DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Sarah belong not to me, but to the bigwigs at MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures or whoever owns them now. This story falls into the realm of fan-fiction and is offered to the public for free. The other characters are mine, such as they are.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Dear friends, I feel that I must explain this one to you just a bit. This is a 'what if?' story: what if Xena and Gabrielle had lived to grow old(er) together? What might their earthly end have been? Oh, I know it's been done before, and extremely well, by other bards, but I felt that I'd take a humble crack at it.
The idea for this one struck me 'out of the blue' and very forcefully, and it was something that I felt that I had to write down immediately. (It was occasioned by my own memories of watching my parents die a couple of years ago, and of the emotions which that entailed.) So, I sat down, shoved the manuscript for novel number two aside and began typing furiously. When the smoke cleared, this is what came out. I hope that you find it worthy. So, dear friends, enjoy!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The End of Our Journey
By D.J. Belt
Euribus Pontis, commander of the XXI Legion of Roman cavalry, reined his horse to a halt and looked about the dusty village street. He noted men and women at work or walking along the wide, crooked lanes leading to the market, and several children playing enthusiastically at the large stone-lined fountain which gurgled in the center of the square. Many of the inhabitants of this nondescript Greek town either ignored his presence or glanced briefly in his direction as they passed by. Occasionally, a child would wave or an adult would nod a subdued greeting before resuming play or work, a gesture which he would return politely. The warm afternoon sun was quite marvelous, and he smiled slightly as he contemplated the relative ease of his current duties. Potidaea, he thought. Actually a nice little place. The climate is pleasant here, and these Greeks seem kindly enough disposed toward Romans. No trouble to speak of, no rebellions to quell and no populations to force into desperate submission. That's just as well; I hate crucifixions. Nasty practice. No job for a soldier of the empire to perform. Even the winters here are modest, compared to Germania. By Jupiter, I hated those winters. Summers are warm and green here too, not like the deserts. I just might settle down here when I retire. He gave a pragmatic snort at the next thought. If I live long enough. Well, I've been lucky so far. I should have died many times over.
He stretched a bit in his saddle, arching his back to work out the kinks as his hand tugged slightly at the cloth wrapped around his neck to protect his skin from the chafing of his Roman armor. At the sound of a voice near his right arm, he started and brought himself back to his present surroundings. He looked to his right and saw the inquisitive eyes of his young sub-lieutenant peering back at him from under the visor of his crested helmet.
"Something wrong, Commander?"
"What? No, no. I was just admiring the town. Nice place, really."
"It looks a bit too tame for my blood, sir. Give me Rome any day, over the likes of this."
Pontis raised an eyebrow and smiled at the young officer. "Rome? You can have it. Too crowded and dirty for my taste." He paused a moment, then continued, "You miss Rome, do you?"
"Oh, yes, Commander. I haven't seen my family for nearly two years now."
"That's the price of guarding an empire as vast as Rome's. You'll realize that when you get a few more years under your belt. I haven't been in Rome for most of my adult life. I've always been on the frontiers. Now, it's Greece. I wonder if I'm not getting a little old for this."
That last statement rang true, for Pontis was starting his fifth decade of life. His face, clean-shaven in Roman tradition, was lined from years outside, and the hair protruding slightly from the back of his helmet reflected much silver mixed in with the darker hair of his youth. His skin was tanned and displayed numerous battle scars collected as badges of honor on long-forgotten fields of combat where now only bleached bones rested. In contrast, the young officer which sat mounted on the horse next to Pontus seemed barely old enough to shave, let alone lead men into battle when the occasion demanded. The sub-lieutenant spoke again.
"Seems a backward place, this Potidaea. If this is Greece, I don't understand its attraction."
Pontus snickered. "Don't kid yourself, lad. Things Greek are all the rage in Rome. Art, architecture, philosophy, legends and sagas, knowledge of all sorts. This is where it comes from, and these are the people who gave birth to it. A proud, capable people. Treat them gently when it comes your time to take my place, hey?" He looked over at the young soldier with a firm stare to emphasize his words. The sub-lieutenant gulped slightly and nodded his head to indicate that he had taken the lesson to heart, as he held the older commander in something of reverential awe. The man had been campaigning since before the young officer was born, and his reputation as a warrior of courage and cunning was well-known in the cavalry legion to which they belonged. Still, he couldn't resist the urge to attempt to prolong the conversation, as the old commander seemed in a rather good mood today.
