
Now she calmed herself and awaited the failing of the night. Below her the village was silent, save for the footsteps of the sentries. She knew that they marked her and kept watch over her. They moved in silence, only to be heard with senses that required no ears to hear. She saw that the sky above was speckled with stars, and she likened them to those in the future she had dreamed. Almost, she could see the sky ship, with her soulmate's distant daughter at its helm, sailing its course home on the sky roads among those harsh and beautiful points of light. I will make your world a reality, from among the endless possibilities that stretch between you and me, Jamie, Gabrielle promised. I will reclaim your destiny.
The night held its dying breath, as if the world hung in its balance, as if no future was assured and all futures were equally possible. Into this blessed moment Gabrielle sank, like a swimmer at rest, enveloped by the velvet waters of the night and sinking to find the buoyant point of perfect equilibrium. Above her, the first hint of illumination cleared the horizon and swam on its course to forever, and it lightened the sky imperceptibly and irreversibly in its wake. Now there was no Amazon village, no Roman legion, and no war threatening the border. There was no past, no future, and no such thing as Gabrielle of Potidaea, bard and warrior, queen and mother, wife and lover .soulmate.
The God of War stood before her, revealed in his plots like a child with his hand in a cookie jar. She saw him and he was transparent. What god could possibly stand against the power of the universe? He drove the degraded Emperor Nero and the despotic Legatus Galena. He reveled in the coming assault on the Amazon Nation, not in hatred of them, but simply for the pure exhilaration of bringing battle to the world. Since Xena's passing, he had cared little more for the victor than the vanquished. It would be the same centuries hence, when a barbarian named Alaric would despoil Rome itself. It would be the same in 1956, when he would drive the Americans and the Nazis to defile the earth on Armageddon Day. War was what defined him and maintained him; it was what he did.
It will never be, Gabrielle promised. And like Rome, Ares, you too will be like a dream, for I will make you small. Above her the dawn broke like the crashing of a wave, and it ground peace, like tiny bits of shell, in its undertow. The Amazon Nation was at war.
The day of the arrival of the Roman legion on Amazon territory dawned, and already the Amazons had inflicted casualties. The night before, while the legions' three hundred tents speckled the landscape a league from the border, sentries had been shot in the dark. Two dozen horses had been taken from their pickets, and the first centuria of the first cohort had been attacked with arrows, fired through their tent walls. Four decuriae of cavalry and four contubernii of archers had responded to the alarms, but these eighty soldiers had found no one to fight. It was more an attack on the legion's morale than a tactical assault, but it was a blow struck against the invaders' best troops. As dawn broke, almost half the eighty men of the first centuria lay dying of poisoned wounds. The officers and men expressed their disgust with the Amazons' cowardly attack, while the Amazons settled their new horses. Eventually the column continued its march.
Somewhere after the noon meal, the line of destiny was crossed. The vexillarius and the aquilifer of the first cohort passed under the shadows of the outlying trees of the Amazon lands. The peace of the Emperor Claudius was no more.
The Legion of Serdica advanced west along a forest road without opposition, and the column stretched out for three-quarters of a mile. For a league they traveled, until they reached a section where the road wound for two miles, overshadowed by cliffs on their right, to the north. Here, the Amazons launched their first attacks.
Suddenly a rumbling filled the air, and the ground shook as from the footfalls of a Titan, spooking the mule train and upsetting men's footing. Horses pranced in nervousness. From above, boulders and smaller rocks crashed down on the legion. It was no natural avalanche, for it was accompanied by war drums from the southern woods to their left, and it struck at the front and rear of the column. Before the centurions could issue orders, more rockslides struck their men, and yet worse was to come.
The mule train that transported the legion's baggage marched to the soldiers' left, and it had shielded the soldiers from the forest while trapping them against the cliff. When the baggage train finally sought cover from the falling rocks, the troops lay revealed to the Amazon archers, and the shooting began. While men scrambled to raise their shields into a solid wall, a rain of arrows slammed into them. Later, the centurions would realize that most of those shot had been cavalry, not infantry, for those on horseback couldn't form an effective wall of shields. The screams of the wounded and dying filled the air, long after the sounds of the rock fall had died away.
Finally the Romans rallied; their archers and slingers bombarding the forest. Whether any targets had been hit was unknown, for they couldn't see anyone among the trees. A short time later a sortie was arranged and sent into the forest to seek the enemy. They came back after half a candlemark, having seen nothing. They had not been attacked, they had not seen any enemy dead, and they had found very little evidence of an enemy presence. They had noticed that the forest was crisscrossed with footpaths. They had not noticed the many eyes that watched them from the branches above.
After a candlemark, the legion continued its march, keeping as far away from the cliff face as the road's width would allow. The forest was silent and threatening to their left, and in the depths of the shadows, men swore they occasionally saw quick movements, as of figures pacing their march. When the cliff disappeared on their right and more forest encroached, their tension escalated to fear, for now they felt certain that they were outflanked on both sides. Their march continued until they stopped for the evening meal.
When they pitched their tents that night, they found that almost a thousand men were now dead or wounded, and they had yet to even see an Amazon. The wounded that had been arrow shot were expected to die of poison, and this was another source of depression. The head count had revealed that an inordinate number of officers had been targets. As darkness fell over the army, men propped their shields against the tent walls, and a few dug shallow pits inside their tents, intending to sleep below ground level, and hopefully, incoming arrows. The watches were tripled and the sentries marched but a few yards apart, trying desperately to stay away from the watch fires.
Somehow in the night, the Amazons stole another two dozen horses, a dozen baggage mules, and several hundred pounds of food stores. Again, except for a few dead sentries, no one had seen a thing.
In the tent of Legatus Galena an argument was raging.
"Galena, you're as helpless as a babe and you don't stand a chance." The smiling God of War taunted. "These women will destroy you. It's laughable, really. The great Legion of Serdica, wiped from the face of the earth by an army a fifth of its size."
"You you told me to attack them!" The furious Legatus Legionis roared at his dark clad mentor. "You encouraged me to claim these lands as the heart of my own empire!"
"That's right. I told you to seek an empire and a destiny independent of Rome. I didn't tell you to march in here and expect this would be as simple as running over villages of farmers. You have delivered your men to their slaughter. You have no idea how to fight this kind of a war."
"War is war! I may lose some men now, but when we reach their village tomorrow we will slaughter them! The legendary Amazon Nation will be the first province of my empire."
"Don't brag to me, Galena." The God of War admonished in a condescending tone. "Believe me, I've heard it all. Words bore me. I want to see inspired leadership and heroic fighting. That honors me. If you want my favor and the achievement of your dreams, then you had better conquer tomorrow. Nero is weak, but there are thirty-nine other legions and some very good commanders among them. Someone will have to fill the vacuum when Nero self-destructs."
"It will be me! I will have these Amazons hanging from crosses before the sun sets tomorrow, and soon I will have Nero's head on a platter. The other legions will bow to me when I claim the empire. They are used to taking orders."
"Really?" Ares asked, sounding bored. "Perhaps you should tell the Consuls Vindix, Rufus, and Galba that. Even that politician, Adrianus, might disagree."
"They might disagree, but they will not act." Galena declared. "That's the difference between me and them. That's why I alone am worthy of your favor. As you have said, fate is to be taken by the strong and shaped into destiny."
"Glad you were listening, Galena," Ares said as he began to vanish. "Just pray you are the strongest one here and it is you who shapes your destiny."
When he was gone, Legatus Galena pondered the meaning of his last words. Finally he determined that they were a warning, and he needed to discover what Vindix, Rufus, and Galba were really up to. In the scheme of the empire, a consul was the appointed overlord of a territory, with many legions at his command. A legion commander like himself was well below a consul in the chain of command. He never suspected that Ares' warning had nothing to do with the empire.
In the morning, after the legion counted its losses, the ill-fated march continued. Down the now winding forest road the column advanced through the Amazon forest. They were regularly assaulted. When they were not falling prey to the traps that had been prepared for them, they were made the targets of volleys of arrows, shot by unseen foes. It was a war of attrition and extremely frustrating to the soldiers, for they could take no actions in restitution. The few times that they were allowed to charge after the hidden archers, they found themselves alone in a dense forest with no enemies in sight. Yet they continued to advance, expecting to find the Amazon village in the late afternoon, and lay waste to it before sunset.
Little did they know that the Amazon lands were designed much like a walled city, with the road, so open to attack, acting as it's perimeter. The road wound in a circle of many leagues, while the way to the interior was along footpaths where no more than a horse and rider could pass abreast. Behind their march, crews of Amazons renewed the traps that had been sprung, while the army shadowed their progress, sniping at them and selectively decreasing their numbers. By nightfall the Romans had found nothing, but they discerned that the road had turned from west to north in the late afternoon.
"Queen Varia, how goes the war?" Queen Cyane asked in the council chamber.
"The enemy has traversed about a third of the gauntlet and lost a quarter of its strength." The Warrior Queen reported with a grin. "In truth, our hardest duty so far has been the disposal of the bodies, rather than the killing or the resetting of the traps."
"What of our own casualties?" A concerned Queen Gabrielle asked.
"What casualties?" Varia happily replied. "One warrior fell from a stolen horse and twisted her ankle, another smashed a finger while handling a boulder, and a third is being treated for poison because she stumbled and got pricked by one of the arrows in her own quiver."
"That's it?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "Have there been any actual battles?"
"Queen Gabrielle, I doubt if any Roman has even seen an Amazon. They shoot wildly over our heads, thinking us much further away. Their infantry wanders the woods looking for us as we watch them from above their heads. They don't even recognize a killing ground when they spend two days in it. Consider this a gift, My Queen, a bitter payback for the death of your regent."
"Thank you, my sister," Gabrielle said softly, "Queen Ephiny would be amazed, being avenged six thousand fold after all these years." And yet I wonder if her spirit can countenance so much bloodshed in her name. Xena killed Pompey, avenging my regent. I later slew her killer, Brutus, myself, though that was for Cleopatra, really. Still, Ephiny died defending the nation against Rome, and this must be done.
That night, Legatus Galena received another visit from a disgusted God of War.
"You know, little man, I'm a heartbeat from abandoning you to your fate," Ares told the raging general. "Your destiny is to be target practice for warriors you can't even see. Even if you knew the truth of this place, I still wouldn't give you even odds of surviving."
"What are you talking about?" Galena screamed. He had lost another five hundred and his temper was short. The village had not been where he had expected and now he was unsure of his plans.
"Galena, these women have had decades to prepare this landscape for defense." The God of War lectured. "Teutoburg Forest was a picnic compared to what you have bitten off here. That was merely an unfavorable natural setting. This place is something much more deadly."
"What are you talking about?" Galena demanded.
"The Amazon lands encompass almost five hundred square miles," Ares continued, "a small territory by imperial standards, but almost every square acre is set up as a killing ground. The Amazons learned bitter lessons from the predator, Morloch. In the past it was different; even twenty years ago you might have succeeded. Now, you will die."
"No! I will conquer them. I will have this territory. All I need to do is engage their army in a real battle and my legion will destroy them."
"Galena," Ares sighed, "all the last two days you've been within arrow range of their army. They have no reason to fight on your terms. Go home and lick your wounds, Legatus. Save what's left of your men warriors deserve a better chance for glory."
Legatus Galena stared at the God of War. He was actually telling him to withdraw rather than fight. He was telling him to retreat rather than conquer. It wasn't possible. To retreat would mean that he would have to answer for his actions to Consul Adrianus, for Serdica was within Moesia Inferior, and his command fell under the consul's jurisdiction. Adrianus would rejoice to take his head and feed his body to the crows.
"You're abandoning me," the Roman whispered, "you have betrayed me."
"I'm saving your hide, Galena." Ares said with an indulgent smile. "You're not up to this challenge and I have no more time to waste here."
"No, I will not retreat," Galena declared as his eyes hardened with determination, "I will subjugate the Amazons. You'll see, Ares, I am worthy of your favor and I will take my destiny in my own hands if you won't help me."
"Well, at least your heart's in the right place," the God of War mused, "at least you're not begging for my help. Okay. I'll tell you this, and it'll either bring you victory or total defeat. Stop marching in a circle and take the footpaths to the village. They all lead there eventually."
"You mean the road ?"
But the God of War had already vanished.
"I can't believe it," Galena fumed, "he knew all along."
The third day of the invasion dawned overcast and it saw a change in the Roman strategy. By centuriae, the column entered the forest, following footpaths towards the interior. They couldn't move with stealth, and they couldn't advance quickly, but now they were a much greater threat.
"The Romans have left the road, My Queen," a scout reported to Varia at first light, "and they are taking the paths leading east towards the village. They have left their baggage train on the road and are moving forward, equipped only for battle."
"Very well," Varia told her, "tell Cyane's people to waylay them a league into the woods where the stream is dammed, and report this development to the council."
"Yes, My Queen," the scout replied, before disappearing into the trees.
Varia then beckoned another messenger to her and gave her orders. "Have Aliah take one hundred warriors and cause as much damage as possible to the Romans' baggage train. I want to deprive them of supplies, tents, weapons, and even their damn wine. Tell her to take as many beasts as possible, but to guard the lives of her warriors. That is to come first."
"Yes, My Queen," the messenger said. Then she hastened to find the new warriors from the north and convey their orders.
In the forest, a centurion checked the cloudy sky and guessed they'd been marching for almost two candlemarks. It was hard to tell in this wood, between the overcast and the treetops, and he disliked the place intensely. Their surroundings felt hostile, and though silent, held no assurance that it was really deserted. The remaining fifty-three men of his centuria moved through the woods around him, warily picking their way along a path and through the surrounding trees. It had not been a good campaign. His men were grumbling, and he would have welcomed an order to return home to Serdica. Instead, the legatus had become obsessed with this small and deadly country, and his centuria had already lost over twenty-five men.
A scream brought him out of his ruminations, and he saw his men rushing toward the source of the disturbance. They were acting like raw conscripts and it would get them killed, he thought angrily. Morale and discipline were rapidly failing.
"Stand," he ordered, "don't clump together like that."
Something struck him hard in the back, and he watched as eight soldiers, already clustered around a fallen body, were mowed down by a swinging log. It had swept out of a tree to their left and knocked the men flying, like pebbles swept from a portico by a servant's broom. He was still watching as he began to drop to his knees, lightheaded, and bleeding profusely because of the arrow sprouting from his back. The last thing he saw was the log making its return swing and mowing down another two men.
There were many such incidents throughout the woods during the next candlemark, and the legion's morale fell to new lows. The cohorts eventually reached a riverbed that crossed their path, a league into the forest. Only a few wondered at the absence of water. There had been plenty of rain. Instead, they turned their attention to avoiding the numerous pools of quicksand that lined the exposed shoals. Men began to create bridges over the treacherous spots, using branches and deadfall scavenged from the woods, while their advanced parties secured the far bank to the distance of an arrow shot. They were thus occupied when the Amazons of Cyane's tribe attacked.
There were no battle cries or challenges. No battle lines were drawn to gauge the opposing strength. The rain of arrows appeared to come from all sides, and at first the legionnaires turned this way and that in confusion, seeking in what direction to present their wall of shields. No sooner would a rank form up than it was shot from behind. Gradually, with much death and fear of the poisoned arrows, the cohorts drew together, seeking strength in numbers, and facing outwards toward all quarters. They were soon standing in a circle in the riverbed. Everyone from Legatus Galena, down to the lowest conscript, could see this was a disaster. The bodies of their comrades littered the riverbed around their position, and they were still being fired on when the ground rumbled and a wind arose, forcing damp air down the channel into their faces.
It took only a short time for the wiser soldiers to understand the jeopardy in which they stood. Ignoring orders, they broke formation and fled to the banks. Soon, a raging torrent of floodwaters surged down the riverbed, scouring the field of battle with boulders, flotsam, and deadfall. This was no slot canyon or large waterway. The river barely found a depth of six feet where the path crossed it. But the waters had been dammed three days before, and they came down at flood crest, overtopping the banks, and sweeping away all on the riverbed. Granted, not more than half of those caught actually drowned, and many had already escaped to the banks. But many a soldier now had nothing but the clothes on his back; no shields, spears, swords, or helmets with which to continue the war. It was a disaster for morale.
Somehow Legatus Legionis Galena survived, though many of his troops wished it had not been so. He was in a rage, stomping and cursing among his officers. Barely three thousand of his men were still equipped to fight. Two of the legion's six tribuni still lived, and these seconds-in-command prevailed on their leader to send the unarmed men back to the baggage train to be reequipped. They also convinced him to encamp and regroup, gathering the armed men from both sides of the river for an advance tomorrow.
As afternoon dwindled to twilight under the canopy of the forest, half-drowned men made their way back to the road, fearing every footstep and almost certain they would die. They had hope for much more than a meal, and many whispered against Galena.
"Your orders, Queen Varia," Aliah asked with hand signs, as they watched the men pass below their tree.
"Let them go," Varia whispered softly, "they are no longer a threat." She remembered killing Roman soldiers who had already surrendered, long years ago. There had been no honor in it, but she had been too blind to see. Twenty years later she still regretted it.
"They will find little at the road to welcome their return," Aliah smiled.
"And they will be encouraged to leave," Varia told her.
That night Cyane came before the council in the Amazon village to give her report.
"How stands the battle, Queen Cyane?" Gabrielle asked.
"The legion is reduced by half, Queen Gabrielle, and eight hundred have fled back to the road like drowned rats. I reckon four hundred fifty died in the attack at the river and by drowning, and another two hundred and fifty in the forest traps."
"So we didn't have to kill them all?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"Battle deaths would number about two thousand two hundred so far, Queen Gabrielle," Cyane replied seriously, "but I heard that Varia allowed the passage of the eight hundred back to the road. They passed directly below her army, and even now they live only by her mercy."
