An uninvited soul
With eyes closed, Gabrielle imagined the horse that she was astride plummeting down a cliff past the eternal blue of the sea and directly into the underworld. Hades, she imagined, would personally guide her to Tartarus; perhaps there was a special section of it devoted to the never-ending torture and suffering of skilled murderers. When she dared to open her eyes, however, all she saw was the green-gray-brown blur of the ground, a glimpse of Xena's armored thigh, and the sun-dappled flank of the chestnut mare that carried them. Her stomach roiled. She closed her eyes again. The thundering, bouncing ride was like a long, boring rough fuck, not unlike so many she had endured as a slave. Just when she thought she could take no more, the horse slowed to a trot; even when the beast completely stopped, her mind and innards still galloped with nauseating abandon.
Xena gently squeezed the muscular forearm tightly lashed around her torso. “You can let go now.” Reluctantly, Gabrielle did so.
As gracefully as she did most everything else, Xena slid off the horse and extended a helpful arm toward the woozy gladiator—who dismounted from the beast with a surly thud and a gurgling stomach. Xena frowned in the same skeptical way Ping did whenever he suspected illness. “Uh-oh.”
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle grunted through clenched teeth. As a mode of transport the horse proved only marginally better than a ship on the sea. Regardless, vomiting was hardly the ideal prelude to the romantic outing Xena had proposed that morning: A ride to a nearby lake, a temporary escape from the vulgar, insensate eyes of villagers and soldiers. This alluring idea could not survive the reality of Pullo insisting on some kind of protective guard. In the end Xena had whittled the number down from the original proposed six to one—Pullo himself, who had groaned in dismay. Hardly an intrepid horseman, he knew Xena would outrun him in no time.
The unburdened horse snorted wearily and trotted down the tree-lined path leading to the lake.
Xena pulled her into an embrace and inhaled her scent. Whatever nausea, discomfort, anguish, and resentment that had built up—not only during the ride but over these past few days since she idiotically said “I love you” to a woman who probably wouldn't give a damn about her the second they left this island—magically receded. Would Gabrielle's patience reap an everlasting reward of love, the great intangible? After all, Xena had asked her to be patient, and she was—albeit as patient as a spoiled child days before her birthday.
The former Empress and current Consul of Rome — is that right? Gabrielle wondered. Oh, I can't keep track of these things and somehow I think she can't either —sighed contentedly. “I love—“
At last, thought Gabrielle.
“—how you smell.”
Gabrielle lurched into her, and clearly Xena mistook this slump of defeat for womanly surrender and continued kissing her neck. The gladiator's dour mood regurgitated itself. “I must smell like a horse,” she mumbled.
“You know how I feel about horses.” When Xena realized the joke did not go over, she reverted to serious sensuality. “You smell like all the elements blended together in harmony: air and water and earth and fire.”
Despite the fact that this declaration did indeed make Gabrielle swoon, she disentangled herself from Xena's embrace. “It has been said of you that you're too charming.”
Xena raised an eyebrow.
“Now don't tell me you're genuinely surprised to hear that.”
“I am. Who has said it?” Xena unfurled a blanket over the cold dead ground and tossed a saddlebag of food on top.
“Everyone.” Gabrielle followed the horse past the thickening of trees to the muddy banks of the lake, where she did not expect to see what she saw: three Praetorians on a skiff in the middle of the lake, one of them dipping a cloth into a bucket of some liquid and giving it to his comrade, who wrapped it around an arrow, while the third one held a bow and looked thoroughly nervous at the entire endeavor. Xena's boots crunched along the path behind her and the edge of Xena's cape tickled her calf playfully. Romantic escape, eh? She did not even bother to turn around as she muttered: “I should have known you had a real reason for coming out here.”
“In my position, mixing business with pleasure is frequently unavoidable.”
“If that's an apology, it's sorely lacking.” Gabrielle hesitated; there was nothing to be gained in making herself even more miserable by stubborn pursuit of this point. She nodded at the lake. “What are those men doing?”
“Playing with Greek fire.” Xena peered critically into the distance. One of the soldiers placed a torch to the arrow, which smoldered and belched black smoke before it could even be shot into the air. “Or creating a new kind of flatulence. Take your pick.”
“I didn't know you know anything about that.”
“Are we talking about flatulence or Greek fire?”
Gabrielle surrendered a smile. “The latter.”
“Ah. Yes, well—you're not the only one who can read, my dear.”
For the first time in years, Gabrielle felt abashed. “Oh. I'm sorry—“
Xena laughed. “I'm teasing.”
“I never know.”