"Sir? Is not most of the culture which we relish concentrated farther south, around Athens? What I wouldn't give to be posted there."
"There are treasures aplenty right under your nose, lad. Are you familiar with much Greek legend? Their tales of great exploits? Their heroes, their tragedies?"
"To some extent, sir. Which ones did you have in mind?"
"She's long dead, I would imagine. I have heard of her exploits. They are well-recorded in Rome, in spite of the fact that there's still a Roman warrant out for her head." He squinted in thought, then added, "I am told that her heroics were written down by a Greek bard of some renown, and that is why they endure."
"This is the birthplace of that bard, and the stories endure because they're true."
The young officer eyed his commander with a wary eye. "You seem to know of it personally, sir."
In answer, the commander nodded. "I saw her fight once, when I was a lad and on my first campaign. Never before or since have I seen such consummate skill in a warrior." He lifted the short sleeve which hung over his still-muscled shoulder and exposed a large, jagged scar. "Got that from her."
"You fought Xena and lived to tell of it?"
"Only because she saw my young age and spared my life." They both sat in silence for a moment, then the commander finished, "I've never forgotten that, nor the lessons that she taught me by her example." He turned toward the young soldier and drilled him with his steely gray eyes as if to emphasize the next point. "It is not unsoldierly to show mercy. Learn that and live it, lad."
The commander smiled slightly. "Take command and return the men to the barracks. Make your report. Tell them all's quiet. I have business here in town, and will be along presently."
The youth nodded and sat erect on his horse as the commander nudged his own mount out of the way of the column of Roman cavalry behind them. With a wave of the sub-lieutenant's hand and a shout, the column resumed their forward pace through town as the old soldier removed his helmet and mopped his forehead with a cloth. He watched the ranks of soldiers ride by, two by two, and sighed deeply as he felt his fifty years creep up on him. Time to retire, he thought as he watched the young soldiers pass him by, and then shook his head. Not quite yet. One more duty to complete. Two old adversaries to protect. When that is over, then I can lay down in peace.
With that thought, he dismounted from his horse and led the animal over to the fountain to drink. Choosing a lad of about eight years of age, he handed the boy a coin and asked, "Watch my horse until I return?" The lad nodded enthusiastically and took the reins in his hand, allowing the horse to drink from the fountain. The old commander tousled the boy's hair and muttered, "That's a good lad. I won't be long." Then, helmet still in hand, he walked over toward the market stalls to do a bit of shopping.
Gabrielle sat in the shade of a small covered courtyard jutting from the back of a pleasant little house on the outskirts of Potidaea, watching the flocks of sheep on the distant hillsides. She smiled as she saw a butterfly light upon the bench near her, and admired the bright colors which decorated its wings before returning her attention to the half-written scroll which lay open on her lap. Her quill freshly inked, she resumed her slow, deliberate scratching on the papyrus, concentrating on forming each character carefully before moving on to the next one. After several lines were penned, she placed the quill down and rubbed her hands together, massaging her right with her left, noting the ache as she flexed and extended her fingers. Her hand showed the wear of age, the skin slightly spotted and an occasional tremor affecting its ability to write, but she persisted in the endeavor because it was, after all, part of who she was.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice addressing her from just behind the bench. "What's the matter, love? Is age getting the better of the bard?"
Gabrielle turned her head to see Xena ease her tall frame down onto the bench next to her, leaning slightly on her walking stick. "Xena, if I'd known that we were going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
"You're telling me. All those leagues in Argo's saddle are wreaking havoc with my hip today."
Gabrielle studied Xena's face and noted the tight squint around the deeply lined eyes. "You hurt, don't you? Why don't you mix a potion for it? Don't suffer, please." She laid a hand on Xena's arm. The arm still felt strong, even though it seemed somehow slightly thinner than she was used to. At the suggestion, Xena just shrugged, then turned her lined face toward Gabrielle and offered her a marvelous, lop-sided grin to accompany the piercing blue eyes which shone forth.
"Nah. That stuff just makes me fall asleep in front of the fireplace."