"What will they find at the road?" Gabrielle asked sadly, for the numbers of dead still affected her heart.
"Little more than a meal and a message to leave if they value their lives."
"And the baggage train?"
At this Cyane burst out laughing and Gabrielle could only look at her in question. "I should thank you again for convincing the rest of the northern Amazons to rejoin the nation, Gabrielle. Aliah led a party of a hundred warriors, including her own. They managed to draw off the servants and then steal every mule, every horse, and everything they carried. They actually had to put back enough for the disarmed soldiers to eat tonight. At this very moment the servants are fleeing to the nearest border with their freedom, if those who are slaves choose to keep it."
Gabrielle joined the rest of the council in a good laugh. Aliah and her tribe had indeed been worth the effort. A legion's baggage train might include six to seven hundred mules and tons of supplies.
"Does Legatus Galena still live?"
"Yes," Cyane said with contempt, "and if his own men don't murder him in the night I'll be surprised. He is insane and cares nothing for the welfare of his warriors."
"And they are now, what, five leagues from the village?"
"About that, maybe a bit closer, since they are encamped on the near side of the river."
"Cyane, I want no enemy survivor to see the secrets of this land." Gabrielle said, her voice hardening. "Any who come within four leagues of the village must be killed."
Cyane stared at her friend and the rest of the council sat in shocked silence. This was the last thing they'd expected from the most merciful of their number.
"We cannot let the lay of our lands be known," Gabrielle continued, "the empire is crumbling and Galena will not be the last to lead a legion here. Mark my words. In the years ahead, the nation's survival will depend on none learning the secrets of its defenses. Believe me, Galena is nothing compared to what may come."
The empire contains about forty legions, Gabrielle thought, and the Consul of Moesia Inferior has control of six. Galena is a renegade, but if the consul invades with three or four legions, then even our secrets may not help us. It is only a matter of time before the empire falls, and it is only a matter of time before the nation falls as well. It has been inevitable since the destruction of Themiscyra. I'm sorry, my sisters, but if I thought the nation could survive indefinitely, I would go to the road tonight and kill those eight hundred men myself and then I would hunt down their servants, for they have seen the road. But I have the burden of having seen some of what is to be, and the Amazon Nation, too, will pass like a dream. The best I can do is to restrain the God of War.
In the end, the council voted to accept Gabrielle's decree, and the word was passed to Queen Varia and the nation's army. War is hard on the soul, Gabrielle thought, and she felt she'd lost another piece of her old self. It's a wonder that there's any of that person left at all. Maybe later I can mourn her I feel too much like a murderer right now.
When she heard the new order, Queen Varia understood its purpose instinctively, and she ordered her warriors to attack. It was the dead of night, and without tents, the Roman camp was little more than exhausted men, fitfully sleeping under the trees. A few had managed to construct lean to shelters in the dark. The assault was silent, save for the whistling of arrows and the cries of the wounded. At different times, shouts would come from some point on the perimeter, where parties of Amazon warriors attacked the panicking men with swords and spears. They would take a few lives and then return to the darkness, shooting any that followed. It went on all night.
In the last of the night's darkness, Gabrielle sat on the boulder above the village. It had become a nightly habit. Now she waited, thinking over things she'd heard and pondering information she'd been given.
The Eye of Hephaestus is blind, La'shaunti had told her, and it will see no change in what is put before it. She didn't say it couldn't see at all, or it wouldn't know change from stasis, yet it is blind and cannot see the world of mortal vision so maybe it's not made to see the physical world. I know there are many things that eyes can't see, and I've seen some of them myself, she thought. The things my dreams show me, or Xena's ghost, for example. Maybe the Eye can see the spirits of the dead. They don't change, do they? La'shaunti said the Eye will see no change. That could mean it can't see a change, or it won't allow changes. What's the point if it can't see changes? So then, I guess the Eye will allow no changes in what is invisible to human eyes.
But how will that help me against Ares, and why does he have the Eye in his temple? He claimed that he once thought he'd be able to survive the Twilight, asleep in that sarcophagus. Damn! He was depending on the Eye of Hephaestus to preserve him until he could awaken! So the Eye would preserve him as the God of War through the ages. Ok, but I don't want him waking up and leaving whenever he wants to. There's something here that I'm not seeing.
Now for the chakram. It isn't dark or light enough when combined, but no one living can divide it, because no one living is purely good or evil that's assuming dividing it is like combining it. Would it require someone with only half of their nature first, or would the chakram divide a person's nature if they could divide it? The light half can kill a god. Wouldn't that be a temptation with Ares? Gabrielle chuckled at the thought. The dark half could activate the Eye. If she killed Ares with the light half, then why would she need to bother activating the Eye anyway?
Above her the sky was poised for Eos' rising, the same each day since the dawn of time, and yet each day was unique, never to be repeated. The silence of the spirit fell upon her and it left her weak before the power of its peace. She heard the battle five leagues away, where Varia's warriors carved away at the remains of the Legion of Serdica. The spirit was invisible, unchanging, and yet unique in each moment. It could be seen, only by an eye that didn't depend on the light of the world for sight, whether it was the spirit of a man, a god, or the universe. The spirit of a god, preserved by the Eye, and left weak in the face of its power. His spirit would be held unchanging before it preserved for all time, but unable to move. How then to separate a god's spirit from his divine form?
The world turned by an unstoppable degree, and the dawn encroached on the blonde woman seated on a boulder in the forest of Amazonia, wedged between Macedonia and Moesia Inferior. "I want no enemy survivor to see the secrets of this land. Any who come within four leagues of the village must be killed." A memory from over forty years before came to her. "You axed that man in the back!" She had screamed in accusation. "He was inside our battlements. He saw our defenses. I couldn't risk it!" Xena had yelled back. " if I thought the nation could survive indefinitely, I would go to the road tonight and kill those eight hundred men myself and then I would hunt down their servants, for they have seen the road." The darkness lives within me too, Gabrielle admitted, but not enough darkness or light to split or combine the chakram. Who among the living could claim such purity? Not even the purest monk of his order had been pure enough to claim the chakram of light. Among the living there was no one, and yet, anything is possible.
Again the world turned by a degree and the stars faded above. Somewhere in the east a dawn had come, and it raced across the leagues of the world to find her. In the moment that proceeded its arrival, she saw the Tomb of Ares, where a ruddy light washed over the sarcophagus of the God of War. On the floor lay a broken chakram, and beside her a figure disappeared in a shaft of light. She saw thousands of Roman soldiers, three full legions on the march. Then the unstoppable dawn flooded the horizon with the tide of the sun, and a new day of battle opened, bringing bloodshed, heartache, and destiny.
In the Amazon forest, dawn's light gradually filtered through the canopy of the trees, revealing the dead and the wounded, and the seemingly endless flights of arrows. The centurions drove their men forward at their legatus' command, and step by plodding step they advanced, huddled beneath their shields. It was a death march. In mortal terror they moved ahead, and they died by the scores. If the showers of arrows were the horrifying background rhythm, then the counterpoints were the logs dropping from overhead, the pits filled with spikes, and the boulders that swooped out of the trees. With each hundred yards, two score of men fell, and soon, even the Amazons were sickened by the slaughter.
A league of three miles encompasses fifteen thousand eight hundred and forty feet. At the average rate of killing, the last legionnaire would fall after marching seven thousand five hundred yards. Only eight hundred and eighty-eight men would pass the four-league limit set by the council. Five thousand two hundred soldiers would lie dead on Amazon lands, and their uncontested blood would be on the warriors' hands.
"Queen Gabrielle," a battle weary scout reported to the council, "Queen Varia oversees the decimation of the legion, and even she is saddened by the carnage. It is a horrifying loss of life, a futile march, and a slaughter so one-sided as to sicken our warriors. The very air reeks of the spilled blood. It is the worst thing I have ever seen."
Gabrielle's sad eyes appraised the killing's effects on the scout. The soul of our nation will be bled by this victory, she thought. The battle goes too well, and it will leave the Romans dead and Amazons wounded. Her heart felt pity for both, but she could end it.
"There can be no cease fire," she solemnly told the scout, "this enemy must be defeated, but perhaps there is another way."
It was a candlemark past dawn, and in the forest, one thousand six hundred men still moved doggedly forward. They had come two miles. On the boulder above the village, Gabrielle sat, her eyes focused inwards, and to the guards around her, they appeared frighteningly empty. She had called the silence and she had ceased to will, and now she felt perfect stillness within. She saw the battle in the forest, and the pitiful trail of bodies littering the landscape, disappearing among the trees in the distance. She saw the Amazons in their blinds firing, and the tired, haunted expressions on their faces. Some were crying silently as they continued the massacre, and her heart ached, both for them and for their hopeless victims. So much pain at one madman's command, and with one god's blessing. This war honors no one, and she had never felt the lesson as strongly as now. Their blood is on my hands too.
What I will do shall bring a shock to the nation that I don't know if it can withstand. It will call into question their whole culture as warriors, the meaning of their honor and their long history. But this suffering is accursed and it is the right thing to do. You would agree, wouldn't you, Xena? You would find a way to save lives, or if those lives are doomed, at least alleviate the suffering, before heeding tradition or fearing change. My sisters are crying as they defend their homeland, the very duty they were born to, and the terror of the Romans deafens me. I cannot let this go on.
In the morning's stillness the cries of the souls of both victors and vanquished gave voice to the power, and she was the focus. Both sides were bereft of their gods and it was up to mortals now to determine their own destiny. On the High Queen's back, the Eastern Dragon blazed. Down deadly footpaths through the bleeding forest, the power struck, and it ended the suffering. Four leagues away, archers saw their arrows bouncing off of their targets as the legion's movement ceased. The Amazons stopped firing, and suddenly the lands were silent. Below their shooting blinds, soldiers of stone littered the woods, the lost Legion of Serdica.
The Amazons finally realized what had happened, and the sudden end of the battle shocked them to the core. Many wondered if they would be next. Others felt joy at their victory, while yet others felt relief at not having more blood on their hands. Varia half-understood what had happened and she was furious. She had suffered with her warriors; the remorse of bringing such slaughter, necessary, but with such an imbalance of power that it actually made her feel guilty to be killing her enemies and defending her home. And then, Gabrielle did this!
Gabrielle could have destroyed this army days ago, before they'd ever set foot on Amazon lands. But what then? The legion of statues would have drawn attention, standing at the borders of Amazonia. It would have brought down the wrath of the empire, and the mad Emperor Nero was looking for scapegoats to join the Elisians in the Colosseum. Well, then she could have frozen them on the road, Varia thought petulantly. And me and every other warrior would have felt useless and obsolete just like I do right now. So what will I do now?
What's the point of spending years training to become a warrior if she can just turn our enemies to stone? What's the point of training another generation of warriors? What is the Amazon Nation without warriors and the honor their way of life demands? Are we to become just another people, farming and raising livestock while being defended by magick? What if she leaves, or no one else can learn her skills when she dies? By all rights I should be happy, Varia thought, but this could mark the end of the Amazon way.
Tillit came back to the hut after the noon meal, but found her mother wasn't there. She's probably with the council, she thought, overseeing the war. She dropped her weapons on the table and went to sit down on the pallet. On the chest of drawers, she found a note.
I've gone to fulfill my destiny, Tillit, and I think this is something I have to do alone. I know you're happy here and there's much here for you to learn. Cyane knows I've gone, and you can ask her for anything you need.
Honey, the war is over. It was almost as bad for us as it was for the Romans. I stopped it, but I know I shocked the nation in doing it. I think it's for the best if I stay away until things quiet down. Right now the Amazons will be feeling their way challenged by the power I used. They will doubt their value as warriors, and they will resent me for it. I hope they don't try to take that out on you.
What I have to do shouldn't take me very long. In fact, I could be back within a fortnight if all goes well. After that, I'll probably go back north. Lyceus is still there and I worry about him. I feel like I've left him too long already.
You are a princess of the Amazon Nation, and you are to be queen after me. Still, it is up to you to decide whether you want to stay or leave. If you choose to leave, then you can always appoint a regent to rule with the help of the council. Whatever you decide, I will support your choice. You are my daughter and I love you more than life itself. Be well and be at peace.
Though her mother was more capable than anyone she had ever met, and though she had a place among the Amazons, Tillit felt alone and she feared for her mother. Gabrielle had gone to face the God of War. The young princess held the note, rereading it until tears blurred her vision. The last paragraph spoke of things that wouldn't come for many years. It was as though Gabrielle thought she wouldn't be coming back. Finally she sank down on the pallet and cried herself to sleep.
Two candlemarks past noon, a shaggy horse from the north bore its rider out of the Amazon forest. The pale haired warrior guided her mount onto the south road that led towards Thrace. She knew the way well, having ridden it many times in the last forty-five years. In five leagues she would join the watercourse that cut through the highlands, and she would follow it for another thirty leagues. It would slowly veer south by east; losing altitude and then finally hooking west, until the long, Lake Cercinitis lay before her. There she would follow its western bank, skirting Chalcidice, past the mouth of the lake, where the Stryma Vale would open before her. Three miles from the sea, on the border of Thrace, lay the city of Amphipolis, and there, across the Stryma River, her destiny awaited her in the tomb of the God of War.
That afternoon Gabrielle rode swiftly and with purpose, stopping only to rest her horse. Her thoughts were as much on the turmoil she had left behind as on the task looming ahead. Varia will be furious, she thought, and Cyane will be resigned. La'shaunti will probably crack bad jokes, but eventually, I hope she'll make them understand. They just need time to recover from having to shoot helpless men and then finding that it was never necessary. They'll need more time to accept that their culture still has validity. Eventually, they'll realize I have no intention of taking over the Amazon Nation or making their skills obsolete. Yet the blow is already struck. To a people who spend their lives learning how to wrest control of their own destiny from the whims of fate, having it snatched, so easily by another, can only be a devastating challenge to their faith.
The road bore her to the top of a ridge, as the sun chariot of Apollo followed its eternal path, down towards its distant passage to Gaia's bosom. A gusty breeze lifted her hair and ruffled her horse's mane. It carried the chill of the coming dusk in the highlands. Gabrielle reigned her horse to a halt and scanned the landscape for the campsite she remembered. There it was, a hundred yards off the road, without running water, but with wood, forage, and surrounded by rocks that would shelter her from the wind.
Eventually she turned and gazed into the distant haze to the south. Somewhere in that haze lay Amphipolis, with Cyrene's old tavern, and the mausoleum of Xena's family. I just couldn't bear to go there before, she thought, too many memories. I think you knew that, Xena, because we didn't even discuss it on the road out of Therme. You only asked if I wanted to visit Potidaea, and I said, 'no', thinking, maybe some other time.
Some other time in her mind's eye she saw herself, approaching her present position on this road. Her memory revealed a girl of seventeen, dressed in a blue peasant blouse and a long rust brown skirt, happily striding beside a leather clad warrior on a palomino war horse. She was chattering and waving her hands, and the older woman looked down indulgently at her, her blue eyes betraying the smile that her lips held in check. It was the first time she'd traveled this road, and though she hadn't known it then, Xena was leading them towards Amazon lands. Gabrielle had been two days from a brush with destiny, which would bring her wayward soul back to the people of her ancestors, back to the people of the Utma. For trying to save a life, she would become a princess.
The travelers came up to her, her younger self passing obliviously on her left, but Xena directed Argo to shift to the right, moving around her, and for a moment she held her gaze. Only someone who knew the Warrior Princess as intimately as she did would have noticed the slight widening of her eyes that was her only expression of surprise. For Xena, the brief vision confirmed many things she'd just begun to suspect about her young companion. That familiar katana and the unfamiliar chakram. When Gabrielle turned to watch their progress, they were gone, but she could fill in the next few moments.
"Xena, what is it?" She had asked, noticing that Argo had sidestepped something. Looking backwards down the road, she had seen nothing there.
"Uhhh, nothing, Gabrielle," Xena had reassured her, "maybe a trick of the light. For a moment I thought I saw something on the road."
"Well, take my word for it, there was nothing there," she'd replied with a smile, "and I'm much closer to the road than you are."
Xena had laughed at her joke, but she had also turned in the saddle to glance behind her.
Gabrielle looked where they had passed so many years before, and gave a little wave. From the timing, she knew that Xena in the past would have been looking.
That night, Gabrielle ate a small meal by her campfire. She remembered it being colder up here, but her years in the Norselands had conditioned her, and the night only seemed cool. Those years of her renewed life had seemed so real, so immediate, and yet now it was that life in the Norselands that felt like a distant dream. She was riding back to Greece, back to where her adventure had started back to where her life had changed. Staring into the flames, with the star speckled sky above, it almost felt like one of those timeless nights that she had lived through so many years ago. For a moment, she half expected to hear the strokes of the sharpening stone against Xena's sword. An ember popped, startling her and throwing sparks up into the darkness.
Gabrielle blinked and looked around. She was alone. A few yards away, the shaggy northern horse stood silent, its coat chestnut, not palomino. She was dressed in the suede costume of a southern Amazon queen, not the garb of a peasant girl from a farming village in Chalcidice. Next to her bedroll lay a pair of sais, a katana from Japa, and the chakram, not a bag of scrolls and a quill. The land was familiar, but she had changed.
"It's true," she mused, "there can be no going back."
"No one would ever expect you to go backwards, and everything looks different because you see it with different eyes." Her memory answered.
"Now I see what cannot be seen with eyes that only see the world."
"Why don't you stay with us, Gabrielle? Everyone here loves you, and we could learn so much from you."
"I couldn't stay there," she whispered sadly, thinking of so many places.
"No, you can't, you've got so much more to do."
"Just a few more things to do now. I've already done everything the farm girl from Potidaea dreamed of doing, when I followed you all those years ago."
"Maybe you just need new dreams."
"It's no longer about dreams, Xena. You see, I'm done with dreams, now, it's destiny."
Somewhere during the conversation, Gabrielle had fallen asleep.