“I know you never know. That makes it all the more fun.” She laced an arm around Gabrielle's waist.
The escalation of banter into argument ceased with a splash; one of the Praetorians fell in the lake.
Xena sighed. “I've been trying to figure out the precise composition of Greek fire—well, for years now. It burns on the water. Zeus, what an advantage that would be. But no one knows how to make it anymore, or if they do, they're not telling. And the documentation is virtually nonexistent. Thucydides claims—as you probably know—that Greek fire was used in the Peloponnesian War, by the Boeotians during the siege of Delium. That is the only place I've ever seen it mentioned in a scroll. Nowhere else. No one has even speculated on the composition of the materials that create it.” Xena's brushed a thumb thoughtfully against her own lips. “And the flamethrower itself—“
“Bless you.” Xena blinked. “Wait. What? Who?”
“He was a scientist. Apollonius said he had been head of the Musaeum at Alexandria at one time. Perfected the uses of tubes, such as flamethrowers, with his work in hydraulics. I read some of his scrolls in the library.” Gabrielle smiled. “You're so focused on the fire part of the Greek fire that you haven't thought about the proper equipment to implement it. Ping, of course, says that in Chin they're hundreds of years ahead of us and that he's seen real flamethrowers used in battle—“
“Ping!” Xena exclaimed. “Damn it!”
“I should have known to ask him about this—that little bastard knows everything.” Xena grinned. “And you're not so bad yourself. In fact—“ She cradled Gabrielle's face in both hands and kissed the gladiator senseless. “—I love—“
“—your mind. You never cease to amaze me.” Xena bolted toward the horse, who whinnied apprehensively. “Stay right here. Eat the food. Drink the wine. Keep an eye on those idiots on the lake—don't let any of them drown. You can swim, can't you?” Effortlessly she mounted the horse. “I'll be back.”
She was gone.
Scant minutes later Pullo arrived, cursing both the elusive Xena and the tender state of his testicles. His mood brightened at the sight of food, and so he settled his aching balls onto the blanket and tucked in. “Stop looking pissy,” he implored his friend around a mouth full of lamb. “Come over here and have some wine, and tell me how I can get fucking Ariana off my back.”
Gabrielle sighed. She knew that staring through the trees would provide no answer to the question that lay heavily upon her: With the love of body and mind, can the soul be ignored for any length of time? Can it be truly left behind?
Finishing school for barbarians
The march to Antony 's compound in Kassiopi is more a trudge through gutted, rough roads and dense forests under clouds of puffy gray portent. Silently furious at times, Gabrielle has wondered if Brutus has deliberately slowed the pace of the men. Then she realized that it is no lack of respect or duty toward Xena but, rather simply, the fact that Brutus had no real control over them; they would make their own spitefully meandering way toward the winter palace. It explains why Brutus drifts to the rear of the line—to her. She walks alone. Gentle Gnaeus has given up on her as a source of entertainment, for she is far too enamored with her new toys, the sais . She stops briefly to balance them in turn upon the palm of her hand and marvels at the strange differences between each balance point. She switches them from hand to hand, trying to hash out her preferences. She closes her eyes to discern the differences and falls prey to the gentle seduction of wind coursing through the trees.
Brutus yells at her to continue marching.
She twirls one and undergoes an epiphany: the handle can be used as weapon as well!
“Put those damned things away,” Brutus grunts. “You're making me nervous.”
She wonders if she should try out the handle on his jaw. No, best to save her energy for the fight ahead. She needs a good fight. Xena would probably say she needed a good something-else, but Xena is not here and even if she were, the gladiator is feeling far from obliging in that manner. Ping had told her nothing about the sais ; he did not need to. Obviously Xena had obtained them during her fabled trip to Chin, the journey that capped her transformation from the ill-mannered captain of a pirate ship to the sleek, elegant Empress of Rome. Finishing school for barbarians. Of course, she cannot help but think that the sais were a gift from Xena's mentor—and lover—Lao Ma. Even Ping , polite to all but truly respectful of few, would bow his head in reverence when his previous owner's name was mentioned. Xena herself spoke of Lao Ma with a rarefied awe and genuine affection. Did you really think you would ever measure up to someone like that? That you had anything to offer beyond the basest form of companionship?
Brutus is pulling the kind of face that her mother used to make when she ate too fast. “Stop scowling.”
“Forgive me, commander. I did not realize my facial expressions were subject to your approval.”