"How relieved I am to hear that. I thought it was my stories that put you out."
"Not a chance. I still love hearing you tell them, you know."
"And I still love to tell them." Gabrielle squeezed the arm slightly, then continued, "You're still a marvel, you know that?"
"Nah. Graying hair, gimpy leg, saggy butt. I'm just turning into an old woman now."
Gabrielle laughed and retorted, "That's okay. Seems I've got a 'thing' for old warrior-princesses these days. They still make my blood hot."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And just how many old warrior-princesses do you know?"
Gabrielle smirked and eyed Xena. "Just one, but trust me, that one is quite enough."
At that, Xena scooted closer to Gabrielle and placed an arm around her shoulders. The smaller woman responded by leaning her head against Xena's neck, and they just sat in the shade of the courtyard for some moments, relishing each other's touch and nearness. After a while, Gabrielle heard a chuckle rumble in Xena's chest and rolled her intent hazel eyes up toward her companion, silently awaiting the thought which she knew would shortly be voiced. It was not long in coming. "So, little bard, I still heat your blood?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You do."
"In that case, do you want to sneak into the barn and mess around?"
Gabrielle laughed out loud at that, a marvelous, rolling laugh. "Sure you remember how?"
"It's like riding a horse, Gab. One never forgets."
"Hades. I haven't been on a horse since we left the road, the better part of a season ago."
"It's been almost a moon since you've ridden anything else, as well."
"Xena! You're incorrigible." Gabrielle looked up at the laughing blue eyes, then grinned evilly. "Sure you can take it?"
Xena studied the impish face peering up at her from her shoulder. The twinkling hazel eyes were lined, the face worn with the passage of years, but the shoulder-length hair was still quite blonde, streaks of gray mixed in for a marvelous effect. "I can take anything you can dish out, blondie."
Gabrielle snickered and leaned up to give Xena a quick kiss on the lips, then quipped, "See you in the barn, slowpoke." With that, she leapt up from the bench with an agility quite surprising to Xena and trotted toward the barn, her long skirt hiked up to above her knees and held in both hands, her sandaled feet raising puffs of dust. About halfway to the barn door, she turned and looked back, laughing aloud. "Come on, gimpy. I'm almost there."
Xena, who had been rising from the bench with the aid of her walking stick, raised an eyebrow, then muttered, "I'm going to feel this tomorrow, but I'm going to do this today." Lifting her stick, she raced at her best speed out of the courtyard and, limping somewhat, managed to gain appreciably on the smaller woman. As they reached the barn door, laughing outrageously, they were side by side in contest to see which of them would be the first through the door. They briefly wrestled each other at the barn door, then disappeared inside together, the door thumping shut behind them.
In the kitchen, Gabrielle's niece, Sarah, looked up from the bread which she had just withdrawn from the oven and watched the foot-race through the barnyard. She smiled to herself as she placed the bread on the counter and shook her head indulgently. "Perpetual kids, those two are."
"Did you say something, Mum?"
She looked over to the kitchen table where the oldest of her children sat. "No, dear. Never mind."
In a local tavern, two men sat and muttered quietly between themselves as they sipped their ale. They spoke of nothing and everything under the sun, lamenting their relative states of poverty and the lackluster farming season which was well under way. One of the men stared sullenly as three Roman soldiers entered the tavern and took a seat at a far table, somewhat away from the other customers who sat scattered throughout the musty room. After a moment, he turned back to gaze at his mug of ale and whispered, "Romans."
The other man waved a hand. "Ah, they're all right. They don't mess with us much. Let 'em have Greece, I say. They seem to do a better job of keeping order than we did. At least the warlords are gone."
"What? Where's your pride, man? Greece was once the envy of the world. Now look at us. Occupied by Romans."
"Get over it. If you're clever, you can actually prosper under Romans. I've made a bit of money selling my crops and livestock to the barracks down the road. You can, as well. Romans eat like everyone else and they pay good."
"I'd sooner sell to warlords."
"Well, they're not here, are they? Romans are. Get with the times. You've got a family to feed, you know."
"I still don't care for Romans."
"So what do you want to do? Rise against them? Have you seen their numbers? Who'd follow you?" The man scoffed, then added, "Besides, you're a farmer, not a soldier anymore."