Once before, she had dreamed of her descendants and her ancestors, and she had seen them arrayed in a continuing lineage. She had looked forward, finding her distant future daughter, Janice Covington, and then she had seen that woman's granddaughter, Amy, who was to be the Utma and the first Cyane. In a flash, Gabrielle had known that among her ancestors stood this same girl, wrenched from her future, to create her past. Later, she had seen Amy's brokenhearted soulmate, Jamie, a distant daughter and reincarnation of her own soulmate, Xena. In that future time they had been separated, and that separation would endure through all the futures from that point on, for her own soul would never again be reborn. Instead, it had been called back into the distant past, only to exist in a closed loop, cycling endlessly through eternity. It was not the destiny that they had been promised.
Now she looked back among her ancestors. She saw the generations, arrayed like a migration of souls on a pilgrimage to the future. Back she went, through the age before steel, when there had been only bronze, back even further, to the time before metals, when warriors had fought with wooden clubs, bone spear points, and blades of flint. Finally she found the Utma, and after her, another leader, the only daughter of the first Cyane.
The dream whisked her forward through time. Now she was in a room, dry, hot, and dusty. Out a hazy, dust filmed window, the view revealed that she was in the top of a house, and outside, it was spring. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed out there, dressing the yard in white, pink, red, and violet. The grounds spread wide, beyond a rolling lawn to a wooded border of new green.
All around her in the attic there were boxes and old furniture, books and cases. She scanned them, looking rapidly at the writing on the journals that filled a shelf. They were in a sequence by dates, but all bore the same graceful script, and all bore the same name, Melinda Pappas. Past the bookshelf stood a display case, its glass sides enclosing many artifacts from ancient times. There were coins, fragments of armor, and even part of an Amazon drum. With a gasp, she recognized the beads of the silver necklace she wore, and the wooden spindle from a scroll. She looked at the shelf below it and saw an object wrapped in a skin. Even through the wrapping, she could see its curved length; the shaft extending at a right angle from a carved animal head that jutted out of the skin. Gabrielle stared at it in amazement. How had it come to be here?
Standing along the wall opposite her were a row of paintings, frighteningly lifelike. Among them, the likeness of a woman who could have been her soulmate. The resemblance was exact. It was as if someone had painted Xena, in perfect detail, but in clothing from two millennia later. She was drawn toward it, as if mesmerized by a god's command. On the bottom edge of the carved wooden frame was a brass plaque, bearing the notation, "Melinda Pappas, 1947".
In the yard below, a rumbling sound grew in volume, and she returned to the window to seek its source. Now it was early summer. The trees were fully leafed in mature green. A brightly colored enclosed metal cart was just arriving, slowing to a halt beneath her window. The cart stopped completely with a small jerk and then it fell silent.
Gabrielle suddenly found herself standing next to the cart, and it pinged and hissed softly as it cooled. Strange smells came from it. A door on its side swung open and a woman stepped out. When she turned around, Gabrielle covered her mouth in shock, for she was the younger twin of her soulmate. Even the way her body moved was familiar. She watched transfixed as the woman turned to greet the older couple who had come out of the house to welcome her.
"Hi Mom. Hi Dad," she happily said, meeting them with hugs.
"My daughter, the college grad," her proud father kidded. The young woman blushed.
"Jamie, sweetheart, it's so good to have you home again," her redheaded mother said with a broad smile, reaching up to drape an arm across her daughter's shoulders, and leading her up the steps towards the door. As her tall dark haired father picked up her bag and moved to follow them inside, his eyes swept past Gabrielle. She saw that they were sky blue.
As she had so often over the years, Gabrielle awoke in the last failing depth of the night. In these highlands, she could see for leagues in all directions, even with only the starlight's illumination. The sky to the east still preserved its dark cloak and bright stars, yet she could hear birds already stirring, calling out their greetings to prophesize the coming day. At some imperceptible level they felt the unseen dawn. Gabrielle felt nothing, for her mind was occupied in contemplation of a world far away.
She had seen the Utma's daughter, the first princess of the new Amazon tribe, who would succeed Cyane and assure her lineage. She had seen her soulmate's future descendant, her first reincarnation to be bereft of their promised destiny. And she had seen the disposition of the Utma Dagger. In that future time, Jamie stood only yards from the solution to her mystery and the cause of her heartbreak. It was an immaculate irony.
If only I could tell her, she thought, but no reincarnation of mine will ever exist in that time, for Amy is already gone. Jamie, I can't tell you of the treasure that lies, disregarded and incomprehensible, in your parents' attic. You will never know that long ago, it was the source of your mystery. You will wonder where your soulmate disappeared to for the rest of your life, and the answer, unrecognized, will be so very close, all through the years of your youth.
As Gabrielle sat, Gaia moved beneath her, rolling through the heavens to meet the coming of Eos yet again. All of nature held its breath, pausing for a moment on the verge of birthing another day. To Gabrielle, this morning seemed gentle in its coming. The sky lightened by gradual degrees and the stars faded without complaint. In the east, the light of Apollo's chariot crept before it, heralding his approach. The night accepted gracefully.
Will my soulmate's descendants see a dawn like this, on some distant day, when their destiny is no longer what it was meant to be? Will those who come, possessed of only half a soul, and living with no hope of finding what they don't know they lack, ever feel the peace of this time? Will their footsteps carry them forward through their lives, with no greater chance of fulfillment than the footfalls of the lost legionnaires? Like all mortals, death will await them in their proper time, but will they ever fully know life?
Across the ridge tops to the east, the sun's rays tinted the sky with their ethereal beauty; ever-changing living colors painting the wispy clouds. Even with eyes that spoke to only half a soul, Gabrielle still found it beautiful. Like my Amazons, she thought, what doubts they feel, because of my actions, will only color their view of life. Life goes on heaven endures, and the earth lasts a long time, because they do not live for themselves. It was the wisdom of Lao Ma.
And now, I too no longer live for myself, she realized. I have found and held dear all of my dreams. Now I live for the achievement of destiny. The destiny of my descendants, my soulmate's line, and the millions who will die before their time, on Armageddon Day. This is my destiny still the Greater Good, Xena, but on a scale we never looked to see.
The realization brought her peace, and it hastened her journey. After six days' travel, she sat atop her horse, gazing down the Stryma River to the tan walls of Amphipolis on the far bank. There, a narrow bridge of wooden beams spanned the river, seventy yards wide. Ahead of her, nestled in the cliff face, stood a façade, carved from the living stone of Thrace. Half a mile's ride would bring her to the Tomb of Ares, lying hidden beneath this temple of war. Each of the nights on her journey had brought dreams, and each dawn had renewed her faith. She practically sizzled with purpose.
In the Amazon forest, among the stone bodies of the defeated Legion of Serdica, a pulse of bluish light flared. The figure of a warrior swaggered out of its radiance, his left hand draped easily on the hilt of his sword. He was clad in black; leather pants and a decorated vest, and he projected a dangerous air of menace. He paid the Amazon observers in the trees above no attention at all, and instead walked to the petrified figure of a Roman officer. A small grin curled his lips as he looked on the stone face of Legatus Galena. It had been two days since the legion's final defeat.
"Loser," he whispered softly, no trace of sympathy coloring his voice, "your servants will cause more damage here than you and all your soldiers. You were just the bait."
He turned and looked wistfully through the woods, towards where the Amazon village lay, and then he vanished. Above the place where he had been, a scout began her race through the trees, hastening to report what her company had seen and heard, to the council.
Later, in an antique hut in the Amazon village, a young warrior sat at a table. Night had fallen long ago, but she didn't sleep much anymore. She was focused on reading the scroll stretched out before her. " this is the only copy of Lao Ma's 'Book of Wisdom', outside of the Kingdom of Lao If you take time to read anything here, read this," her mother had advised, "what it teaches is the key." Learning these lessons took her twenty years, Tillit thought, but she had to start somewhere. Invariably, she would awaken before the dawn, and with her new friend, climb the path to the ridge overlooking the village in the east.
Since her mother's departure, Cyane had appointed a warrior from her own tribe to accompany their princess. A companion, who had distinguished herself in battle, to be Tillit's bodyguard, assistant, confidant, and perhaps one day, the right hand of the future queen. It was fitting, since she had been a ruler herself, and was still the regent of the northern tribe.
Though her initial welcome of the princess, back in the north, had been cool, much had changed. Being killed and then resurrected had taught her a greater value of life. In returning with her people to the nation, Aliah had regained her faded pride in her identity as an Amazon. The awareness of her duty was strong within her now, and Gabrielle's supernatural actions had threatened her less than most. They didn't challenge her identity as a warrior, for she had maintained that, even in her self-imposed exile in the north. If anything, Gabrielle's actions had impressed upon her the special potential of the princess. After a few days, they'd developed a relationship in which Aliah became the older sister Tillit had never had. So in the darkness before dawn, Aliah kept watch over Tillit.
Forty-five leagues to the south, Gabrielle had completed her ride. Her horse stood before the temple and she had armed herself, preparing to enter. It's funny, she thought, but I dont fear him at all anymore. He can't hurt me with his energy blasts, and he probably can't defeat me with his sword either. Odder still, I don't even feel like I hate him. I feel like he's another part of some past I've left behind.
She glanced one last time at the Stryma River, as it wound below her, curving around the headland where Amphipolis had been built. The bridge joined the banks with a narrow ribbon of wood. A mildly humid breeze wafted up to the temple, and she could smell the water. Several boats lay berthed at the docks. Gabrielle could hear the faint shouts of the men unloading their cargo, but their words were lost in the distance. Above the docks, the walls of Amphipolis stood bright in the late afternoon sunlight. Its gates lay open for the daily traffic from the ships and the main road that ran along the river.
She had seen the city in both better times and worse, and she realized that its appearance had changed little in the years she had known it. Hardly surprising, she thought, Amphipolis is over five hundred years old. And yet, it had changed in all the ways that were important to her. Xena was long gone. Cyrene and her tavern were ghosts from the past. All that remained of them were the coffins in the mausoleum, and the fading memories of some of the older citizens. Finally she turned away and climbed the steps that led up to the temple portico.
The entrance to the temple was a modest doorway between paired columns on either side. A shallow pediment overhung the portico, its wind scoured frieze depicting a scene of some unremembered battle. Cool air washed up out of the doorway, bringing the scents of stone, burning torches, and incense that braced rather than soothed. It was an old and unassuming structure. She had only heard it mentioned a couple times by Cyrene, in conjunction with Xena's father, Atrius. Being across the river from Amphipolis, she'd never had occasion to visit it. Xena would have had nothing to do with the place, and Cyrene wouldn't have been caught dead there. Gabrielle took a deep breath and walked through the doorway into the cool dimness of the temple.
Two hundred miles north of Amphipolis, in Novae, on the Danuvian border of Moesia Inferior, Consul Adrianus had received a report of the renegade activity of Legatus Galena and the Serdica legion. They had marched west without orders, committing atrocities against the populace. News of villages razed and roadside crucifixions reinforced the words of his spies, convincing him that action was necessary. That the legion's goal seemed to be the only independent lands for hundreds of miles condemned the man's actions as opportunistic land grabbing. It implied that Galena was preparing to rebel. That the lands in question were, by imperial treaty, to be left untouched, made the matter treason against the emperor. Consul Adrianus almost cackled with glee. At last he had a reason to depose the ambitious Galena. He'd always seen the man as a potential threat.
On the day before the Legion of Serdica's defeat, he ordered most of four cavalry wings, twelve hundred riders strong, to proceed after Legatus Galena with greatest speed. They were to apprehend him if possible, or to track him if not. At the same time, Consul Adrianus set out at the head of three legions, marching to Serdica to pick up Galena's trail of destruction.
They marched in haste, covering eight leagues a day. On the fifth day, they reached Serdica, and Consul Adrianus' suspicions were confirmed. A few surviving servants had returned to the garrison, and he confirmed the ill-fated attack on the Amazons. When they'd fled, Galena was still determined to assault the Amazon village, though he'd lost half his men and all of their support. The survivors he questioned were still in terror of what they'd seen. It was now four days after the destruction of Galena's legion.
Adrianus was determined to march the next day, after a night's rest, to apprehend the renegade legatus and any of his officers they could find. Halfway through the evening meal, a commotion at the gates of the garrison drew his attention. A tribunus laticlavius reported that almost eight hundred legionnaires from the Serdica legion had arrived; dirty, hungry, and with only the clothes on their backs. They had barely a sword among them, and only their numbers had saved them from the wrath of the peasants. They had run as much of the way as their strength would allow.
Consul Adrianus laughed himself to sleep that night. In the morning he heard the accounts of the Amazon defenses, and then he had all the surviving officers crucified along the roads for the placation of the locals. The regular soldiers, whom he deemed to be cowards, he left locked up in the garrison; guarded by details of his own men. Then he marched east with his three legions, heading for the Amazon lands as the peasants cheered him on.
If Legatus Galena had been stupid and ambitious, then Consul Adrianus was an ambitious fox. He was a decade and a half older, two decades more experienced at war, and understood imperial politics because he had been born to it. He held an imperial appointment, and for all practical purposes, Moesia Inferior was his realm. His command of six legions amounted to a private army of thirty-six thousand soldiers, plus almost two thousand cavalry, and all their support personnel. He had no illusions about the mental health of the emperor, and he felt far more comfortable on the frontier, safely away from Rome. He had no more use for the God of War than he'd had for that idiot Galena, but he had always loved a challenge.
He knew the Amazons had been around longer than the empire. Their reputation as warriors was held in high esteem by informed members of the military. By treaty with Claudius Caesar, theirs was a land apart, and they were legendary. Not since the predations of Livia, had the Romans successfully assaulted their lands.
He remembered Livia. He had seen her in triumphal processions in Rome, during his early career, leading captured Elisians before Augustus Caesar. She still lived in his memory, and she was still magnificent. In many ways, she had been his role model. He had carefully studied her old campaigns, and he had learned many things about ambition and ruthlessness from her. And he had learned not to trust the God of War.
Now he had an excuse to test these Amazons himself. He would eventually report that he had marched, only to apprehend the renegade, Legatus Galena, and rescue his legion. He had gone without any intention of fighting, he would claim, bringing his overwhelming force only as a measure of security against the possible treachery of the Legion of Serdica. (Surely the local people would attest to that, after all, he'd had to crucify Galena's seditious officers). With the Amazon Nation he would claim no quarrel. It had been six days since Galena's defeat.
Though Consul Adrianus had no need of the God of War, the brewing conflict drew Ares like a magnet. He watched, invisible and undetected, throughout the Novae legions' march. He laughed with the consul at the condition of Galena's surviving soldiers. He applauded Adrianus' crucifixion of Galena's surviving officers. Then he joined them on their march towards the Amazon lands. Sacrificing Galena had lured Adrianus. His plan was succeeding well, according to plan. Thus occupied, he wasn't at his temple to greet Gabrielle.
Outside of Amphipolis, the Amazon Queen had entered Ares' temple, and her very presence should have set off an alarm. No Amazon had ever come here before, and the God of War would never have believed that this Amazon had come to worship. She made her way through the entrance hall, following her instincts for direction. The temple seemed almost deserted to Gabrielle; perhaps it was because the empire was mostly still at peace. The few temple guards and priests she had passed had marked her weapons, and simply regarded her as another warrior seeking their god's favor.
From the entrance hall, she made her way down a short flight of stairs, through a wide corridor, and into a large chamber. The space had been hewn from the natural sandstone of the cliff. Everywhere, the buff stone walls were covered with carved symbols and figures. Gabrielle thought they looked almost Egyptian. She had been to Egypt, but she couldn't read these symbols at all. Perhaps they dated from before Alexander's time.
Only a couple of other warriors were present and they seemed to be focused inward, their attention consumed by their prayers. According to tradition, they totally ignored each other and her. The Temples of Ares were some of the few places where worldly animosities were forgotten. Men and women, whose mutual hatred would normally ignite a rage of bloodshed, actually coexisted for short periods within these walls. Before the God of War, the warriors honored a sacred truce. Gabrielle found it ironic, knowing that Ares would happily pit them against each other outside.
The large chamber that Gabrielle had entered was the main hall of worship. Tall tripods supporting shallow dishes filled with wavering orange flames, and torches mounted in sconces along the walls dimly lighted the space. Both produced wisps of black smoke, scenting the air with partially burned fuel. Between the sconces, shields and weapons of all kinds were mounted on the walls. They appeared among the shifting shadows, glinting when the flames' light reflected off a sharpened edge, an embedded gemstone, or a polished ornament. As she walked down the length of the hall, Gabrielle noted that the variety of swords alone was astonishing. Among them, she spied a curved blade similar to the one that the Egyptian barge guard, Nasir, had once shown her on the Nile. It still struck her as a ridiculous weapon. She was soon at the front of the hall.
She gazed at the massive, chest high, altar of war, and behind it, at Ares' throne. Both were carved of the same black granite. Both rested on a wide dais, with the throne overlooking the altar from an even higher platform. Flanking the altar were bronze censers, wide shallow dishes on low pedestals, from which clouds of fumes roiled into the air. The fumes of the incense flowed forward, from the altar into the hall, and almost choked her as she stood before it. She detected sulfur, dragon's blood resin, artemesia, and camphor. As hard on the nose as war is on the soul, she thought with disgust.
The altar itself was rectangular, with a recessed section centered in the top, and what Gabrielle realized were drainage channels, running along the inner edge of the surrounding lip. The channels funneled their runoff into a catch basin, on the floor in front of the Altar. The basin was a smaller version of the censors. It was an altar of sacrifice, and judging from its size, the sacrifices were probably human. The God of War could have watched, looking down on the rites from a commanding position on his throne, looming over his congregation, and keeping them within easy view.