“It's not my fault you were left behind like a common whore.” This stings more than she cares to admit. Her face betrays the pain and he relents with an apologetic sigh: “We've gotten off on the wrong foot here. Look, I know I am no natural leader—like Xena. But as I must rise to the occasion here, so must every man among us. And you as well.” Brutus pauses. “I have great respect for your abilities.”
“Because I'm good at killing people?” Her lips flatten. A resurgence of her innate mouthiness is the last thing she needs right now. Mouthing off to one of Cortese's lieutenants had resulted in a punch in the face and the loss of her virginity. She doubted Brutus's ruthlessness would possess similar impact, but it never pays to underestimate a man in power.
“Did Xena ever truly realize how sarcastic you are? I suppose since she kept your mouth rather busy, she must not have noticed.”
“She noticed. She liked it.”
Brutus's right eyebrow arches. “Perverse bitch.”
Her wounded heart allows the insult to pass.
However, Brutus quickly amends: “And yet, she chooses her companions well. She is always drawn to the powerful, the unique. Oh, I know you don't think much of your own abilities, but you are an invaluable resource.” He slows to a stop. Reluctantly she follows suit, while holding the intent gaze of his dark eyes. “Trust me when I say: You are needed.”
With a quick, mocking bow he is off, briskly strutting toward the head of the line.
Gabrielle watches him. She is needed. But not in a way she has ever dreamed of, imagined, or even desired.
The enormity of it all has settled over Xena, much like the leaden sea has settled over the horizon that stretches out before them. Octavian is a new factor in the equation. Everything must be reconsidered, recalculated. Everything is out of balance. Weighed down by the sluggish water, the ship barely moves. She stands on the deck of Antony 's ship with Antony , both of them peering toward the horizon; the sky, clouds, and sea are a monochromatic riot of gray.
“So you were coming out here to meet Octavian,” she says flatly. “Not me. ”
“Yes. Despite what you think, you're not the most important thing in the world,” Antony retorts. “But I knew you would show up here eventually. Lepidus threatened as much. And Cleopatra—“
“—had spies among my men. I know.”
“Don't feel slighted. She has spies among Octavian's troops as well.” He pauses. “And my own.”
“I'll be damned if that woman was not prepared for every scenario possible.”
Antony laughs, but it is forced—possessing the tinny, clinking artifice of a shackle around his neck. When she looks at him, she notices the weary shadows burrowed around his tired eyes, the contortions of his jaw prevalent even through the camouflage of the beard. He is the very vision of a man gazing into the grinder of defeat.
He catches her staring and with new resolve, stands straighter. “You must go. Before it's too late. You can make it to Kassiopi in no time.”
Xena smiles grimly. “Yes. And your men there will fight me to the death and set fire to the damned town before giving an inch.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. If they see you coming into port, they may assume I'm dead and swear allegiance to you. When an army is exhausted, as are mine, they'll follow the brightest star that leads them home.” He pauses. “Besides—isn't Brutus and half a legion attacking Kassiopi as we speak?” He laughs. “Gods above. I don't think I've ever seen you look guilty before.”
“You know I can't leave.”
“Don't be foolish.”
“ Antony , you know if the situation were reversed, you wouldn't leave me here—“ Yet as soon as she says it, doubt scrolls across her face.
He grins. “It's always healthy to doubt what we're most certain of, Xena. We both like a good fight, you and I. And I—“ Antony pauses. “I've grown tired of doing what everyone expects of me. I served Caesar. But I will not serve that boy. As brilliant as the evil little shit may be. I tried to warn Lepidus, Brutus. Like you, they underestimated him. I don't blame you. You were not there. You were not witness to the changes in the boy. But Brutus is a fucking fool—thinking that Octavian believes in the republic. Just as he thought Caesar believed. You and I know precisely what Caesar believed in: Power. The Empire. There is nothing else. But if Octavian wants the Empire, he needs to earn it—with blood.”
Silence rolls between them, punctuated by creaks from the ship and the palpable unease of the men.
Antony clears his throat. “If, against all odds, we succeed here, what do you hope to achieve? Regaining the Empire? Restoring the Republic? What do you want?”
At long last, Xena finally identifies the spark of recognition that she discovered in the gladiator so many months ago, the spark that soldered the bond between them: Like Gabrielle, she was, albeit in a very distinct and beneficial manner, a slave—not necessarily in bondage to one person but to the fates, to what she perceived as her destiny. Her grip on the rigging loosens and even as she spies movement along the gray horizon—three dots that were no doubt Octavian's ships—she maintains her unerring balance under the ship's exhilarating pitch and sway. “My freedom, Antony . I want my freedom.”
