Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters and concepts from the TV series Xena Warrior Princess, including, Xena, Gabrielle, Ares, Atrius, Cyrene, Toris, Lyceus, the Fates, the Furies, etc., are the adaptations or creations and property of MCA/Universal, and Renaissance Pictures USA. No malice is intended towards these characters and concepts. I wish to express my thanks to the creators of this outstanding production for sharing them with us for six seasons.
Warnings: This story contains depictions of violence, emotional turmoil, alcoholism, domestic dysfunction, and embarrassing situations, (someone has a potty accident), perhaps a bit in excess of what was presented in the TV series. As such, I would not recommend this story for the young or immature. There are spoilers and references to many episodes from the show, including, "Sins of the Past", "Ties That Bind", "Remember Nothing", "The Furies", "Motherhood", "The Rheingold", "The Ring", "Return of the Valkyrie", "You Are There", "When Fates Collide", "Many Happy Returns", and "A Friend in Need Pt. 1".
Notes: I don't believe that this story creates situations that upset the canon of the show. I feel that the events portrayed are plausible, the Xenaverse being what it is. The single biggest deviation, in my opinion, from the established backstory of the series, is Xena's age at the death of Atrius. I state it as being three years, rather than the seven claimed by Cyrene in "The Furies". At seven, I thought she'd have had a clearer recollection of her father than would suit this story. Otherwise, consider it a "fill in the blank" sorta tale. The time frame is post "Many Happy Returns", but proceeds "A Friend in Need".
"Dreams are the fine line between the real world and the underworld." ~ Callisto
§ Twenty-Five Years Before Sins of the Past ☼
Anyone with ears could hear that the village alarm had been raised. A bell had been tolling frantically for almost a quarter candlemark and they could hear people shouting. Now there were also screams, and fast hoof beats were approaching from the other end of the village. Both were rapidly growing louder. Danger and urgency filled the family's hearts. The village had planned against such an invasion, but still, at the inn, fear stood among them; phobos had a presence that could almost be seen. Even father was affected by it. His warrior training had converted it into a deadly focus.
"Don't argue with me woman! Take the children and hide in the root cellar. Toris, you're with me! Let's go, NOW!"
Father's haste was making his replies to his wife's protests uncharacteristically gruff. The girl listened as her mother tried to keep her father from going out to meet the invaders, but he would hear nothing of it. He had been a warrior all his adult life. Now his home village was under attack and his own family was endangered. There was no greater threat that he could imagine. Though he had fought many enemies in many places, this was the fight that he had always known would be closest to his heart. The defense of his home and his own, fought against the predations of an evil warlord. It was a fight he would never leave to others. She'd listened to enough of her father's war stories to know that her mother's objections would never sway him. It was his sense of honor.
"A warrior fights for the safety of those he loves. Our village, the polis, and the nation are just bigger versions of a man's family. Those who fight to kill the ones they hate can become possessed, lost in their own darkness, but the truly damned are those who fight just because they love to spill blood. Love, honor, and hope, these are worth fighting for." Her father had told her this many times, and she agreed. Though as a warrior he worshipped Ares, the patron of soldiers, he had always fought with honor. He was her first hero and she strove to live up to his principles.
She saw that father had already buckled on his sword belt and he was moving towards the door. His heavy boots made his steps resound on the wooden floor. It had been a while since she'd heard those boots. She could remember being a little girl, when those boots, and the greaves that buckled over them, had seemed as tall as she was. Her father was a very tall man and the boots came up to his knees. His sword actually had been longer than she was tall back then.
Father had reached the door, but turned back for a moment to face his wife as she approached him. The expression on his face softened. For a moment they stared into each other's eyes, and then the tall man drew his wife to him and kissed her deeply. When he released her, she held her hand against his cheek for a moment, and then turned away to gather her daughter and younger son. Mother had tears starting in her eyes, threatening to overflow.
Cyrene had always feared the battles her husband fought. With three children and an inn to run, she had plenty of reasons. Even now, though her children were old enough to actually help, she dreaded losing her husband. For years she had foreseen the appearance of some comrade-in-arms, bearing the sad tidings of his death to her door. Through the many campaigns father had ridden off to, mother had seemed to taste her widowhood. Then, just the year before last, he had ridden home to stay. He had decided to settle down, his heart heavy from the killing. He was finally willing to leave the fighting to younger men. There was never any shortage of them.
When father had told mother of his decision, her eyes had glowed, and she'd seemed to shrug off a dozen years. But now, with the invasion of their village, he had ripped open the trunk in their room that held his armor and weapons. In a few short moments of long practiced activity he had changed, from the innkeeper back into the warrior, as though he had never been anything else. Since coming home, he'd founded the town's militia and taken on the training of its fighters. Cyrene had indulged him, thinking it only a hobby, but now the village bell was tolling the invasion alarm. Today would be their first real test, and like soldiers everywhere, they needed a leader. She could see her mother falling back into the fears that she had thought she'd left behind.
Her older brother came bounding down the stairs. The younger man struggled to don his bracers; his sword belt still draped over his shoulders, trying to ready himself. Over the years he'd learned many of the skills of war from his father and he wanted to make him proud. He had become a decent swordsman, and in their father's absence it had been so reassuring to have him at the inn. Still, he had never left to join an army. They'd known it would have devastated their mother, and so he had stayed at home. Now he would be fighting, in a real battle for their survival, but he didn't have any practical experience in war. He had never had to kill another man. He would be at a disadvantage against those he would face today and he knew it. It made his hands fumble with the familiar buckles, and it made his heart flutter.
"Steady, my son, take a few deep breaths." Their father told his eldest, as he gripped his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. "You've the skill and the heart to do good this day, so don't doubt yourself. When these bandits see that our village is willing to fight them, they'll be more scared than we are. They're not used to resistance and they've a lot less to fight for than we have. It will be our heart, more than our experience or numbers, that will bring us victory today."
"Father, I know I can help drive them out of our village. You've taught me how to fight...and what's worth fighting for. I'll be ok once we get out there. I know I will."
"I know you will too, son. Just do what you have to and don't take any unnecessary chances. Call me if you get in a tight spot. We just need to show them that this village isn't going to be easy pickings and they'll leave. That's all we want."
Father clapped her older brother on the shoulder, and they turned to leave. The door slammed closed behind them. It seemed so ominous to her, like they were being separated by a lifetime, or living a world away. Through the window, their receding forms seemed like the phantoms in a dream.
She felt her mother take her hand as she watched the men leave the inn. Young Lyceus held her other. Together the three of them headed for the kitchen where the stairs led down into the root cellar. Somehow she knew they'd be alright. Her father and the militia would drive Cortese away. What she couldn't understand was that for some reason, she wished she were headed out the door to join them, with a sword in her hand. It was strange because in all of her seventeen years she'd hardly ever even lifted one.
For over a candlemark they stayed hidden, quietly waiting. She watched her mother pacing in the small dark space, gnawing her knuckles and shaking her head with worry. Mother looked like she was imagining the worst. Lyceus mostly stared at the floor, at 15, probably shamed because he wasn't outside fighting too. She tried to sense what was happening above them, outside the inn. Only the faintest sounds came to her ears. Though she tried to project her senses, nothing she heard gave her any clue as to how the fighting stood. It left her disappointed; somehow she'd expected more. The helpless waiting was worse to her than anything she could imagine. She knew it had to be even worse for her mother. Somewhere in the village above, her father and brother were battling alongside the militia father had trained.
She begged the gods to grant their favor and aid against the warlord Cortese; a name she had only heard, for a man she had never seen. If only he would just turn around and leave them alone. She knew enough about the world though, to know that her father was right. The invaders would only leave if they were driven out by villagers determined to fight for their homes.
After what seemed like an eternity they heard footsteps above, crossing the floor from the door of the inn to the kitchen. Mother stared at the stairs, fear and worry etched on her face. Lyceus stood and moved towards their mother, standing protectively before her, though she could see that he was terrified. She knew those footsteps though, so she rushed past them and started up the stairs even before the door opened. She was the first to greet her father and brother, safely returning from the successful defense of the village. Atrius' smile widened as his teenage daughter Xena leapt into his arms, hugging him and kissing his cheek. He prayed that she would never have to suffer the evils he had seen in his years at war; hoped that fighting and death would never darken the sparkling blue of her eyes. And so long as he was around, it never would.
Four immortals stood before an ornate frame, silently watching the pictures that moved within its border. The frame floated, untethered, before a sooty wall. Unlike the viewing mirrors or skrying bowls of the other gods, this one could show events yet to be. It was attendant to the duties of the Moirae, the three hostesses. The setting was dismal, an undecorated stone hall, dimly lit. Only a few torches sputtered in sconces, emitting oily black smoke and a wavering yellowish light. They had been lit for so long that the entire ceiling had disappeared into a carbon impregnated gloom. It had probably been no cleaner even in the time of the Titans. The overbearing stench of unburned fuel permeated everything, even their clothing and hair. The visitor loathed it, while the hostesses had long ago come to ignore it.
The visiting god regarded the surroundings with eons old disgust, and the pictures they were watching with a growing anger. What he saw was nothing less than the demeaning of his daughter...her warrior potential sapped by domesticity and mindless happiness. He hated it and he was actually becoming physically ill from the viewing. By the time she reached her teens, she would already be ruined, useless to him.
Some yards away a machine clattered softly as it performed its duties unsupervised. The thing annoyed him as it always had. Just one fireball, he speculated, and it would go up in flames. The idea tempted him unmercifully every time he saw the contraption. He despised his three hostesses no less. The sniveling smart mouthed brat, the middle aged one whose face couldn't have been plainer if she'd been born without eyes, nose or mouth, and the crone who smelled as if she hadn't washed since her birth. He was losing his patience as he always did when he came here. Something about events not directed by a strong will just turned his stomach. Yet he was aware that this was how the majority of the living passed their years. He sneered. They accepted their fate...and those losers deserved whatever they got. It fueled his overriding contempt for mortals.
"And is this abomination that you have tormented me with what shall be, or only what might be?" The God of War demanded of the three women, who shuddered as they faced him. He had never liked them, but they had never seen him so angry. Just one fireball, they knew, and their precious loom....
"This is what shall be in fifteen years time, for it grows from what is now," answered Clotho, her childish voice quavering before Ares' rage.
"This is what shall be as her fate now stands," answered Lachesis, as she checked the thread of Xena's life. Satisfied, she returned to chewing her nails.
"This is how her future shall unfold, for it is her soul's appointed path to the gates of eternity," answered Atropos, her aged hand working her shears like a nervous tic.
"This is a disaster!" Roared the God of War. "No daughter of mine is going to wind up as a sweet little barmaid in some flea bitten village in Thrace!" Ares promised them, before disappearing with a flash. His last words echoed through their sooty hall. "Noooo, this is not acceptable!"
"But, you can't change her fate," Lachesis started to reply in shock, "it will change so many others..." But he was long gone, and Clotho had started sucking her filthy thumb.
"Unfortunately, he is a god. He is one of the most willful and self-serving of all the gods, and he claims that this Xena is his daughter. I feel there will be much suffering ahead for all." The elderly Atropos predicted sadly, punctuating her words with a snap of her shears.
Ares was in a lather when he returned to his mansion on Mt. Olympus. What the Fates had shown him had turned his stomach and was rapidly bringing on a headache. He was hard pressed to recall when he had been in so foul a mood. For a while he raged. Curses rang, echoing off the stone walls and shaking the foundations of the Halls of War. For a while he vented. Statuary flew, shattering against the masonry, the bronzes flung with inhuman strength. Finally though, Ares' rage gave way to a calm that was even more deadly, for now the God of War focused his mind on his goal, conceiving a strategy, reviewing tactics, and weighing assets. The campaign he contemplated was dearer to his heart than many a war he'd waged, for instead of the bodies of mortals, now the destiny of his own flesh and blood hung in the balance. Blood would flow and heads would roll, he promised himself with a grimace, oh yeah. Somehow a good slaughter always made him feel better, but it wouldn't solve his problem this time. Or would it?
Granted, Xena was just a child of two, but already he believed her senses and coordination put her years ahead of her age mates. It wasn't as though he spent much time comparing mortal rug rats, but he was convinced that his daughter was superior. The girl could already sense him when he looked in on her, though she had no idea whom or what made her feel the tingling. Ares perceived that she had the potential to be an outstanding warrior; a warrior blessed with a divine heritage, and deserving of a great destiny. She would become his mortal Chosen, he decided, capable and willing to do his bidding on Earth; the one mortal who would deserve and receive his favor. It would be a first, and she would be unstoppable. The Fates be damned. Like all else in life, these possibilities existed for he who had the strength to bend events to his will. Ares could not allow the desecration of his daughter to unfold as he had seen it. That would be an abomination.
Slowly a plan began to form. The problem, as Ares saw it, was Xena's parents, and of the two, her father posed the real threat. Atrius was the family's protector. With him present, Xena would never have to lift a weapon. The man would inspire Toris to become a warrior, making the likelihood of Xena taking arms even more remote. She would fall under her mother's dominion, and Cyrene was simply too content with her husband safely at home. If Ares didn't do something, his success in disguising himself and seducing Cyrene would simply go to waste. And the other gods would never let him live down the fact that his daughter was a barmaid instead of a conqueror. He could almost hear them snickering already.
So Ares, the God of War, gave thought to removing Atrius from the mortal world. A shame really, because the man had always been a faithful follower. The irony of the situation was that Ares had chosen Cyrene, not for her outstanding beauty or inflaming passion, but because her husband was one of his most distinguished warriors. Two years before, the god had conceived of a change in his quest to bring order to the world through force. Rather than favor the many that served him, as he had traditionally done, he would concentrate his favor on one warrior. Who better to be his first Chosen than a child of his own seed, raised by a favored follower? Yet now he had seen the unexpected ruination of his strategy unfolding in the Fates' mirror, and he prepared to amend his plan. He would be sorry to lose Atrius, for the man had always fought with inspiration. Still, he was only a mortal, and the God of War was willing to sacrifice him for his own goal.
Days passed in the mortal world, as the Ares remained deep in thought, almost motionless on his throne. He barely noticed the passage of Helios; his relatives he totally ignored, knowing they'd still be around. Even his dear horny sister Aphrodite couldn't budge him, but he did register the peeved expression she directed at him before she left in a huff. Still he sat. Bit by bit, the details of a plan filled themselves in. There was a clockwork precision to the interlocking of the various factors, and this spoke to him of destiny at work. Finally the plot shimmered in his mind's eye, symmetrical and beautiful to behold. It would accomplish his purpose. For the first time since his visit to the Fates, Ares allowed himself a real smile.
In the mortal world, Xena was two. Atrius was afield fighting wars, while Cyrene stayed home in Amphipolis with her children, running the inn. Several months before, on his last home leave, Atrius and Cyrene had started the life of their second son, Lyceus. As was their custom during his furloughs, they had rolled around like crazed weasels. Now Cyrene rejoiced in the new life she felt growing within her, but she also worried about her husband, and she struggled to keep an eye on young Toris and Xena. Toris was helpful, when he wasn't getting into trouble, but Xena always seemed to be trying to explore where a two-year-old shouldn't. Cyrene had nearly fainted when she'd discovered her daughter playing with the kitchen knives, vigorously stabbing the floor, while her brother had gone exploring in the root cellar, suspiciously close to the ale vats. It reassured her not at all that Xena was only killing a roach and Toris was still sober. She dreaded the time when they'd reach their teens. They needed their father....
"Erinyes, answer the summons of the God of War! Appear before me!"
In the throne room of the Halls of War there appeared a swirling of flame, shadowed by immortal darkness, which enveloped a flash. Before the throne of the God of War, the three Furies writhed in a hysteria of malice. Ares regarded them with the discomfort one reserved for the insane. Their endless giggling and cavorting was viscerally abhorrent to the god who had always sought order...it was all to close to chaos.
"For what does the all powerful God of War call on we spirits of retribution?" Inquired a grinning Alecto, the most communicative of the three, as her companions Megaera and Tisiphone wove around her like choreographed ferrets.
Ares took a deep breath and regarded them for a moment before answering.
"I have foreseen a crime against my family being committed even as we speak," he declared, causing the three to focus their attention on him. To the other Olympians, they were like poor relations, seldom privy to family gossip. In another time and place they would have been locked in an attic.
"So what's new?" Asked Megaera, the Grudging.
"We hear such things constantly. All mortals are blasphemers at heart!" Declared Alecto, the Unceasing.
"We'll torment them all eventually," Tisiphone, the Avenging, chuckled, though mostly to herself.
Ares rolled his eyes and steadied himself with another deep breath.
"My own daughter suffers corruption at the hands of mortals who would debase her and deny her destiny." The God of War accused. "Her mortal parents seek to entrap her in a wasted future. They would make her little more than a servant of the indigent, while I would make her a conqueror."
"So why then not raise her yourself, in a temple or on Olympus?" Alecto asked, sounding remarkably sane. Then she ruined the effect with a spasm of giggling and a succession of curious postures. The final impression was that of a taunt.
"Though her abilities are enhanced by my blood, she is still mortal." Ares reasoned. "Olympus is no place for her, and the priests would surely botch her upbringing as badly as her parents. Her training will come from experiences best gained where she is."
"So what do you desire of us?" Tisiphone asked, bringing the conversation back very close to its start. Ares shook his head as if he were throwing off a vexatious dream. He was already losing patience with them.
"I want you to visit retribution on the mortal who is ruining Xena's chances for greatness." Ares told them. "I want you to remove her father, Atrius."
"Atrius," Megaera giggled, "an honorable warrior, you have called him in the past...a faithful follower, is he not?"
"The one you chose to raise your daughter," Alecto reminded him, picking at the scab.
"And the reason you decided on Cyrene to bear your child," Tisiphone finished for her, salting the wound.
How was it, Ares wondered, that these Eumenides remembered so accurately what he'd said? Their memory might become a problem, though he believed there was a solution.
"Ahhhh yes," Ares finally agreed with a sigh, "what was I thinking? We all have our lapses in judgment from time to time, don't we?"
Ares had begun to feel that he'd prefer the company of the Fates. These goddesses were crazy, and they paid no obeisance to protocol, taunting him rather than groveling. At least they looked sexy, in a lunatic kind of way, and they always seemed to be enjoying themselves. He allowed a few moments to pass while he seemed to contemplate his fingernails. Then he glared at them, perching forward on his throne and scowling.
"I want him gone, but I want him gone my way!"
The Furies actually looked like they were paying attention, finally.
"And what would the great God of War have us do?" Alecto asked, starting the conversation over again, and giggling as the selfsame God of War sat back on his throne with a groan.
Ares covered his eyes with one hand and spoke without looking at them. He was concise as he explained his requirements, holding up his other hand to silence them whenever they sought to interrupt. He gave them a theme, jealousy, to guide them, and he demanded a specific outcome. It was highly irregular, but when they tried to protest, he snarled at them, browbeat them, and finally intimidated them into compliance. They left in a huff, pouting between giggles, already gloating among themselves about the fun they'd have. When they were gone, Ares breathed a sigh of relief. Dealing with them was barely worth it. Someday, he promised himself, I will dance on your graves.
For several weeks afterwards, Ares watched Atrius closely. On the battlefield he seemed unchanged, and the God of War suspected that the Furies were disregarding him. The warrior was as deadly as ever. The god did notice, however, that the man seemed to be drinking a bit more heavily than in the past, sleeping a bit less comfortably, and displaying a more irritable disposition. It wasn't a dramatic difference, at least not at the start. Yet as the weeks passed, the man was becoming less well adjusted. Finally the campaign ended, the victorious army stood down, and the warriors went on furlough. Atrius was headed home.
The warrior rode through Macedonia with two comrades. He would join them on their way back to Therme, where they made their homes. From there he would continue on alone, through Chalcidice, finally turning north towards the Vale of the Stryma and Amphipolis. The ride was uneventful and Atrius seemed somewhat more relaxed. Ares watched his progress until he parted company with his fellow warriors and began his way south.
Two days later, Atrius rode into an obscure little farming village called Potidaea, and proceeded to get drunk. During his candlemarks of drinking, the locals proved to be provincial, boorish, and vexingly nosy. One persistent hero-worshipping young farmer in particular rubbed him the wrong way, begging him unmercifully for tales of battle.
"Do I look like a bard to you?" Atrius asked, drunk and nearing the end of his patience.
"Awww, come on, jes one story," the inebriated farmer asked for the dozenth time.
By now Atrius had given up. There was no peace to be had at the bar. He actually left the tavern to stable his horse and claim his room at the inn. With alcohol-induced bad judgement, the farmer followed along after him and continued annoying the warrior, as Ares snickered, watching from the cover of the shadows.
Finally Atrius'd had enough. The farmer had grabbed his tunic, tugging at his sleeve to get his attention. The warrior reacted, slamming an elbow into the persistent yokel's gut, and driving his palm into his chin. The farmer flew through the air, landing on his back in the watering trough. The only benefit of the exchange was the rapid sobering of both parties, Atrius due to adrenaline surge, Herodotus due to the cold bath.
The warrior shook his head, mounted his horse, and rode down the street to the inn. Herodotus clambered out of the watering trough, nursing a newborn hatred of warriors that would remain with him, festering until the day he died. Begotten of embarrassment and wounded pride, his distaste would one day become a factor in the lives of both men's daughters.
In truth, Atrius had never harbored a disdain of farmers, even though most of his homeland was given to sheep herding. He had always been a warrior and his wife's family had run an inn for three generations. So, though he'd never felt any strong antipathy towards those who tilled the land, he was surprised at the intense mixture of disgust he felt for the young clod and guilt over losing his temper after drinking so much. None of it was characteristic behavior for him, nor had he ever been aware of the faint giggling that filled his ears in the all too silent night.