The wall behind the throne was lost in shadows. No tripods or sconces lit the hall beyond the front of the altar. Even the throne was only dimly lit, as though Ares had sought to preserve his mystique, while at the same time shocking his worshippers with the flash of his appearance from darkness. Gabrielle looked carefully at her surroundings. It was a dramatic stage setting, highly theatrical. A good show for the easily impressed, she mused derisively, guess I've become jaded.
Finally, she noticed the cool air flowing forward from somewhere behind Ares' throne, carrying the smoke of the incense with it. Back there in the shadows, Gabrielle realized, there must be an opening, a doorway and something beyond.
Behind her, she saw that the two other warriors were still deep in prayer, their heads still bowed, their eyes still closed. With quick silent steps, Gabrielle slipped around the altar and into the darkness. Crouching down, her size worked to her advantage, keeping her below a viewer's line of sight from the hall. She made her way past the throne, feeling the current of cool air strengthening as she approached the back wall. She could have found the doorway with her eyes closed, just by following the draft on her skin.
When Gabrielle reached the doorway she rested her hands on the side posts. The lintel was barely a hand above her head. It was pitch black and the stairs leading downwards began immediately. She had expected a landing and nearly tumbled down headfirst, missing the second step. Whoa! Her hands snapped out to her sides to steady herself, and she found the walls against her hands. Geeez, no guarantee of those being there either, she chided herself, anything is possible. For a moment she stood still, listening, catching her breath and letting the surge of adrenaline pass. There was only an empty silence waiting below her. She continued down more cautiously, feeling her way with her senses, as she had while climbing the path to the eastern ridge in the darkness of the Amazon predawn. A dozen steps brought her to a level surface.
The distance between the walls on either side of her hadn't changed. With the draft still on her face and her hands on the walls, Gabrielle moved cautiously forward. The corridor took a sharp U-turn to the right, doubling back on itself. Now she detected a slight glow of light from up ahead. She could see well enough to take the immediate sharp U-turn to the left, and she realized that the pair of turns formed a light trap. They had efficiently hidden the flickering of the torches in the wall sconces that lit the corridor she was standing in. The stairway was designed to be negotiated in the dark, and she couldn't know that the second step, that she had missed, would have triggered the stairway to turn into a ramp. She had unwittingly thwarted the first trap.
Gabrielle wandered through a series of deserted corridors and rooms. When she found herself in the same room a second time, she realized that the subterranean precincts of the temple were a labyrinth. At least, it looked like the same room. Same carved figures on the walls, same alcove with a shield carved from the rock. What puzzled her was that the draft had always been on her face, and she had followed the air currents for lack of any better map. This won't do, she told herself, I need a moment to figure this out.
She took a seat on the convenient ledge of the alcove. Immediately, she heard the grating of stone on stone behind her, and she instinctively leaped to the side, out of the alcove. Two dozen spear-headed shafts, each of them the length of her lower arm, shot past her into the room. When she looked around the corner and into the alcove, she saw that where the carved shield had been, a rough domed surface had been revealed. Bored into its face were holes from which the projectiles had been launched. The rounded surface had allowed them to be directed in a radiating pattern that would have killed a company walking through the room. Gabrielle exhaled a deep breath. It didn't really surprise her that Ares would rig his tomb with traps, but this one was ingenious, and it had been a close call.
The rough stone dome was set into the back of the alcove and mounted on a hidden pivot. Gabrielle could move it easily by hand, and she rotated it back, until, with a click, the carved shield was in its original position. She pressed her hand down on the edge of the alcove and leapt back around the edge of the alcove wall. When she looked back again, the rough dome was facing out, but this time there had been no projectiles loaded in it. She reset it a second time to its original position.
After glancing around the room, she picked up one of the shafts. The spearhead was of steel, and she tested it on the sandstone wall. With a few strokes, she was able to incise a readable arrow. There was only one other thing to do. She stood in the center of the room and allowed herself to become still. She stopped trying to reason out Ares' maze, stopped trying to guess which direction to go. Almost without being conscious of it, Gabrielle began to move. The will directed her unerringly, for it could not be fooled by the tricks of the mortal realm. It was already blind, and it was ruthless.
Scratch an arrow in the wall and leave the room. Walk down a corridor and scratch another arrow. Turn off into a chamber, cross it, and scratch an arrow by the door. Another turn, another corridor, and another room. Scratch another arrow and pass through a heavy doorway with a wide frame. Enter the chamber and become conscious of the world again. Gabrielle dropped the spear shaft. Across the chamber stood an altar of war. Behind it, a giant horned skull, and above that, the blackened bronze relief of rays projecting from the Eye of Hephaestus. Before it lay the stone sarcophagus carved in the likeness of the God of War. She had seen it before, more than once. The scene flickered in the light of flames from tripods and torches.
With one hand she unhooked the chakram, and with the other, she drew the katana. Gabrielle half expected Ares to appear in front of her at any moment. Her senses were on high alert, but her spirit was at peace. No feeling of threat or danger came to her as she moved into the tomb. Somehow it seemed anti-climactic. Still, she maintained her vigilance, turning to scan all quarters of the chamber, as she made her way to the sarcophagus. Despite all the moving shadows, she knew that she was alone.
She came to stand beside the sarcophagus, and she set her weapons atop the carved chest of the God of War. With both hands, she heaved against the lid, but even with all her strength, she couldn't budge it. It probably outweighed her six fold. She snatched a sword off the altar next to her and tried to work its tip into the seam between the lid and the body of Ares' coffin. The seam was perfectly fitted, so tight that not even the blade's killing edge could impinge. In disgust she tossed the sword back onto the altar and moved away.
Gabrielle had a method that could open that lid. It wouldn't matter if it weighed seven hundred pounds or seven tons. Using her power she could shatter it, like so much plaster struck by the bolt from a ballista. She would be vulnerable while she was doing it, but she didn't see any other option. She was there now, and nothing would stop her from repossessing Xena's ashes. So she closed her mind to the world and she stopped willing, stopped desiring, and let the emptiness come. Would you kill a mosquito with an axe? Lao Ma had once laughingly asked her soulmate. Unlike Xena, she could answer, "no".
Slowly, the massive lid of the sarcophagus began to move across the body below it. A grating sound rose as the thick edges ground against each other, and the lower end of the lid swung aside. It had taken just a few moments, and Gabrielle shook herself as the power released her.
Quickly she strode back to the sarcophagus, and wasting no time, snatched the urn and her bag of scrolls. She found it impossible to choke down a small sob of thanksgiving. It wasn't as though she'd spent much time looking at the urn, especially during the last years of her life in the Norselands. Yet she had felt a kind of honored trust in keeping it safe, and it had long ago become more than just a physical reminder of Xena, her lost soulmate. It was symbolic of their loss, of the promise of their destiny beyond this life, and of her own choice to finally accept Xena's desire to remain dead. It was the focus of what their life together had led to; a final act of redemption for the warrior princess, and the beginning of an independent destiny for Gabrielle. The retirement of one and the graduation of the other; a legacy, passed on and received, and a reminder of a promise that was meant to last beyond the world and grace eternity with two souls joined as one.
Their eternal destiny had been stolen from them, as surely as the urn had been stolen from her. The closed loop of the Utma, which seemed so necessary for her, had to be undone. Yet, if Amy had never been brought back into the past, then Gabrielle and her ancestors would not have been. She would not have existed to meet Xena, in this or any other time. But if Amy was left to exist in the future and the past, then Gabrielle's soul would be limited to that finite time, and Xena's soul would be forced to go on without her after Amy's disappearance in 1997. It was a paradox and an enigma, and it made her head hurt just to think about it.
She held the urn in her hand, staring at its black surface that hungrily soaked up the room's light. It seemed like such a small thing to be all that remained of such a legendary person; such a small thing to be coveted by both a mortal and a god. She tucked it into the bag with the copies of her scrolls.
Two hundred miles to the north, on a road just west of Serdica, the God of War faltered. He had just been enjoying the view of the magnificent ranks of Roman legions, as Consul Adrianus marched towards the Amazon Nation. Then he had felt a pang in his heart. It had come like a cramp, as close to a physical pain as he could feel, and he almost sank to his knees in shock at what it signified. Against all odds, someone had managed to enter his tomb. Someone had managed to circumvent all the traps, all the confusion of the labyrinth, and enter where no mortal had ever stood.
Worse than that, someone had violated his sarcophagus. It would have been unthinkable, but for a brief time, there was still one mortal that he suspected could accomplish it. No hint or clue of the tomb or the sarcophagus existed in the mortal world. No legend or tale of bards told of its existence. No human hand had hewed the rock or carved the stone, placed the torches or hung the weapons. It had all been done by his power, enchanted and protected, and hidden below an almost forgotten temple in Thrace. Yes, among all mortals, he could guess who that someone was.
The old temple, across the Stryma River from Amphipolis, had great significance to him, for in it, he had set in motion the events that had created his greatest warrior. It had been in what seemed like another age, in a time when his fellow gods still ruled men; a time when legends were still the stuff of the world, and a god's Favorite could conquer in his name. It had been a time when he had allowed himself to feel, and now, it seemed like an eon ago.
The last time Ares had let himself briefly feel for a mortal was when he had finally held the ashes of his last Favorite in his hand. It had taken him years to find and seize them, for they had been within the domain of other gods, and in the custody of one whose right to claim them equaled his own. When he had sensed her life nearing its end, he had ceased hesitating, and at the first opportunity, he had struck. It was the best way to keep the urn from being left in the Norselands, among strangers.
Ares knew that Gabrielle would never have returned to bring Xena's ashes home to Amphipolis as she had once promised. He had assumed that her destiny was to die in Adrianus' attack. Destiny though, was strange, and it was possible for a god to be wrong.
He felt he owed Xena that much, to honor her desire to be interred with her family. And though he wouldn't admit it, even to himself, he was only waiting to take the bard's remains to be buried with her, even if he'd had to collect her ashes from an Amazon pyre. He didn't begrudge them that. He had entombed them together before, almost half a century ago. For too short a while, they had made his life interesting; they had made him feel things. Strong things. And he suspected that, like Xena herself, it was a one time serendipity of fate, for there would never be another like her. Nowadays, it was rare for him to feel fondness at all. Even as bad as his flirtations with mortality had been, he was thankful for their time together. Xena and Gabrielle had been a brief flame that had illuminated his world, allowing him a glimpse beyond the glamour of bloodshed, the glory of victory, and the games of his desires. His worshippers made him a god, but Xena and Gabrielle had allowed him to be human.
"You should thank me, Gabrielle," he whispered as he vanished, "for you will be gone before the sun rises."
Gabrielle had just turned away from Ares' sarcophagus, intending to call back the power and close the lid. Suddenly her senses tingled, her whole body feeling as though she'd held a copper in her mouth after biting a lemon. She whirled around, just in time to see the flash of light, as Ares materialized before his altar, about ten feet away. What really surprised her was that he was smiling at her. Then he began to clap.
"Well done, Gabrielle," he said in praise, making her more uncertain than if he'd simply attacked. "It shouldn't even have been possible for you to find that this place existed, much less enter and rob it." Here, the God of War cast a quick pointed glance into the empty sarcophagus, then flicked his laughing eyes back to the small warrior.
At the mention of robbery, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "That's the pan calling the cauldron black! If I hadn't been robbed first, then I wouldn't be here. Ares, I can't believe you stole Xena's ashes from me. That's low, even for you."
The smile still hadn't left his face. "Gabrielle, don't think of it as theft, think of it as motivation. Tell me, would you really have come to Amphipolis with Xena's ashes if it weren't for me?"
Gabrielle had to ponder that, and as she did, Ares' smile grew wider. "I'd always intended to bring her ashes back here to Amphipolis," she began, "to place them in the mausoleum with Lyceus and Cyrene but there've been so many things to do, and the years passed, and I just couldn't bring myself to come."
"I see you still speak the truth from your heart," he observed, "annoying habit that. Still, I'm glad you're here, because I actually intended to see that the two of you were laid to rest together again."
The statement left her divided. She felt the implied threat against her own life, but she didn't fear it. She also felt thankful for his intentions. There was no argument she could make against his claim, for he had laid them to rest together before. I find that I neither hate nor fear him anymore, she thought, truth be told, I owe him my thanks but I've still got to stop him.
He was advancing towards her now, and she didn't move away. She softly whispered, "Thank you." They had always enjoyed an antagonistic relationship, mediated only by their mutual love for the Warrior Princess. Now, as the time for their relationship drew to a close, it was still Xena who bound them together. "I once asked her to bury me with her family if I died first," she continued, "and I'm glad to think it can still be."
He had laid his hands on her shoulders, slowly sliding them up and down her upper arms. She shivered, feeling a sensation that she'd only felt a time or two before. She remembered it from when he'd tempted her in the desert, after the death of Eli.
"Look inside yourself, Gabrielle," he softly said, "can you feel how little time there is left?"
She had felt a sense of finality growing for some time, an acceptance of her destiny and its consequences. And now, I too no longer live for myself. I have found and held dear all of my dreams. Now I live for the achievement of destiny. Yes, she thought, there wasn't much time left. "Yes," she whispered, relaxing in his embrace, "so little time, and still so much to achieve."
He realized that her words were incongruous and they gave him pause. It was just the sort of thing Xena would have said, before springing some unexpected plan on him. Maybe it was just a reflex, but he gave her a closer examination with his godly senses. He was surprised to find that she seemed so empty.
"That's right, Gabrielle, it's so much easier when you don't fight me."
Ares found Gabrielle becoming almost limp as he exerted his power over her, a kind of seduction to his will. Finally he lifted her and walked towards the altar. The flickering torchlight seemed brighter, the draft of air was gone, and though Gabrielle was small, she seemed unexpectedly light in his arms. As he passed the sarcophagus, he discerned a telltale translucence in her form. He did a double take, holding up his own hand and finding that he could see faint outlines of the altar through it. Gabrielle's body vanished.
Ares spun around in horror and looked behind him. He could see himself standing frozen, and Gabrielle beginning to move away. She dropped the bag of scrolls and snatched the chakram from its hook, and then she cast it at the Eye of Hephaestus. It hit the Eye squarely but nothing happened. No ruddy rays projected from it. The chakram wasn't divided into dark and light.
Now he discerned her plan. She had somehow managed to separate them both from their bodies, and then return to hers, hoping to trap his spirit under the Eye. It would have worked if she had been using the Dark Chakram alone, but the combined chakram would never activate Eye. In a rage, his spirit slammed back into his body, as Gabrielle caught the returning chakram, clipping it to her belt, and drew her sword.
What she had done was incredibly dangerous for a mortal and he would never underestimate her again. She was far from being the sidekick he had enjoyed belittling so many years ago. Not even Xena had demonstrated such abilities, for Gabrielle had fooled all his godly senses, separated their bodies from their spirits, and then reclaimed her own at will. He should have watched her more closely all those years since Xena died, for now, he wasn't sure what else she could do. Accursed Amazon magick, he thought.
He drew his blade and they circled, and again he probed her with his senses. There was something about that unusual sword she was holding. It wasn't just a pretty blade, though it gleamed in the torchlight, all killing lines and purity of function. He examined it with godly vision and perceived that Gabrielle's sword could slay in both the mortal and the spiritual realms. She could have killed him when he had been out of his body, he realized, and yet, she had tried to trap him with the Eye. He didn't understand, and he realized there was more to her plan than he had thought.
He made a feint with his sword and then spun the opposite direction, lashing out at her in a wide arc. The God of War's sword passed a head above her, cutting only air. He had to leap to avoid her blade as it sliced for his knees, then block her recovery stroke a hand's breadth from his neck. When had she become so good with a sword? Then he couldn't spend any more time wondering, for the katana was moving in short precise strokes, almost to fast to see, and every attack was aimed with lethal intent. He was amazed at how relentlessly she pressured him, but what he found most disturbing was the complete lack of expression on her face, and empty look in her eyes.
It only took a short while for him to realize that he would probably never lay his blade on her. Rather than fighting an exchange of attacks and parries, and then disengaging, Gabrielle pursued him in a methodical and tenacious assault. She minimized her own energy expenditures with her short strokes and lack of wasted motion. Her style would have tired and confused a mortal swordsman in little time. Where had such a style come from? Eventually, he thought briefly, she would tire, but as they continued, he saw no signs of fatigue.
Then she drew the chakram with her left hand and wielded her sword in her right. His blade was parried by the chakram, and he felt the slight drag as the katana sliced through the flesh of his upper arm. She had drawn first blood and he knew he was in trouble. He vanished and reappeared across the room with the open sarcophagus between them.
He remembered only one time when a mortal had cut him while he had been a god. In a burning house, Xena had found him about to kill Eve, and she had cut his arm with the rebound of her chakram. Of course, she'd also later shot him. She'd had the power to kill gods then. Without it, even the metal of Hephaestus wouldn't have bitten his divine flesh. Now Gabrielle had cut him with a foreign sword, and when he looked up from the wound, he saw her striding towards him, utterly without fear.
She was without fear, without hate, without desire. Training the body is hard, but training the mind is harder. It had taken her a lifetime. Don't be fooled because it is the hand that wields the sword, she had told Tillit, it is the mind that controls the hand. The anguish of the future victims had coalesced, and it was like the wrath of millions of mice bringing down a lion. It was Gabrielle's destiny to fight for their cause. The aggregate of their souls had infused her with a power that even a god could not overcome.
He threw the first fireball, and she turned it away with her sword. She was still moving towards him and he found it unnerving. The second fireball she deflected with the chakram. The third she sent back at him with her blade and the fourth one she dodged.
Ares thought he detected a flicker of something in her eyes, as the fourth fireball slammed into the floor beside the bag of scrolls she had dropped behind her. She had finally stopped advancing. As if in slow motion, they watched as the contents flew into the air; burning scrolls flying up and unrolling, and the small urn, flipping end over end in an arc. It shattered on the floor, a cloud of pale gray lofted above the scattered shards of pottery and a dwindling pile of ash. The air draft began to take the particles away forever. When he looked back at Gabrielle, he had never seen such an expression of hatred. And then in an instant it was gone, replaced by those same blank and empty eyes.