Near the city walls of Kassiopi, it's a waiting game. Brutus has sent an envoy to the city gate, armed with a sword and a pretty speech requesting entry. Gabrielle knows the speech is pretty because Brutus forced her to read it during the long, miserable march. She told him that he was a master rhetorician—without adding that the phrase had been passed down onto her by Apollonius, who used it as a euphemism for crashing bore, and that she employed it in a similar fashion.
He had been pleased. Now he frets as the troops bristle—a living, breathing copse of anger, anticipation, and fear surrounding the city wall—and narrows his eyes as the city gate opens. In that moment the response to Brutus's entreaty is patently clear to everyone: The envoy is headless and his corpse is tethered to the panicking horse.
“Shit,” Brutus hisses.
Gabrielle closes her eyes and notices the change in the air. The wind whisks and the cry goes up: “Shields!” In the second before she raises her own, she sees in a fleeting glimpse the flaming arrows, slashes of vermillion cutting the sky as they fall. An arrow narrowly misses her right foot. She hates arrows almost as much as she hates whips. The army now moves as one. She draws a deep breath. Before he left on the ship with the Empress, Pullo the career soldier had only sparse advice on battle: Just keep moving. This, just before he clapped her arm in affectionate farewell. I will see you again someday. And maybe someday I'll actually succeed in kicking your ass, little one.
Despite the menace of the message from Antony 's troops, the gate of the town proves little challenge to angry Praetorians and a battering ram. Like a rotten egg cracked open, the town yields fresh ruin: the choking chaos of townsfolk avoiding battle, the army scrambling for every advantage. Just keep moving. This is no choreographed dance within the ring, no an easy skirmish with half-frightened leftovers from Ptolemy's army. These are Antony 's men, as fierce and loyal to him as the Praetorians are to their Empress. Here she forsakes the novelty of the sais for the muscle memory of the old trusted broadsword. The loci and images she imprints on her mind become as crowded and complex as the frieze scrolling above Athena's Parthenon—a frieze she's only ever seen reproduced in drawings from the library. Two men charge in from the right. Kill one, knock over the other one. Keep moving. On the left, two Praetorians are pitted against six of Antony 's men. In seconds she evens the odds: Slit the throat of the nearest one, disarm the distracted one and impale him with his own sword, and gut another one. Watch out for the horses, let loose to create even more chaos and stampede whoever stands before them—preferably the enemy. Smoke wavers through the air. She breathes heavily into the mask of her cloak. Keep moving. It is all she can do to kill and not be killed.
The red cape of another Praetorian is in sight: A soldier in an alley, crouching over a unconscious woman. Gabrielle decides to give the soldier the benefit of the doubt. Keep moving. But she's wrong: The soldier rips open the woman's blouse.
She stops. Here in the aimlessness of this battle she is, at last, given purpose. Tripping across the thoroughfare—through bodies and discarded weapons, until the side of a wagon slams into her shoulder, nearly dislocating it—no obstacle stops her until she is there at his side, looming over the half-naked woman. After she jams the dagger through his throat she recognizes him: Otho. Who cheered for Xena when she killed Basileos in Alexandria . Who kept a respectable distance from the gladiator, always. Who was spoken fondly of by Gnaeus— right good mate, good soldier, good wife and children. Whose dead hands fall away from the task of undoing the buttons on his trousers.
The woman is limp and cold, but her pulse flutters stubbornly against Gabrielle's fingertips. The gladiator spreads her cape over the woman—and braces herself for renewed attack. Not surprisingly, her gesture has made her the target of soldiers interpreting mercy as weakness and two women as easy prey. This time she supplements attack and defense with a sais in the left hand.
“Lucia!” A civilian running at full tilt stops within inches of her blade. With frantic, pale anguish, he looks at the woman on the ground.
“Get her to safety,” Gabrielle commands.
The man stares helplessly into the street. “The inn—it's too far, there's too much fighting.”
“ Next street over—“
“Can you carry her?”
“Follow me. Stay close.”
One of many hellish tests of endurance during Gabrielle's time at the ludus was the running of the gauntlet. Iolaus had taught her how to contort her body in just the right manner to avoid the worst kind of damage from punching and kicking, had counseled her carefully and correctly on who would use what weapons during the gauntlet. She survived and in a matter of weeks was completely healed. Just in time to be nearly whipped to death when she refused to fight Iolaus. In comparison to these events, sprinting across the thoroughfare seems a child's game, a bloody flurry of movement that passes in a haze of battle lust until she is out of the crowd and bolting down the nearly empty side street.
To her surprise, the man has kept up. “On the corner! At your left—go in the side!” he shouts.