Eventually he drifted off. Atrius' sleep, for the first time in many years, was plagued by nightmares of battle, bloodshed, suffering, and death. The faces of his enemies metamorphosed into the faces of his friends, and the faces of those he slew transformed again and again into the face of the young farmer. He never awakened from these nightmares. Rather, he suffered through them until dawn finally woke him. By the morning, he seemed to have become a silent and dour version of himself. Night after night, the nightmares persisted, encouraging the regular consumption of spirits. Often, he was unsteady in the saddle by day, wobbling on his own feet by nightfall, and in this frame of mind he made his way home.
Atrius' arrival in Amphipolis brought him no peace. In the past, returning to his family had been a long awaited source of joy. Somehow he found no joy in his home or his family now. His depression left him irritable and the irritation was only bearably after drinking. Of course the inn was well stocked, and so it wasn't difficult for Atrius to maintain a moderate level of intoxication. Predictably, Cyrene, now heavy with child, was horrified by the changes in her husband. At first she tried to talk to him, but after several weeks of being rebuffed, her tactics degenerated into nagging.
It was after a prolonged and bitter argument that Atrius backhanded Cyrene for the first time in over ten years of marriage. The blow threw her back against a bench in the common room, and she barely managed to keep from falling on the floor. For silent heartbeats they both stared at each other, neither believing what had happened. When the passage of time finally resumed, Cyrene buried her face in her hands and began crying, for her world was disintegrating. Her beloved husband had fallen into alcoholism and brutality, reminding her of all the tales of evil warlords that the bards told for her patrons' entertainment in the evenings. The strong and honorable man she knew had never come home from war, while the man who had taken his face was a stranger. Her nightmares had been of his death; she wondered if the future wasn't bound to be worse.
Atrius, shocked and horrified at what he had done, began shaking, the giggling he often heard these days growing louder in his ears. He could feel the stinging in his hand from the blow, but he couldn't remember making the decision to strike. It had simply happened, as if he'd been out of control, just like when he'd hit the farmer in Potidaea. This was possession or mania, the loss of control that all warriors detested. He knew he had been touched by some evil, for he barely recognized himself anymore. Whether something on the battlefield had made him snap, or whether he was simply losing his mind, he couldn't tell. He had never been more confused. All his life, even when the situation had been terrifying or the obstacles had seemed insurmountable, he had known clearly why he was doing his part. He had fought fear, anger, and hysteria more vigilantly than he had any corporeal enemy. Now he had no idea why he was feeling or doing things that were completely foreign to him.
One thing he knew though, he couldn't allow himself to be a danger to his family. Despite all the changes that had infected him, he still valued his family above his own life...it was the most basic reason for which he'd become a warrior. During all his years as a warrior he'd been a worshipper of Ares, the God of War and patron of soldiers. Though he had been too pragmatic a man to spend much time in prayer begging favors, he felt the inspiration seize him now. From somewhere a line of reasoning came into his mind, that he might find his answers at the Temple of Ares. So, rather than kneeling to beg forgiveness and help his wife, rather than seeking her understanding, rather than even offering an apology, he turned instead and staggered out the door.
For what seemed an eternity, Atrius lurched through town, parading his decrepitude before the good people of Amphipolis. But finally he found his way to the temple. He staggered into the building and knelt before the altar. Having brought no sacrifice, he drew his dagger and slit his palm, dribbling his blood onto the brazier and feeling the heat of the coals scorching his skin. He could smell the hairs on his hand and wrist burning before he deemed the sacrifice sufficient. Then he prayed.
For several candlemarks he knelt motionless on the limestone floor, barely breathing. Atrius was barely aware of the paving stones beneath his knees. He found his mind filled at first with the scenes of battle that had first plagued his dreams that night at the inn in Potidaea. But now the face of the young farmer was sometimes replaced by the face of his wife, and sometimes by the face of a young woman who, though she seemed familiar, he knew he had never met in life. Such a tall, raven-haired beauty he would have remembered, but he saw himself slay her over and over again. Towards the end of his vision, Atrius saw an image of the God of War, but rather than blessing him before battle, the god smirked at him and walked into his wife's inn. He heard the god's laughter follow him as he rode out of town.
Finally the alcohol wore off, his burned hand became a torment, and he had found no satisfying answers. If anything, he was more confused and disturbed after the visions than before he'd arrived. Slowly he got to his feet with both his heart and body heavy with too many feelings. Yet, for all the torment he'd been subjected to, he left feeling that his answers might still be found at the temple someday. All the way home he heard that damned giggling. If anything it had grown louder.
After the incident that afternoon, Cyrene became wary of her husband. The children sensed something wrong with their father and they too maintained a distance whenever possible. When Atrius went to the stable the cats fled from him, and even his horse shied away. The effect of these rejections first brought Atrius sorrow, but as the days passed, this sorrow changed to resentment. His resentment fed the cycle of confusion and anger, depression and alcohol, argument and abuse.
Soon a week had passed at the inn under a cloud of potential violence. The next week Cyrene stopped joining her husband in bed, fearing for her safety and the safety of her children. She took to sleeping with Xena and Toris, in a room with the door barred. After several more days, mostly alone and drunk, Atrius returned to the temple. He had just thrown Cyrene into a wall and screamed at his son, while his daughter clung to his leg trying to keep him from hurting her mother. He had barely stopped himself from turning on her, though she was only just nearing her third birthday. Then he had fled.
The giggling in his ears was constant now, day and night. He was plagued with nightmares, and no matter how much he drank, he couldn't keep them away. The visions he saw at the temple that evening revealed to him that he had been supplanted in his wife's heart by his children, particularly his young daughter. They, rather than he, were the focus of his wife's love and attention. He was furious and the seeds of jealousy took root in his heart. He left the temple resenting his daughter and his wife's preoccupation with the children, the inn, and the life they led when he was away. He had come to believe that they had cut him out of the family he had fought to support. But deep within him a new suspicion had been planted. It was not something for which he had any proof of course, but still, the feeling was there. He had come to doubt Cyrene's fidelity.
This suspicion grew, over the next week, until he found himself searching constantly for the slightest shred of evidence to support it. Although he never found even the least bit of gossip in the village, still he became convinced of his wife's harlotry. Then he took the next step. He began to suspect his paternity of their children, and Cyrene's attempts to segregate them from him became damning proof in his eyes. This impression was only reinforced when the children shied away from him in fear. So, as the second month after Atrius' homecoming drew to a close, the God of War reveled in the degeneration of the warrior's domestic bliss, and he perceived that the time had come for his daughter to be freed of her father's bad influence.
The day of Xena's third birthday came and went. The celebration was stilted by the pall of tension that hung over the family. Cyrene and Toris tried to make her happy, but she was upset from the time she scrambled downstairs in the early morning light.
The first thing she saw was her daddy slumped over a table, with several empty mugs around him. He had drunk to the point of unconsciousness the night before and had passed out in the spillage. Only thus could he silence the constant giggles in his head and hold the nightmares at bay. He was snoring loudly, his throat thick with phlegm. Sometime during the night he had risen briefly and staggered a few paces, to relieve himself on the side of the bar. The stinking puddle had partially soaked into the floorboards.
Xena approached him warily, but he didn't move. In the past she had never been able to sneak up on him. Atrius' finely honed warrior's senses had always alerted him to her approach. At those times he would feign sleep until she was close, rising suddenly to grasp her and lift her, squealing and laughing, overhead. These happy memories still played in her mind, though they were becoming overlain with images of his raging face, loud angry voice, and violent outbursts.
Now she approached in a tense silence, half expecting him to seize her and lift her almost to the ceiling, laughing as he gave her an eagle's ride. But instead he didn't move. He just continued snoring. Even from a distance, she could smell the alcohol on him. On tiptoes, Xena tried to look about the table. There were a lot of mugs and a dagger stuck into the tabletop. It was one of his two daggers with the lion's head at the butt cap, and the crossed swords worked into the crossguard. Then, being of a height that allowed her to more easily see under the table rather than over it, she never realized that Atrius had carved her name into the tabletop before slamming his blade into the X.
What she did see was Atrius' trousers hanging open, and the thick meaty shaft projecting up through the cloth from his body. He'd been too drunk to put it away after his last trip to the bar. Something about it made her skin crawl...it was about the size of her lower arm, and it bobbed when he breathed. A visceral fear petrified her as she stared at it, rooted to the floor as she felt ice creeping up her spine. Then, when her fear had grown apace, she saw it jerk, and suddenly a stream of morning urine spewed from the tip, jetting up to splash the underside of the table. Atrius groaned in his sleep, and Xena, only understanding that what she'd seen was very wrong, fled, crying, back upstairs to her room. Atrius remained completely unaware of everything.
The sound of her panicked flight, half-scrabbling, half-crawling up the stairs, the subsequent slamming of the bedroom door and her tears awoke Cyrene. Shortly later, after getting nothing intelligible from her daughter, she threw on a robe and went downstairs. She was aghast at what she found, horrified that her daughter had seen it, and enraged at her husband for his conduct. All the doings of the last two months welled up, and though she was not a big woman, somehow Cyrene found the strength to hoist Atrius onto her shoulder and drag him out to the stables. She left him lying in a pile of straw, and he never once moved. She did this, in spite of the fact that her baby was due in less than a month. Then she returned, and though her stomach was threatening to heave, her anger sustained her as she stooped to begin cleaning up the mess.
When Cyrene saw the dagger stuck into the tabletop through the carving of her daughter's name, it chilled her heart. She wasn't sure what to make of it. So far Xena's youth had spared her from Atrius' worst outbursts. That and the fact he had always been very fond and protective of her. Still, since his return, her husband had not been himself. Now, Cyrene really didn't know what to think. Xena had been a child of their love, she believed, conceived on a single blessed night when her husband had surprised her by coming home unexpectedly from war. She had thought his unit had left Thrace by then, for they had ridden away a week before. Still, the night had been filled with passion, and she held the memory dear.
She tried to make the day special for her daughter, but the morning's trauma had laid a dismal sadness over the girl that lingered through the afternoon. By suppertime she still hadn't recovered her vivaciousness, and she sat merely picking at her birthday dinner. Cyrene noted that Xena's eyes often strayed to her father's empty chair.
Atrius had awakened to a stupefying hangover. At first he scarcely recognized the inside of his own stables. As the sun sank through the afternoon sky, it was all he could do to withstand the throbbing in his head and the queasiness in his stomach. The idea that this day was his daughter's birthday never crossed his mind. So impaired was he now that he had long ago lost track of the days entirely. Of the evening before, he had little memory beyond midnight. Of the morning, he had no memory at all. He was aware that the giggling in his head had returned to torment him. In truth, it seemed louder than ever before. As the afternoon passed, the giggles were joined by a thread of whispers that urged him to the temple of the God of War. Finally, as the Helios was kissing the breast of Gaia, he staggered up and with wobbling steps, made his way to the temple of his god.
When he arrived at the altar, Atrius was surprised to find his dagger missing. Now unable to shed his blood in sacrifice, he was at something of a loss. He stared around the temple chamber in a stupor, and finally his eyes lit on a ceremonial blade, used for slitting the throats of sacrificial animals. He rose from his knees and approached the altar. As he reached out to lay a hand on the sacred blade, he saw a movement. By reflex he jerked away, turning to face the figure of a scantily clad woman standing by his side. She had a look of madness in her eyes that unnerved him, for she should never have been able to approach so closely, unobserved.
Atrius didn't notice that the giggling and whispering voices in his head had been reduced from three to two. He was held captive by the woman's smile and staring eyes. The smile held an edge of cruelty, and her dark eyes appraised him from below an unruly mop of chestnut hair. Somehow, she was attractive without really being beautiful. Then she addressed him, shocking him further with her knowledge his name.
"How the mighty have fallen, oh Atrius, once warrior of Ares, brought low by the deceits of a trusted beloved," Tisiphone said. Her voice was strangely familiar, and her words were punctuated with laughter.
"Who are you," Atrius managed to ask, "and how is it that you know my name?"
"I am Tisiphone, the avenging sister of the Eumenides. All know of your torment, Atrius. All know how you have been betrayed."
"But I came here in supplication to Ares. This is his temple, and he is my patron god."
"Atrius, you bring no sacrifice, and until you amend the wrong done against you, Ares, the God of War, finds your presence in his temple a blaspheme. He will not speak to you, cuckold."
"But, but...then it's true? Cyrene has been unfaithful?"
"Not seven days had passed since you had ridden to war, when she lay with another, conceiving in her sluttery, and producing a daughter for you to raise as your own."
The words forced Atrius to his knees. Their truth he had no resources to aver. What he had come to suspect was confirmed by the Fury who stood over him, laughing at his dishonor. Worse yet, his god had abandoned him for failing to keep the order of his own household. And yet...
He had loved Xena since the first day he saw her, when, after returning from battle, his proud wife had shown him the babe. Already she was several months old, conceived on his last furlough, judging by the date of her birth. She had looked up at him with his own piercing blue eyes, and she had smiled at him, melting his heart. Since that day he had rejoiced in her, astonished by her growth each time he came home, and charmed by her antics. He could sense the fire and intelligence in her soul, and he had felt that she could have a special destiny. Cruel was his fate that denied him paternity of this outstanding child. Crueler still were the circumstances that had brought them into opposition. It was claimed that fate was blind, and yet he felt as if the craftiest of enemies had unerringly struck him where he was most vulnerable, wresting from him his most valued treasures.
Atrius was miserable, but in what heart he still possessed, he was a warrior. He would somehow make amends to his god, and then he would set about recovering his life. Being a mortal, this was his lot. It was inescapable. Like so many tragic heroes, he was trapped in a web of events beyond his control, but unlike many of them, for him there could be a way out. The Erinye had said he had to amend the wrong that was done against him. There was hope yet, though it was bitter.
"Warrior," the Fury commanded, startling him to attentiveness, "bring the misbegotten fruit of your beloved's union to the temple as a sacrifice, and you shall regain the grace of your god. He will see your strength, your resolve, and your devotion to him."
"Is there no other way?" Atrius asked the laughing Fury.
"Go home, Atrius," Tisiphone instructed, "slay this bastard daughter and regain your honor. Spill her blood on the land where the betrayal occurred, then bring her lifeless body here."
Atrius looked into the eyes of the avenging spirit of the Eumenides, and saw that there was no alternative. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. It broke his heart to contemplate taking Xena's life, but he could not live when his god dispised him. Things would only get worse and he might not be offered another chance. He now understood that his life could only be repaired by performing the appeasement his god demanded. When he looked back up, Tisiphone was gone. At last, with a heavy heart, the father went home to slaughter the daughter he loved.
Around him the world was quiet. It was as if nature held its breath on that night, and indeed Ares watched in breathless anticipation as the warrior made his way home. He watched as Atrius opened the door to the silent inn. He watched as Atrius searched for his daughter.
The warrior made his way through the deserted common room and went to the kitchen. His heart bled for the deed that was demanded of him, but the whispers in his head urged him on more forcefully than ever. In hopes of silencing them and calming his own shaking hands, he drew a mug of ale and quickly gulped it down. He filled it again, and drank the second mug just as fast. After the third, he felt resigned. He heard a noise behind him and turned to see his wife standing in the doorway.
"Atrius, where have you been all day? Today was Xena's birthday, you know." Cyrene said. Then she noticed the mug in his hand. "What's the matter with you? Why are you always drinking? Do you realize where you were this morning? You were passed out at the table out there, and that's how Xena found you...you scared her, Atrius. She's been sad all day because of you. She misses her father."
"Xena..." Atrius muttered, more to himself than to Cyrene, "where is she?"
"Where do you think she is?" Cyrene spat at him. "It's way past midnight. She's asleep."
"I have to take her, woman...the gods demand it. Go, bring her down here."
"Atrius, what are you talking about?" Cyrene was confused, but a chill of foreboding swept through her.
"She's not my daughter."
"What are you saying?" Cyrene asked in shock. "Of course she's your daughter, she's our daughter, our little one."
"She's the product of your harlotry, you slut!" Atrius screamed. "She has to be sacrificed to regain my honor!"
"Nooooo...." Cyrene wailed. She was too horrified by the accusation to think. She had been faithful all the years her husband had spent away. Everyone in the village knew that her virtue was unmarred. The words he had so vehemently spoken cut her like a bronze headed shaft, coming unseen from the bow and piercing her heart.
"She must be bled and her body lain on the Altar of War." Atrius told her.
Then he turned away from her, taking a knife from the kitchen to replace his missing dagger. He checked the edge. Not sharp enough, Atrius thought. The cut need not be painful. I shall make sure it is sharper than the sword of Hephaestus and she'll feel almost nothing. He still loved Xena enough that he wished to spare her a painful death. After all, her parentage was not her fault.
Cyrene was petrified. She watched her husband testing the knife's edge and finding it wanting. Gods, she thought, he's serious...and he's crazy. She was rooted in horror.
"I'll make the cut quickly, woman," Atrius assured her without turning, "she'll feel almost nothing. Bring her down asleep. She shouldn't have to suffer."
Cyrene watched him as he went to the kitchen door and stepped out into the night. He was going to the stables, to the whetstone, to sharpen the blade. For a while she couldn't move, but finally her terror roused her, and panic drove her to follow him. She could hear the rasping of the steel on the stone as Atrius honed the edge fine. In the light of an oil lamp she could see him bent over the bench, his arm making the sure motions of sharpening. He was obviously crazy, but he was so methodical. She approached him, her fear and the weight of the unborn child within her making her stagger.
"Please..." she begged, "she's just a little girl."
"Shut up, woman!" Atrius yelled, turning towards her, "if you don't bring her down here by the time I finish with this knife I'll kill you too, you back stabbing whore."
The look in his eyes was one of pure hatred and madness. It took Cyrene's breath away even more than the curse. She feared for her life, but her maternal instincts were already primed by her pregnancy and she feared for her daughter even more. She had to try to change his mind, but she was terrified and she couldn't stop her tears. It was a nightmare; she was so frightened she could barely think. Again she tried pleading with him.
"Atrius, I didn't...I've been faithful...please don't hurt our daughter, please." As she spoke, Cyrene put her hand gently on his sleeve, trying to stop the motion of his arm as it drew the blade across the stone. It was the same place that the farmer in Potidaea had grabbed him.
Atrius whirled at the touch. The harlot was lying to him again. After prostituting herself and bearing a daughter of cursed blood, now she had the audacity to lie to him. She would go against him; he'd expected it from such a snake, but she was also defying the gods. He couldn't believe it. She was trying to make him disobey a direct command from a Fury.
"You would have me defy the gods, you bitch?" He screamed as he shoved her aside.
Cyrene lost her footing, landing against the chopping block. The edge of the heavy stump rammed into the middle of her back, knocking the wind out of her. For a moment she couldn't believe what he'd done, and then she felt the pain exploding along her spine. It took her breath away, making her gasp, and she saw him turn back to sharpening the knife. And now she truly feared for her life. She feared for the life within her and the life of her daughter. There was no question in her mind that he would carry out his threats. The three of them would surely die.
"Oh please, gods, help me," she begged in a terrified whisper, "please."
And a god heard her plea. He stood invisible not ten feet away, watching as his plan came to fruition. Helping Cyrene had always been a part of that plan, for otherwise his ends would not be achieved. He needed Cyrene, and in the years ahead she would have a part to play in the creation of his warrior princess. Her suffering now was just as necessary, sharpening her fear of the darkness within the soul, and leaving a legacy of guilt. When the time came, she would react with sorrow, anger, and rejection, just as he required. Ares would help her now; she would help him later. The help of a god always carried a price.
Now he strengthened her, in mind, and body, and spirit. His will focused her mind on the necessity of action. His strength became her strength as she silently raised herself to her feet, suppressing the pain in her back. His spirit became her spirit, as she wrenched the axe from the chopping block behind her and staggered forward two steps to get into swinging range. Cyrene intended to swing the flat side of the axe head into his back to incapacitate him, but it didn't happen that way.
Atrius heard her behind him and he turned just as she began her swing. The surprise on his face turned into a howl of rage and hatred, as he perceived her treachery. The blade of the axe buried itself to the shaft in his chest. With god given strength, Cyrene jerked the weapon out of her husband's body and swung it again, and the bright blood, spraying from the lung wound and his mutilated heart fountained over her, bathing her in its warmth.
Cyrene couldn't believe what she had done. Later, when she thought about it, she was amazed that she didn't pass out from the horror or the pain in her back. She was amazed that she hadn't lost her unborn child, but the God of War also required this son as a sacrifice. She was no less amazed that she had somehow found the strength to drag Atrius' body out of the barn and into the yard, where she buried him in a shallow grave. She even managed to slosh away most of his spilt blood, with bucket after bucket of water, before cleaning herself and staggering back into the inn. The strength she had been given didn't leave her until she finally fell into her bed and slipped into an uneasy sleep.
The God of War couldn't help but rejoice. His plan had worked flawlessly and there was but one small part remaining to finalize his victory. For this he prepared the libation carefully. The sweetest wine, a vintage recommended by Bacchus himself, combined with ambrosia, the food of the gods, and a splash of water from the River Lethe, in the realm of Hades. Ares had planned a little celebration for his assistants and the wine was central to his purpose. No god could resist the ambrosia when dissolved in sweet wine, and the waters of the Lethe would bring forgetfulness.
When the Furies joined him, answering his summons to the Halls of War, they predictably emptied the amphora he provided. Rolling around with the three of them afterwards was a bonus Ares could have taken or left. At least when they were blind drunk, they giggled less and acted less like idiots. The avenging spirits were actually much more pleasant company while inebriated...more pleasant still when unconscious.
In the morning when Cyrene awoke, drowning in guilt and horror, the Erinyes awoke wondering why they were sprawled naked across Ares' bed. The night before was a blank, no surprise when they discerned how much they had consumed. The fact that the past few months were also a blank wasn't even questioned. Being immortals, and being half-crazed, the passage of time wasn't the same to them as it was to mortals. Beyond a certain point, they remembered events rather than days. They had completely lost their memories of the events surrounding Atrius and existence of Ares' plot.