She was moving towards him again and didn't even notice the shaft of light that came down through the ceiling, spotlighting the ashes and the shards of the urn. It brightened behind her as she cocked her arm back to cast the chakram. Within the beam, the presence of a figure materialized, and then Ares had to duck because the chakram was slamming and ricocheting all around him. Gabrielle followed the chakram, closing in to attack him while ignoring the whizzing blade that crisscrossed around them but only seemed to endanger him.
She reached him as the chakram sped off into the chamber behind them. As their swords clashed, neither of them noticed that it hadn't returned to her. Instead, it had sought another. Its whine was silenced as a practiced hand snatched it from the air. Then there was a flash of light that stopped Ares and Gabrielle in mid-stroke, and they backed away from each other in shock and amazement.
Across the chamber stood a figure with the black wings of an archangel, and she held two identical rings in her hands. Her lips curled into a lopsided grin as she took in the combatants. When she noticed Ares' wound, an eyebrow rose into her black bangs.
The darkness lives within me too, Gabrielle had once thought, but not enough darkness or light to split or combine the chakram. Who among the living could claim such purity? Not even the purest monk of his order had been pure enough to claim the Chakram of Light. Among the living there was no one, and yet anything is possible.
"Xena " Gabrielle whispered as tears blurred her vision. The emptiness had vanished from her eyes.
"Xena!" Ares gasped as his sword clattered to the floor.
"Do it," Xena said, nodding to her soulmate.
Ares felt the strangest sensation. It crept up from his feet and hands, climbed his arms and legs, and moved to threaten his very spirit. Eight feet in front of him Gabrielle was again confronting him with empty eyes, tears staining her expressionless face. On her back, the Eastern Dragon glowed. The God of War concentrated all his will and fought the power that sought to turn him to stone, and slowly, he forced it back. He drove the force down to his knees and elbows, but there it stopped. Gradually, try as he might to resist it, it crept back up to his shoulders and waist. He could sense the force gathering its power as the dragon's glow pulsed, threatening its deadly efflorescence, seeking to petrify his body and trap his spirit in the sarcophagus of his own form. Ares saw how, again, Gabrielle would trap his spirit under the Eye. Now the Dark Chakram lay in Xena's hand and his doom stood only a heartbeat away. He understood her tactic and he perceived her strategy. In desperation, he formulated his response.
A strategy is a flexible plan for a campaign, aimed at achieving a particular goal. A tactic is a tool, a means to achieve that goal. The tactics have to be flexible to meet any response, and you do that by applying techniques. The more techniques you have, the more flexible your tactics can be. The more flexible your tactics, the better your chances of achieving your goal. Both Ares and Gabrielle had many techniques at their disposal.
At the God of War's command, the swirling blue of the vortex opened at the midpoint between them, four feet before Gabrielle. Staring into it, the warrior faltered. It showed a vision of the alternate future she'd already partially defeated, and to her horror, she realized that it could still be. If she failed here, Ares could eliminate her descendants by destroying Tillit and Lyceus. There would be no future for her line no past either, for there would be no Janice Covington, no Amy, no Utma, and no Cyane. There would be no Gabrielle. And her soulmate, forever alone, might well fall under the war god's influence once again. She looked into the vortex and cringed at what she saw.
"No," she whispered, "not again." But she was transfixed, powerless to look away.
Her eye point was high above a great city of men, with buildings reaching for the heavens and spreading to the horizon. Above the city, the sky faded to a peaceful blue peaceful for just a few more heartbeats. It was breathtaking, but Gabrielle held her breath. It was her nightmare Armageddon Day. Behind her, Xena gasped in wonder.
It was as though a desert sun had risen to noon in an instant. The brightness pierced her lids even as her reflexes snapped her eyes closed against the flash. Then there was a fireball, and she was enthralled, unable to keep from watching. The sphere of brightness leapt to engulf the central island of the city, snapping the bridges like harp strings before the fire overtook them. The ball of flame continued to expand until it covered four leagues and the roaring and tremors shook her very soul.
This was no dream, but a true portal between worlds, an interface between one possible reality and another. Through it, the effects of one world intruded briefly on the theirs. From the vantagepoint of the vortex, Gabrielle was protected from the direct effects of the blast, but even miles above the city the radiation found her. The shock wave knocked her to the floor, but the radiation had arrived a moment sooner and she was burned.
"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed in horror. She leaped forward to join her.
Ares collapsed the vortex and stood surveying the damage, sadly shaking his head. His godly vision allowed him to clearly see the mortal wound that his response had inflicted. Gabrielle was stunned by the blast, her clothing and hair singed, still smoldering. There was a telltale redness covering the front of her body. Every surface that had faced the blast was burned. At first, though she seemed only dazed, shaking her head and slowly struggling to raise herself, Ares could see that her life was now only a matter of a few candlemarks. It would end in pain. You will be gone before the sun rises.
Xena had knelt beside her soulmate and was examining her carefully. To her, Gabrielle looked as if she'd fallen asleep in the sun, her fair skin burned by an excess of rays.
"No, Xena, it's not just a sunburn," Ares told her with remorse, "it's more like she has absorbed all that the sun has offered since Apollo first carried it into the heavens. She cannot survive this for long, and she will be in anguish."
"Then if you care so much, heal her!" Xena demanded, staring at him. The anger in her eyes matched the venom in her voice.
"You know I can't do that anymore," he reminded her sadly. "Why did she have to attack me? Why did she have to be so skilled?" His voce was rising with feelings he had thought he'd abandoned. "How did she become so powerful? She forced me to defend my very existence with desperation, and for what? For your ashes?"
Xena felt the rise of an old enemy. Had Gabrielle really come here to defeat the God of War because he'd stolen her last remains? Had her old request to be buried with Lyceus launched her soulmate on this quest? Was her pitiful urn of ashes the cause of this? After she'd died, the disposition of her body had hardly mattered to her anymore. She'd realized that the interment of the dead was only a concern of the living; more for their comfort than for the souls of the deceased. It didn't influence the final judgement in the least. Guilt began to gnaw at her and the feeling was all too familiar.
Gabrielle was struggling and Xena raised her so she could sit up, supporting her with one arm across her back. Then she looked into Gabrielle's eyes and her heart broke. They had once been the most compelling eyes she'd ever seen, clear, deep pools of feeling. The trust and faith she'd read in Gabrielle's eyes had been her inspiration, giving her strength and hope in her darkest moments. They had looked at her with love when she couldn't love herself. Now they were sunken and burned, clouded white like the eyes of a blind man. When Xena waved a hand in front of her soulmate's face there was no response.
"Oh Gabrielle," Xena sobbed, "why?"
"It was for the Greater Good, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, causing her lips to split, "you taught me that. You taught me that there are things in life worth dying for. Things that hold a higher meaning than our own existence." She'd said almost the exact same words over four decades before, when a shoulder wound from a poisoned arrow had left them both believing she'd soon be dead. It was a sentiment from the past that had never really changed. It was the core of her being, the sense of commitment to doing what was right. It was her Way, and regardless of the tactics it had always been her goal.
"You had to die to redeem the forty thousand who'd burned in the past, Xena," the blond whispered, "now it seems that I have to die to spare the tens of millions who'd burn in the future."
Hearing Gabrielle's words made Xena realize it hadn't just been about her ashes. There had been more. She'd seen an evil that her soulmate felt she couldn't abide, or turn away from righting. A part of it was the destruction they'd seen in the vortex.
"Ares," Xena said, turning to him as he stood above them, "you say she will die in anguish?" The tears running freely down her face attested to her compassion as an archangel, as well as the love she felt for Gabrielle. It affected the God of War.
"Xena, Gabrielle has been burned by a power like the sun that was harnessed in the explosion you saw. Far in the future, men will fight with forces that even the gods cannot claim. It will be as though she has continued to burn from the inside out."
"This is not right!" Xena screamed. "She has become the greatest living warrior and she deserves a warrior's death!"
"She has fallen in battle, Xena, what more would you ask?"
"Only that she escape her torment and die in peace. She can't continue this battle. Let her take her own life, Ares, like the defeated warriors of legend. Her soul was once purified in heaven. As an archangel, I cannot kill her now even for mercy's sake, and you know you've already won."
"So be it," Ares declared, "it's the least I can do. I didn't want this fight."
The God of War withdrew and stood before his altar, leaning both arms wearily on his sarcophagus. He hadn't meant for it to end this way. He had intended to take Gabrielle's body and Xena's ashes to the mausoleum, to be together in their final rest. With a sigh, he realized that he could still accomplish at least a part of that last tribute.
Xena and Gabrielle whispered together, probably a last goodbye, he thought as he watched them. Then the fallen warrior took a chakram from the archangel's hand. Seeing that gave him an uncomfortable feeling. Now Xena was helping Gabrielle to stand, returning the katana to its scabbard on her back. How he'd love to add that weapon to his collection, he mused. Gabrielle was standing, but only barely. A fit of coughing wracked her, and Xena had to support her until it passed. A trickle of blood ran down her chin. Those sightless eyes unnerved him.
Gabrielle raised the chakram slowly. Her hand shook as she brought her arm back, turning slightly as she laid its razor edge along the side of her neck. Yes, Ares thought, it is a fitting end. Over in a few moments, instead of drawn out in pain. The blade was so sharp she'd feel the cut but little. Gabrielle seemed to tilt her head to bare her neck, and her burned eyes found him, staring sightlessly into his own. After a moment, he couldn't bear it and he had to look away. It was what she had been waiting for.
Gabrielle's arm whipped forward from the cocked back position, as her body turned, launching the chakram across the room and directly into the body of the God of War. She could see what mortal eyes could not reveal, and she no longer depended only on her eyes for her vision. Her target had been as clear as if he had stood in the light of day. Only with the special vision the power gave her, could she confirm that she had held the Chakram of Light. Even an archangel couldn't tell them apart.
Ares' body was sizzling where the chakram had buried itself in his chest. He would be dead in moments, but Gabrielle had never intended to kill him. It wasn't her destiny. She had a solution for the God of War.
"Ares, you will be dead in moments," she croaked, "if you do not separate your spirit and forsake your body."
He stared at her, still shocked by what she'd done. His body was already half gone and he fought down panic.
"Do it!" Xena yelled at him. "Save yourself, Ares!"
And he did. He took a step forward and left his body, still watching as it sizzled behind him. The dust that had been the physical being of the God of War fell into a pile behind his feet. The Chakram of Light clattered to the floor. He noticed that he was actually superimposed atop his open sarcophagus, seemingly standing with it around his waist. He was still appreciating the irony of that, when he heard a metallic whine cutting the air.
His ethereal head snapped up at the sound, seeing Xena just recovering from casting the other chakram, and again, too late, he understood their strategy. The Dark Chakram struck the Eye of Hephaestus, and the ruddy rays projected from it, bathing him in their ruby glow. He heard the broken pieces of the Dark Chakram falling to the floor. He felt the drawing sensation, like a strong current pulling him down. It made him drowsy and he felt the Sleep of the Gods coming upon him. He didn't even have the strength to applaud their victory. His spirit would be preserved in his sarcophagus, trapped and unchanging in his tomb. But nothing was forever, and anything was possible.
"One day, Xena," he whispered, "your spirit will return, to reclaim the Dark Chakram, and free mine." Reuniting its halves would reunite Ares' spirit with his body as well.
Gabrielle heard his words and their prophecy filled her with foreboding, for in a future time, Xena's spirit would be alone. Her destiny was still not achieved, but she was already dying. For a moment she stood still and heard the lid of the sarcophagus grinding into place as it sealed shut. Then she turned to her soulmate, for she had little time left. She still had a promise to keep, and there was something she desired for herself.
Xena had come to her and held her, but even her gentle contact caused Gabrielle pain. She tried to sooth her with soft words, but Gabrielle was still driven. Much as she relished this reunion with her soulmate, she knew it couldn't last. Not yet.
I no longer live for myself, Gabrielle thought. I'm sorry Lyceus; I'm sorry Tillit. I won't be back, but I'll keep watch over you both.
"Xena," she whispered, "you know what you must do. I know archangels can appear to mortals. Go across time to find her and save our destiny."
There were so many things that Xena wanted to say. So many feelings she'd wanted to share. It had been so long, yet she knew that now was not the time. Gabrielle's time on earth was short, but soon they would be together again. You're each willing to give and take, but are you each willing to withhold? In the end, she settled for placing a gentle kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head. They separated, and she whispered, "I love you, Gabrielle."
The shaft of light came down, and the archangel seemed to dissolve in its radiance. When it faded, Gabrielle was left alone in the tomb. Now the darkness didn't matter any longer. With sight that needed no eyes to see, she gathered the remaining scrolls and what was left of Xena's ashes and the urn. She wrapped the shattered vessel and the precious powder in a torn and burned fragment of a scroll. She clipped the Chakram of Light to her belt. One half of the Dark Chakram she hid behind a tripod, the other half she took with her. Then she left the Tomb of Ares and made her way back through the corridors and rooms.
Gabrielle could feel the unnatural burn growing in her flesh, weakening her as it drew her toward her death. The bag of scrolls felt like it weighed a ton, for her strength was quickly failing. She could carry them no further and she still had a long way to go. When she came to the room where the alcove held the rotating trap, an idea came to her. She sat on the lip of the alcove and heard the carved shield rotate behind her. She placed her scrolls into the holes that had once held the deadly projectiles. Another idea presented itself. With strength born of emptiness, she slammed the ends of the broken Dark Chakram into the stone, and then reset the trap.
"Someday, Xena, perhaps your spirit will find it with them," she whispered, for she believed what Ares had said. It was the best she could do. Destiny, she realized, was never truly finished. It persisted and grew through the centuries, connecting the generations in a legacy. She folded the packet containing Xena's ashes and put it in her belt pouch.
Gabrielle didn't know how long it took her to find her way back out of the temple. All she knew was that her senses guided her as fast as her failing legs could carry her. Long before she reached the doorway, she wished that she still carried a staff to lean on. At last, she stood in the cool night, outside the portico, and she climbed into the saddle of her horse.
She took the road she'd never ridden before. The horse followed it down from the temple and onto the bridge, crossing the Stryma River at a slow but steady walk. The hollow clop of hooves on the wooden span measured off Gabrielle's shortening strand of time. It was a gait that didn't challenge her failing ability to remain in the saddle.
The night was old by the time Gabrielle came to the gates of Amphipolis. When she told the sentries that she had come to pay her respects at the mausoleum where the family of the Warrior Princess lay, they let her pass. The chakram hanging from her waist was all the sign they needed. She looked way too weak to survive for long, and whatever battle she had ridden from must have been horrific. Though her eyes were blind, she stared unnervingly at each of them. When they tried to direct her instead to the city hospice, she assured them that it would be her second stop. Then she went on her way.
She turned her horse toward the northern side of Amphipolis, where the buildings were older. They dated from times long past, when families still buried their dead within the city walls, rather than in the cemeteries outside, as was the current custom. Gabrielle knew she was close when her horse's hooves struck dirt rather than cobbles, silencing their clip-clop. Her senses told her of the square she had entered, and her memory supplied the image of Cyrene's tavern on her right. It was just a little ways further.
Fifty yards ahead, Gabrielle pulled her horse to the left side of the road and stopped. She dismounted, but couldn't keep her footing. With a weak cry, she crashed down and lay panting on her side in the road. Her body was on fire from the inside out. She felt as though she'd been gutted and her carcass filled with glowing coals.
The horse nosed her, blowing air through its lips that ruffled her hair. It prodded her from her stupor. Gabrielle reclaimed her resolve, gritting her teeth, and crawling towards the doorway of the mausoleum. She found there was no longer any sensation in her legs, for the nerves had been burned away. Now she measured her progress in feet, hauling herself forward on scorched and swollen hands. Finally she felt cool stone beneath the raw flesh of her belly as she passed through the entrance. She rested there for a moment, gasping from the effort. In her mind's eye she saw herself, on a bright afternoon long ago; she had stood here so easily then, happily telling a newly reformed Xena that she was no longer alone. The memory made her smile in spite of her pain.
Too soon it was time for the last effort. Gabrielle dragged her dead legs behind her through the dust, crossing the room to the second coffin in the row. With the last of her strength she grasped the carved stone and hauled her dying body up, until she was clinging to Lyceus' sarcophagus. For the last time the power came to her, shifting the coffin's lid open a hand's breadth. Gabrielle's own hands were shaking with palsy from the progressing nerve damage, and she could barely undo the pouch at her waist. She tucked the packet with Xena's ashes inside, then added the deadly Chakram of Light, and the lid shifted shut.
"I kept my promise to you, my love," she barely whispered. A small smile graced her burned and cracked lips, but it could no longer touch her eyes.
It was the silent time of the night, the moment of stillness just before the dawn. For one last time it brought Gabrielle peace. Anything is possible, she thought, as darkness gently enfolded her. She lost her grasp on Lyceus' coffin and fell. She had no will, no hate, no desires, for she was dead before her head struck the flooring stones. No one in the city saw the shaft of light that came down through the ceiling. Before the sun rose, she was gone.
The next day, a sentry from the gate sent a soldier in search of her. The man found her horse outside the mausoleum of the Warrior Princess' family. The soldier entered reverently. Nothing appeared to have been disturbed inside. His own footprints alone tracked through the years of dust on the floor. Of the injured warrior, there was no trace. Though no thorough search of the city was ever conducted, neither a shred of evidence, nor a single witness could attest to her presence in Amphipolis. It was as if she had been a ghost from some heroic past, riding restless on a night of battle. Eventually, she was forgotten.