Inside, the front door of inn is barricaded by an interlocking puzzle of chairs and furniture, as if some clever child had devised the defense. Oddly, the inn is dark and bereft of guests. Her boots echo on the floorboards. The man, carrying his unconscious, precious cargo follows behind.
“Close the door and put that chair against it—please,” he grunts breathlessly.
Gabrielle lodges a chair underneath the door handle as the man disappears down a hallway. Once alone she leans, exhausted, against a wall. Keep moving? Her body resists only temporarily—she drags herself over to a shuttered window. Through a crack she can see the street. A squad of Antony 's men rush by; whether pursuant or pursued, she cannot know. For the moment, perhaps, she is safe. She looks at her shaking hands, smeared with blood. Again she sinks against the wall. Her arm clamps over the shutter and provides a temporary resting place for her forehead as the heat of her own helpless, aching flesh painfully reminds that even after extinguishing the flame for so many, she still burns with life. This is what you are. You will never change. You will never deserve what you think you deserve.
The floorboard creaks. Hand on sword, she whirls around.
The man stands at a respectful and cautious distance, well out of her reach. A soldier at one time, she realizes. He sits a plate of bread, cheese, and olives on a table alongside a flagon of wine. “I'm greatly indebted to you,” he says.
“The woman—she's your wife?” Gabrielle asks.
“Yes.” Wary enough of her not to clasp an arm in greeting, he bows instead. “My name is Diokles. I run this inn.”
Gabrielle's eyes flicker throughout the empty rooms. “Forgive me for saying so, but your business does not seem very good these days.”
He shrugs. “I had no one but soldiers here. They all cleared out the moment your lot showed up at the gate.”
“Is your wife all right?”
Diokles hesitates. “I think so. She's awake now. But—she was struck in the head.” He picks up a piece of bread, puts it down again. “With that kind of injury, only time will tell.” He risks a closer look at Gabrielle. “I did not know women fought in the Roman army.”
“I'm an exception,” Gabrielle notes, with no small amount of bitterness.
“A Greek exception.” Nervously he smiles. “I recognize the accent—you sound as if you come from somewhere in Chalkidiki.”
Diokles lights up in recognition of the name. “Ah!”
Apparently her enforced travels have not been enough to completely eradicate the girl she was; it is strangely comforting. “And here I thought I'd gotten rid of that accent.”
“I'm from Toroni. In Sithonia. Not too far from your town. Hearing you speak reminds me of home.”
“Home,” she echoes. “I no longer know where that is any more.”
“I understand—it's the life of the soldier, yes? But you may stay here as long as you like. It's safe here.” Diokles pauses uneasily before proffering an opinion that he knows goes against every propagandistic slogan and heroic tale he's ever encountered. “In my day as a soldier, I found no glory in battle.”
Gabrielle is about to respond, nor do I, when she realizes it's not quite true. At the very least, she would mislead. She finds no glory in battle, in killing, it is true; rather, she finds fighting as something essential and inculcated deeply within her, far beyond the critical contours of slavery and gladiatorial savagery, those vessels into which her life had been carelessly poured. Even as a youth, she had always fought and railed against every limitation dictated by the mere fact of her existence: Being a farmer's daughter, meant for nothing but breeding. She fought to learn how to read, she fought to tell stories. Every dream was a rebellion against the life she was fated to live.
She is so consumed by these thoughts of that previous life and its connection to her current one that she hadn't noticed Diokles slipping from the room; before she can wonder what he's up to, he returns with a towel and a washbasin filled with lukewarm water.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle whispers. “You're very kind.” As she immerses her hands in the water the blood loosens and dissolves from her skin in dreamlike pink whorls, as if in accord with some blessed alchemy. “I tend to agree with you. Fighting without a real purpose—especially when we are nothing but pawns in games between the powerful—nothing good comes of it.” She wipes her hands on the towel. “But—“
“Duty is duty,” Diokles finishes. “I understand.” He looks pleased as she sets in on the food. “For what it's worth, taking the town may be easier than you think.”
“Why?” The syllable is garbled by a mouthful of bread and cheese and she berates herself for this coarseness; when it comes to tableside manners, Pullo was a bad influence.
“Marc Antony is not in the winter palace,” Diokles says. “He took his best men and set out on a quinquereme. At first I thought he was escaping, but no one knows for sure. There has been a lot of talk of an attack from sea—not necessarily the triumvirate, but even worse, Octavian.”
“Who?” Gabrielle blurts.
For the first and last time, Diokles spares her a pitying look.
To be continued
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