☼ Fifty-Seven Years Later ☼
Gabrielle was a deep sleeper, but even she couldn't ignore the restless shifting and muttering coming from her soulmate. Xena was enmeshed in some sort of disturbing dream, and her thrashing was making sleep impossible for the bard. At first, Gabrielle suspected her friend was engaging in a belated birthday prank, unsprung a few days before. She still remembered that revolting "eel thingie", squirming over her feet under her blanket. The bard drowsily raised herself on an elbow, preparing to chastise her tall friend, but she stopped when Xena uttered a name in her sleep. The shock of hearing it wakened the blonde more fully and she focused, trying to hear the other words the warrior was muttering. The raven-haired warrior didn't usually talk in her sleep and her nightmares had abated during their years together. Gabrielle's frustration grew because the rest was spoken too softly for her to hear. She was still staring at Xena with growing curiosity, when the warrior jerked upright, launched from her dream by some event that Gabrielle could only try to imagine.
"Hey," Gabrielle asked, resting her hand on Xena's forearm and gently shaking her, "are you ok? That looked like some dream you were having."
Xena seemed to relax at her friend's touch, exhaling deeply as she turned to face her. For a moment she regarded the bard with ice blue eyes.
"Yeah," the Warrior Princess confirmed, slowly nodding her agreement, "strange as anything I've ever dreamed."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked, with a familiar expression of concern.
For long moments, Xena thought over what she'd seen, trying to put the dream into concise words that would convey not only the images, but also the feelings. It was something she'd been getting better at, but self-expression still wasn't her greatest skill. Like many dreams, it resisted rational description. The delay caused the bard to suspect she wouldn't get an answer at all; perhaps it was too personal, perhaps she was prying. She was just about to capitulate and withdraw her question when Xena spoke.
"Well, it seemed very real. Almost too real. It was something I know could never've happened. Something I haven't thought about in a long time."
It wasn't much real information, but it was a start, Gabrielle thought.
"Xena, sometimes dreams grow from the sources of our deepest feelings, things that have lain hidden inside us for years. I know how deeply memories can be buried, it's something I learned at the Temple of Mnemosyne..."
"I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena responded, then continued thoughtfully after a pause, "it's something I thought I'd come to grips with long ago."
That statement still wasn't particularly informative either. As usual, Gabrielle suspected that her soulmate might be feeling guilty over some ancient wrong. On top of that, her curiosity had been inflamed by the name she had heard Xena utter. So she decided to take a chance, in hopes of coaxing more details from the warrior. Often, talking had helped Xena resolve a lurking issue, but just as often, she needed to be prodded to approach a topic at all. If the subject was important enough to disturb her sleep, then it was probably important enough to warrant attention before it festered into brooding. The bard proceeded.
"Xena, you mentioned a name..."
"Huh?" Xena glanced at her quickly, then looked away. She was a bit unsettled that she'd been talking in her sleep at all, and more so that Gabrielle had heard her. "What'd I say?"
"Well, you were muttering a lot, but I only heard one word clearly. It was the name of your father, Atrius. It wasn't long after that when you awoke and sat up."
"Oh, well, he was in the dream. I was talkin' with him...strange thing is, I was alot older than I was when he was killed."
"That is kind of strange, Xena, but it makes sense if you were wishing he'd been alive while you were growing up. That's natural enough."
For a few more moments the warrior sat in silent self-analysis, her dark hair shrouding her face in the ruddy light from the embers of their campfire. Had anyone else broached the topic, they would have received a threatening scowl. Since it was Gabrielle, Xena gave the statement serious consideration. Even with her soulmate, it was a sensitive subject.
"For years I missed him, Gabrielle. I really wished I coulda met him again. Ya know, ask him why he left us. Then there was that business with the Furies, remember? When I found out mother'd been forced to kill him? I guess the whole question just kinda lost its meaning after that."
Gabrielle remembered the torment Xena had endured at the hands of the Erinyes. It had turned out to be another of Ares' plots to reclaim the warrior's soul. The God of War had convinced the Furies to visit persecution and madness on her soulmate, for the crime of not avenging her father's murder. To regain her sanity, Xena would have had to avenge his death by killing her mother. But that vengeance would have damned her to further torment for the murder of her other parent. It had been a no win situation. As usual, Xena had escaped the trap brilliantly, accusing Ares himself of being her real father, and then beating him in combat to prove her divine heritage. It was a claim that Gabrielle secretly believed to be true. Though it was never confirmed, it was the best explanation for some of the warrior's almost superhuman abilities. Reticent as always, Xena herself had never discussed or elaborated on her own beliefs. And she had never again mentioned Atrius.
"Well, it does seem kind of odd after all the time that's passed since then," the bard mused, "but maybe you still aren't satisfied with how things ended."
"Ha!" Xena laughed sarcastically, revealing a trace of bitterness. "How ungrateful of me, huh? A warrior dissatisfied with havin' the God of War for a father."
"Xena, it would be understandable to me. Especially after all the things he's put you through. Just the idea that you had a god for a parent would be unsettling enough for anybody. Knowing you'd been led astray by him would be even worse. It would be pretty hard for anyone to accept, and you've never liked having gods meddle in your life."
"You're right about all that. Thing I can't understand is why I'm dreamin' about this now."
"Can you tell me anything more about what you dreamed, what actually happened?"
"Sure. Cortese came to sack Amphipolis and my father led the defense. I hid in the root cellar with mother and Lyceus. He and Toris returned safely after their victory. I never lifted a sword."
"You mean, you weren't a warrior?" The blonde asked in shock.
"Nawwww, I was a barmaid."
Xena's terse recitation of the vision of an alternate timeline chilled Gabrielle. It reminded her of the world created by Caesar that she had destroyed by burning the Loom of the Fates. But the reality that Xena's dream described seemed more desirable than what had actually happened in her life. And yet it implied that the Warrior Princess had never been. The expected corollary was that she and Xena would never have met. Just what was it about alternate timelines, Gabrielle bitterly wondered, that consistently doomed their relationship? She shivered. It had been many years after Cortese's attack that she and Xena had met. Perhaps she was simply being self-involved and fatalistic. The dream didn't really preclude their meeting. In fact, from what she'd been told about the affair she'd called, "Remember Nothing", they had met in an altered timeline in which the Warrior Princess had never been, though even there, Xena hadn't been able to refrain from becoming a warrior in the end. Finally Gabrielle focused back on the dream. She was curious about Xena's father; about what she'd dreamed he'd be like.
"What was he like, Xena? The Atrius in your dream, I mean."
"I felt he was an honorable warrior, a good man. Gabrielle, I don't really remember him...I was too young when he died. In the dream he'd come home to stay, but he'd trained a militia and they defended us."
"He doesn't sound like the man your mother described."
"No, he wasn't anything like the man she said wanted to sacrifice me to Ares. Gabrielle, I'd just chalk this up to wishful thinkin', but it felt so real. It didn't feel like a dream at all."
"Well, you were definitely asleep," Gabrielle reminded her, trying to lighten the mood, "or at least you woke up."
"Yeah, I guess." Xena agreed. Then she seemed to dismiss the whole thing. "There's a few more candlemarks of darkness left, Gabrielle. Let's get some sleep."
Xena lay back down, staring into the embers of their fire, and Gabrielle joined her, snuggling close and wrapping an arm around her waist, while burrowing under the blankets. The bard was soon asleep, softly snoring, but Xena just couldn't drift off. She lay quietly as the stars silently followed their course overhead, her eyes reflecting the glow of the coals, while her mind wandered, many miles and many years away. The warrior traveled back in her memory, always seeking for something earlier. Before her earliest image, her oldest conversation, her first remembered incident; she found only impressions and feelings. What she discovered was laughter, the comfort of safety, and a remembrance of flying.
When the dawn opened and the sky paled before the coming day, Xena gently rose as well. She carefully left Gabrielle undisturbed and walked to the stream nearby to wash up, before returning to reheat some leftovers and make tea. When the water was hot, she steeped some herbs in a mug, enjoying the warmth as it penetrated her hands. She sat back down on the bedroll, enjoying the stillness of the early morning, while letting her soulmate continue to snooze. After a while the warrior shook herself, rousing the bard slightly, and realizing that the most disturbing thing about her dream was how preoccupied she had become with it. She filed it away for future contemplation and set about waking Gabrielle.
Sooner or later they would have to be on their way, south from Thebes, where they had delivered Hermes' helmet, to cross the isthmus, passing Corinth. They would traverse the Peloponnese and Arcadia, finally arriving in Olympia for the Panhellenic games. It had only been held once in all the years they had traveled together, at least during the years they'd been conscious, and the last time, Xena had only recently been reformed. There had been no question of the kind of welcome she would have received. She'd probably never have left Olympia alive. Much had changed in the thirty-two years since then.
Breaking from her musings, Xena reached out and gently peeled back the blanket, revealing Gabrielle's head. She leaned over and softly kissed the bard's hair while whispering her name. As usual, Gabrielle shifted in annoyance and tried to roll over. A mischievous grin spread across Xena's face. She reached behind herself and dipped a finger into the leftover stew she had set to warm by the fire and she painted the gravy on Gabrielle's lips. She watched her partner's nose wrinkle, then saw her tongue dart out, followed by a more vigorous lip smacking. Finally the blonde's eyes flickered open.
"Was that the start of breakfast in bed?" Gabrielle joked sleepily. "How romantic."
"I realized that hot food would wake you inna better mood than cold water." Xena deadpanned.
"Don't you dare, Xena. Besides we'd be stuck here all morning waiting for the blankets to dry." Gabrielle reasoned, while stifling a yawn.
"Wouldn't want that, now would we." Xena answered, grinning. "Well, since you're up we may as well eat."
"Since I'm up now..." Gabrielle observed acidly.
Later, after packing up their campsite, they headed back onto the road. The day was becoming comfortably warm and they let the horses walk at a leisurely pace. The land was wooded, with gently rolling hills. The road curved around the rises seeking the midground, away from the bottomlands, which sometimes flooded, and the highlands, which were sometimes whipped by wind and lightning during storms. Through the first half of the morning they passed a few other travelers headed in both directions, greeting them with a wave or a nod. Soon these were lost to sight and hearing among the trees. As the morning wore on though, the traffic dwindled down to nothing. Eventually, a candlemark passed without their seeing another soul. Other than the songs of birds and the occasional whisper of running water in the distance, the woods were silent.
Xena judged noon by the height of the sun when they came to a small clearing. Above them the sky was revealed in the rare space free of branches, and they decided to stop for a meal. The clearing held the first grass they'd seen all day and they let the horses graze free. After Xena certified the safety of the area, Gabrielle picked up two of the water skins and headed downhill towards the faint sounds of running water. It turned out to be further away than she'd expected, not just down the hill, but around the base of the hill and into a ravine that branched off of the bottomland. She found a spot where a leaning willow shaded a large flat boulder. It projected out from the bank, forcing the water to flow swiftly around it. The fast-running water had cut a small pool below the stone, and from it Gabrielle filled the skins with clear, cool, running water.
For a while she watched a school of minnows flitting back and forth in the pool, and even spied a crawfish walking cautiously on the bottom. A few dozen of them could have made a meal, she thought. Above her, in the willow branches, a woodpecker's staccato chiseling broke the stillness as it excavated a dead snag for bugs. Gabrielle decided she could take a few moments to enjoy her peaceful surroundings before heading back, so she slipped off her boots and dipped her feet into the cool water. The feeling of refreshment was almost instantaneous, making her smile as she swished her feet in the current. The minnows darted away, to lurk under the overhang of the opposite bank. She couldn't resist splashing with her feet, just to see them scatter.
Before long, Gabrielle drew her legs back onto the stone, squeegeed off the water with her hand, and swung her feet off the other side of the rock, waving them back and forth to dry them off. She soon had her boots laced on, and picked up the water skins, preparing to head back. Above her, the woodpecker had fallen silent. Some distance away, she thought she heard a branch snap. Maybe Xena had come looking for her, wondering at her delay. She realized she must have been gone longer than anticipated, and so she hastened down the ravine towards the bottom of the hill.
It didn't take her long to retrace her steps. When she reached the mouth of the ravine she heard sounds in the distance, filtering downhill from the direction she'd originally come. It was the unmistakable sound of steel clashing against steel. From above her, the sound of Xena's battle cry rang through the woods. Gabrielle dropped the skins, and took off running towards their campsite. She sprinted around an outcropping at the base of the hill and nearly slammed into half a dozen armed men. They were as surprised to see her as she was to see them. Then they realized they outnumbered her six to one, and they already had their weapons drawn.
Gabrielle skidded to a halt. These men, she realized, were probably heading around the hill to approach the battle from the rear. She didn't know how many were fighting with Xena already, but she knew the odds would become worse if they joined up. On the other hand, she would have preferred facing a dozen of them with Xena, rather than face a half-dozen each, alone. Unfortunately, she didn't have a choice.
She quickly reached down and pulled the sais from her boots. The men were already forming a circle around her, moving cautiously and without hurry. They spent no time boasting or threatening. They were more dangerous than the average highwaymen, she realized; these men displayed discipline and experience.
They attacked in pairs, from opposite sides, relieving each other frequently. The bard realized that their tactics would quickly wear her down. They were planning to kill her with the minimum risk of injury to themselves. Now she was worried; they had never made the typical mistake of underestimating her. She was honestly getting frightened. At the same time, she was beginning to feel the muscles in her arms burning and the spring leaving her legs. She'd only gotten in a couple of glancing blows, which amounted to nothing. The only thing she could do was grit her teeth and ignore her fatigue. Uphill, the sounds of Xena's battle continued. If they could maintain an engagement against her this long, they had to be very good.
To the blonde, it felt like they'd been fighting for a very long time. Try as she might, she felt her fatigue and sensed that her luck was running out. Almost as she thought it, her left foot slipped on the leafmould and she went down on one knee. They didn't leap on her at once, as she had expected. Instead, the attacker nearest to her slashed her right upper arm and withdrew, being replaced by the next pair. The pain of the cut shocked Gabrielle to her feet, a grimace on her face, as her blood started to flow. It was a moderately deep wound that would weaken her and require stitches. The situation was becoming desperate...Gabrielle knew it and her attackers knew it. Now she saw her enemies changing their tactics, increasing the pressure on her by moving to attack in threes.
Suddenly, the air rang with a battle cry, almost familiar. A figure had launched itself from the outcropping, somersaulting as it hurtled through the air, and landing outside the circle of attackers. A quickly drawn sword slipped under the ribs of the nearest enemy, and the body was flung off the blade as the warrior spun to face the second. As that man moved to engage the newcomer, Gabrielle took advantage of the diversion and rolled out from the midst of her assailants, slamming a sai into the shin of the closest one as she passed.
As Gabrielle regained her feet, the unknown fighter flipped over the man facing him and slashed him across the neck while still in the air. He landed feet first on the third man who had been waiting to attack, driving him to the ground. In a flash, he spun his sword on his palm, reversing the grip and impaling the prone opponent. The movement was so like one of Xena's that for a moment Gabrielle stood frozen in disbelief.
The remaining three attackers were distracted, turning to face the warrior who had killed three of their number in only seconds. The bard slammed the closest in the back of the head with the butt of a sai, sending him to the ground. The last two turned to flee. One got five paces away before a thrown dagger pitched him onto his face. The last managed to get eight paces away before dying in the same way. The speed of the killing and the level of proficiency the stranger had displayed left the bard speechless. There was only one warrior she had ever seen who could pull off such a victory. She simply stared at her savior.
Now motionless, she could discern that he was a tall man, dressed and masked in black. He stood motionless, examining her, and when she met his eyes, she saw that they were ice blue, almost hypnotic. Whisps of dark hair had escaped from a shoulder length ponytail that hung down his back. He wore tall boots, with armored greaves buckled over his shins, leather pants, not unlike Ares', with a wide belt and a sleeveless leather tunic. He also wore limited armor, and again Gabrielle felt her breath hitch. The ornaments on the bracers and chest guard were of bronze, the design swirling and decorative, but at the same time anatomical...like Xena's. He continued to look at her without speaking, but he sheathed his sword in a scabbard at his back with a swift movement.
Then he turned away and broke the spell, moving towards the downed men and retrieving a pair of daggers that he wiped on their clothing before replacing in his boots. He turned back towards her, seeing that she was still rooted in place. His experience told him that her wound was affecting her as much as his sudden appearance.
"Don't you think you should go to the aid of your friend?" He asked, in a voice that was both smooth and resonant, as he gestured uphill with a glance.
At that moment they heard another of Xena's battle cries, and a man's scream of pain. Gabrielle took off, running uphill as fast as she could. Behind her came a laugh, deep and hearty, but not at all mocking.
By the time Gabrielle reached the clearing where Xena was fighting, there were only two of her six attackers left standing. Gabrielle appeared behind one so suddenly that he never heard her before she whipped the blade of one of her sais across his temple. The other man's concentration shifted for a second as his comrade fell, and Xena impaled him. They traded a glance and Gabrielle realized that she felt lightheaded. There was something about the warrior's eyes. To Xena's horror, Gabrielle wobbled, collapsed, and lost consciousness.
She didn't reawaken until after nightfall. When the bard came to, she was lying on their bedroll with her head in Xena's lap, and her soulmate was laving her forehead with a cool, wet rag. She could feel her arm throbbing under the stiffness of a bandage, that covered the stitches closing her wound, and she was dying of thirst. Her eyes finally focused on the smile of relief on Xena's face, and she tried to speak.
"Shhhhh," the warrior hushed her, putting a finger gently on her lips, "I've got some tea I want you to drink. It doesn't even taste that bad."
She held a cup to the bard's lips and tilted it back while raising her head. It took a moment before the wretched bitterness of the brew registered. Gabrielle's eyes widened in shock, but she forced herself to swallow it to avoid choking. Xena grinned down at her.
"There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" She asked innocently.
Gabrielle sputtered, before croaking, "Gods, that was horrible, Xena. Even worse than your usual poison. Did you get that recipe from Joxer?"
"Actually no," Xena replied candidly, "it came from my mother."
It also rapidly put the bard to sleep.
Through the night, Xena wondered many things. Her soulmate had obviously been in a fight while she herself was being attacked. The wound and the missing water skins told her that much. But with whom? The warrior had not had an easy time defeating the six assailants who had appeared silently out of the woods, saying nothing, and immediately moving to attack. They had been competent fighters, better than most, and their teamwork was efficient and well practiced. Their dress and gear were identical, and they bore no insignia revealing their origins. This alone was worrisome, for though they were soldiers; they were neither a king's guard nor a city's militia. If they were the henchmen of a warlord, then their leader would be serious trouble.
Had Gabrielle managed to defeat similar fighters on her own? She was becoming a very competent fighter herself, but realistically, Xena knew she wouldn't have prevailed against a similar number of enemies. Had she successfully fought off a smaller band? Had she been assisted? If she had been aided in her fight, then by whom? Where had her ally gone? Gabrielle had reappeared alone and wounded, and had mentioned no one else.
Xena wanted desperately to question the bard, but the blonde needed to rest and the herbs would make her sleep through the night. The next best thing would have been for Xena to retrace Gabrielle's steps, but not in the dark. It would be too easy to miss something important and she was loath to leave the bard alone while unconscious, possibly with enemies nearby. Though it irked her, the only wise course was patience. Therefore she waited, keeping watch through the night, with a flameless hunter's fire in a trough dug below ground, and two horses for company, as she attended to her companion's wounds.
As Helios' first glow warmed the sky, Xena stoked the fire and set a pot of water and grains to simmer into gruel. She prepared a smaller container to heat water for tea. Next she measured out a different mixture of herbs, that would soothe Gabrielle's pain and help her body fight infection, while leaving her mind clear. Echinacea, yellow dock, burdock, golden seal, and willow bark; she left out the valerian and chamomile. If anything, the bitterness of the infusion will wake her up, Xena thought with a grin. I just hope she'll still be willing to answer a few of my questions afterwards.
The gruel was ready, and Xena added a few raisins, before preparing the tea and waking her partner. The bard was groggy and bleary eyed when Xena coaxed the medicinal tea into her. As expected, her eyes shot open and she swallowed hard to keep from gagging.
"Ggggaaaahhhh! What was that?" Gabrielle looked at her accusingly. "Xena, next time I think I'll let them kill me instead...it would be quicker."
Xena would have laughed at her reaction, but the reference to her being killed sobered the warrior. She had been attacked, she thought.
"Gabrielle, what happened yesterday? Who attacked you?"
The bard groaned as the events came back to her. So much had happened so fast, and some of it was very strange. At last she collected her thoughts and took a deep breath to calm herself. Then, storyteller that she was, she gave a minimally embellished account of her battle and the mystery warrior who had saved her. Xena listened closely, raising an eyebrow at various points, but withholding her questions until the end.
"So the ones who attacked you were definitely the same as the ones I was fighting?"
"Absolutely, Xena, same gear, same tactics. And just like with you, they said nothing."
"And the man who helped you?" She asked, as calmly as possible, for that bit of news had quickened her heartbeat and brought an edginess she fought hard to conceal.
"I don't know what to think about him, except that I'm thankful he saved my life. Xena, he was good...more than good. He killed five of them quicker than you did up here. I think he knew you were up here fighting too, because he asked me if I shouldn't be going to help you."
"Well, at least he was on your side, Gabrielle," Xena said, relieved and nervous at the same time, "I wouldn't wanna have someone like that for an enemy."
"Noooo, definitely not," Gabrielle agreed, thoughtfully adding, "he reminded me of you. The way he fought, the armor, his physical appearance, what of it I could see, anyway."