It was the seventh day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica. In the predawn stillness, Tillit had sat above the village on the eastern ridge. Aliah sat quietly watching a few paces away. Suddenly the young princess' spirit had been overcome with anguish. She'd been pinioned by a burning pain that flared through her body, followed by a feeling of final peace in which no suffering remained. For a moment she was overwhelmed, and then she felt a change in the world, as the sky imperceptibly lightened before the coming dawn. In that moment, a rumor of the stillness her mother had so loved descended on the young princess, and she perceived the vast emptiness of the spirit.
Across the long leagues that separated her from Amphipolis, Tillit saw a vision of a shaft of light illuminating a tomb. She watched a figure with black wings gently lifting Gabrielle's limp body. The figure raised its head, and for a moment, Tillit looked her in the eyes. This figure was older, but she looked unmistakably like the girl that the young princess had once seen in her dream, crying bitterly in a stairwell. The shaft of light brightened and soon the figures were eclipsed. The vision shifted, and now Tillit saw two urns resting side by side on a pedestal of glistening marble. One urn was brown-black, the other creamy white. Around them shimmered a golden halo of living light.
Then Tillit saw the joyless dawn brightening the new day's accursed sky. Her feelings and the vision left her no plausible doubts. The reluctant High Queen of the Amazon Nation, soulmate of the Warrior Princess, Bearer of the Eastern Dragon and the wielder of the power of Lao Ma; she who had long ago been the Bard of Potidaea was no more. Tillit knew that her mother was finally gone forever and she broke down sobbing.
She eventually forced herself to convey the news from her vision to the council, and then she spent the day mourning her mother. The rest of the nation mourned with her. The young peasant girl, who'd accidentally become an Amazon on an afternoon fraught with destiny, had somehow become one of the nation's dearest queens.
That night, in the hut she had once shared with her mother, Princess Tillit studied the scroll Xena had penned so long ago. She had retreated into reading to alleviate the sorrow that the dawn had brought. Now, very little of the scroll remained unread, though she understood only a pittance of the truths hidden in its words. The night had grown late and soon she would stop reading, seeking a few hours of sleep. She unrolled the scroll to the next passages, but the text had changed. No longer were they the words of Lao Ma.
Gabrielle had told her that she didn't think the text was complete; it had been only what Xena had remembered and been able to reproduce. Here were words that had come from the Warrior Princess herself. Wisdom learned from her experiences in the world, before her adventures with Gabrielle. Tillit read Xena's words and felt a connection she'd never experienced. These words spoke to her like no others; not even her mother's scrolls had affected her on such a deep level. In these passages she found herself confronting the Warrior Princess, and what she read challenged and enlightened her.
Xena had once been a village girl, like Tillit, or like Gabrielle someone's daughter, someone's sister. She had grown up knowing love and doubt, often happy and sometimes sad. But somewhere inside her had been a spark that would set her apart; something about her spirit that made her different. She had been driven by fate, had fallen to temptation and darkness, and then had turned away from it in remorse. She had spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her years of ambition and cruelty. In the process, she had drawn on her will to achieve what others didn't believe was possible for mortals, and by her will she had driven herself to wrestle with fate. Tillit read it between the lines. Xena had never claimed to be more than a warrior, and yet, she had been so very much more. She had fought and died, believing that she could form her destiny, both the bad and the good, with her will. She had believed that anything was possible.
With such audacity, she had attracted the attention of both mortals and gods. More than once, she had been counted among a god's mortal favorites. She had been the Chosen of the God of War, and she had been a Valkyrie.
In the days of her corruption of the King of the Norse Gods, Odin had taught her many secrets. Not the least of these had been the chants and the runes of fire. Xena had mastered them, to the point that she could ignite objects and inflame the hearts of men. Added to her natural ability, it had allowed her to more easily inspire warriors to bloodlust. The runes themselves were drawn on the parchment before her, and Tillit read the wording of the chant. They were the same runes that decorated the pommel of her dagger, the one that she'd found with her brother in the bog years before. The words of the chant resonated within her, unaccountably familiar, and she felt confident that she could access their power. Like the Warrior Princess, one could only succeed by trying.
Tillit gazed at an oil lamp, sitting across the room on the chest beside the sleeping pallet. It hadn't been lit since the night before. She recited the words from Xena's scroll, amazed at how easily she had been able to memorize them. Now she concentrated her will as she spoke, focusing it only on her desired goal, picturing the lighted wick in her mind's eye. Her view of the room lost focus with the depth of her concentration. The oil soaked wick sputtered and then burst into flames. She actually clapped and bounced in her chair when she saw it. It was something new, but also something dimly remembered.
She got up from the table, blowing out the lamp that lighted the scroll for reading. As she made her way to the sleeping pallet, she left a trail of clothing that Aliah would scold her about in the morning. (An unprepared warrior is often a dead warrior). Her boots were the last thing to clunk onto the floor. Finally she dived onto the pallet and drew the old blanket up to her chest. It had been a long day and she finally drifted off to sleep.
Tillit was in the midst of a desperate battle. The Amazon forest was a raging inferno, flames leaping overhead from tree to tree. The maelstrom roared like a dragon, driven by a gale of its own creation. Already she had heard the screams of warriors trapped and burning, driven into retreat by the flames. Many more would die before the sun set over the western ridges, while from the eastern border, the fire grew.
Now she was looking down on the Amazon lands, and she saw that the eastern quarter of the nation was obscured under smoke. Pockets of fire raged above the trees, and the hungry flames seemed to be licking at the heavens. Beyond the border in the east, she saw vast ranks of Roman soldiers, thousands of them, and hundreds had been detailed to start the fire. These soldiers were busy, like an unrelenting trail of ants, carrying casks of oil on their backs and into the woods. Watching them from a slight rise, fifty mounted officers directed the assault. Among them sat a man with graying hair, wearing a silver breastplate and armor. His bearing was commanding, and the officers around him did his bidding, quickly relaying his orders. Behind them she saw the standards of three legions from Moesia Inferior, planted in the grass.
Now it was the dark of night, and the Amazons were preparing to fire burning arrows into the vats of oil that the Romans were filling their casks from. A passage Tillit had read came to her; something Xena had written, that had wormed its way into her memory. Though Xena had died before her birth, Tillit heard her voice, silky and threatening, softly tell her that, "Sometimes, ya just gotta fight fire with fire".
Destiny was playing its hand again. Although the remnant of the northern tribe had joined itself to the nation, they had chosen to retain Gabrielle as their queen. It was not done as an insult to Cyane, but rather to honor Gabrielle for the wisdom and leadership she had shown. Because of her status, none of the other queens had objected. Now there was a question. Tillit was, by Right of Caste, the next in their royal line, but she was not yet fully trained to accept the duties, and she was a couple days shy of her seventeenth birthday. At seventeen she could rule a tribe, but to rule the nation, she would have to survive another four years. Many on the council hoped it would come to pass.
In the council, the other queens, particularly Varia and Cyane, urged her to accept the position, even if she wanted to appoint a regent and wait a year to take the reins of power. This was not unusual, especially if the new queen was very young. In this way, they hoped to cement her commitment to the Amazon Nation, and assure the continuity of its leadership. When Tillit realized that she wasn't going to be resented for her age or background, she agreed to accept. She would become queen of the remnant of the northern tribe, make Aliah her general, and confirm Backari as tribal shamaness. She would not wait a year. Rather, she would accept the queen's mask and position in a ceremony two nights hence, for it would be the full moon of June, and it fell on the 21st, the Solstice of the Sun, her birthday, and the longest day of the year. After the dream she'd had the night before, she'd decided that her place was with the nation, in war as well as in peace.
The tenth day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica dawned bright, hot, and dry. A typical Midsummer Day, and a good day for a birthday and coronation. In the Amazon village, the preparations were being finalized with great anticipation. It had been a long time since a new queen had been installed, and the celebration that would accompany the ritual would be the party of the decade. After the battle against the Legion of Serdica and the death of their High Queen, the nation's tension and sorrow desperately craved release. Tillit had become self-conscious about all the fuss, but the Amazons, particularly those of her tribe, were exuberantly happy for her. She felt it was her destined place, to cleave to the new home and family she'd found. Deep down, she had to admit she was enjoying it.
Outside the Amazon Nation, the legions of Consul Adrianus were beginning the fourth day of their march from Serdica. At their unvarying pace, they would reach the eastern border of the Amazon lands in another day. Without stopping to savage the populace, they would take five days rather than eight to cover the distance.
"What did you just do?" Varia demanded of the young princess. The queen had just come to what she still thought of as Gabrielle's hut, to summon Tillit for the ceremonial bathing. As she'd stepped through the doorway, she'd noticed Tillit seated at the table, muttering, with an intense expression on her face. Then the oil lamp on the table had lit itself.
"Huh?" The princess asked, jerking around to see her visitor. She'd been concentrating so hard that she hadnt even heard her entering and the question had taken her by surprise.
"I thought I just saw that lamp light itself," Varia hedged, "and I was startled."
"Actually, I did light it," Tillit confessed, "it's a power that comes from the runes Odin teaches to his Valkyrie."
"Oh," Varia said, still not understanding. "Is this something your mother taught you?"
"No, Queen Varia," Tillit said nervously. She was still uncertain about how the queen felt about her mother's abilities. "I learned it from Xena."
Varia stared at Tillit. The girl hadn't even been born when the Warrior Princess died. How had she learned anything from Xena, if not by way of her mother? For a moment she suspected the princess was either lying or deranged. Then she realized that Tillit might be talking to ghosts...after all, Xena and Gabrielle had talked to the dead, and the northern tribes were steeped in rituals for accessing the spirit realm.
"What?" Tillit asked. Varia's staring and silence was making her skin crawl. The last thing she wanted was to be on Varia's bad side.
"How," Varia asked, speaking very slowly, "did you learn anything from Xena?"
"She wrote it all down in this scroll after she nearly killed my mother."
Varia glanced down at the scroll. There was no question about it; it wasn't in Gabrielle's hand. This writing was more disciplined, the letters formed and aligned with almost mechanical precision. It was in character with the warrior she remembered. The sight of it and the realization of its import brought Varia a rising anger.
"Are you telling me, that for the last forty-five years, the ability to start fires like that has been just sitting in a scroll in this deserted hut?" Varia's voice had been rising, and by the end of the sentence, she was almost shouting. At the noise, Aliah and Cyane popped their heads through the doorway. Tillit was cringing.
"What's the matter?" They both asked, looking back and forth between Varia and Tillit.
"Tillit, why do you have that lamp burning in the middle of the day?" Cyane asked.
"She lit it!" Varia answered. Now Cyane and Aliah were looking at each other.
"I guess it's alright if you needed the light to read," Aliah offered, trying to defuse the tension. She was wondering if Varia was becoming unstable, or if she'd started blaming Tillit for Gabrielle turning the Romans to stone. She hadn't been quite the same since the war ended.
"I meant," Varia elaborated in an exasperated tone, "that she lit it without touching it."
Cyane looked confused before the meaning dawned on her. Aliah looked elated, while Varia simply appeared irritated.
"That's wonderful," Aliah said. She was one of the few Amazons who had directly benefited from Gabrielle's abilities, still believing that her resurrection had been a supernatural feat. She didn't feel threatened by such abilities anymore.
"Uhhh, yeah," Cyane hesitantly agreed, thinking that Tillit was developing Gabrielle's powers. "Like mother, like daughter." The idea made her feel sort of warm inside.
"But " Tillit started uncertainly.
"She learned to do this, from a scroll that's been lying here since some visit of Xena's," Varia protested, her voice rising again, "and all this time we could have been defending the nation with this power."
For a while, the four of them stared at each other and at the lamp, innocently burning on the table. Finally Tillit sighed and blew out the flame.
"So anyway," she asked, "I was supposed to take a bath?"
In the late afternoon, Tillit stood before the six queens, wearing an outfit decorated with beads and feathers. It was unusual in that it proclaimed her to be a queen of the northern tribe, but also documented her heritage from her mother's original southern affiliation. It was a subtle acknowledgement that, someday, she would be able to claim the rule of both. Behind them, the rest of the council gathered. They were all standing on the platform, and the meeting ground was packed with Amazons. The young princess swore to uphold the traditions and laws, and then she raised the new queen's mask, and the crowd cheered as she placed it over her face for the first time.
Varia recited Tillit's titles, and even she was impressed. "Tillit, Queen of the Repatriated Amazons of the Northern Steppes, daughter of Gabrielle, the late High Queen of the Amazon Nation, descendant of the Utma, the first Cyane, heiress of the north and south, and wielder of the power of the Valkyrie."
And the daughter of the Norse hero, Beowulf, Tillit thought to herself.
And the reincarnation of the lost Valkyrie, Brunnhilda.
When the velvet shadows of night fell across the valley and the celebration was prepared, Tillit ignited the first torch from a distance of twenty yards. Under the full moon, would have been the party everyone had dreamed of, but scouts from the eastern border burst into the gathering, breathless. They reported that during the evening a huge encampment had sprung up half a league east of the border. The scouts had given up counting watch fires, for they were too numerous. From the standards, however, they could discern the presence of three full legions of Roman troops and four wings of cavalry. They bore the banners of Moesia Inferior, and were therefore from Novae, under the command of Consul Marcus Gaius Adrianus. There would be over twenty thousand cavalry and infantry preparing to deploy, and so far, their intentions were unknown. They outnumbered the Amazon warriors by more than thirteen to one.
"Happy Birthday to me," Tillit whispered. She wished her mother were still here.
The council convened immediately, the gravity of the situation helping to shake off the effects of the alcohol they'd already consumed. Tillit sat in a chair in the inner circle, and she alone had more than suspicions to declare. She had dreamed of the near future, but until tonight, she'd had no clue as to just how near it was. Now, it was her responsibility to speak.
"My sisters," she began, thinking it strange to be addressing them directly, "I have been given a vision of a battle, and I believe the Romans will assault the nation very soon. Three nights ago, I dreamed of Amazonia burning. Romans bearing casks of oil started fires in the forests to the east, and many of our warriors were trapped by the flames and killed. As the vision ended, our archers were moving to attack the oil supplies. We must prepare for war."
"Why didn't you speak of this sooner?" Varia asked from her seat in the center chair. Her tension was palpable to everyone in the room.
"I had no way of knowing whether this dream was of the long past, near present, or distant future," Tillit answered.
"Just like a dream," La'shaunti added with a sigh, "telling of the what and not the why, of the where and not the when. There's no way to tell prophecy from nightmare either. Annoying that they can't come to the waking. And sometimes, a dream is just a dream."
"Are you saying this could be nothing but a dream, and those legions out there have no intention of attacking?" Cyane asked in disbelief.
"Noooo, that would be too good to be, but could be true," the shamaness answered, "yet this one is too bad not to be. Being bad it must be, right? Myrrhphese canon."
"In other words, we're screwed," Varia spat.
La'shaunti seemed to pause for a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was the intimidating velvet of the Warrior Princess, "Sometimes ya just gotta fight fire with fire."
Three queens' eyes widened in shock; Varia and Cyane who had heard that voice in life decades before, and Tillit, who had heard it speak those very words in a dream.
The Amazons did the only thing they could; they mobilized all their defenses, readied all their traps, and by morning, the lands were prepared for another invasion. In the morning, instead of an invasion, a dozen Roman officers and a handful of cavalry came to the entrance to the Amazon road and blew a fanfare on their trumpets. Then they waited, honoring the treaty of the Emperor Claudius, and not setting even a single foot across the border.
Queen Varia took two dozen of her warriors and came to the edge of the Amazon lands. The meeting was cordial. When she returned and reported to the council, she was still uncertain of the Romans' intentions. She didn't like being uncertain.
"Their Consul Adrianus claims that he is here to apprehend a traitor, the Legatus Galena. When I told him that his quarry had attacked and been defeated here eleven days ago, he asked if he could have the body. He didn't seem concerned about the legion and he didn't seem to be seeking to avenge their deaths. I am undecided about his intentions, but I see no reason not to give him the "body" of Legatus Galena. What can he do with a rock?"
"Perhaps he is only parlaying to gain proof that we killed him. Then he could strike against us on behalf of the empire," one of the counselors suggested.
"Perhaps he is only seeking to delay and confuse us," another advised.
"I don't really think it will matter whether we give him Galena or not," Tillit said, "one way or another, I think he'll end up attacking us. Maybe he isn't even planning to, but somehow it will start."
"At this point I see no reason not to give him the body either," Cyane said, "at least it will prove that we're willing to cooperate. Anyway, sometimes the enemy of my enemy can be my friend."
"And sometimes an enemy is just an enemy," Varia muttered. She had never really trusted the Romans.
By early afternoon, a troop of Amazons was dragging the petrified body of Legatus Galena out of the forest, across the river, and up to the road. They mounted him on a mule cart, and hauled him to the border in the dying light of the early evening. When they arrived, the officers were gone, and the Amazon detail turned him over to the incredulous soldiers stationed there to meet them. They had expected a reeking corpse. Instead, they carted away a statue.
The next morning, a cavalry officer delivered a sealed scroll to the Amazon border guards, and a messenger rushed it to the council. On the table in the center of the queens' chairs it was opened and read. The Amazons were amazed, insulted, shocked, and finally angered. Consul Adrianus had thanked them for their mockery, accused them of mass murder, and conjectured that they had cannibalized the dead. He declared them misandros barbarians, criminals against humanity, and sentenced them all to death in the name of the emperor. He swore to destroy them for the good of civilization. For some time, all they could do was stare at each other and wonder how it could have happened. Cyane was in shock, Tillit felt like saying, "I told you so", and Varia blamed Gabrielle. They didn't voice their sentiments though, for the last thing they needed was disunity, and they were all too stunned to argue anyway.