"If Xena would lead us, we'd drive them out in a season."
His companion laughed. "Now that's a name that I haven't heard in a long time. Besides, she's dead. Everybody says so."
The sullen man leaned close to his companion, a gleam showing in his eye. "Can you keep a secret?"
"She's not dead."
"What? That's horse dung. You've been listening to too many stories."
"No, I swear that I saw her here, in Potidaea."
"Yeah, right. The renowned Xena, here in Potidaea? And Caesar's my next-door neighbor."
"You moron, listen to me. Now, that bard companion of hers, what was her name? You know, the one who wrote about Xena's life?" The man squinted his eyes in thought until his friend interrupted him.
"Yes, that's the one. Well, she was born here, and she lives here now."
"She's rather getting on in years now, I would think."
"Right. Well, if they were such constant companions and lovers as the stories say, then wouldn't Xena be with her now?"
"I suppose, if Xena was still alive. Which I doubt."
"I don't. I saw them in the market." As his friend's disbelieving stare, he lowered his voice even further and continued, "It's her, all right. Same tall stature, same blue eyes. Her hair is quite graying and she occasionally walks with a limp, but it's her."
His friend snorted as he sipped his ale. "That sounds like a lot of women."
"Oh, yeah? How about the battle scars? I was close enough to see them, here." He pointed to his shoulder. "And one on her thigh, when the breeze blew her skirt aside."
"Could be anything."
"The bite of a sword leaves a distinct mark forever. I should know." The man pulled open his tunic to show a jagged healed scar across his chest.
His friend was unconvinced. "You're dreaming. There's still a price on her head, you know. If she lives, she would be far away from where the Romans rule. Otherwise, someone would already have betrayed her for the money."
"Nah. She's clever, that one. Where better to hide than right under their noses? Besides, when people get old, they go to their families."
"Well, there you go. She was of Amphipolis."
"The Romans would look for her there. Besides, Xena's family is dead and gone. Her little bard-lover's isn't, though. That one has a niece, Sarah, who lives on the edge of town. I know of her. She's my dead cousin's widow."
"So, Sarah has two older women living with her."
"Let me guess. The two you saw in the market?"
"I'd bet my life on it."
The two men sat in silence for some moments, then the skeptical one drained his mug and placed a hand on his companion's shoulder. "Leave it be, friend. If the Romans hear you talk like that, they'll nail your ass to a tree in a moment." He stood and finished his remarks. "Look, just forget it. That's not Xena. Trust me, she's dead. I've got to return to my farming, and I suggest you do the same. See you tomorrow?"
His friend slumped his shoulders slightly, then nodded. "I'll be here."
"See you then." The man dropped a couple of coins on the table, then left through the front door, stepping out into the street. As he walked along the town's streets, his mind mulled over the conversation which he had just had with his friend. After some moments, the man scratched his chin and muttered, "Wouldn't hurt to just check it out, I suppose. After all, if that is Xena, it could mean a generous payday for the likes of me." He stopped in the street, gazed around at the town's square, and then headed down an alley which would lead him to the outskirts of the village.
Xena placed a small log end-up on the chopping-stump and hefted the axe, bringing it down upon the stump with a grunt. The wood split, and she leaned painfully down to retrieve one half of the log, replacing it on the stump. Boring. Always hated chores, even as a girl. Give me fishing, any day. She sighed deeply, then picked up the axe again and prepared to reduce the half-log to kindling. Quit bitching, warrior-princess, and just get the job done. If you don't do this, Gab will have to, and her hand hurts her today. After a brief sulk, she smiled to herself. Let's see if the old gal still has it. Might as well make this fun. She balanced the axe in one hand, then spun it a few times in a circle. Oh, yeah. With a shrill cry, she brought the axe one-handed down on the stump, achieving a perfect split. Now this I can do. Leaning on the axe-handle, she picked up another portion of the log and stood erect, her feet apart, wincing slightly as her hip protested. With a concentration borne of long years, she tossed the wood into the air and spun the axe. A thud resounded and the axe came down upon the stump, the hunk of log impaled on the blade of the tool. It split when it hit the chopping-stump, and Xena offered a feral grin as she nodded. Yup. Still got it.