For a while Xena sat silently thinking over Gabrielle's report. Glad though she was that this mysterious stranger had saved the one she loved, she found the idea of an unknown warrior that deadly very disturbing. She couldn't help but want to know more about him. For a moment she recalled and then dismissed the memory of her older brother Toris. If he even still lived, he'd have been 63 summers old. Besides, his fighting skills had never been anywhere near what Gabrielle had described. Finally she sighed and rose to her feet.
"Guess I may as well go bring and back the water skins. Ya gonna be ok here by yourself for a little while?"
"Yeah sure, Xena. After that tea, I don't think anything out there can scare me." Gabrielle said with a grin, her eyes reassuring the warrior. "They should be on the path at the bottom of the hill, right before an outcropping of limestone. I dropped them just before charging into a half-dozen enemies," she finished sheepishly.
"Ok, I'll be right back. Yell if ya even suspect somethin's goin' on, alright?"
"Of course...they'll hear me all the way back in Thebes if I sense a threat. Now go on."
Xena gave the blonde another visual check, and then smiled at her and turned to head down the hill. She wasn't even thinking about the water skins...she wanted to see the battle scene.
It wasn't hard for her to read the signs on the forest floor that marked Gabrielle's hasty return path. It didn't take her long to find the remains of the battle either. On her initial examination, Xena put all her skills to the test as she investigated the aftermath, confirming the order of deaths the bard had described, the techniques and weapons used, and the skill of the stranger. What she found would have been a challenge even for her. Judging from what she saw had been Gabrielle's position, the dead had been slain in an order of descending threat, each with a single wound.
The outcropping was easily three times the height of her body, quite a drop, though far from impossible. To land while drawing a weapon, and to slay within a heartbeat, required a high level of skill. Not many warriors she'd ever met were capable of it. The first two to die had been directly facing the bard; the first casualty on her wounded right, the second on her left. Gabrielle had taken out the next closest man, originally directly behind her, herself. The bodies of the last two attackers told their own story. The daggers had been thrown with surgical precision at the fleeing enemies, entering from behind and piercing their hearts. They had been long daggers too, thrown hard, only a heartbeat apart, and with a very high rate of rotation. Finally, Xena checked the direction Gabrielle had thought the stranger had headed in; though she'd recalled that she had left first and not looked back. Only the slightest trail could be discerned by reading the clues of disturbed soil or stones, and this soon disappeared completely. It was as if the man knew he'd be followed and covered his tracks.
Xena returned to the scene of the fight for a more thorough examination of the attackers. Their gear bore no identifications and they were devoid of personal identification as well. No rings, necklaces, talismans, ear rings, coins...not even any tattoos. Their weapons had been well made and all were identical, but bore no devices or forge marks. The soldiers didnĒt even display any rank. Even Roman legionnaires were more individual. To the Warrior Princess, the absence of clues was more unsettling than anything else about these attackers. They were clearly part of something much bigger than themselves.
The filled water skins were lying together in a niche in the outcropping. They had been placed there carefully after the fight where they would be easily seen. Ever wary, she uncorked the skins and sniffed the contents. No cloying sweetness or scent of almonds met her nostrils. She dipped a fingertip in the neck of one and let a drop fall on her tongue and detected nothing but clean pure water. The second skin was subjected to the same test. Again there was no bitterness or oiliness, no sign of adulteration. After what she'd seen, it wasn't expected. Nodding to herself, she restoppered the skins and headed back to camp.
As she walked, returning uphill, she allowed her senses to reach out, penetrating her environment. It was a habit for her. The woods seemed hospitable and it was becoming another pleasant day. Then she stopped. At the very lowest threshold of her awareness she had sensed that she was not alone. Her first thought was of a danger to Gabrielle, but then she realized that the presence was behind her. There were no sounds and she was convinced that if she turned she would see nothing. Now she probed with all her senses directed at the presence, and she perceived confidence, but not a threat. Though she had nothing but an impression, she was almost sure of whom she sensed.
Finally Xena turned and scanned the woods with her eyes. It was just a formality. As expected, she saw nothing. Still, she couldn't help but acknowledge the debt she felt, and so she spoke, clearly enough to be heard for a distance.
"Thank you." She said to the woods, but of course, she received no reply.
When she returned she found that Gabrielle had risen and was cleaning up the campsite. The blankets were rolled up; the cooking pots cleaned and hidden in a saddlebag. Her partner turned away from her horse to look at her, the set of reins dangling from her hands. Xena didn't think she'd been gone that long.
"Find anything?" Gabrielle asked with a grin.
Xena held up the water skins with an embarrassed smile, realizing she wasn't fooling her friend in the least.
"Six dead men, two stabbed with a sword, two stabbed in the backs with daggers, one slashed across the neck, and one with the back of his head stove in." She reported by rote. Then she chastised herself under her breath as she saw how her soulmate blanched at the description of the last death. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I know you would have been satisfied to just knock him out."
The smile had left the bard's face, and she'd had looked down at the sais running along the outsides of her calves. When she finally looked back into Xena's eyes, she managed a weak smile. "It's ok, Xena, I know they would have killed me. I realize I couldn't have taken any chances."
"So, uhhh, who was that masked man?"
"Gabrielle, I have no idea. From what I saw, the battle went just as you said, but he left no trail. There was nothing to follow. I guess we just have to be thankful for his help. We may never know more."
As she'd spoken, she'd crossed the clearing and wrapped her soulmate in her arms, giving her a reassuring hug. She felt the bard's arms wrap around her back, tightening in return. She allowed herself to relish the embrace, waiting until the blonde chose to step away. She had decided to say nothing about the presence she'd sensed on her way back.
After saddling and loading the horses they continued their ride, walking at a leisurely pace through the forest. The road continued to meander among the trees, while bright morning sunlight danced with the shadows as a breeze serenaded the leaves. From time to time they heard squirrels, skittering in frenzied chases through the underbrush, or racing up the trunks of trees. From the distance came the staccato of a woodpecker's assault and the soft sounds of running water. It was idyllic and lulling, the warrior thought, such a lovely day for a bloodbath.
It wasn't that Xena was overly morbid that morning, but she was still unsettled by the previous day's attack. Too many unanswered questions plagued her and just enjoying the morning's ride was only a distant temptation. Instead, she concentrated on the over abundance of mysteries that had presented themselves. She was just a small step shy of brooding.
Gabrielle regarded her from time to time with sidelong glances. Her attempts at conversation had been acknowledged with grunts, mostly, and she'd finally decided to stick with the scenery and the somnambulant, rolling gait of her horse.
Xena registered the approaching hoof beats of a pair of riders long before they came into view, and she held up a hand to signal Gabrielle to a halt. They had been riding most of the morning and they hadn't seen another traveler on the road since mid-morning of the day before. They awaited the riders' approach in the shade off the side of the road. It took longer than expected for them to appear. When they finally did, their behavior was unexpected and shocking.
The two riders looked to be middle-aged men, well dressed and armed, but not military. Rather, they seemed to be well-to-do traders, maybe even minor nobles. The harnesses and gear on their horses was fine, but not opulent. They were certainly not soldiers or brigands. They seemed to be on an errand or business, speaking to each other as they rode at a trot. They were still twenty yards away when the noticed that they weren't alone.
The riders took one look at the pair of women in front of them and jerked their mounts to a halt. There was no question that they recognized the two, for their eyes were practically starting out of their heads. From the expressions on their faces, Gabrielle would have sworn they were terrified. Cursing in their haste and hauling on their reins, they wheeled their horses about, their hooves launching a flurry of dirt clods into the air. The men fled at a gallop, just as the Warrior Princess began to call out a greeting. In moments they had vanished down the road, the hoof beats of their horses fading rapidly in the distance. Gabrielle had actually looked behind her; half expecting to see an army of cut throats, or perhaps Lucifer himself. They were alone.
"Have a nice day, I guess," Xena called halfheartedly after them. Under her breath she muttered, "cowards." She turned to face the bard and shrugged. Gabrielle, she noticed, was looking at her, as confused by the chain of events as she was.
"Xena, what just happened?"
"They didn't like the look of us? They're afraid of women? They owed you money?" Xena jested, completely baffled. "I really have no idea, Gabrielle. Bottom line is, they fled like the Destroyer of Nations was after 'em. A few years ago I might've expected a reaction like that, but now?"
"Xena, it's been over 30 years since you were a warlord. Those guys weren't but children when you changed your life. That's really not convincing."
"Well, maybe they were plotting something, or they didn't want to be seen together?"
Gabrielle looked down the road, her gaze following the long-gone riders. Even the sounds of their horses had been silenced by the distance. Finally she sighed and looked back at her soulmate. She had a bad feeling about this. Xena just shrugged again and clucked at Argo II, coaxing her into motion. The bard paced her back onto the road.
For a while they continued on in silence, and now they were both lost in their thoughts. Eventually the natural sounds of the otherwise deserted woods surrounded them again, the appearance of tranquility returning. But now it seemed forced, and Xena scarcely paid any attention to the surroundings, completely preoccupied, pondering the strangeness of the last day's events. The reaction of the riders was as unprovoked and inexplicable as the attackers or the masked warrior. One thing she did know, which angered and worried her, was that Gabrielle was injured. Another attack could bring deadly consequences. Later, looking back on that morning, she wondered if her thoughts hadn't jinxed them.
By the time they chose to stop for their midday meal, they had traveled perhaps three leagues from their last campsite. They were still in wooded hills, the road still curling among the trees, the soft babble of a stream still to be heard. On the right side of the road a large oak overhung their track. Branching off from it, a smaller set of ruts lead away into the trees, partially overgrown after several years of neglect. Coarse grass grew in the center, while brambles encroached from the sides. Perhaps it had once led to a homestead, Gabrielle thought upon noticing it, out in the middle of the forest and abandoned years before. It seemed a lonely place to settle, far from anything they had passed.
Xena had dismounted and tethered Argo II to a snag off the neglected road where the mare could graze on the meager offerings growing between the ruts. She'd continued on down the track, "checking the perimeter". Her memories of this place, from decades ago, were quite different.
Gabrielle also dismounted and loosened her saddlebag and a water skin. She left her mount with Argo II and returned to the main road. A fallen log near the trunk of the large oak beckoned her, and she took a seat in the shade where she could watch both the horses and the road. She sat digging trail foods out of her bag for their lunch, and had soon laid out a flatbread, a couple strips of sheep jerky, a lump of hard cheese, and an apple. She examined the clump of dried goose livers, but decided to save them as a surprise for Xena's dinner.
The bard listened for Xena's return, wondering how far she'd go and what, if anything, she'd found. After waiting as long as her patience would allow, she scooped up the food and walked back to the head of the abandoned road. The brambles along the sides caught her attention. They were drooping under the weight of blackberries. The sight made her mouth water. Blackberries and goose livers were a treat. The blonde contemplated changing her lunch menu. At the same time, from a distance down the overgrown track, she heard Xena calling to her.
The blonde made her way along one of the wheel ruts where the footing was easier, seeing here and there a partial print from Xena's boots. When her soulmate called her a second time, her voice was much closer. Finally the bard came around a bend and stopped. Xena was standing about twenty paces ahead, hands on her hips, staring at the same ruins that had captured her own gaze.
It had once been a sizable inn, the main building having had a partial second floor. It was no surprise that, being in the forest, its construction was mostly of wood. It was also no surprise that, with the exception of a couple partial walls, the chimney, and parts of the foundation, most of it had burned down when a fire had struck it. Gabrielle noticed that the outbuildings, a large stable and a storage shed, had not escaped the conflagration, even though they had been completely detached from the main building. In the cleared space before the inn, the well had also been damage. Stones that had supported a windlass, for well's rope and bucket, lay toppled near those that still stood. It seemed to have been done almost for spite. She realized this was not the aftermath of a lightning strike or accidental fire.
Xena turned towards her, an expression of confusion and sadness marking her features.
"Gabrielle, this was the only inn on this road between Thebes and Corinth. I'd hoped we could stay here tonight. It was clean and the food was good. If I'd known it'd been destroyed, I'd have pushed us faster to be in Corinth tonight."
"What do you think happened here?" The blonde asked.
"It was attacked and burned. The job was thorough. As you can see none of it was spared, not even the well. It must've happened less then three years ago, judging by the overgrowth."
"Someone must have had a lot of hatred for the people here."
"No," Xena told her softly, "it was done as an example, to show that no traveler would be safe on the road."
There was more. The bard was sure of it. They had both seen destruction wrought by war or warlords, and though it was sad to think of the attendant suffering, it still didn't account for the look of bewilderment and guilt on the warrior's face. Sure, Xena had done things like this once, but it had been many years, and more importantly, many changes ago. It shouldn't have been affecting her so much.
"Xena, something about this is bothering you," Gabrielle said, "and how can you tell why this place was destroyed?"
"Well," the warrior hesitantly stated, "it's what I would've done if I were movin' to threaten Corinth. There are two roads across the isthmus and they join about a league ahead. I would've encouraged riders to hasten through here and waylaid 'em at the crossroads. And that would've included reinforcements from Athens...it's been a long, long time since they were at war with Corinth."
Gabrielle just looked at her for a moment, puzzled. She couldn't remember any news of a force with designs on Corinth, not since Xena had nearly taken the city with her army decades before. Strategically it made sense, but past events didn't bear out the possibility. The bard tried to remember any stories she'd heard about a siege. Maybe it had happened while they'd been in that ice tomb. The time frame could have worked, but if it had happened in the last three years, surely she would have heard something about it.
"We haven't heard anything about an attack on Corinth in the last few years." She stated. "Maybe it was just local bandits."
Xena didn't reply, but she reluctantly swept her arm in a "follow me" gesture. She had turned away and started walking towards the main building of the inn. Curious, Gabrielle followed. When they got to the ruins, the warrior pointed to a patch of unburned wood, on what had been the wall, flanking the front door. The bard moved closer until she stood next to her soulmate. Burned into the wood was a brand, a ring bearing a familiar coglike design, encircling an even more familiar X.
"I never used such a brand, though it would've been fitting, I guess." Xena said softly, barely above a whisper. "Thirty-seven years ago I commandeered this inn as a temporary headquarters, before movin' on to Corinth, but I spared it."
"Then someone's been trying to frame you," Gabrielle reasoned, "maybe after we had disappeared."
"Gabrielle, Octavius knew we died, Joxer saw us die. We were fighting the gods and four of 'em were there. Word would've spread very quickly...especially to the cities. No one would've believed I did this. It probably happened twenty-four years after our "deaths". I can still smell the scent of the smoke."
"Then I don't know what to think, Xena."
After examining the rest of the ruins, they finally made their way back up the road to the horses. The blackberries were forgotten. Gabrielle wasn't at all hungry for the lunch she had unpacked, and Xena, well, the bard took one look at her and didn't even bother. She stuffed the food back into her saddlebag and lashed it down behind her saddle.
To say that the warrior was now engaged in brooding would have been a gross understatement. She said nothing; her eyes focused inward, lips slightly pursed in concentration. She went through the motions of checking Argo II, but she didn't mount. Instead she went and sat on the log under the large oak and lost herself in thought. Finally Gabrielle joined her, fidgeting and picking at her bandage. Every so often, she'd glance over at the warrior, seeing the same picture. She had barely moved. Finally, after a candle mark and a half, Gabrielle could stand no more of the silence.
"Xeeeena," she asked softly, "shouldn't we get going? Can we make it to Corinth today? Are we still going to Corinth?"
The warrior took a second to unfold from her cocoon of thought. She looked briefly at her soulmate with a slightly embarrassed expression, checked the height of the sun, and looked at the horses. She even seemed to sample the slight breeze.
"Yes, no, and maybe." Xena finally answered, at last giving Gabrielle a slight smile and rising to her feet.
She held out a hand to her soulmate, and the bard clasped it with her own. Xena pulled her onto her feet, smiling a bit more broadly at the fleeting look of annoyance on the blonde's face. She never liked that kind of answer, the warrior thought, and I guess I haven't exactly been great company here.
"We'll ride in a little bit." Xena elaborated for the bard's sake, knowing the information would help make up for her long silence. "We can't make Corinth before dark, and there's no rush. In fact, I'm a bit wary of going there at all until I find out a little more about what's happening. I remember a nice clearing by the crossroads. Let's camp there tonight. Oh, and don't pick at that dressing."
Gabrielle was a bit astonished at the long monologue. She'd just resigned herself to the silence of the "brooding Xena", and hadnĒt really expected more than, "yes, no, and maybe". She couldn't decide whether or not to pester the warrior for more information.
When the bard didn't respond for a moment, Xena added, "And Gabrielle, could you pick us some of those blackberries, I remember how good the ones here are...with goose livers." When Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, the warrior turned towards the horses so her soulmate wouldn't see the smirk on her face.
They returned to the road after another half candle mark. Xena was still mostly silent, and she was scouring their surroundings like a scout infiltrating enemy territory. Gabrielle had been a bit chatty, but she got no more long answers. Her banter finally trailed off as she noticed how wound up and edgy the warrior was. Xena, she saw, was holding the reins loosely in her left hand, her right hand on her thigh near the chakram as her eyes darted back and forth. It didn't make her feel at ease. Now she found herself staring into the trees on either side of the road, half expecting to be attacked at any moment. So it was that she happened to be looking to the side instead of ahead when she heard Xena gasp and halt Argo II.
They had reached a point where the road wound down from a rise above the crossroads and the trees had thinned somewhat. The afternoon sun was driving shadows towards them from the west. Ahead, Gabrielle could see that the juncture of the two roads to Corinth was surrounded by a narrow open field where the forest had been cut back for a couple dozen yards. The entire space had been planted with a crop of crosses. They stood at haphazard intervals, in rows two and three deep, and from them hung cruelly brutalized bodies. She estimated three score at least. Her stomach threatened to heave, but she choked back her gorge and only gagged. There were men, and women, elderly, middle-aged, even teenagers. Many had had their legs broken; others their arms. Some had actually been beheaded, but most had been left to die in anguish. Gabrielle also noticed that many had an X carved into their foreheads. Finally she glanced over at Xena.
The Warrior Princess was staring at the scene in disbelief, still as a statue. She was barely breathing. Whoever had done this was crueler than Caesar, judging by the level of violence inflicted on the victims. She just couldn't help but wonder who would behead someone they'd already crucified. But the worst part, the part that made no sense to her, was the use of her X to mutilate these people. Down in the field she could hear the moaning of those not yet relieved of their suffering by death. The breeze delivered their anguish to her ears, along with the stench of rotting flesh. Slowly, she swiveled in the saddle to look at her partner.
Gabrielle was pale and her head was shaking back and forth in small movements of denial. She was swallowing as if she was trying to rid her mouth of the taste of medicine. Xena could see her initial shocked expression beginning to change into one of empathetic pain as her eyes scanned the crosses one by one. Soon, the warrior thought, it would progress to outrage and condemnation.
I need information and some of them are still alive, Xena continued thinking, but there is no way that I can take Gabrielle down there to see those people close up. In fact, I have to get her away from the sight of this if I can.
"Gabrielle, take the horses off the road to the left," she requested quietly, "wait for me. I'll be right back. Keep a watch on the roads for me will ya?"
The bard slowly turned away from the mesmerizing horror of the crossroads and her sad eyes fell on her soulmate. "What are you going to do, Xena?" Her voice expressed her shock and hopeless sadness. "We're too late to help them."
"Some of them are still alive. Maybe they can tell me something useful. Maybe I can at least end their suffering. Please do what I asked, Gabrielle, I need you to watch my back while I'm in the open down there."
The bard nodded and watched her warrior dismount. She took the reins Xena handed to her, looked at the crosses again, and then whispered, "Please be careful, Xena."
Then she turned the horses off the road and slowly guided them into the trees, glancing back as her soulmate advanced, through the narrowing tongue of land between the roads, to approach the killing ground.
The bard found a small space for herself and the horses, on a slight rise above the road. Both of the roads and their juncture were visible below and her position gave her a strategic viewpoint. She remained on her horse to increase her height further. Her gaze flicked back and forth between Xena's movements and the empty roads. The warrior was moving quickly, with her customary cautious grace, slipping from cover to cover. When she reached the last of the concealing trees, she drew her sword and advanced cautiously into the crossroads. After a few paces she unhooked the chakram and grasped it in her left hand.
Xena was tensed for an attack. She continually turned, surveying her surroundings. There were no signs of hostiles, but her nerves were on edge, all her senses keenly alert. The familiar sword in her hand was a comfort, as was her knowledge that the bard was watching the roads for her. Still she was apprehensive. There was no cover and she was completely exposed. She was the only thing moving in the entire area.
The smell of death was overpowering, accompanied by the stench of excrement and corpse juice that befouled the air. Some of the bodies, she noticed, had bloated to alarming proportions, while others had already begun to fall apart. A few of their rat gnawed limbs were lying, like swollen and over ripened fruit, below the man made boughs of the crosses. Xena saw that they were writhing with busy masses of maggots. At a subconscious level she noticed other details of the grisly surroundings. The rough-hewn timbers that composed the crosses, the large crude nails that pierced the victims' flesh, and the ragged condition of their clothing. These people had been badly beaten before they had been nailed up, and many showed the marks of the lash through the holes in their garments. The constant buzzing drone of clouds of flies filled the air. It seemed an appropriate memorial hymn for these brutalized victims, just as it always did in the still aftermath on a battlefield. But these people hadn't been warriors.
She searched constantly for the slightest movement; the twitch of a hand or a change of expression. And always she listened, for the ragged, labored breathing of one whose own body weight was crushing their lungs, or perhaps a groan of pain. She had traversed a third of the evil landscape when she finally heard what she was seeking. Just a tortured puff of breath came to her sensitive ears, the exhalation of a body so tired from the struggle to grasp air, that each filling of the lungs was a torment. She stopped stock still, holding her own breath to hear the next inhalation that would pinpoint the source of failing life nearby. She waited longer than she believed possible, but finally she heard air drawn in through a dry throat, slowly filling the lungs of a woman to her left.