The attack began at noon. A full artillery barrage drove the scouts and border guards back beyond bowshot, deeper into the forest, and they couldn't repel the Roman soldiers who moved in to secure the quarter mile of forest at the frontier. These invaders were followed by an endless line of troops, sloshing fuel oil from the casks on their backs. Then the burning started, just like Tillit had seen in her dream.
Yellowish flames leaped up explosively as oil ignited the underbrush. Roiling clouds of choking black smoke filled the air, the heavy scent of burning fuel spread by a gentle breeze. Soon the deadfall, and then the trees themselves, fell prey to the hungry fire. The flames created updrafts, burning hotter, urging the conflagration higher into the forest canopy. From there it leapt from tree to tree. Now the crashing of falling trunks joined the rumbling and crackling of the firestorm that blasted through the ancient groves of the forest. The Romans didn't stop splashing new sites with oil, widening the fire front and driving the Amazons ever further to the sides of their encampment. Soon, no frontal counterattack was possible, and that left only the possibility of flanking maneuvers.
Roving companies of Roman cavalry patrolled the flanks of the army, keeping the Amazons from launching counterattacks against them from the sides. Periodic attacks, by Roman archers and slingers, kept the warriors from returning to the front. They watched helplessly as their forest burned.
Sometimes the Amazon archers were able to pick off cavalrymen and even whole companies of soldiers, but it amounted to nothing. The enemy was just too numerous. It hampered the Roman strategy not at all. Through the afternoon, they continued to burn the forest and ignore the road.
By late afternoon, Cyane had ordered all the eastern streams dammed, turning whole tracts of forest into impassable swamps and precluding ground fires, but the flames continued to leap through the canopy. With the trees aflame, the Amazons were denied their usual stealthy passage above their enemies, and it made attack and retreat difficult. What Tillit had seen in her dream had become reality. Bands of Amazons became cut off on the ground in the thick choking smoke, and the council received reports of many burning to death. Night fell, and the Romans continued to advance, working in shifts, while the Amazons couldn't mount a successful defense. The battle zone was lit with the shifting intensity of the flames, but masked by the clouds of smoke.
In the darkness that night, thirty-six master archers crept to the edge of the forest. Their position was a half-mile north of the burning and a half-mile of perfect stealth would be required for them to reach their target. They intended to implement the attack that Tillit had seen in her dream. Unfortunately, the dream had ended before the outcome was known, and whether success or failure lay ahead was a mystery.
Tha cavalry endlessly patrolled the open lands, but the Amazons believed that at least a few of them might survive to attack the Roman oil supplies. These were wagons carrying huge vats of oil, and to each, a line of soldiers carrying five-gallon casks awaited refills by the quartermasters. The men were walking bombs, each with a reservoir of fuel strapped to his back. The wagons were infernos waiting to happen, and had been prudently parked a quarter mile from the legions' bivouac, but only two hundred yards from the trees. The site was guarded by a full wing of cavalry and two centuriae of legionnaires. It would be a difficult target.
The archers left the cover of the trees in teams of six, waiting to the count of a hundred before the next group followed. The teams advanced in a file, rather than spreading out in an arc, hoping to minimize their contacts with the Roman cavalry's perimeters of patrol. Slipping from shadow to shadow in the open land's minimal cover, they advanced, passing through the outermost patrol without detection. Two hundred and twenty yards ahead, a tighter ring of patrols circled, and equally closer to the Roman camp a third patrol moved. The innermost quarter mile comprised the actual bivouac, the base of operations, and it was guarded by infantry.
Most of a candlemark passed as the groups of archers worked their way closer to their target. They slipped through the inner ring of cavalry, maintaining perfect stealth. Within the gauntlet of the cavalry they redoubled their caution, moving somewhat more slowly but maintaining their spacing. Though they were veteran warriors, they fought the effects of the adrenaline that raced through their blood, and struggled to control their breathing and the wild beating of their hearts. Their hands would have to be steady for their aim to be true.
None of them expected to get more than a couple of arrows away before being cut down. Some had left behind lovers, while a few had said their good byes to children as well. Now, even thinking of their honor and duty failed to squelch the despair this hopeless mission entailed. In the end, the only respite came from forcing their world to narrow until they were wholly focused on the next yard of ground ahead, the next patrol to avoid, and the next intake of breath. Each had become grimly determined to make her death count, and to give up her life only with bitter cost to the enemy. It was a credit to their honor and dedication that not a single one gave thought to surrender it wasn't even considered. Slowly and silently, the teams advanced. They were moving towards the oil vats now, actually moving closer to their forest.
Another quarter candlemark of crawling on their bellies brought them into range of the targets; twelve carts, each with a six hundred gallon vat of oil and a line of soldiers awaiting refills. Only now did the groups fan out to acquire their targets, slipping apart to make their range. Ideally, each team would attack two carts.
Each attack group had carried a horn lined with clay, containing hot, long burning embers of hornbeam, white oak, or hickory, and a pouch of cattail fluff. Now they gathered dried grass from the field they lay on, setting it for a quick starting fire. While two from each group prepared the fire for their flaming arrows, the other four kept watch. Their orders and their arrows were different. They carried the traditional poisoned bronze-headed shafts that were meant to pierce armor and kill soldiers. They would try to buy time for their sisters to destroy the oil vats.
The Romans were vigilant if nothing else. From the first telltale scent of smoke, as the embers scorched the cattail fluff and sent the dried grass up in flames, they knew that they were under attack. It wasn't until the sources of the flaming arrows could be seen that they actually knew from where. Then they responded quickly, their cavalrymen charging with spears to ride down the archers, as infantry moved to overpower the few enemies who were visible. The first flaming arrows found targets, sending three oil vats up in flames. The oil ignited so rapidly that it fountained up, raining fire down on the lines of soldiers with the casks on their backs. The men fled in all directions, like fast moving flaming torches, creating pandemonium, and spreading the fire to a fourth oil vat.
In the now brightly-lit field, six teams of six archers could be seen, rapidly firing. At the centers of each group, two archers fired long arrows with flaming heads. Around them, knelt four archers shooting anyone who approached. The attack lasted for less than the twelfth part of a candlemark, before the Romans were able to kill or disable all the attackers. By then, the thirty-six Amazons had managed to destroy ten of the twelve oil vats and kill over a hundred and fifty men. They had died with their quivers empty, wielding swords against ranks of infantry armed with spears.
Three gravely wounded Amazons were brought to the consul for his judgement. He stared at them for a moment, asked them no questions, and then ordered them crucified at the head of the Amazon road. After they had been nailed up, and their crosses raised, they were set aflame. Before midnight, the Romans ran out of oil.
The observers in the forest, who had watched the raid, reported back to the council in a fury. Less than a candlemark after they had been crucified, a company of Amazons came down the dark road in the thick smoke. They slew the Romans guarding the crosses and cut their sisters down, and then they marched back into the forest.
On the next day, the Romans consolidated their positions in the burned out sections of the forest, and advanced half-a-mile. At the edge of the forest, new carts bearing full vats of oil had replaced the emptied and destroyed ones from the night before. Again, the lines of soldiers moved into the trees, splashing and lighting the fuel. The burning of the Amazon forest continued. For all their courage and skills, the Amazons couldn't overcome the resources of the empire. They were facing an enemy who knew that victory came most often to he who forced others to fight by his rules and meet on his chosen field of battle. Consul Adrianus would take their destiny and shape it with his will. It was the thirteenth day following the defeat of the Legion of Serdica.
The Council of the Amazon Nation realized that they had few options left, and based on the consul's message, surrender wasn't one of them. Most had opted to move all non-combatants to the western borders, in preparation to abandon their homelands, and in the hours following the dawn, this had been done. It would be a very long journey, paced by the elderly and the children, but they had a destination in mind. Far to the northeast lay the recently vacated lands that had once hosted all of Cyane's tribe. Backari would lead the march; back to the ancestral homelands of the Utma, back to where the Amazons had first become a tribe with their own identity. They would be beyond the reach of Rome, and they would start anew, creating a realm on the northern steppes that could become the Amazon Nation. At least they now had a legion's worth of mules, carts, and supplies. After buying them a head start, the warriors would follow at the last possible moment.
Tillit sat at the table in the hut that her mother and the Warrior Princess had once called home. The young queen sadly looked at the decades of memories that had been collected in the space around her. She had become an Amazon queen, just in time to see the destruction of her nation. She had found acceptance as a princess, only to lose her mother. She had gone on a great adventure, finding a new life, but losing her father. Somewhere far to the north, her beloved brother probably wondered if anyone still cared for him, and if he would ever see any of his family again. Among so many trying pressures, her love for her brother weighed heavily on her heart. She was a queen of the nation and her shoulders shook as she cried bitterly for the loss of her once happy life. Her tears fell on the open scroll that she had read every night since her mother had gone off to Amphipolis to meet her destiny, and her tears soaked the aged parchment, turning it translucent.
For a while she stared at the writing on the wetted surface, but only when she blinked away her tears did she see the letters clearly. Some of them appeared to be written backwards. She had never noticed that before. The scroll had always been weighted and held flat on the tabletop, resisting the rolled shape it tended to return to after its decades of storage. Tillit had never looked at the back of the parchment when she had unrolled its length a bit each night. Now she was at the end of the scroll, where Xena had once penned her treatise on the runes of the Valkyrie. Xena had written a bit more, and with the frugal second nature of a warrior, she had used the back of the scroll, rather than starting another.
Tillit removed the weights and turned the scroll over, and as she slowly read the words, she felt destiny squatting on her back like a harpy. Like mother, like daughter, they were both the instruments of fate. What she read could save the nation, but the cost would be high. Xena had never tried this permutation of the power of the runes of fire, but Tillit had no doubts that it was possible. She just had to work up the courage to try, and she knew just the thing to give herself that depth of resolve. With a newborn sense of determination, she stood up and crossed the room.
The Amazon Council had been meeting for a candlemark following the noon meal. The evacuation of those who would be migrating was nearly complete. Varia looked around and saw that Tillit had still not returned from eating. The nation is meeting its darkest hour, she thought, and our teen queen has gone missing just like her mother, Gabrielle. Cyane also noticed her absence, and she saw that Aliah was nowhere to be seen either typical, she thought, where one goes the other follows.
The smoke was choking, and so thick that it was even difficult to determine what direction they were traveling in. They had left the village a candlemark before and had moved through the trees, rapidly covering the miles above the newly formed swamps, to reach the battlefront. Now, less than a fifty yards ahead, they could finally see flames. A shocked Aliah had given up trying to convince Tillit that they should turn around. She had kept her silence, maintaining their stealth and watching for danger.
She had gone to find her queen, at the behest of the Seer, La'shaunti, and had finally caught up with her on the eastern ridge overlooking the village. Tillit had been seated in her usual place, sadly looking down at their besieged home, as if saying goodbye. That was just the first shock awaiting the general of the northern tribe. Her queen had her mask slung over her shoulders, but she had changed her clothes. Now she wore a dark suede two piece set, and the decorations on it were all wrong. The beads proclaiming her true rank had been hastily added, but the rest? Shamaness of the north? Master Warrior of the south? Champion and life partner of an Amazon Queen? These were not Tillit's leathers, and yet, they fit her tall frame as if custom tailored for her. Aliah tried to think of whom they could belong to, but she had never known anyone with such a rank. The grid of war beads proclaimed over a hundred battles, and several were of carnelian campaigns fought in the spirit realm. She had never even seen such beads before, though her lover was a shamaness.
"Aliah, I want you to wait here," Tillit said, and when she saw the protest forming on her general's lips, she added, "that's a direct order."
Aliah nodded and watched Tillit slipping silently forward towards the burning, where the Romans were still pouring oil on the fire. Bastards! If she could have seen Tillit's face, she would have ignored her order, bound her if necessary, and dragged her back to the village. Her young queen's face was streaming with tears, and her eyes screamed, I don't want to die. It was all she could do to put one foot before the other and just move.
She hadn't gone far before stopping among the burned trunks. Aliah watched as Tillit stood and bowed her head. What's she doing, the general wondered, she's drawn her dagger and it looks like she's stopped to pray. She was too far away to hear the softly chanted runes Tillit recited as she concentrated all her will on the image she had formed in her mind's eye. Sometimes, ya just gotta fight fire with fire.
Aliah saw Tillit's body relaxing, her head tilting back as she dropped the dagger, and then suddenly she was gone. In her place was a softly roaring column of fire, whose clear yellow flames rose higher than the trees. Aliah forgot her queen's order and charged forward towards it. She was eight feet away from it when she realized that she didnt feel any heat. Then she stopped dead and stared in wonder as the face of her queen formed amidst the flames. It spoke to her.
"I'm going to fulfill my destiny, Aliah, and it's something I have to do alone," Tillit's voice gently said, "I couldn't protect the nation in my earthly form, but I am a queen of the nation, and I have sworn to protect it. Tell the council I will destroy their enemies and none but an Amazon shall pass the Ring of Fire."
The face disappeared and the column of fire began to move. Aliah couldn't stop herself from following in its wake. The column became a wall, and the space it enclosed grew in diameter, but the height of the flames and their intensity didn't diminish. She watched the flaming ring racing through the trees, breaching the margin of the forest, and expanding across the open lands beyond the border. It swung around, widening further, until it encompassed the entire Roman camp.
Aliah saw hundreds and then thousands of men dying in agony, burning and falling, and finally charred, lying still. The oil vats went up in a monstrous explosion, but the wall of flame allowed no heat or smoke to pass through. Instead it appeared, for long moments, to be filled with fire, forcing the black sooty smoke upward like a chimney, until all the fuel was consumed. The general of the northern tribe fell to her knees, retching at the horror of what she'd seen. Then the walls of fire swung back towards the Amazon lands, growing ever larger, and Aliah felt the cool whisper of the flames on her skin as it enclosed her.
She had never felt so safe. It was as if a benevolent spirit lay all around her, blessing her with its power. The whispered voice of her queen spoke silently in her mind's ear.
"You feel my love for my sisters and my new homeland, Aliah. I will protect you all, until the nation is no more, for you have become my home. My mother once appointed you regent, Aliah. I too want you to lead our sisters."
The wall of flame had expanded far to the north and south, encompassing the forest and rapidly moving west. When it flashed through the village, the Amazons felt a surge of love welling up in their hearts, directed at each other, their lands, and their culture. It was a love of who they were, who they had been, and who they would become. Purified by fire, all the doubts they had felt after Gabrielle's destruction of Galena were put to rest. Like mother, like daughter sometimes it is the destiny of one to repair the injuries that the destiny of a beloved leaves behind. From Amazonia, Gabrielle had come to repair Xena's damage in the Norselands, and from the Norselands, Tillit had come to repair her mother's damage to the Amazons. Though the nation could not stand indefinitely, it would be centuries before the soul of Tillit would be reborn. The Ring of Fire continued expanding until it encompassed the entire Amazon Nation.
Aliah began making her way back to the village, to report to the council on all she had seen. Her footsteps led her past the place where Tillit had last stood in human form, and there she found a dagger, almost two hands long. The crossguard was of steel, the pommel of brass. Black leather cord covered the grip. Engraved on the pommel was a design of paired ravens, encircled by Norse runes. Wound around the hilt was an heirloom necklace, once worn by Terries, sister of Melosa. Tillit had bestowed her Right of Caste. The new queen of the northern tribe shed silent tears as she tucked the dagger into her belt.
"My Queen," she whispered.
It was June the 21st, 2002, and outside of Columbia, South Carolina, Jamie Pappas was ensconced in her old bedroom. Only a month before, she had returned home from Johns Hopkins University, having completed a four-year B.S. degree in electrical engineering. Her interests had turned to the development of navigational systems for manned space vehicles, but her real dream was to fly and see the stars.
On this day hot midsummer's day, she was sifting through the accumulation of her adolescence; all the once precious litter from her junior and senior high school days. It seemed like part of a different world to her now, and she realized that one could never go back. Two piles were forming. The first was baggable, and would end up on the curb for refuse pickup. The second would be boxed for storage in the catchall attic of the old Pappas house. Just about every year, something was added. Every few decades, some family member would make a second round of decisions, resulting in more bags by the curb, as age reassessed the value of the midden pile the family lived under. But some things were never thrown away.
This house was probably old when the war with the Yankees started, she thought, as the aging window unit labored to extract the abundant southern humidity from the air. The summers had seemed a little less oppressive in Baltimore, she remembered, thinking of the Whiting School of Engineering's Homewood Campus. Taking her degree in a school north of the Mason-Dixon Line had been a first in her family. Her father still swore that he could hear his grandfather, Melvin Pappas, a Dean at the University of South Carolina, turning over in his grave.
Jamie had always found greater inspiration in her grandmother, Melinda, who had once gone to a Macedonian archeological dig, helped make a great discovery, and returned with an unlikely colleague. She'd followed her dreams. Jamie had spent hours in the attic, exploring the tidbits of Melinda's life. There were the journals, the old clothes, the artifacts, and the photos. The curiosity she'd felt about the relics up there had eventually lost out to her desire to see space. Maybe it was that her generation had grown up on "Star Wars" and "Voyager". Maybe it was that she just needed to get further away.
She realized that she'd stopped doing anything productive, and was just standing, woolgathering, by her old bookcase. Almost by reflex, she pulled a worn volume from a shelf, and went to sit on her old bed. Most of the contents she knew by heart, but she'd refreshed her memory anyway, every time she was home. Southern Dragons Class of 1997, the cover of the Columbia High School yearbook said in fading silver script.
By force of habit, Jamie opened the book to the page where the binding had long ago learned to lie flat. The rows of pictures stared back at her, friends whom she was already beginning to forget, old comrades left behind. Three rows down and four pictures from the left she was still there, unchanged. It was the one face she'd never forget. The heart drawn around it in purple marker and the message that meant more than it seemed to. It blurred as she stared into Amy's eyes, her best friend's face expanding until it seemed to be full size, just inches away, late on a cool June night.