She leaned down, wincing slightly, and retrieved the newly-split kindling from the ground, placing it in the large basket which sat near her left foot. You can take the girl out of the war, but you can't take the warrior out of the girl. She spun the axe a few times in a figure-eight pattern in front of her, finishing her chore with the dull thunk of the axe blade biting into the chopping-stump. As she picked up her walking stick, she felt the hair on the back of her neck tingle and stand up. Someone's watching me. Danger is near. She spun around, her eyes scanning the barnyard for signs of anything amiss, but saw nothing. My imagination?
Just then, a voice hailed her from the kitchen window. "Xena, be careful!" Gabrielle's face held an admonishing but affectionate expression, much as one would chide an overly fearless child at play.
Well, there's my observant eyes. "Looking out for me, Gab?"
"Always, love. Now come in here and wash for dinner, won't you? We're hungry."
Shaking her head, Xena picked up the basket and leaned on her walking stick as she made her way back to the house.
In the bushes some distance from the barn, a man squatted silently and watched her enter the house. His eyes were wide in disbelief, as if he had just witnessed an apparition from the underworld appear in front of him. Perhaps I have, he thought. Perhaps my friend wasn't so crazy after all. I smell silver in my pocket, and very soon.
The warmth and light from the hearth's fire lit the central room as Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and spoke animatedly. Her hands gestured in time with the pace of her story, and her marvelously expressive face captured the attention of the three children who sat at her feet, motionless and listening. The story was not new. It had been told countless times over the years, but somehow Xena never tired of watching Gabrielle tell it one more time. What art, she thought as she watched the wide-eyed children absorb the tale. She could make a hangover sound like an adventure. Xena rubbed her leg slightly, the foot extended and resting on a footstool, and sipped her warm spiced wine as she watched Gabrielle. She always said that I was her path, her purpose; I rather suspect that it's the other way around. Without her, I would be lost. I wouldn't want to live. Look at her shine. The passage of years has just made her more beautiful than I could ever have believed possible. How glad I am to have lived to see this day. She felt her eyes moisten slightly and wiped at them. Harrumph! Just getting to be a sentimental old fool, I guess. She pondered the thought for a moment, then decided, Not a bad thing to be, Xena. Not a bad thing at all.
A subdued chuckle brought her out of her musings, and she looked up from her wine cup to notice Sarah eyeing her from her place near the hearth. The younger woman just smiled at her over her sewing and gave a conspiratorial wink as if to say, Caught you, Warrior-Princess. Xena once again wiped at the corner of an eye, cleared her throat, and returned her attention to the story unfolding in front of them. As Gabrielle finished with a flourish and a quiet moral, the children clapped in glee and begged for yet another with a chorus of piping voices and pleas. Sarah came to her rescue.
"All of you, it's time for your bed. Go on, now. Don't argue. I'm sure that your auntie is getting tired." Sarah placed her sewing aside and rose to shepherd the three children toward the back of the house. "Go. Tomorrow's another day." As she cajoled the youngsters past Xena, the oldest child, a boy, placed his hand on Xena's arm and looked at her with wide eyes.
"Did you really do those things, Aunt Xena?"
Xena just smiled. "If Gabrielle said so, then it must be true. She never tells a lie."
"I want to be just like you."
No, you don't. "Go on, now. Go to bed, hey? Mind your mum." Xena leaned over slightly and kissed his forehead, and he nodded brightly and then followed the others out of the room. She glanced over at the fire, her expression suddenly solemn. I want to be just like you. Her thoughts were interrupted by a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and into perceptive hazel eyes. Gabrielle was standing next to her, speaking softly, almost teasingly.
"I believe I said that to you once."
"And look at the pain, the suffering it got you." The whispered response caused Gabrielle's eyes to widen slightly, then offer a compassionate countenance.
"Xena, don't. We've been through all that, countless times."
"I know, I know." Xena rose from the chair and locked arms with Gabrielle. "And I'm still mystified as to what you see in me."
"Come to bed, my love, and I'll tell you all about it."
Xena smiled, attempting to lighten her mood. "I haven't had an offer that good since . . ."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes up at her companion. "Oh? Since when, Xena? Since when?"
"Since the last time a blonde bard took me to bed."
"A blonde bard took you to bed?" Gabrielle quipped. "When I find her, I'm gonna kick her butt."