Xena's eyes watered at the sight of this victim who somehow still clung to life. She had been scourged, the fingers cut from her hands, and her forehead carved with the X before being nailed to her cross. What remained of her clothing had been reduced to rags by the lash, and hung on her frame like flotsam clinging to a branch in the wake of a flood. Her eyes had been sewn shut with a few crude stitches. The thickened lids were swollen with pus. As if this wasn't enough, her legs had been broken, and jagged yellowish splinters of bone protruded through her inflamed shins, coated black with coagulated blood.
Even at her worst, Xena would never have visited such degradation and anguish on a civilian. When her army had slaughtered, they had tried to avoid the innocents from whom their tribute would come. Yes, she had impaled heads on spikes, betrayed and murdered her enemies, threatened torture as an example, and even ordered the use of living shields, but always the dead had been enemy warriors. There had always been objectives for their killing, strategic or tactical, the acts related to the military goals she had set forth. Though in her time very little could be defined as an atrocity or war crime, this brutality even offended her notions of battle ethics. What she was seeing here was the result of inhumanity and madness. Her soul erupted in righteous condemnation of the beast responsible for what she saw. For such a monster, no death could ever be too harsh; no punishment would ever be sufficient.
She approached the woman directly, and announced her presence in a soft voice. The woman was beyond sympathy. Perhaps she was already unable to answer. But Xena also knew that when close to death, a person was sometimes capable of clarity, even objectivity, which would have been impossible earlier in their suffering.
"Who did this?" She asked directly. "Why have so many been killed?"
At first the slow and labored sounds of breathing were the only response, but after long moments a rasping whisper was forced through cracked lips. The warrior had to strain to hear the words.
"Xena, Tyrant of Corinth...we resisted her."
The Warrior Princess stood frozen in shock as ice gripped her heart. Time had ceased to be and she very nearly lost her grip on her sword. The whispered answer had weakened her knees, striking her with more force than any threat of mayhem. The woman's words were one of the worst things that she could have ever heard, and they sent her mind reeling with a thousand denials of something so impossible. Only one possibility rose in her numbed mind, and she voiced it with her last hope. Perhaps some ambitious impostor was usurping her name for the terror once associated with it. Ruefully, she realized that she had a place in history. She felt her old guilt threatening to return.
"What does the Tyrant look like?" She asked urgently. But she received no answer. She had been so shocked by the information that she hadn't noticed that the woman's breathing had ceased. She had spoken with the last of her strength, defiant to the end.
For a while she could only stand before the cross in shock. The woman was limp now, hanging from the nails in her hands and feet, like a rag doll pinned to a board in the games of a twisted child.
Several yards away Xena heard a rasping cough, and she turned to regard a young man, his arms and legs broken. He was further from death than the woman had been, and he had managed to turn his head to look at her. She suspected that much of his face had been eaten by crows, and the raw wounds crawled with maggots. Xena moved towards him as if in a dream, not feeling her feet touching the ground, but finally stopping when she stood below him. He stared down at her with hatred and contempt, knowing no fear for he had already lost all. And then, though his mouth must have been parched, he managed to spit in her face.
"It's true isn't it?" He asked her, his pain forgotten in his rage. "You were a hero, but now you have no soul, just your madness and your viciousness. Now you come to gloat over your victims, crying tears of what...jubilation at our suffering? You're a monster! May the One God damn you to hell for killing his messenger."
Xena was stunned. Not by his hatred or his curse, the years had thickened her skin, but rather by what his words implied. There was no doubt he recognized her. Somewhere nearby her double was terrorizing the city of Corinth, and gods only knew how much of the surrounding territory. If this monster were as ambitious as I was, Xena thought, she could hold all the Peloponnese. She's certainly a daemon capable of horrifying cruelty. What Xena had already seen left her no doubt of that. Somehow, Xena would put an end to her predations and cruelty; she had no doubt of this either.
But worst of all, this heartless version of herself had killed Eve. Before she could think twice, she felt a cold hatred for any mother who could slaughter her own child. Then her memories of forcing Gabrielle to kill Hope arose to expose her hypocrisy. She had much in common with this Tyrant of Corinth, much as she would wish to deny it. We are not the same, but we grew from the same base potential...ambition, ruthlessness, and lust for power. We are the faces of a coin; forever facing apart but shaped from the same metal. She recognized her thoughts for what they were, a desperate attempt to distance herself from the nightmare she'd found herself in. It was her cultivated reaction, to drown unwanted emotion with cold reason...or violence. Despite her self-awareness, she swore that she would destroy this Tyrant of Corinth, this dark reflection of herself.
Now another line of thought came to her. Eve had been the Messenger of Eli in this nightmare. That meant that she and the Tyrant must be about the same age. Were there other parallels, and if so, what? What was her Gabrielle like? Had they ever met? Had she killed her soulmate years ago? Or had she seduced her bard to bloodlust? She remembered the reaction of the two men on the road that morning and realized her soulmate was most probably still her soulmate in this place too. Together no matter what, she thought grimly. Will I be able to kill this Gabrielle even if I know she's evil? Will I be able to kill myself? There was no doubt in her mind that she would have to try.
She was still standing in front of the man on the cross, and he had been staring down at her the whole time. Now she looked up at him again. She needed more information.
"Where is she?" She demanded of him. She meant the Tyrant, but he misunderstood her and gave her contempt with his answer.
"You know where she is...you had her raped in the arena by twenty men before being drawn and quartered. Then you sat by as her body was fed to your war dogs. She was still alive...and you made all of us watch. That woman closed her eyes, so you had them sewn shut."
The shock of his answer struck her harder than any blow. She was overcome by the monstrosity of her beloved daughter's death and she reeled back away from him, staggering out into the road.
The movement fixed Gabrielle's gaze from two hundred yards away, as she sat on her horse on the hill. She didn't have to hear what was said to know that something was very wrong. The state of mind conveyed by Xena's body language had gone from stealth to horror to shocked anguish. She started moving the horses out of the woods but a sound from below stopped her. The bard traced its origin with her eyes. To her disbelief, she spied a column of about two dozen soldiers on the other road, slightly further from Xena than she herself, but headed towards her down the road to Corinth. Though they were distant, she could make out enough to be sure they were the same kind of soldiers they had fought the day before.
She had no real choices. The warrior had ceased paying any attention to her surroundings. To warn Xena of the soldiers' approach would alert the enemy to their presence as well. She did the only thing she could think of. Wrapping Argo II's reins around her pommel, she kicked her horse and broke from the cover of the trees. As soon as she was back on the road, she galloped madly towards the crossroads and the city of Corinth.
For the first fifty yards she was still high enough above the soldiers to see that they hadn't sped up, but she knew that would change as soon as she was visible through the trees of the narrowing divide between the roads. Then the chase would be on. The juncture of the roads was coming up fast, and now she could see Xena turning towards her having heard the hoof beats of their horses. Gabrielle maintained her silence as she passed the last trees separating the roads, gesturing desperately back down the other road towards the soldiers, and watching as Xena turned to look. She saw the warrior's expression change as she realized the situation, and she moved to the roadside, preparing to mount Argo II on the run.
Twenty yards before they met, Gabrielle slowed the horses slightly, and Xena raced to match their speed. Behind them, the soldiers still hadn't given pursuit. Now the blonde was alongside her partner and she saw Xena's hand grasp the pommel of her saddle. Then the warrior swung her leg up and over Argo II's back, and she caught the reins Gabrielle tossed to her. They both kicked their horses into a full gallop, leaning forward over their necks, as they heard shouts behind them from the soldiers. Now their enemies were finally giving chase and the road thundered with the hoof beats of their horses. Xena and Gabrielle were riding at full speed towards Corinth and the Tyrant.
For miles that seemed to go on forever, they fled the soldiers, neither drawing away nor losing ground to their pursuers. It would depend on the stamina of the horses, Gabrielle thought, and the soldiers are much more heavily laden. Their mounts should tire first. She had no idea that their danger only increased the further they rode.
Xena really didn't think they had much choice but to outrun the soldiers and hope that they could turn away from the city, before they reached the gates or met another patrol. She knew of no roads branching off in these last leagues before the city, only a couple bridges over the rivers that ran down to the coast. They were approaching the first of these, she noted, when something ahead on the road caught her eye.
It looked like a fight in progress, and as they galloped nearer she became certain of it. A soldier lay sprawled in the road, right before the bridge, unmoving. A pair of soldiers was engaging swords against a lone man who was effortlessly holding them at bay. He looked towards the women when he heard their horses, and promptly slew another of the soldiers. The other turned to flee. He only managed to run about six paces when Xena saw him pitch forward onto his face. She didn't need to see him closely to know there would be a dagger sprouting from his back.
The man had already turned to grab a rope that lay on the ground, and he tied this to the saddle of the nearest soldier's horse. Then he tied the reins of the other two mounts to its pommel. As Xena and Gabrielle swept past, he slapped the horse hard on its flank, startling it, and causing all three horses to try stampeding back down the road. They were jerked to a halt by the rope, and lifted their forequarters, pawing the air in panic. Now the approaching company's mounts were spooked by the bucking horses that were facing them and they broke stride, and the column became disordered. Their commander called them to a halt.
He could see that the two women his soldiers had chased were almost across the bridge, and there was a man on foot half way across as well. There were three of their comrades lying in the road, their horses gone mad. Other patrols closer to the city could catch the fugitives, the commander decided. The near side of the bridge was the boundary of his company's district anyway. They had to control the three fallen soldiers' horses and tend their men if possible. He shouted the orders to his men.
The commander of the pursuing company was just starting to dismount when the three horses finally managed to pull free the rope that held them back. The rope had wrenched out a support timber from under the bridge, which it had been tied around. A creaking and groaning of wood under stress grew louder, reaching a crescendo with a sharp crack. To the soldiers' amazement, the nearest section of the structure slowly gave way and fell into the gorge below. The man on foot was standing on the far side of the bridge looking back at them, holding a dagger and watching to gage how much destruction he had accomplished, before turning and disappearing into the woods alongside the road. He had been wearing a mask, the officer noted, and he was dressed in black with bronze scrollwork armor.
Xena and Gabrielle had ridden another hundred yards around a bend before they became aware that they were no longer being pursued. They reined their horses to a halt, where they stood panting and sweating, while the women nervously stared back down the road behind them. Xena was the first to stare apprehensively down the road ahead.
"We've gotta get outta sight," she said, as she hastily directed Argo II towards the trees to the right, finally adding, "this road and the city aren't safe for us. I'll explain later."
Typical, thought the bard, as she led her horse, following the warrior into the woods. She was just thinking, you're welcome, Xena, when the warrior spoke again.
"Thank you, Gabrielle." She said, turning around to smile warmly at her soulmate.
As she led them away from the road, Xena related her experience at the crossroads to her partner. Her voice was steady only with great effort, choosing her words to shock her soulmate as little as possible, while still conveying such horrible news. Gabrielle really tried hard not to hound the warrior with questions, but what she heard left her with more questions than answers. The words of the crucified man were nearly impossible to believe, but his reaction to Xena had left Gabrielle shaken. The blonde could tell how affected Xena really was. It all made the bard queasy, for it reminded her way too much of the hellish alternate reality that Caesar had created. Except that this time they were unwelcome and hunted strangers rather than unwilling celebrity participants. They had no place here, Gabrielle realized, but there was no way they would be ignored. The only thing she was glad about was that she had passed the crucifixion ground at a full gallop.
The warrior was leading them northeast, hoping to circle back through the woods far from the accursed crossroads, and then put as much distance as possible between themselves and Corinth. By staying off the road, she hoped to avoid any more of the Tyrant's soldiers and live long enough to plot her destruction. Given that they were hunted, this was not the time. The Warrior Princess could accept the delay for now. Later, when she had more information and Gabrielle was healed, she would return and destroy this Tyrant, Xena vowed to herself agan. No question about it after the suffering she had seen. She owed it to her daughter.
They were moving through the woods between the road and the Gulf of Corinth. A league ahead of them the land rose again, eventually reaching the high point marking the middle of the isthmus, before sloping back down into the rolling hills of Boeotia. It was only about five leagues, but moving through the woods and maintaining their stealth, it could take a full day. Already the late afternoon sun was lowering, while around them the shadows were collecting in deepening pools under the trees. They would have to camp tonight in enemy territory. Maybe they could find a sheltered place, on the far side of the river that the bridge had crossed, on the headland out of sight of the road. If so, then they could chance a small fire, otherwise their campsite would have to remain dark.
Evening had arrived when they finally reached the Gulf of Corinth, finding a trail above the narrow rocky shore. Ahead, a shallow brackish marsh marked the mouth of the river. It was a treacherous landscape, where thickly reeded sandbars concealed quicksand and mud wallows. Bad enough for the warrior and the bard, but worse for the horses. They were also in enemy territory. Once within the marsh, their visibility would dwindle to a couple yards, but an observer could easily track their movements.
Xena led them back inland until the river narrowed, with clear water running fast between rocky banks. Though swifter, they judged a crossing here safer for the horses, and after finding the most likely looking spot, they forded the water. The river kept getting deeper and they were eventually forced to swim with the horses for about ten yards at the center. Gabrielle half expected arrows to rain down on them while they were at their most vulnerable. The current also carried them downstream, but they were headed that direction anyway, and they didn't spend any excess energy fighting it. The unplanned swim was just another unwelcome discomfort in a day that really could have been better.
The far bank was welcome. They hauled themselves out of the water onto a narrow sand bar, and stood shivering in the first of the evening's chill. The horses regarded them accusingly, then splayed their forelegs and showered the women when they shook themselves off like dogs. Xena gave Argo II a dirty look and the mare seemed to grin back at her.
The warrior shook her head and checked the sky. The light would fail entirely in the next half candle mark. Xena wanted to get onto the rising land that curved west, away from the river mouth, and projected into the Gulf of Corinth. It would mean traveling until full dark, but at least they would be able to light a fire. After getting soaked crossing the river, the warmth would be welcome. A glance at Gabrielle revealed the bard hugging herself, her teeth chattering. Xena prodded her companion into motion, up the bank and into the trees. So they continued, leading the horses through the darkening woods, back towards the gulf and away from the river.
Finally they came to a space between outcroppings, where Xena found a spring trickling out of a seam in the rock. The view was blocked in all directions save to the west, where the gulf lay obscured by the trees. The walls of the space rose to twice the warrior's body height, excellent for blocking wind and hiding a campfire. Between the spurs of rock, there was a flat space to one side, opposite where the spring's runoff flowed, and here they set up a quick camp. Gabrielle gathered some of the abundant deadfall and started a small fire in the lee of the outcropping, careful to choose only sound dry wood that would not smoke. When she had it going, she set a pot of water nearby to heat for tea. She felt the evening's increasingly chill and her teeth had been chattering since fording the river.
Xena had tended the horses, tethering them at the mouth of the rocks. She stripped off their saddles and bridals and returned to the camp, hanging their gear next to their own wet clothing, to dry on the rock face near the fire. The oiled leather liners of the saddle bags had spared the contents from a soaking during the river crossing. The warrior had checked everything as a matter of habit, laying out her spare clothing, sewing kit, her medical supplies, food, tools, and her few personal momentos. Satisfied that everything was sound, Xena quickly repacked what she didn't immediately need. Wrapped in a dry shift and a blanket, she prepared to check and redress Gabrielle's arm wound. She returned to the bard with her mug and her medicines.
Gabrielle was eyeing her across the fire, watching as the warrior measured some herbs into the mug. As she reached for the pot to add hot water, she snuck a glance at her soulmate, inwardly grinning at the grim look of anticipation on her face. Can't really blame her, Xena thought, I hate the taste of it myself, but it'll make her blood stronger, and help her fight any chance of infection.
She let the medicine steep, waiting for the color to darken before handing it over to her reluctant patient. Gabrielle took the mug, and groaned with resignation. Then she took a deep breath and downed the contents in a rapid series of gulps, holding her nose until the last swallow. Xena had to stifle her laughter; afraid she'd cause the bard to choke.
"Blaaaaahhh!" Gabrielle spat, her tightly shut eyes accompanied by a rapid shaking of her head that made her shaggy blond hair splay out. "Gods, Xena! Was that even worse than this morning's horse piss? Next time scald my tongue first, pleeeease."
Now the warrior couldn't hold back her laughter. The sight of her soulmate regarding the mug like a poisonous snake, and her characteristic but original expression of dismay at the flavor triggered her mirth. Part honest humor, part stress relief, the bout of laughter was a needed release. Soon Gabrielle joined her; able to find the humor in her own behavior...after she had rinsed the taste out of her mouth with clean water.
When they recovered, Xena inspected the stitches in Gabrielle's arm, and replaced the dressing. They cooked and ate a simple evening meal of fresh blackberries and reconstituted goose livers, crushed into a paste, which they baked slowly over the coals. Afterwards, they spent a candlemark talking softly about the day's events and planning for the morrow while the warrior inspected her weapons. Then they lay down together on their bedroll and soon drifted off. Morpheus brought them dreams.
They say the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. For most of those relegated to Tartarus, the weak willed and frail ghosts of craven and evil souls, this is true. The Lord Hades allowed it as a facet of their torment. But it's only part of the truth. If the soul of the deceased is possessed of the will, the determination, and the courage, then by its own choice, it may see as well as hear what transpires in the mortal world. Though the scenes that are revealed may be a torment, (for the soul of the dead can create no effect), still the temptation is great. Sometimes the need to observe is driven by love, sometimes by guilt, and sometimes by ambition. But if a soul had mastered in life both its mind and body, then in death can that soul partake of the sights and sounds born in the mortal realm. Otherwise, the heinous deeds of their ignominious past simply replay endlessly for their eternal review. As to what the souls in Elysia are granted, those in Tartarus knew not. Of that realm they had no hope and little thought.
"My death was the result of the bitterest betrayal, by the god whom I had worshipped. The bastard conducted himself as if he were without honor, as conniving as a base-born mortal, and besotted with his own desire. No code of conduct had he. Not even the courage to defeat me in combat did he claim, the coward, instead demeaning himself by siccing his dogs, the Erinyes, on me. Hades himself was little better, judging my life by the desires of his nephew.
The first years I spent piecing together what had happened, until my resentment of the Olympians outweighed even my righteous indignation at my fate. Yet, after what was really a short span, I came to be ruled by what had been in my heart; that which I had lived by. I watched and heard the turning of the mortal world, always driven to view the progress of my beloved ones, daring to maintain my hope for their fates. That which I witnessed was a bitter and agonizing tragedy.
I saw my beloved wife tormented by the guilt that grew from the deed the dog-god had forced upon her. I watched as my youngest, whom I had never met in life, fell in my place defending their home. I saw with sadness the flight of my eldest before the battle. But most heartbreaking of all, I watched the darkening of the soul of my precious daughter, my little one. For years I cried for her losses as she grew up, undisciplined and untrained, wishing only that I could have been there, to guide her and my sons to a better life. Wishing I could have instilled in them the morals for which I had been so poorly rewarded.
Then came the attack of Cortese, and I felt a short-lived pride in her courage as she led the villagers, my simple neighbors, in their defense. I rejoiced when her forces drove him from our homeland. But then came the stab of pain as I saw Lyceus dying, so young, his life pumping out with his blood, his beautiful potential never to be realized. I felt my daughter's heartbreak, and yet there was worse to come. She had carried his body home, grieving, to their mother, only to be condemned and cursed by her remaining parent. My heart broke yet again for her shock amidst all the sorrow, Cyrene's words destroying what pride in her victory she might have felt. And I saw our little one turn away. Away from the hatred of her mother, away from the love and warmth of our cursed family, to take refuge from her pain in the arms of war.
Now the very craven bastard, he who had destroyed my family as he had my life, seduced my daughter with his empty promises of power and fulfillment. Now the light of my daughter's goodness became a flame of darkness, and with her army she ravaged the countryside. For years she conquered and I lamented, so bitter in my helplessness.
Soon she was broken, in spirit and almost in body, seeking to flee her past, perhaps through death. Then lo, a wonder of fate befell her. She met a hero who managed to help her regain the sight of right and wrong, to accept herself just enough that she might seek redemption and change, rather than despair and death. And rapidly afterwards she met another who continued to guide her heart back towards the light. Now, though my wife would meet an end no less unjust than my own, at least my daughter was able to reconcile herself with her own soul. Though she was tortured by her past deeds, she knew love and hope again. In her hope, I found hope as well, for perhaps all was not lost after all.
Now the years passed as I watched her fight for the honor and justice that had once been my own principals, and I rejoiced. In her changed life was my vindication against Ares, and in his failure was I avenged. I saw that the sword of destiny cut both ways. I perceived that Hades himself now seriously weighed her soul, rather than consigning it without a second thought to torment. I watched her adventures; accompanied by her bard, as their love grew and their tale lengthened into an epic of triumph I had never imagined possible. They stood against all, and conquered even death. And finally, I rejoiced again, as though in Elysia rather than the realm of the damned, for I saw the birth of my granddaughter.
Their tribulations continued, of course, for never would fate really treat kindly any of my family, of this I had become convinced. Yet finally, my daughter, driven by her love and her courage, slew the better part of the Olympian pantheon. Now Hades himself was gone, Ares was powerless, and there was a subtle change. I saw that the ways from the underground were no longer guarded by a god's power, only by the swords of his minions, and I had no fear of them, for what threat is a sword to the dead? I could probably fight my way out to the surface, but for what? I was long dead, merely the shade of a warrior. Why would I leave, and what would I hope to accomplish?