It had been between their junior and senior years of high school, and they'd been talking for hours, lying in the backyard and staring up at the summer stars. A meteorite had arced across the night sky, leaving a con trail sizzling through the atmosphere in its wake. They'd both sat up to watch it streaking down, for it had seemed to fall behind the tree line at the end of the Pappas property. It was just an illusion, of course.
They'd turned towards each other at the same moment, something they often did, usually followed by giggles. But this time they'd stared into each other's eyes, searching, drawn closer and closer, barely breathing. It had been a moment, timeless and magickal, as if something ancient had stirred. They'd kissed hesitantly, self-consciously, and very softly at first, but the kiss had deepened. It had been Jamie's first real kiss, and she'd kissed a girl. Later they'd giggled together when they realized that Jamie had ended up with one of the cinnamon Tic-Tacs that Amy had absently put in her mouth a few moments before. It wasn't the last kiss that night, as they became more confident, and there'd been many more over the next year. Many more kisses and many shared touches that were no longer casual, as they both became more comfortable touching. It had all been so new. It had all felt so right.
To Jamie, 4 Ever and Always, Amy. I love you grrrrl. Purple words in purple marker.
"I love you too, Amy," Jamie whispered softly, her eyes staring through the page into her memory, "where did you go?" And another tear stained the helpless yearbook.
Later she lifted a box, heavy with old textbooks and class papers, and clomped up the attic stairs. If her room had been hot, then the attic was an annex of hell. It was so hot that it seemed like the humidity was lower, evaporated from the air into steam that was absorbed by the boards in the walls and ceiling. She found a spot that wasn't already claimed by a previous generation's detritus and plunked her box down. When she stood back up, she had to wipe the perspiration from her eyes with the back of her hand. In the thirty seconds she'd been in the attic, her tank top had become soaked with sweat. Her long bare legs below her cutoffs were already wet and shiny. It was ridiculous.
As she turned to leave, she thought, what the hell, I'm already soaked. Staying up here a few more minutes won't make any difference now. She took the four steps that brought her to the picture of her grandmother, a professional photograph taken in 1947. Jamie had always loved this picture. It was one of the rare few that showed Melinda without her glasses and with her hair down, falling unbound to below her shoulders. It might have been a subconscious thing, but Jamie wore her hair the same way, long on the sides and back, eyebrow length bangs in front. She'd never cut it, permed it, dyed it, or curled it. With the coming of her twenties, she'd grown to look more and more like her grandmother had in 1947, though Mel had been nine years older than Jamie was now. If they'd stood side by side at the same age, they could have passed for identical twins.
Jamie was still staring at the picture when she noticed that the reflections on the glass in its frame were growing stronger, obscuring her grandmother's face. Then she noticed that she could see her own shadow, and it was falling towards the light bulb that hung naked, from a wire in the ceiling. Jamie turned to her right, just in time to see the fading beam of light that had delivered the figure of her grandmother into the attic. Melinda had black wings, and was regarding her with a hint of a grin. Jamie rubbed her eyes.
"I'm not Melinda," the archangel told her kindly, "in fact, you're off by about two thousand years."
"Of course you're not. How silly of me to make assumptions," Jamie agreed, fairly certain that heat prostration was making her hallucinate, "and I'll bet you're here to tell me a secret truth."
"Very good, Jamie," Xena praised her happily, "I can see your powers of deduction are finely tuned."
"Never better," Jamie agreed. I'll have to replenish fluids and electrolytes soon, she thought, if I don't fall down the stairs and break my neck first.
"Good," Xena told her, "because I need you to understand what I'm gonna tell you. It has to do with your soulmate, Amy. Ya see, you can call her back."
Now I know I'm in trouble, Jamie thought. I was thinking about Amy earlier. I was looking at grandma's picture. Now I'm talking to an angel that looks just like Mel. What a great hallucination it's amazing how closely it's tied in with my subconscious projections of my conscious memory traces.
"Hello Jamie, ya feeling ok?"
"Oh yeah, sorry, must be the heat. So what do I have to do?"
"First, come over here," Xena directed, pointing to the glass enclosed display case.
Jamie followed the archangel and stood in front of the relics that hadn't made it to the museum at the University of South Carolina, just up the road in downtown Columbia.
"Now, Jamie, ya see that bundle on the second shelf?"
"Sure, the 'primitive Thracian ceremonial carving, purpose unknown'," she quoted from her memory of Melinda's notes.
"Actually, it's the sacred Dagger of the Utma," Xena told her, "a relic from the dawn of the Amazon Nation."
"Amazons " Jamie muttered, remembering that they had figured in some of the stories from the Xena scrolls. She was beginning to get light headed and she swayed.
"Stick with me, Jamie," Xena encouraged. "Unwrap the dagger and hold it right below the carved animal head."
Geeezus, I must be affected by the heat, Jamie thought as she pulled the brittle moldering hide off the carving. That wrapping was part of the artifact. It was found like this in situ, and Melinda never tried to remove it for fear of destroying something of historic value. The crumbled pieces of the dry rotted skin lay in a pile at her feet. She grasped the dagger just like the apparition had requested.
"Good, now raise it above your head, as high as you can reach."
Jamie held the dagger as high as she could. The carved animal head scraped the ceiling.
"That's it, now, what ya have to do is call out to Amy. Call her home."
"Amy, please come home," Jamie recited.
"Not like that!" Xena scolded. "Ya sound like you're calling a dog!" She sighed, then encouraged, "Call her with your feelings, Jamie, like you mean it with all your heart. Make her believe how much ya need her, and give her a real reason to come back."
Jamie gulped. This hallucination was getting testy, playing with her emotions.
"See her in your mind's eye, Jamie," Xena instructed, "tell her what you feel. You have to believe and want this. You have to believe that anything is possible."
At first, Jamie stared at the archangel, but then she decided, what the hell. She conjured up the image of Amy's face from the yearbook picture, and like she had in her room, she let herself fall into her eyes. She saw Amy's face drawing closer and tilting as she leaned in, her eyes half closed, with a conspiratorial grin on her lips. Behind her she could see the dark night sky, where a shooting star had just passed; a falling star to make a wish on. She felt the first light touch Amy's warm soft lips on her own. She felt the magick. The stars blurred with her tears, but Amy's face remained clear. And then she felt her heart breaking like it had the day her beloved friend disappeared. She cried like she'd cried in the bottom of the stairwell, somehow knowing that she'd lost a part of her very soul. Knowing that from then on, her heart would be alone.
"Amy," she whispered, not trusting her cracking voice to speak any louder, "please, please come back to me. I've missed you so much since you disappeared I've more than missed you. You took a piece of me with you that day and I've never stopped wondering where you went. I want you back, Amy. I want you back with all my heart. I wish that I could see you again, just to tell you once that I love you."
She felt the air compression in the stifling attic, and an audible "whump" that made her ears pop. For a second, a figure was outlined by a flash of light, and then it jerked around in shock at its displacement. Jamie blinked to clear her eyes and could only stare. Amy had appeared, looking like she'd been holding something in her arms, one breast bared by the ludicrous costume of animal skins that draped her body. She'd stood and whipped around and stared at Jamie, and Jamie stared back at her. The Dagger of the Utma slipped forgotten from her shaking fingers and the ancient brittle ivory shattered on the floor.
"Amy?" Jamie hesitantly whispered. In the back of her mind, she noted that Amy looked a few years older than she'd been when she'd disappeared that day in 1997.
"Jamie? What the hell? Where's my baby? Was that the Dagger of the Utma? And who's she? Am I really back?" Her eyes were flitting back and forth trying to take in all of the details around her. She'd been nursing her daughter, the next Amazon princess, just sitting in her yurt, when for the second time in her life, she'd been snatched across time. If this was real, she could be Amy again, not Cyane, not the Utma if she wasn't dreaming. Damn, this attic was hot, just like she remembered it. She blinked a trickle of sweat out of her eyes. "Jamie, am I really home?"
Amy had been waving her hands around, punctuating her questions with gestures. She's as energetic as Gabrielle used to be when she was excited, Xena thought fondly as she watched, and the timing was perfect. The Amazons would raise their new princess, and Gabrielle's lineage was assured. Her soul would move through history as it had been intended to, joined with her own in a soulbond meant to last beyond the world and grace eternity with two souls joined as one.
One last time the Warrior Princess had changed the future, but it wasn't her will alone that had shaped this fate. It had been her soulmate's last request so many centuries before. Gabrielle had put the horrors of Armageddon Day back in the bottle. By accepting her own destiny, she had made the restoration of their eternal destiny possible. Seeing her own soul reborn in her future daughter, rejoined with Gabrielle's soul which had escaped the closed loop of the Utma, fulfilled the third part of her daughter's prophecy. At last the Southern Dragon was free. Now, there would always be another reincarnation; another chance to love. Now, their souls' destiny to change the world would continue. And now, it was the modern soulmates' turn to exercise their free will. It was the legacy of the Twilight. The Warrior Princess smiled, accepting that everything had happened just as it should. This was her final mission.
With her soul finally at peace she awaited the light that would take her one up last time. Once it had come and gone, Xena of Amphipolis would at last share oblivion with her beloved Gabrielle. They would be just names in a handful of ancient scrolls. Only in the endless recall of mankind's subconscious memory would there exist that which had once been a warrior and a bard. It was but one of so very many incarnations the archetypal soulmates, forever linked in the halls of time.
For a brief moment she wondered about the Western Dragon, but just as quickly dismissed it from her mind. Destiny, she realized, was never truly finished. It persisted and grew through the centuries, connecting the generations in a legacy.
Xena watched as Jamie wrapped her soulmate in a tight embrace and silenced her ravings with a kiss. When she finally pulled away from Amy's lips, she leaned in and whispered in Amy's ear, "I love you grrrrl, 4 Ever and Always".
They were both wearing the widest smiles that either could remember, as the beam of light came down and the figure of the archangel disappeared in its radiance.
"Was that your grandmother?" Amy asked after taking a deep breath.
"Yeah," Jamie replied, "but she wouldn't admit it. I think she's just pissed cause I went to school up north."
Twenty-seven summers had passed since their reunion in the stifling Pappas attic. Twenty-seven cycles of the seasons, in which modern soulmates shared an ancient love. They had been years of amazing discovery and learning, difficult and trying work, many failures, but a greater measure of success. A brilliant and crippled man had succeeded in describing the unified theory, and now mankind sought to exceed the speed of light. They would truncate physical space, for they had dared to believe that anything was possible. Once again the courage of these soulmates would change the world it had always been their destiny.
It was Midsummer's Day. At the International Space Center, a silvery needle proudly stood, ready to threaten the heavens, challenging them to yield up their secrets. Spotlights stabbed from the darkness, winking off its polished skin, while the world held its breath. It was the peaceful moment before the dawn. Silent stars bore witness above. On this day, mortal aspirations would eclipse nation, race, and self. A voice echoed over the reclaimed swampland, amplified by speakers as tall as a man. The words traveled through the ether as well, entering the homes and hearts of people around the world.
"Thou who reveals thy face to mankind in the guise of so many names, who has inspired the human spirit to achieve that which our ancestors considered only in dreams, bless this audacious endeavor and these intrepid explorers. Bring them the favor of providence, and through thy beneficence, grant them safe passage through thy heavens.
Since the days of its beginning, it has been the place of mankind to strive, ever driven by the need to understand that with which we are surrounded. On this day, we again strive, with faith and awe, to understand another facet of this creation. It is to the hopeful, to the believer, and to the dreamer, that this voyage, like no other undertaken by mankind, is dedicated, for without their most human of motivations, we cease to be fully human. Yet by holding them dear in our hearts, anything is possible."
The dawn broke as it had for three billion years, as if rehearsing for all that time to perfect this one performance. The stars faded in the paling dark of the sky above, while beneath the silver needle, a brilliant column of flame roared to life. This latest hope of mankind rose on its lashing tail of fire, blinding as the desert sun, deafening as thunder, ascending into the heavens with increasing speed, and daring to challenge the gods. Finally, the Western Dragon flew.
The first stage separated and fell away into the blue ocean below, and the rocket lifted higher. The second stage burned and then it too was discarded, having sacrificed its energy to loft the remainder above the atmosphere. With the third stage burn, the vehicle achieved escape velocity. It shed the final booster, and then it was free. For a moment it seemed to soar, inertia alone driving it even higher. Then a silent and invisible thrust took over, powering its course to a position beyond the orbiting space station. From there, the new drive would be engaged and a new age would begin. Not since the time of the Twilight, had mankind gained so much freedom of will.
The sky ship sailed, guided by navigational systems undreamed of by the generations of mariners who had marked the flickering light of the stars. It was to those same stars that this ship soared, following the sky roads through the heavens. They were roads that men had dreamed of traversing through all the generations since they had warmed themselves in the flickering light of campfires. Borne up on the ancient hopes of mankind, the Western Dragon grasped for the eternal reaches of space, the endless Sacred Night.
The ship of dreams flew on, all smooth silvery lines, eye sweet and air slippery, small wings at its sides and a lighted window in its nose. Through that window the ship's bridge could be seen. There, null-grav chairs sat before control stations that glowed with holographic displays, crewed by the best souls this race of beings had to offer. In the captain's command chair sat a woman, tall, ebony haired, blue-eyed, with stars on the shoulders of her uniform. She exuded an air of hope and confidence. Moving to stand beside her, wearing a black uniform with the insignia of a chief science officer, was a woman with mousy brown hair. She laid a hand gently on the commander's shoulder, causing her to turn and share a smile. At last it was perfect.
"Anything is possible," the commander said softly.
"Yes," her soulmate agreed, "it's our destiny."
Shadows of lost nights
Echoes from our past
Calling you to me
Veiled by passing years
Persisting through the tears
On all the worlds that we'll know now
Life has come, then gone
But somewhere past the final glow
Our love lives ever on
Souls from long ago
Will meet in rendezvous
Our destiny set right
Is calling me to you
Joining me to you
Phantom Bard, April 24, 2002, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Revised, April 27, 2003
My apologies to all the "Dark Shadows" and Quentin Collins fans out there. I couldn't resist altering the lyrics of "Quentin's Theme" at the end of the story.
gabriel (Gabrielle, rendered phonetically in Norse runes as it would have been translated by the people of Kaupang. It came to pass that the runes of her name foretold the heart of her life story).
g (G=Geba, a sacrifice to the gods)
a (A=Ansuz, refers to the gods, most often Odin)
b (B=Berkano, refers to Idum, Goddess of spring/fertility)
r (R=Raido, a long journey)
I (I=Isa, ice note that the "I" is pronounced as a long "E" by the Norsemen)
e (E=Elwaz, horses)
l (L=Laguz, associated with water)
" a long journey across the seas by ship and overland by horse, by one who will thaw the frozen heart of Odin, bringing a new spring to the Norselands, and afterwards sacrifice her life in conflict with a god "
"And this god it isn't Odin?"
"Nay, Ubchulk, for the rune Ansuz falls aside the runes Isa and Berkano, while the rune Geba lies apart, beyond the rune Raido. The journey leads to the god and her sacrifice."
"Then she is fated to leave Kaupang?"
"So it appears to me "
"And my friend's heart will be broken if she leaves again."
"My cousin, not all divining is meant to be known. Foreknowledge can poison the present with fear of the future, and it is the present in which we mortals live."
"Then I resolve to say nothing to Beowulf or Gabrielle."
"And how did a tavern keep become so wise?"
Indeed, the tavern keeper of Kaupang came to the same conclusion and course of action as the founder of the new southern faith. As Ubchulk restrained his own lips from poisoning his friends' future, so Eli restrained Xena's ghost from warning her soulmate of the destiny that lay before her. As above, so below.
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The Line of the Queens of the Southern (Greek) Tribe
The Utma, the First Cyane (aka Amy Covington, descendant and
ancestor of Gabrielle of Potidaea)
Approximately 2,700 years
Queen Melosa of Greece
Valesca (By Tainted Royal Challenge, later ate ambrosia and
became the Goddess of Chaos - Deposed)
Gabrielle of Potidaea (By Princess Terries' Right of Caste, became
Queen Melosa's accepted successor)
Ephiny (Gabrielle's Regent)
Chilapa (Queen Gabrielle's Appointed Successor to Ephiny)
The 25-Year Sleep of Xena and Gabrielle
Queen Varia (Deposed at Helicon, and Reinstated)
Queen Gabrielle (High Queen by Right of Caste Seniority, her
familial relationships to the Utma, and her
royal positions in the north and south tribes)
Queen Tillit (Gabrielle's Daughter, heiress of the north and south,
Queen of the Remnant of the Northern Tribe by
Inheritance of Queen Gabrielle's Right of Caste)
Queen Aliah (By Queen Tillit's Right of Caste, she was also
briefly Queen Gabrielle's regent)
The Line of the Queens of the Northern Tribe of the Steppes
The Utma, The First Cyane (aka Amy Covington, Queen Gabrielle's
descendant and ancestor)
Approximately 2,700 years
Queen Cyane (Murdered by Xena, Destroyer of Nations)
Approximately 8 years
Otere and Yakute
Queen Cyane (Relinquished claim upon the return of Xena and
Queen Gabrielle, who appointed Cyane as successor)
Approximately 26 years
Queen Cyane (Led the Northern Amazons to Greece to join the new
Amazon Nation under Queen Varia and the Council)
Queen Aliah (Queen of the remnant of the Northern Tribe, challenged
and defeated by Queen Gabrielle, then appointed as her regent)
Queen Gabrielle (By successful Royal Challenge, reclaimed the position
she had relinquished to Queen Cyane 35 years before,
and rejoining the north and south tribes' royal lines
after approximately 2,765 years)
Queen Tillit (By Right of Caste from her mother, Queen Gabrielle,
the heiress of the north and south)
Queen Aliah (By Right of Caste from Queen Tillit)
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