There was but one thing I could seek, for time had stolen from me all else. I had been wronged, grievously wronged, for through the cruelty and whim of a god, I had been cheated of the boon of fatherhood. The time in which I could have been a loving mentor was long past, but I was happy at how my daughter's life had resolved. She was a hero now, anyone would judge her so, but I was still capable of giving her one thing which she had missed. All her life she had thought I had abandoned her. Worse, she had come to believe that she had been fathered by Ares. Perhaps such was even true, but it didnĒt change the fact that I had loved her as my own. This was the thing that could drive me to attempt an escape from the underworld...to tell her of the inequity of our fate, and to tell her of the love I had always felt for her in my heart. I could at last gift her with the truth.
Shortly after I had made my decision to leave, there occurred an escape; this one driven by self-centered opportunism and megalomania. It was the bastard Caesar, driven by his obsessions to reenter the world and change the very fabric of fate. I charged after him and he fled before me, the coward, calling down the host of Hades' guards upon me so that I was long delayed in slaying them. It was a battle that dragged on for weeks, for the dead never tire. While we fought, Caesar succeeded in remaking the world in his image, and his desire had been achieved. Then I fought with renewed vigor, driving off the last of the guards, but just before I gained the surface, the world was changed again.
Gabrielle had destroyed the Loom of the Fates, and the world was restored. For this act above all others; I counted my soul forever in her debt. This girl who had followed my daughter when her own soul hung in jeopardy, who had grown and endured so much by her side, this bard and Amazon Queen, had defied the very order of the cosmos for the love she felt for my little one. She would have slain gods or brought down the eternal night, having only her own love, honor, and hope to guide her. Even in her state of heartbroken desperation, to act rather than be paralyzed, to choose rather than accept; the change she wrought with the toss of a torch was no less fundamental than that of the Twilight. Though she knew afterwards only that she had regained the world in which they had lived, by destroying the Loom of Fate, she had truly changed the world. For better or worse, their choices hereafter would be binding, unsubject to the review of fate.
Now I made my choice, and made my way across Thessaly and Greece, even as my daughter and her soulmate returned from Italia. Finally I reached Boeotia and came to Thebes, only to hear they had left the day before. I elected to stay the night, and in the morning I continued after them. As I hastened south I began to hear the rumor of the rise of the Tyrant of Corinth. I questioned men in the tavern at noon, and their words chilled my marrow, for the warlord they described was Xena, and her companion in conquest was Gabrielle. I pondered the news all day as I walked, and it came to me that perhaps somehow my mission was as ill fated as my life had been, and my hope was in vain. I had desired no change in the world. Yet my very presence, returned unblessed from the dead, had perhaps changed the world somehow.
I was trying to fathom the mechanics of this when I heard fighting in the woods. I charged ahead and glimpsed Xena holding her own against six soldiers, a feral grin and her love of combat shining through her movements. She had the prowess of a warrior of old, and I had no doubt that she would prevail. But where was her companion?
Then, fainter and at a distance, I heard the clashing of steel. Much as I would have loved to rejoin my daughter in combat, I knew the fate of her soulmate was dearer to her heart than her own life. I turned from the fighting before me, and hastened downhill, charging through the woods. I was barely in time to save the bard and dispatch her enemies. I saw six of them arrayed against one woman, and she didn't even have a sword. My contempt flared and I slew them like dogs, showing them no mercy. In my time, their skills would have been a joke.
That night, while my daughter tended her soulmate, I stood watch. I faced the dark, sneaking an occasional glance at their small fire, and I kept a perimeter around them. In the silent forest I slew six more of the Tyrant's soldiers, scouts seeking tidings of the disappearance of the company we had defeated.
I was heading towards the remnants of that company the next morning, intending to slaughter them all, when I felt her presence behind me. She'd come to investigate yesterday's battle scene, and she'd felt my presence when her mind was no longer occupied with it. I melted into the forest, watching her scan for me. Of course she saw nothing. Then I heard her say "thank you", before she turned away. She'd known I was there, but she didn't know who I was.
The soldiers were just breaking their camp when I came upon them. I slew another six when they wandered into the woods to wash up or relieve themselves before mounting to ride. In this way there were two dozen, rather than thirty-six, when they gave chase that afternoon, and only one of their officers still lived. I set out, jogging across country, and reached the bridge ahead of them, for they had set a walking pace, wary, yet searching for the source of the attacks, and they had stopped for a noon meal.
I found the key strut of the first span of the bridge and tied a rope to it, then waited for their scouts. Less than a quarter candlemark later, I heard them on the road. I flung the rope in the face of the lead horse, causing it to start, and I slew the lead scout in his saddle. Then, as I fought the other two, I heard horses approaching at a gallop. It was her and her partner. I dispatched the last two scouts and rigged their horses to collapse the bridge. It was an old tactic, seldom used in these days, and it threw the pursuing company into disarray. Had they been facing a company of soldiers from my time, they would have been arrow shot in their moments of confusion. Instead of suspecting an ambush, they simply watched me crossing the bridge. I couldn't help feeling a deep contempt for these "modern" soldiers as I faded into the woods. If I'd set my mind to it, they wouldn't have lived to greet the dawn.
It was past the fourth candlemark following noon, and I knew where Xena would go, and roughly how far she'd get. I moved in their direction on a parallel trail, keeping a watch for any hostiles sneaking down from the road. All afternoon I heard none. Now, as the sun was falling into the Gulf of Corinth, I was torn between going on the offensive or simply keeping watch over my daughter's camp. Finally, I settled on a compromise.
I hadn't slept the night before, but in my time, to remain awake for two nights in a row while in battle was not uncommon. I found a place leading to their campsite, where I could see and hear any approach from above, and I set snares and traps about it. Then I hunkered down between some rocks, hidden in a pile of leaves. I drowsed, resting my body but not completely shutting down my senses. In the night I started twice. Once when a luckless rat tripped a snare, and again later, to check on a sound I had heard. It was a lynx coming for the rat. Fair enough I thought, for I'd seen droppings and knew where tastier food lay hidden.
In the last candle mark before the dawn I snatched a sleep addled rabbit from its nest under a shrub, and made my way towards the gulf. They were easy to find, following the trace scents of their small fire and their horses. When I knew their position, I hung the now limp rabbit from a branch at the mouth of the gully that held their camp.
Sometimes animals can see more clearly into the hearts of men than people can. The horses gave me only a softly knickered greeting and accepted a quick pat. It was hard to resist the urge to move closer and chance a look at them, but I knew my daughter would sense me and awaken. This late in the night her sleep would be particularly light."
It was the rambling confession of a ghost who had returned to the world, reclaiming flesh for a time. He spoke only once before heading away to the east.
"Sleep well, my little one," Atrius whispered to her.
In her sleep the last of the dream faded, and the Warrior Princess, once Destroyer of Nations, muttered, "yes, Daddy."
Xena rose in the first light of dawn and sensed something amiss. Nothing that spelt immediate danger, just something strange. She lifted her sword though, and made a circuit of their campsite. It was in this way that she discovered a fresh killed rabbit hanging fifteen feet from their bedrolls, just out of sight around the rocks.
At first she was suspicious, turning to face all quarters and projecting her senses, but she discovered nothing. Next she examined the rabbit...an unremarkable coney. It bore no wounds, but when she smelled no trace of poison, she tossed it close to the fire where it bounced off the lump in the bedroll, and was met with a muttered curse. The warrior resumed her investigation. In the soft earth near the horses she found large boot prints. A man had stood right between their mounts. She regarded Argo II with an accusing glance until the horse looked away.
"Did he give you apples or something?" She asked the mare.
Argo II turned back to regard her, shaking her head and finally nuzzling the warrior's neck. She received a rub and a pat in return, very much like the touch of their visitor. The horse had sensed a similar scent and feeling of reassurance, akin to what she'd come to associate with the woman who took care of her. Certainly the man had meant them no harm, and so she hadn't reacted with alarm. Like any herbivore that had survived to adulthood, she knew what was worth fearing.
Gabrielle came to her senses slowly, roused at first when something was tossed on her head. After some moments she peeked out of her blankets, coming face to face with a dead rabbit. Her eyes widened abruptly and she sat up. Xena was just returning.
"Don't you ever sleep?" The drowsy blonde asked, trying to suppress a yawn. "I see you've already been up hunting, huh?" Xena had a strange look on her face. "Xeeeena?"
"Either we had a helpful visitor, or that rabbit decided to hang itself five yards away."
Now Gabrielle was startled. A stranger had snuck up on them and Xena hadn't caught him. This was a first in her experience. It made her shiver. The warrior caught her expression, understanding it because of their closeness, and disturbed that the bard's faith was shaken. She wasn't really happy with the situation herself. There was some consolation, however.
"At least we know who it was," she reasoned, "and we should be glad to have a friend right now. I'm almost positive your savior, the man at the bridge yesterday, has been hunting up breakfast for us."
That said, she proceeded to skin and clean the rabbit, banking the fire and planting the spitted carcass above it. The bard had dragged herself to the spring to wash up; having for once lost the desire for added sleep. Soon delicious scents from the roasting meat threaded their way to her nostrils, triggering a growling in her belly. Xena briefly examined her wound, and settled down to mix another dose of medicine.
"Planning to ruin my morning, I see," Gabrielle commented as she watched; though a slight smile curved her lips. Her partner's concern for her always warmed her heart.
"Have to do something to make sure you're awake," Xena deadpanned, "cause we have a long march today."
They sat for a while as the mug of herbs steeped, and then Xena handed it over. Gabrielle slugged the mix down and snatched a tender morsel off the haunch of the spitted rabbit. She chewed it thoroughly to cover the bitterness of the medicinal tea, then took a long drink of water. Finally she handed back the mug.
"See, not so bad, huh?" Xena asked, surprised at the lack of protest.
"Hey," the bard replied with a smile, "it's getting to be one of my favorite things. Right up there with poison oak and seasickness."
Xena regarded her soulmate for a moment, appearing to contemplate something, then replied, "Ya know, there's a tonic my mother used to make, helps digestion, ya take it after every meal."
"Uhhh, my digestion's just fine, Xena, never had a problem...really."
It was another pretty morning, sunny and warm. They had resumed their flight through the woods, leading their horses among the trees. The land was rising towards the spine of the isthmus as they headed east, back towards Boeotia. So far there had been no further signs of either their benefactor or the soldiers. The two women could have been the only mortals for a hundred miles, with only their horses, the wild birds, and a few small animals for company. As they walked through the peaceful sun dappled woodland they discussed their situation.
"Xena, when Caesar created the alternate world, we had places in it. Now it seems like we've been stuck into someone else's world. Our places are already taken and we certainly don't belong here. Wherever here is. And there wasn't any transition like falling into the vortex...we just sort of appeared here."
"Or this world appeared around us. We were pretty isolated. It must've happened between the last time we saw a traveler and when those riders fled from us, before we were attacked."
"So if we go back to Thebes..."
"They might mistake us for enemies of the state, or imposters, or the Tyrant and her friend." Xena stated her fears of what a changed world might hold in store. "At this point we have no way of knowing. We need more information."
"Gods, how could this happen?"
"Well, maybe in this world I succeeded in conquering Corinth and just went crazy...that doesn't explain you though, and it doesn't explain Eve."
"Could something have happened later to make you go back to being a warlord?"
"Gabrielle, that's another thing I don't understand. The Tyrant is organized, just look at her troops. She didn't do this overnight. Yet, Eve was already the Messenger of Eli. In my life, that means I'd 'ave had to accomplish all that she has in just the last two years. Less, if ya figure in the Rhinegold. We lost a year there. It takes longer than that to conquer and consolidate a sizeable realm...I wonder if she's taken Sparta as well as Corinth."
"It could explain the soldiers..."
"Yeah, the soldiers...the ones who attacked and chased us were headed west, towards Corinth. The isthmus is part of their territory. Makes me wonder about Boeotia and Attica. The Tyrant might hold Thebes and Athens."
"So what about the masked warrior, Xena? Why would he be helping us? I wish you'd seen him fight..."
"I can already guess how good he is, Gabrielle. He was taking out three men at the bridge when we crossed, and then escaped the company that was chasing us. I'm guessing they went after him and left us; why else did they stop? Yet he still managed to find us and bring us a rabbit. And he walked right up and stood between our horses while we slept."
Gabrielle swallowed. She hadn't thought of all that. "Xena, could you do all that?"
"Well, maybe everything but fooling the horses," Xena joked. And catching a rabbit in the dark isn't easy either; she realized. There hadn't been a mark on it and rabbits sleep at night.
"So what you're saying is that this guy's as good as you are, right? But there isn't anyone that good in our world. So..." Gabrielle stopped abruptly when she nearly ran into her warrior's back.
Xena had stopped walking and was staring at her soulmate. She couldn't think of anyone near the level of their mystery warrior. Not in their world, anyway. She recalled some of her more proficient enemies. Morloch had been formidable, for an egotistical psychopath. Najara and Callisto had both been good fighters, (for self-righteous psychopaths), but had acted like they'd habitually sweetened their wine with too much white lead. Even the demigod, Bellerophon, hadn't combined the wits, skills, and prowess of either herself or Gabrielle's savior...that's why he's dead, she thought.
"In Caesar's world we were all there," Xena remembered, "you, me, Caesar, Brutus, Alti, Lao Ma, even Joxer...but our lives were different. I'll bet every soldier had a counterpart in our world. But, Gabrielle, I'll bet this warrior's got no counterpart in our world. We'd 'ave heard of anyone that good long ago; we'd probably know him if he weren't evil. He's the key. We need to find him and talk to him."
"Somehow, I don't think that's going to be all that easy, Xena. I think maybe he'll find us when he's ready to talk."
"I think maybe you're right as usual, my bard." The warrior favored her soulmate with a smile, because now she had the beginnings of a plan.
The Tyrant's soldiers had made an overnight encampment on the upper road, not far from the burned out inn. After yesterday's fruitless chase and the destruction of the bridge, they were in no hurry to report their failure. Reporting a failure was not a wise career move in the Tyrant's army. Their inability to capture or slay the two fugitive imposters, reported by a pair of travelers in their area of patrol, would not enhance their life expectancies. Just as bad was the presence of the mysterious masked warrior. The Tyrant knew something about him, but what it was hadn't been shared with the troops. Their officer had decided that it would be better to use the bridge collapse as an excuse to delay their report, and continue to hunt their quarry. It wasn't a very good option, but it was less suicidal than returning to Corinth empty-handed.
They had started as a standard company of forty-eight, composed of a captain and three lieutenants, each commanding a squad of eleven men at arms. Two days ago their entire gamma squad had disappeared. The six men who had gone to find them had disappeared in the night. The next morning another six members of the alpha and delta squads had vanished between breakfast and moving out. Among those had been the captain and another lieutenant. During the chase they had come upon three of their advance scouts being killed at the bridge. Now only one lieutenant remained, commanding twenty men at arms. The men could tell he was nervous, frustrated by their quarry, and terrified of the Tyrant. Last night they had feared the darkness, but in the morning they were all still alive.
After their cheerless morning meal, their lieutenant had ordered them to search the woods, starting at the inn and working back towards the bridge. He'd had a hunch that the fugitives might be trying to escape back across the isthmus. The masked warrior, at least, had been last seen heading into the woods on that side of the bridge. It was their only lead. So now four squads of five moved west through the trees, each within hailing distance of another, and all of them wishing they were somewhere else. They were cavalrymen not infantry, they grumbled, and fighting on foot in the woods made them nervous. A few observed that their luck had been no better on horseback than on foot.
By the time they stopped for their noon meal, they were approaching the crest of the peninsula. If the morning meal had been lacking in revelry, the noon meal was positively morose. The officer had tried to rally his troops' flagging morale with a few words, but his performance was simply pathetic. The lieutenant had been fidgeting and chewing his nails throughout his uninspired oratory. He finally trailed off into silence and sat back down, his effort having done more harm than good.
After half a candlemark the soldiers set out again. Less than two miles now separated them from the warrior and the bard. They were moving towards each other, both groups unaware of the other's presence. During their meal, they had been joined by a stealthy presence. From a distance so close that they would have been shocked, a pair of ice blue eyes watched their progress under the trees. The warrior almost laughed in contempt. These soldiers would have been better off awaiting their quarry in ambush, rather than hunting them thus in the woods. They were making way too much noise, had no cover, and couldn't choose their place of engagement while on the move. They had given up the advantage of their numbers through bad tactics. Their mistakes would likely prove fatal.
The squad furthest inland had the dubious honor of no flanking comrades on one side. It was the weakest position, the one most susceptible to attack. These soldiers had advanced thirty yards before they realized that one of their squad members had disappeared. They immediately called a halt, and backtracked to find the missing soldier. He was sitting in the shade of a tree, looking at ease, but when they came closer they saw a bloody wound in his chest. He had certainly been stabbed, but the killing weapon had been removed.
The next soldier to die was the man who took his place, but this time the other members of his squad saw him being dragged into a gully by a tall figure in black wearing bronze armor. They thought they could rescue him if they could come to his aid quickly enough, and so they charged towards him, while yelling for reinforcements. When they reached the gully, they started down the slope towards their friend, who was slumped face first in the creek at the bottom. Suddenly the leaves erupted behind them and they turned to see the masked warrior, just as his sword impaled the nearest soldier. The remaining two moved attack. The first dropped to his knees almost immediately, a dagger planted hilt deep in his chest. The other was slashed across the throat as he lunged to stab their attacker. As this last soldier lay dying, he watched the stranger retrieve his dagger and then disappear back into a leaf filled depression in the bank. The soldier's throat wound didn't allow him to voice a warning.
When the reinforcements arrived but moments later, they found the soldier dead with his three friends, but no evidence of their killer. After looking long enough to satisfy themselves that the gully was otherwise deserted, they turned away to continue their search, never having set foot past the top of the slope. After their footsteps passed into silence, the masked warrior rose out of his camouflaged position and resumed hunting the hunters. Now only sixteen of the Tyrant's soldiers remained.
During the next half candlemark, the warrior was able to reduce the company by another four soldiers, and so, when they crested a small hill that trailed out of an outcropping of limestone, there were but twelve remaining. Their lieutenant thought his company still numbered fourteen. Then, between the trunks of the trees twenty yards away, he spied movement. Two riderless horses, saddled and bearing travel kits, were moving uphill at a walk. They appeared to be the same horses that the company had chased the previous afternoon. The officer couldn't believe his luck.
Xena and Gabrielle had been leading their horses, headed uphill, near the crest of a rise. The warrior's senses were on high alert even before she heard a muffled shifting of leaves somewhere ahead. Their view through the tree trunks was marginal, the natural movements of light and shadow masking the possible movements of enemies, and hearing was the more useful sense.
"Quiet, Gabrielle. I just heard something," Xena urgently hissed, as she froze in midstride.
The warrior was standing with her head cocked, projecting her senses forward. For the second time, she had heard something suspicious. It had only been the sound of a twig breaking, but she already sensed enemies ahead. Then a whistle that definitely wasn't a bird pierced the air. It was followed by the hiss of Xena's sword being drawn. Next to her, Gabrielle pulled her sais from the loops at the side of her boots.
They tossed the horses' reins over their saddles and urged them away to safety. The animals moved off, heading inland, as the warrior and the bard began moving stealthily uphill towards a limestone outcropping. The warning whistle had come from that direction, while the enemy, Xena now felt sure, lay straight ahead.
When they both heard another branch snap they took cover, crouching in the shadow of a large tree and peering around the sides of the bole, as twelve of the Tyrant's soldiers crested the hill. The soldiers had given up moving in squads, and now formed a loose line, walking within sight of each other. It was obvious they were searching the woods for enemies, raking the area with their eyes, and keeping silent among themselves. They were trying to move with stealth, and both women realized that they actually made fairly little noise, just the occasional telltale footfall. Given time, Xena thought, they might succeed in tracking down the horses. If the women kept silent, the soldiers might never discover the warrior and her soulmate.
Xena noticed another movement out of the corner of her eye. It seemed like a shadow had shifted, slipping from behind a boulder and around the back of a tree. Even before her full attention had shifted, she saw a fast moving glimmer in the air, accompanied by a soft whistling, and then a thud. The nearest soldier fell facedown, killed by dagger thrown from a good fifteen yards away. While all eyes were on the fallen soldier, the shadow moved again, further from the rocks, disappearing behind another tree directly behind the soldiers. They were still reacting; their attention focused on their fallen comrade. A second blade slammed into another soldier, right in their midst. They reacted by freezing in shock, standing in a loose circle around the two bodies.
"It's time to talk." Xena whispered to the bard, as she pulled her chakram from its hook.
She calculated the flight almost subconsciously, and rose quickly to fling the weapon with a vicious sidearm cast. The characteristic metallic whine cut the air, then the sound of it rebounding off a tree trunk. The weapon shot into the circle of soldiers, slamming into two of them in rapid succession at head height. Leaving death in its wake, the ring caromed off a final trunk before flying back to Xena's outstretched hand.
The eight remaining soldiers spread out, finally realizing the danger of clumping together. But they had seen where the chakram flew as it returned, and they had seen Xena rise from hiding to catch it. Now they charged at the warrior, and as she watched them approach, she saw their mysterious ally moving rapidly in pursuit.
The soldiers were ten yards away, closing on their position, when Xena leaped out to meet them. She launched herself, flipping through the air, closing the distance by half as Gabrielle charged out to join her. The Warrior Princess landed with her sword drawn, the requisite feral grin plastered on her face. Even as the soldiers moved to surround her, Xena saw the masked warrior retrieving his daggers from the fallen enemies. Then she was clashing blades with three of the Tyrant's troops, and the details of the fighting around her became background as her concentration focused on her opponents.
Xena was keeping her three enemies at bay, slashing and parrying, trying to force a mistake that would give her an opening. Gabrielle was protecting her back, leading with her uninjured left side, blocking the soldiers' blades and counterattacking with whipping and stabbing techniques. The women shed the first blood when a soldier stayed too close to Xena for a split second, allowing her to slash his belly open. A moment later another soldier fell when the bard slammed the butt of a sai into his temple.
The soldiers had noticed the bandage on the blonde's right upper arm, and they had seen how she favored her left side. Four of the remaining six edged into position to attack her. The remaining two engaged the warrior while giving ground, drawing the women apart. The distance between them increased by less than two yards, but it was enough for one soldier to slip between them.
Xena heard the movement behind her, but her two opponents pressed their attack to keep her engaged. Four soldiers now had the bard surrounded and one made a desperate attack, sliding in close on his side to sweep her legs and send her crashing down on her injured arm. Xena screamed her name.
Gabrielle hit the ground hard, the sais in her hands kept her from reaching out to break her fall. The sweep was so quick she barely had time to tilt her head up and avoid being knocked out. The landing was still bad. Her whole body slammed down on her right arm. Pain leapt through her from the wound as the stitches tore through her flesh. She heard her soulmate scream her name. A muffled cry escaped her lips, a brief flash of red seared her eyes, and the soldiers moved in as she began to struggle to raise herself. Above her a man was poised to impale her, and she saw his blade start down.
I'm going to die, she thought, and I've failed, failed to protect myself, and failed to guard my warrior's back. She made a desperate attempt to get her left sai up to deflect the sword, but she knew she'd never move fast enough. And then the man unaccountably jerked. The blade that had been headed for her heart was wrenched to the side, and she felt it piercing her shoulder at a sharp angle instead, going below her collarbone, but missing her ribcage. She felt it crack her shoulder blade at the exit wound. But now the man was falling backwards, and blood was fountaining from his mouth. She heard Xena screaming her name again and again. Then another sword came down on her, a glancing slash that crashed off her scalp before everything went black.
Xena went wild. She had sensed the soldier behind her, and from the corner of her eye she had seen the sweep. She screamed her partner's name in desperation, then her fear gave her strength. With a sweeping stroke she slammed away the two sword blades in front of her and spun to slash one soldier's neck with a stroke that continued on to impale the second. Now she turned to face Gabrielle, only to see a man's sword shooting down towards her chest, and ice gripped her. There was nothing she could have done that would save the life that was dearer than her own. She was too far away, and though she saw as if time had slowed down, she knew there was no time for her to respond. Then she saw the glittering flashes of sunlight off spinning steel, heard the warbling whoosh of it's passing from her right, and the solid thump as it struck Gabrielle's attacker in the neck. Only a foot above his target, his blade shifted course as his body was jerked by the impact. She saw his blade pierce her soulmate, her body slammed back down by the impact, and she screamed her name.
Xena realized she had already started moving forward, but jerked herself to a halt. She watched as the last three soldiers died. The Warrior Princess could only admire the deadly mastery she witnessed. She doubted that she could do better even on a good day.
The second man who tried to cut the bard managed only a glancing blow as an unseen sword entered his back, actually lifting him off his feet with the force of the thrust. Then his body was flung off the blade like a toy. A soldier on his right was turning towards him and his head was hewn completely off. The sword continued on its course as the warrior pivoted. Held in his outstretched hand, the blade cleared a six-foot arc over the fallen woman, almost too fast to see, and the last soldier was cut down, his body half-severed to his spine. And then the woods fell silent.
Xena and the masked warrior stared into each other's eyes but neither said a word. Each held a bloody sword. Each felt an aching in their hearts; Xena's for her fallen soulmate, Atrius' for his daughter's pain. Xena doubted the man would move against her, but she held her guard. Her thoughts were for Gabrielle, unconscious and bleeding on the ground. She saw sorrow in the man's eyes. For a moment she stiffened, when he flicked the blood from his blade with a snap of his wrist, but then relaxed as he sheathed it over his shoulder.
Then the man knelt to examine the bard's wounds, and Xena dropped her blade and joined him. Even with the stranger so close, she couldnĒt stop the tears that spilled from her eyes as she saw the gash on Gabrielle's forehead, and the sword still in place, piercing her shoulder. Her hands trembled badly as she began her examination, fearing the wound had punctured a lung. She had rarely seen her beloved companion so badly hurt, and she was near to being overcome with guilt.
I've failed her, Xena couldn't help but think, I knew she was injured and I failed to protect her. We should never have fought. We should have hidden, and never showed ourselves. I just wanted to draw this mysterious warrior to us. Now I've failed her again.
"Listen as she breathes. The lung is sound," she heard the man say, "fell as this wound appears, the greater threat is from the head wound. Check her eyes."
His voice was smooth, deep and resonant. It was self-assured, soothing, and somehow it made the warrior feel calmer, even safe. It was a voice that could take the fright from a child or a skittish horse, yet command obedience on the battlefield. It was a voice that echoed somewhere inside her, from somewhere past the boundaries of her memories. She took deep breaths and closed her eyes, trying to focus herself. Gabrielle needed her, and the man's words gave her hope.
"That's right, little one, breathe and find your center."
On a deep level, Xena registered the term of endearment, but she was close to being overcome with guilt and grief, her system was still charged with adrenaline from the battle, and the words passed through her conscious mind. Even so, she had lost any remaining doubts about his goodwill. He had saved her soulmate's life twice in three days, and he had slain their enemies. To the warrior, it was a life debt owed to a stranger.
First the right and then the left, Xena lifted Gabrielle's eyelids. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw them contract from the sudden light. She looked up and nodded to him, and he seemed to relax. Then, as Xena held the bard's shoulders still, the man gently slid the sword from her body and quickly applied pressure to staunch the bloodflow. They placed a field dressing over the wound, with herbs to fight infection and hasten the clotting. The two warriors worked together well, speaking very little while concentrating deeply, both knowing what was necessary. When they were done, Xena was surprised that it was but mid-afternoon.
"I hate to move her, but we should be out of sight in case more soldiers come," she said.
"There are no more of their company, Xena," he told her, "all lie slain in these woods. Four dozens all told. Yet I agree, a more defensible position with water nearby is desirable."
Without another word he stood and walked off towards the outcroppings that lay uphill, quickly passing out of sight among the trees. Once he was gone no sound marked his passing, and Xena felt as though his absence was akin to waking from a dream. She looked at the surrounding woods. It was peaceful, even beautiful, with the shafts of bright sunlight claiming the shifting openings among the branches above. The golden light danced and chased the shadows on the forest floor, painting the leaf litter with constantly changing patterns. The scene calmed her nerves, and she began to hear the sounds of birds, small animals, and the wind enlivening the leaves. She became aware of her breathing and heartbeat, and the shallow breathing of her soulmate, for which she gave thanks. No greater gift could she imagine, than the knowledge that her beloved had been spared an unnecessary death in this threatening world they had found themselves in. Soon she discerned returning footsteps, and she turned to find him closer than she had expected.
"Above us is a niche among the walls of rock, almost a cave," he reported, " and at the wall's base lies a spring. It will give shelter on three sides, yet we will be able to move her in with little difficulty. The horses can remain by the spring below."
The two warriors lashed saplings together, and laid the bedroll across the frame. Gently they lifted Gabrielle onto the stretcher, and carried her to the place Atrius had found. The niche was larger than Xena had expected; she would have described it as a small cave, though the roof was incomplete in front. The edge of the niche was about five feet above the space where the spring flowed. Xena set her end of the stretcher on the ledge, and then leapt up into the niche. Atrius raised his end so she could pull Gabrielle in after her.
After they had moved the bard in, Atrius took a look around the camp, nodding with approval at the site. He checked the afternoon light, and then announced that he'd bring back firewood. While the man was gone, Xena settled her soulmate as comfortably as she could. Since being knocked out, Gabrielle had slid in and out of consciousness, and now she was quiet. When he returned, Xena left to search for the horses. By the time she found them and brought them back, the fire was set and burning near the front of the ledge. The rocks acted like a chimney to draw away the scant whiffs of smoke. Xena subconsciously nodded her approval...it was just as she would have done it herself. Now she took her medicines from a saddlebag, along with the water skins and a pan. She set about heating water and mixing herbs, hoping she'd be able to medicate her soulmate when she awoke.
"Do you need any help with your preparations?" The man asked, as he watched her measuring the ingredients. "If not, I think I'll find us something to eat before dark falls."
"I'll be fine," Xena replied, then looked up at him she added, "and thanks, thanks for everything."
For a moment he looked back at her, then he stood and sighed. "I wish I had been there a moment sooner. But for lack of a third dagger I could have killed the man who took her down. She's a spirited fighter, but I can tell she has no bloodlust...and that's another thing I mean to check."
Xena looked at him, momentarily puzzled. Gabrielle's freedom from the desire to kill was one of the traits she admired most about her. Finally she decided not to approach the topic then, she just stated her feelings.
"I...no, we both owe you so much for your help these last few days. You've saved her life twice already. I shouldn't have fought the soldiers, shouldn't have expected her to fight while wounded. It's my fault. You have my thanks, friend."
Atrius nodded to her. He slipped off the ledge carrying their game bag, going out between the rock walls of the outcropping, and disappearing into the deepening gloom of late afternoon in the woods. The soft crunch of his footfalls dwindled rapidly, and soon could not be heard. Again, with his absence came the sensation of waking from an inexplicable dream.
He was gone for over a candle mark and a half, during which time Xena cleaned Gabrielle of drying blood, changed her clothing, and wrapped her in the bedroll. She succeeded in cleaning the blood off herself as well, and then made a cup of tea. It warmed her. A little later she finally managed to coax a cup of foul tasting medicine into the bard. Sadly, Gabrielle didn't even have the strength to protest.
The sunlight was dying and evening hastened to darken the woods. Xena settled back and lost herself in thought, reviewing the afternoon's events. For a long time she played back the battles in her head, tallying up the soldiers, and the results shocked her. Over the last two days the man had single-handedly killed thirty-seven soldiers on their behalf. Gabrielle had brought down three, and she had slain eight. Xena was getting an uncomfortable feeling.
The soldier Gabrielle had struck, before she'd been so badly wounded, had fallen like a stone. She'd been aware of it, though she'd been paying much more attention to the men she'd been fighting. Such a blow to the temple could be incapacitating, but it wasn't necessarily a mortal wound. In their first fight, Gabrielle had knocked out one of the soldiers Xena had been fighting, striking his temple from behind just before she'd collapsed. After tending the bard's arm, the warrior had found the man brain damaged but still breathing. At the time, she'd been thankful for Gabrielle's unconsciousness, knowing the blonde would have been horrified when she impaled him. It had been a mercy killing, in a way, for her experience told her that he would never have recovered. Now she understood what the stranger had meant, what he'd gone to check. The guy didn't miss a thing.
Darkness had fallen and only the few flames that danced from the most recently added branches lit their hideout. The fire was more for the warmth, produced by the bed of coals, than for light, and it gave them the ability to heat water and food. The man had been gone a long time. Xena had dropped off the ledge and passed the horses, before slipping out of the sheltering crevice to check on their security. She let her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, then turned back to face their camp. What she detected was mostly a soft glow on the rock face above their niche. It could be easily missed if one wasn't looking for it. For a while longer she stayed in the darkness, casting her senses out into the woods. Almost no moonlight shone below the canopy of the trees. In the distance an owl hooted. Closer to their camp the only sounds were crickets chirping, and the occasional rustling of mice and their kin. Nothing larger was moving nearby. She turned back to the camp, and felt more than saw the shadow standing in the lee of the rocks. For a moment she tensed. A soft chuckle greeted her ears, and the shadow moved towards her. She relaxed.
"Don't do that," she whispered, "there are people who have had accidents sneaking up on me in the dark."
"Actually, I've been here since I heard you coming out." Atrius confessed. "The fire's position compromises us little, and you've tended it wisely. There's nothing nearby to threaten this peaceful night."
Xena could only stare at him for a moment in the dark. She could barely see him, even though he was only six feet away. More inexplicably, she'd felt nothing.
"What did you find?" She asked, changing the subject. "Was he there?"
Atrius sighed, and Xena could guess the answer. He was long gone, recovered enough from Gabrielle's blow to escape after the battle. It had been long enough that he could have made it to the road.
"We'll probably have to move early tomorrow," he told her, confirming her guess, "in the meantime, let's have some dinner."
"Sounds good to me," Xena said, "I'm starving."
When they'd climbed back into the niche, Atrius undid the game bag he'd slung from his belt. Judging by its bulk, Xena had expected another rabbit. She was unprepared when a pair of quail fell out, followed by a clump of mushrooms. It was an unexpected treat, a welcome change from their usual menu of fish, rabbit, and stewed horse jerky. The man smiled when he saw her eyes light up.
The birds were delicious, and for once Xena ate more than Gabrielle did. The bard had been drowsy from her medicine, weak from blood loss, and she was still in a state of shock. That she ate at all was a testament to her vital nature.
Later, after the camp was cleaned up, Xena felt the time had come to ask the seemingly endless questions she had been refining over the last couple days. At least the poor guy would be spared Gabrielle's version of interrogation. The warrior smiled to herself, knowing the bard would never forgive herself for being unable to question the man. She really hadn't decided how to start, but she knew she had to start somewhere.
"I've said this before, but I want you to know you have my thanks for all you've done," Xena stated, "for both of us. I'd be lost if anything happened to Gabrielle."
"I have watched as the bond that joins your souls has grown," he replied, "and I think perhaps fate at last shows favor to my family. It has not always been so."
His comment implied much, and clarified little to the Warrior Princess. The main point, she realized, was that he was claiming a long-term involvement in their lives. Strange, considering they had never met him before in their travels.
"I guess I'm baffled," she confessed, "because I'm sure we've never crossed paths since she and I started travelling together."
"It is not easy to explain," he said, looking into the fire, "I've long had much to say to you, yet now I'm lost for how to start. Would that I had her gift of words." He told her, looking over at Gabrielle.
Surprisingly, the bard was watching them, though she seemed to be either stuporous or drowsy. It appeared that she couldn't let herself miss a good story, even after missing most of a good meal. Xena smiled when she saw Gabrielle was awake and listening. Again she thanked the gods the head injury hadn't been worse.
"To say my peace would take few words," he finally resumed, looking back at Xena, "yet to bring understanding to it makes for a longer tale."
"Twice you've saved my life," Gabrielle softly said, "and I'd be honored to know who it is that's saved me. Please, at least tell me your name."
Atrius knew he couldn't refuse the blonde's request. There was just something about the way she spoke, her concern and regard for him that showed in her eyes, and her lack of any hurtful intent. He had long watched her, with a growing respect, during the years she'd supported his daughter. She was well on her way to melting his heart as she had his little one's. Somehow it didn't really surprise him. He answered Gabrielle's question, but his words were for Xena. It was to her that he spoke as he unfastened the mask and drew it off, pulling it over his head like a hood.
"Xena, I'm the one who should have been there to guide and protect you through all your hardest years. Fate has forever taken me from my rightful place, through a god's deceit and evil deeds. I am Atrius, the father you never knew."
At first neither Xena nor Gabrielle could think of a single thing to say. All they could do was stare. The relationship he claimed could be seen in their appearance. The man before them had facial features that, if softened, could well be seen in Xena's face. His brow and chin were stronger, more squared, but they shared the same cheekbones, straight nose, and ice blue eyes. His hair was black like hers, though some gray showed at his temples, but it was straight, pulled back and bound with a golden clasp bearing a roaring lion standing on crossed swords; the ancient Lion of Amphipolis. He wore no beard or moustache, and though Xena's lips were fuller, their mouths had the same shape and placement.
His build was powerful, not thick like a bear, but more akin to the wiry strength of a panther. He was similar in form to the God of War, but actually several inches taller, standing a half-head above his daughter's height. Even his voice seemed a masculine version of Xena's own; expressive and smooth, though deeper in tone.
"Well, I honestly don't know what to think," Xena said as she got to her feet. She moved to where Atrius sat with his back against the rocks, "but I think I have a way of finding out."
"Xeeeena..." Gabrielle began, disturbed by what she guessed was about to happen.
"Go ahead, little one," Atrius said with a wry smile. "It's a quick way to dispel one of your doubts."
Even as he spoke, Xena's fingers had shot out to shut off the bloodflow to his brain. There was no question that she could ask to satisfy her doubts. Once burned, twice wary. Ares had tried to win her back, masquerading as her father; he had tried and failed. She watched Atrius as he centered his internal balance, a thing few understood how to do. He couldn't restart his circulation that way, only extend his survival time, perhaps by ten or fifteen seconds. A trickle of blood slowly oozed from his left nostril, and he dabbed it with a finger, raising his hand to see it for himself. Something glimmered in his eyes; as if in rejoicing at a simple thing long lost. Then his fingers snapped against the pressure points of his neck, releasing the "pinch". For a while he breathed deeply to reinfuse his blood with oxygen.
"I'm not a god," he told them solemnly, "just a dead soldier back in the world for a time. No man who has lived holds so deep a grievance against the God of War."
Atrius told the story of his persecution and madness at the hands of the Furies. He described Ares' plot, which had been revealed to him in Tartarus after his death, for the sake of his torment. Then he recited the sequence of events that had followed his death; how he had watched from the underworld through all the years that had forged the Warrior Princess. At last Xena could understand how her life had been twisted, from her earliest days, by the designs of the God of War. No one in her family had been untouched. Atrius passionately stated his grievances, while his audience sat; sometimes silent, sometimes sobbing, and sometimes shaking with rage.
Gabrielle's heart broke for the injustice visited on this man and the family he had loved. Her heart ached for her soulmate, comprehending the road she had been forced down because of his absence. Xena found herself thinking back on everything she'd ever felt for the God of War, and like a kettle set over a fire, the pressure of her anger grew. Never again would she feel the same. That chapter was closed, and their "one chance in a billion" lay dead.
The question of her true parentage lay reopened but unresolved. Atrius pointed out that even her defeat of the god before the Furies could have been a manipulation. Ares was certainly capable of regrouping; reaping such a gain even as his original plan failed. She had reluctantly accepted Ares' paternity as the source of her abilities, yet Atrius claimed that it need not be so.
"I learned arms as a boy, and became a warrior as a young man." He told them. "I was a follower of the God of War all my life. In my early years I served in his army, eventually rising in his favor to command many companies of men. In those days, Ares had no Favorite, no Chosen Warrior, who was held above all others. Rather, he rewarded his best warriors with his favor in such degrees as he saw fit. Thus, many outstanding fighters marched in his ranks. Before his betrayal, I had held his favor for many years, and my prowess was increased. Thus, Xena, what you ascribed to divine parentage could have been instilled by your status as his Favorite. Know also that the face of war has softened in these latter days. This Tyrant's soldiers would scarce have lived through their first watch to see the evening mess, had they fought in my day."
At this claim, Gabrielle rolled her eyes. They had seemed plenty deadly to her. Even Xena shook her head at his statement. It brought a smile to his lips.
"Think, little one, when Gabrielle lay facing death, how quickly you dispatched those soldiers. That ferocity is the fire in your heart that should guide you if ever you raise your sword. You have a tendency to "piss about" with enemies; this I have noticed. I have also seen you sometimes being disarmed by a parry or a kick to the wrist. You allow your guard to open at times. I would have taught you better."
He winked at her as he said the last. Xena was a bit taken aback. What he claimed was true; she knew it in her heart. Still, she was accustomed to defeating her enemies in the end. Had battle changed so much since his times? Had warriors? Did he always fight with the inspiration she only sometimes felt, most often when her soulmate was endangered? Having seen him fight, she could believe it was so.
"How can so much have changed in just one generation?" She asked him, skeptical.
"Much has changed in the years that lie between us," he told her, "and a full 26 years are lost to you both. My last battle was fought when you were two...near 60 years ago. Think, Xena, in your time died the last of the giants, the centaurs are all but gone, harpies and dryads are few, dragons but a myth. Men once fought the inhuman enemy for survival, and in such battles forged their resolve and skill. Now men fight none but other men. Those others had powers, great strength, fierce natural weapons, many never tired, some never died. The requirements of battle forged the warrior to its demands. Now a warrior need only be more brutal than the next man, and is seldom tested by more trying foes. Sixty, seventy, eighty years ago, the face of battle was hard."
"War is still hard on the soul," Gabrielle whispered, remembering the painful decisions of Helicon.
"Gabrielle, to live or to die was never a warrior's measure of victory or defeat," Atrius told her, "only by preserving that for which he fought could he claim to have prevailed. I mean not the piece of ground, stained with blood, nor even the lives valiantly defended, but rather the integrity for which these things are valued. Love, honor, and hope; in the end it is only these that matter. You know it in your heart. For these I have taken over a thousand lives."
She didn't know what to say. Neither of them did. Gabrielle couldn't relate to it except in the abstract. For her, killing even one person was fraught with guilt, self-doubt, and remorse. Xena had ordered the deaths of thousands, even caused the destruction of Roman armies and Khan's army in Chin, but that was different from facing each man and seeing his blood on your sword. She guessed that she had personally slain about four hundred and fifty people in all her years of fighting, and it weighed heavily on her still. Most had died in the early years, during her quest for power and revenge. The memories would follow her beyond the grave. What weight would bow her shoulders if she had to count the blood of over a thousand men on her hands? Yes, she thought, the face of war had certainly been hard. It had bred the great epic heroes of story and song.
He told them next of how he had escaped from Hades' realm. Of Caesar's flight and his chase, and of his long awaited return to the mortal world. Again Xena was astounded, that her defeat of the Olympians had opened the possibility of both Atrius' and Caesar's returns. He filled in the last few days from his point of view, finally presenting what he knew of the current world. It didn't add much to what she and Gabrielle had found out from the crucified man.
The night had grown old while the three had talked; the watches of the night had fled like the smoke from the wick of the candle that would measure their passing. Somewhere, beyond the trees, perhaps over the town of Amphipolis, in Thrace far to the east, the first glimmers of dawn tinged the sky with light. The stars lost their brilliance as the rumor of Apollo's chariot stole the night's blackness in preface of another day. Soon a cock would crow. Dew would form on the thirsty grass, and the people of the world would rise to march another step closer to their doom.
In a niche of rock, a dead man took a deep breath and declared what had caused him to maintain his hope, renounce his death, and seek to right a wrong done by a god. He gave words to the feelings that had driven him during his own lifetime, through all his years of torment in the underworld, and back to this mortal life.
"Xena, despite all my skills I was defeated by Ares' plan. I failed in my desire to keep safe my family. That craven malefactor ensnared me, and all of us were caught his web; all of us brought to ruin. Yet while I have watched the suffering of those whom I held dear, I have seen my suffering redressed, and the fall of my tormentors. In all these things, you have been my source of joy, my liberator, and my avenger.
I know your life has been hard, and by turns you have been angry, bitter, and for a time your heart was filled with ice. I cried for you, for your pain, wishing that just once I could have held you and told you that not all those you loved would desert or betray you. Yet fate had made me the first to do so. No greater crime did the God of War commit against me, than stealing the precious gift of fatherhood, of being able to comfort my child. In all the years since my death, no greater wish had I than that I might come to you in your darkness, and simply tell you that I had always loved you, always cared for you, and always wanted to protect you.
For all his deceits, and plots, and godly powers, Ares was defeated by the good that survived in your heart. For so long I have wanted to tell you that I have always loved you, and how very proud I am of you, my little one."
Gabrielle lay with tears coursing down her cheeks. All her soulmate's years of anger and heartbreak could have been spared. All her years of darkness avoided, all her self-condemnation would have never been, had Atrius only lived to love and protect his family. Her warrior could have escaped all the pain and doubt she now carried. She could have been happy, and though perhaps never a hero, at least a woman at peace. And yet, she thought, then we would never have met. Ashamed, she squashed the selfishness of that thought, knowing that she would forgo the light of her life if Xena could have had light instead of darkness in hers.
Xena lowered her head; lifelong habit making her reticent to display the tears that overflowed her eyes. They had been happy once. They could have been the family she had seen in her dream. So much heartbreak would have been avoided, so many lives preserved. She cried for the pointlessness of it all, the depth of their losses, and their helpless manipulation. She had fought all her adult life to make her own fate, and it had been the bitterest of jokes, the greatest of deceptions, for everything she had been was the product of a god's design.
Through all the years of her youth, Xena had wondered why her father hadn't felt that she was worthy of his love, wondered what had made him leave. She'd spent years searching herself, in the lonely childhood nights when she couldn't sleep, looking for the reason that had made him just abandon them and walk away. She'd never found that reason, but somewhere deep inside she had come to believe that she was something bad, that she was somehow unworthy of her father's love.
Then Cortese had come. She'd led the villagers to their bitter victory, then come home with Lyceus' body, only to be cursed by her mother. She had lost the love of two more people she held dear that day. Her self-doubt had exploded into self-definition. The dark years had followed, born by her need for revenge, and nursed by her deep-seated feelings of worthlessness. She had sought the co-joined goals, of ensuring the security of Amphipolis and appeasing her self-loathing, through the acquisition of power. Soon, though she could break anyone that stood against her, in the depths of her heart she knew she couldn't fix herself. And her father was only the first.
Every chance she took to love someone had ended in death or betrayal, disappointment or rejection, followed by her suffering and loneliness. Through years of repetition, the experience became predictable and familiar, until she was convinced that the consistent pattern would never change. Each time it happened, she'd relived the primal sense of abandonment by her father. She could only believe that she was tainted, and that for her love was a cursed joke. And so she had crushed it, driven it from her heart, and lost herself in bloodlust to fill the hole where it had been. Into that hole she had poured the lives of her defeated enemies, but the hole had only grown deeper. All this death and suffering had come from the jealousy of a god. She shook her head.
In the hellish world that Caesar had created, she'd told Gabrielle that she had finally come to accept the good and the bad; that everything had happened exactly as it should. Now she discovered that everything had been a contrivance, a sad little puppet show, no more legitimate that Caesar's world, for it had been Ares' creation from the start.
Xena raised her tearstained face to look at the man who had been the first to bring her heartache and soil her nature with self-doubt. He had been a victim as much as she had. He had spent his life in service to a god who had favored him and then betrayed him; his life used for the god's benefit, then ended by that god's whim. He had spent a lifetime of torment in the underworld, watching as everything he valued had been demeaned. Yet he had kept his faith and pride in her, and when a chance had at last appeared, he had returned; though all the guards of the underworld had opposed him. He had almost spared them Caesar. And he had done it just to right the wrong that had befallen her because of his absence. That he couldn't be sure if he was her father by blood hadn't mattered to him. He had come, not for vengeance against Ares, but simply to tell her that he loved her; that he had always loved her. It was all she'd ever wanted, and more than she had ever hoped.
The Warrior Princess, once Destroyer of Nations, was finally overwhelmed by the tide of emotions that swept through her, and she collapsed in racking sobs by the fire. This time it was not Gabrielle but Atrius who leapt forward to gather her in his arms and rock her against his body. He held her, as he would have in her times of pain, through all the years he had been dead. She clung to him with an intensity that had been magnified by their separation; as if trying to make up for all the comforting she had missed. The circle of her life had finally closed. It was not through the redemption of her evil past that she found peace. Rather it was through the reassurance of her own intrinsic value, her innocent value, as a focus of love, which could only come from a loving parent. Before all her skills, her principles, or her courage had made her the Warrior Princess, she had been loved simply for being Xena, the daughter of Cyrene and Atrius. She had always been loved.
Throughout her release, Atrius' senses reported on the growing dawn, for the habits of a lifetime continued to serve him well. He was content with this chance to comfort his daughter, and no matter what came after, he was content with this...because he had finally won. She held onto him for a long time.
Finally Atrius raised his head, breaking the contact between his cheek and her hair, turning to look briefly out of the niche, noting the increased brightness of the morning in the woods. Xena 's breathing was still hitching as she recovered, but she was smiling through her tears, looking up into his face.
"I guess we'd better prepare to move, huh?" She asked him. The escaped soldier who had survived the fight yesterday could have reported back to the Tyrant's army by now, and soon they would be pursued.
"Too late for that, little one," Atrius said quietly, " since first light I've heard movements in the woods. I believe we're surrounded."
Xena tried to stand, but he held her for a moment longer. With one hand he removed the lion clasp, freeing his hair. He handed it to her.
"This belonged to my father," Atrius told her, "I want you to have it. Perhaps it will bring you luck."
"What are you going to do? We have to figure a way out of this," Xena said, her eyes pleading with him. "Maybe the two of us can defeat them, we could rig a travois and the horses could pull Gabrielle clear of the fighting."
He had stood now, checking his gear and looking around the camp. Gabrielle wasn't going anywhere. She could hardly breath without pain from her shoulder wound. The concussion, though not life threatening, had left her dizzy, weak, and nauseous.
"Father, let's go and check them out. Maybe there's a way around them."
Xena had called him father. Atrius couldn't help but smile. She had acknowledged his love even if her parentage would always be in doubt.
"Get Gabrielle ready to move, little one." He told her. "Let me take a quick look around before you two show yourselves." He was already off the ledge, smiling up at her and winking. "I'll be back before you know it...now stay quiet and keep her safe."
He drew his sword with a soft hiss as he walked to the entrance between the rocks. Xena was already stuffing everything into their bags. He looked back at her once before walking out into the woods. No matter what happens, he thought, my daughter has a father, and the long years have finally rendered me my victory.
It was as he expected. There were soldiers, a full company of them. They had formed an arc around the entrance to the hideout. A feral grin lit his face as he looked them over with contempt. He didn't doubt that with luck he could kill them all while leading them away, for they had brought no archers. Then he noticed their leader and his smile died.
She was dressed in black; segmented partial armor of oxided steel over a leather battle dress. She wore a winged helmet. In each hand she held a black bladed sword and on her left middle finger she wore a massive gold ring. She wasn't smiling, and Atrius thought it was just as well. He wanted to remember his little one's smile without the cold eyes in the face before him. It was his daughter, Xena, the Tyrant of Corinth. She had accomplished much, in less than a year, for she had kept the Rhinegold.
"Well, father," she made the word sound like a taunt, "look at your little girl now...all grown up."
"What happened to you," Atrius asked her quietly, "why did you keep the ring?"
She looked at it, holding up her hand so the gold flashed in the sunlight. Then she did smile, but it was the cold threatening expression of a shark.
"Ares is mortal. Someone had to fill the void. The Rhine Maidens were long dead. After I killed Grendel, who better than I to bring order to the world? Of course I kept the ring."
"And what of Gabrielle?" He asked.
"You mean my right hand, Queen of the Amazons, Slayer of Crassus, Brutus, and Caligula Caesar...my appointed Regent of Attica? We shared an apple after I slew Odin. What of her?"
Well, he thought, some things remain constant. They are soulmates no matter what world they inhabit. It brought the smile back to his face.
"Just making sure she's well, little one."
She sneered at him. It was expected.
"I give you a choice, old man. Surrender and be executed, or fight and I will slay you here. I've had enough of your sedition. This is my realm, the heart of my empire to be. I will conquer in spite of your silly morals always holding me back. I never could live up to your beliefs. I've already removed my misguided daughter and you are the last to challenge me...too bad my biggest problems had to be my family."
"It's too bad you have disgraced us." Atrius scolded her. Then he advanced against her, drawing a dagger with his left hand to parry her second sword. "I don't care if you are an empress with the powers of a goddess. You have abandoned the love in your heart, and you are no daughter of mine."
His words took the smile from her face. Even in this life, some vestige of her past made her react to his words...with rage. They clashed under the trees in the bright morning. The last of the noble warriors from the past fought his daughter, the goddess Tyrant. Their blades swept, thrust, and parried, faster than was possible it seemed, black and polished steel sweeping in deadly arcs, whistling in the warm air.
Never had an enemy withstood her for so long, or tested her so sorely. With a thrill she realized that even her death was a possibility. Grudgingly, the Tyrant conceded respect for her opponent and acknowledged her enjoyment of the fight. Though she would have delighted in prolonging the contest, she could not fight this enemy with less than her best. It would have been an affront to the very spirit that had once called her to be a warrior.
Each exchange told the combatants secrets about the others' abilities. The details of their strength, speed, coordination, and flexibility were swiftly revealed. They fought a series of clashes, withdrawing to circle each other, then reengaging with new tactics. She fought to optimize her divine strength and speed. He met her with moves designed to enflame her temper and undermine her judgement. Quickly their clashes grew more focused and blood was finally drawn on both sides.
The contest took Atrius back to the battles of his past, for he was again fighting an inhuman enemy. He thought of the women hidden in the rocks behind him. It is as it had always been, he thought. He was fighting for love, honor, and hope. Fighting for the safety of his family. He had seen his daughter's life unfold, with all its pain and triumph. He knew what he was fighting for, and he knew how to defeat this enemy.
After the series of encounters she anticipated his leap over her blade, and although she correctly foresaw his move, he still surprised her with a variation. He twisted in the air as her first blade passed below him. Her second blade whipped upwards, piercing his chest and delivering a mortal wound, but she had not expected him to reverse the arc of his own sword. Atrius was dead before his body crashed in a heap on the leafmould of the forest floor, but his daughter's left forearm, with the ring on its finger and her sword still in hand, fell beneath him. The Rhinegold had been taken...and then the world changed.
Xena had heard the challenges. Shock and horror had filled her when she'd understood what was happening just a few yards away. She'd lifted Gabrielle onto Argo II, trusting the mare to keep the unconscious woman in the saddle, and led the horses to the entrance of the rocks. Then, as the fight had held the attention of the soldiers, she'd swatted Argo II's flank and charged to join her father. But she was too late. She'd seen his leap and the killing thrust, seen the arm of her double drop to the ground underneath him. Then she'd felt a spasm in the world that had slammed through her. There'd been a wave of nausea and a blinding flash, and she'd barely managed to remain on her feet. It passed only slowly.
When she'd looked up the woods were empty, save for a drifting fog that had appeared. Silence surrounded her. There were no soldiers, no Tyrant shrieking in rage and pain, no crumpled body of her father, lying dead on the ground. She felt as if she had awakened from a dream.
Behind her she heard the slow hoof beats of horses walking towards her, and she turned to see her soulmate riding Argo II out of the foggy woods. The bandages were gone. The bard smiled at her and dismounted, approaching her and enveloping her in a hug.
"I almost didn't find you in this fog," the blonde said, her face buried against Xena's chest, "then I decided to ride Argo II, and let her find you." She sighed, then continued more brightly. "I got everything that you wanted back at the inn, and some traders had arrived. I got you a present."
Xena was trying to cover her shock. Obviously Gabrielle didn't remember a thing about the last few days. She'd been spared the events that Xena remembered. For a moment the warrior wondered if it really was all a dream. The bard had pulled out a parcel wrapped in an oilcloth, from the saddlebag of her horse, and she presented it to her warrior.
"I saw this, and I thought it was perfect for you...I just wish there had been two." She was being cryptic, never willing to ruin a surprise. She'd said just enough to excite Xena's interest.
The warrior took the gift from her soulmate, and slowly unfolded the cloth. Inside she found a dagger, the blade was over a hand and a half long. On the hilt were crossed swords, the leaf bladed weapons of the old time Hoplites, rendered in precise detail. On the butt of the grip, a lion's head decorated the cap.
"The man who sold it to me said it's antique, found near here...apparently there were once a lot of battles in these woods." Gabriele told her happily. Then she noticed that her soulmate hadn't moved. She was staring at the dagger, her eyes wide, her lips trembling.
"Xeeeena," she asked softly, "what's the matter?"
When the warrior turned towards her, Gabrielle saw tears unaccountably tracking down her face before she quickly looked away. The hands that held the dagger were trembling too. Xena sniffled, wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, and finally looked back up at the bard.
"Gabrielle, my father had a pair of daggers just like this one. He once said he wished he'd had three..."
"Xena, your mother killed your father to save you when you were three years old. How do you know what his weapons were like? Did she tell you?"
For a long time the warrior didn't answer. She just stood still, staring at the dagger. Finally she tucked it into her boot. She never answered the question.
"Thank you, Gabrielle, it's perfect and I'm very proud to have it." She took Argo II's reins and turned away. "Let's go."
By nightfall they had covered four leagues, and found themselves in the vicinity of Corinth. Gabrielle thought Xena had been acting strange, ever since she'd rejoined her after running their errands. At the first bridge, the warrior had stopped and looked underneath before crossing, then she had gazed almost wistfully to the north, towards the Gulf of Corinth. The bard suspected she was remembering her campaign to take the city so many decades before. Gabrielle also remembered that where the upper and lower roads converged, Xena had seemed nervous, but the warrior would say nothing. Still, Xena's spirits picked up as they came to the city and they enjoyed a good meal at a better than normal inn. She did notice that her companion drank a bit more port than usual.
In their room that night, Gabrielle once again overheard her soulmate talking in her sleep. What she heard was so strange that she knew she'd never ask Xena about it. After a dream that had caused sobbing and smiling, the warrior had muttered, "I love you, Daddy."
Several days later they had camped in the woods of Arcadia and Gabrielle was preparing to cook. She was still wondering about Xena's dream, particularly the words she'd overheard, and she was distracted. A couple weeks before, her soulmate had dreamed of her father and a scene from a more pleasant timeline. The bard realized it still upset her, thinking that Xena might have been happy in a life where they had never met. She opened their bag of spices, but there were no spice packets in the bag.
"Of course there aren't," she muttered to herself, "this is the wrong bag."
It was a bag of similar size that Xena stored her few keepsakes in. Among the contents was a hair clasp. It was beautiful, and Gabrielle couldn't resist examining it. It had the weight of solid gold. On it a lion stood, roaring, on crossed swords. The workmanship was similar to that on the dagger she'd given Xena a week before. Gabrielle knew she'd never seen the hair clasp before. Between the two of them, they owned so little that she should have seen it sometime in the last six years. She was still looking at it when the warrior leaned over her shoulder to see what she was doing.
"It belonged to my grandfather...my father gave it to me." She said softly, taking it from the bard's hand. She studied it herself in the firelight for a while, then she pulled her hair back and clasped it into a ponytail. "It's the Lion of Amphipolis," she told Gabrielle, "an ancient hometown symbol. They carved a statue of it for the tomb of Laomedon, one of Alexander's generals."
The bard, much as she loved hearing historic details, knew Xena had never spoken of the heirloom. Gabrielle knew she had never seen it before. She was mystified by its appearance. She looked over and noticed that Xena had lapsed into a melancholy silence. She seemed deep in thought or memory. Her silence lasted through their evening meal and into the time they spent lying together looking at the stars, relaxing before Morpheus claimed them.
The next night found them camping again, and being in the vale of the Alpheus River, the vegetation was lush. Xena's spirits had seemed better this evening. Gabrielle thought that sometime in the afternoon her companion had come to a decision of some sort. Maybe it was after lunch, a rare midday meal in a small village, at which Xena had surprised the bard by consuming an entire quail. After that she'd seemed to lighten up.
After dinner, Xena had lain next to her on their bedroll, drowsing lightly, while the bard had rhapsodized about the aurora borealis that flickered overhead.
"Looking out at the cosmos makes you think," she'd said, for she had always appreciated the wonders of nature and she was often prone to philosophizing, "about where we are, where we've been, and where we're going now."
Surprisingly, the warrior had pulled herself up on her elbow, facing her soulmate as she spoke. When she did, it was with conviction, as if she had a purpose.
"Yeah, like the bigger now. I mean, Gabrielle, what are we gonna do? Wander around Greece our whole lives looking for trouble?"
After the recent revelations, these familiar lands had grown repugnant. If they stayed, sooner or later, she would confront the God of War, and now, he seemed more than ever like a part of a dark past. Beyond that, a search that had subconsciously tied her to Greece all her life had been answered. A smile curled her lips, coming from a source so deep it would never be articulated. She had been loved once, before everything, just for being herself. No matter what came afterwards, the warrior had been freed from an old and lingering sadness.
The Warrior Princess became more animated, asking her soulmate, "Why don't we go away, far away? Whadda ya say?"
"I can't believe you're awake," the bard responded with a smile, "much less listening to me."
"Let's go south, to the Land of the Pharos," the warrior suggested with a smile, "I hear they're in need of a girl with a chakram."
For a moment Gabrielle pondered what had made Xena decide that it was finally time for a change; she could agree to almost any destination. If they were together, anyplace would be fine with her. Then the sounds of someone stumbling through the underbrush nearby became too loud to ignore. If he'd still been alive, she thought, she'd have sworn it was Joxer, "sneaking" up on them.
"You know there's somebody out there." The bard said.
It wasn't really a question. Xena would have been aware of the person long ago. Maybe that was why she hadn't let herself drift off. It was probably just another villager seeking their aid. No wonder Xena had suggested leaving Greece. Aegyptus probably wouldn't be a bad choice. The bard asked herself why, for once, they couldn't just douse the fire and stay silent, letting this "somebody" pass them by in the dark. But Xena was already rising from their bedroll, and Gabrielle rose to follow her one more time.
Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, N.Y., 11/5/2001
Return to the Academy
Author's Note: When I watch my tape of the episode, "The Furies", I see the look of hurt and sorrow on Lucy Lawless' face as she cradles Darien Takle, in the episode's final scene. Xena has just managed to convince the Furies that Ares is her father, and the circumstances point to the truth of that revelation. The already painful beliefs of Xena's childhood, (that her father, Atrius, had abandoned the family), have just been replaced by something even darker. In projecting from this scene, I imagined what Xena's feelings would have been, both in her present on that day, and throughout her childhood. I imagined how those feelings could have been an added catalyst to her behavior after the battle against Cortese. And so I felt that I wanted to give Xena back her father, but more importantly, her father's love.
At the same time, I had to imagine Atrius. Of him, Cyrene only claims that he was a devoted follower of Ares. She sketches the events of the night that she was forced to kill him. By the time of his death, Cyrene had already borne three children and spent years married to Atrius. She spoke of him without hatred, but rather, with surprise and sorrow at his actions, as though they weren't characteristic of him. I felt that she had been a woman still in love with her husband and had killed him only as the result of a hard choice to save the lives of her daughter and herself. Cyrene still regretted her actions.
Atrius had definitely been out of his mind, and that bespoke the involvement of the Furies. Having come home from Ares' temple pointed to the involvement of the God of War, whose aims were what they'd always been, and for whom the end justified the means. He was meddling in Xena's life as he did throughout the series, ceaselessly trying to claim her allegiance. When had he started? If Ares believed that Xena was his daughter, (and the circumstances revealed in "The Furies" point to this), then I believe his hand would have been a factor in her life from the start.
By making Atrius an honorable warrior, I made his love for Xena a thing of value...a thing that she'd value. At the same time, his strict code of ethics could have fertilized the seeds of rebellion in his headstrong daughter, leading to a possible future as the Tyrant of Corinth. (Perhaps in that timeline, he became an example impossible to live up to). Though all of his choices in this story were doomed, his singular victory was in finally being able to let his daughter know the truth about their lives and his feelings. Whether he died in Xena's childhood and left her without guidance to become the Destroyer of Nations, or survived to somehow alienate his daughter and watch her become the Tyrant of Corinth, his fate was tragic. Yet, he was driven by his love of family through it all, and this is heroic. Only in a clash between two worlds, would fate allow him satisfaction.
Last, we know what is in store for Xena as the story ends. The spoken dialog, setting, and action are lifted directly from the opening of "A Friend In Need". I felt that the discoveries in this tale would be a bittersweet going away present for the Warrior Princess.