They slipped into their room and closed the door. The light of a single candle gave out enough yellow glow to allow them to undress, don their loose night-shirts and crawl under the covers. The bed welcomed them, it seemed, as they felt it comfort their weariness and offer them warmth and protection. Gabrielle was last into bed, and she snuggled against her taller companion and rested her head on Xena's shoulder. Her hand reached up to rest on Xena's chest and play absent-mindedly with the ties which held the night-shirt's front closed. Xena said nothing, just relishing the close contact, and waited for the bard's soft voice which she knew would whisper in the dim night once her thoughts were collected and in order. It came shortly.
"Are you happy?"
Xena opened one eye and raised an eyebrow, turning her head slightly to peer at Gabrielle. "Of course I'm happy. Why would you think otherwise?"
"We're not on the road anymore. Do you miss that? Tell me truthfully."
"Have I ever lied to you?"
She felt the fingers tap her chest. "Just answer me, love. Don't avoid the question."
Xena chuckled. "You won't let me get away with anything, will you? All right, the answer is no. I don't miss it."
"You always were a wanderer, you know. Don't you miss the road just a little?"
"Not a bit. I find that I've seen the world enough. We've done everything that we could do to further 'the greater good', I feel. Now, I'm just tired and I hurt sometimes. My reflexes and strength are not quite what they were. On the road, that's a danger. I'm growing old, and I just want to live in peace and quiet with you."
"I'm so relieved. I thought you were getting bored, here in backwater Potidaea."
"Never. Strangely, I delight in it. Never thought I would, but there it is." She turned her head slightly and placed a gentle kiss on the forehead so near her. "If I can just live out the remainder of my days here with you and in peace, I would find my most earnest prayer answered."
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, then voiced another question softly. "Do you think that the world will let us do that? After all, trouble always seemed to seek us out before."
"All the better reason to remain anonymous here in 'backwater Potidaea', as you put it."
"And Potidaea is now part of the Roman Empire, Xena."
"So what? Caesar's long dead. So is Caligula. No one else gives a rat's ass about us anymore."
"There's still a Roman price on your head."
"Aah, old hat. I'm sure that it's forgotten about."
"I'm not so sure. Your, um, our past always seems to haunt us." Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen slightly at that, and she hastened to correct her words. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it the way it came out."
"Why not? It's true. Look, if I still had a price on me, there would be assassins trying to collect, wouldn't there? Soldiers banging on the door?"
"There's not, is there?"
"No, there's not."
"There you go, then." Xena gave a reassuring squeeze to Gabrielle. "Now quit worrying. Our battles are over, love."
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, then softly confessed, "I wish I could believe that like you do. We're warriors, Xena. Warriors don't die in bed. They die in combat, on a bloody field in some godforsaken part of the world."
Xena turned slightly, facing Gabrielle in the dim light. "Do you believe in me?"
"With all my heart and soul."
"Then believe in this: I love you. I love living quietly with you, watching you write in the shade, watching those children grow, watching the world pass us by for once. It is my heart's greatest joy, I've found. If we were to die tonight, I, for one, would die content, as long as you are near."
"As would I. Perhaps it's the weary travelers' rest which we've finally found."
"At the end of our journey?"
"At the end of our journey." Gabrielle sniffed slightly. "By all the gods, I love you, Xena."
"And I love you. Rest now, Gab. Close your eyes, and don't worry any more."
Gabrielle snuggled closer. "I won't."
"Hey, that's my line. All right, I promise." At that, Gabrielle kissed Xena, a soft, gentle kiss, and they both sighed deeply and then allowed their weariness and the dark to encompass them, sleep providing the peace for which they both longed so desperately.
The Greek farmer trundled his wagon to the gate-house of the barracks area, reining his plodding horse to a stop when the guard raised a hand and approached him. The Roman soldier's eyes traveled over the contents of the wagon, then he spoke. "What's your business here?"
"Food for sale to the garrison kitchen. Remember me? I've sold here before."
"You know where to take it?" The farmer nodded. "Go ahead, then." The soldier watched the wagon begin its rumble into the barracks area, then wandered over to his comrade. "Perhaps we'll eat good tonight, for a change."
"If the cook doesn't ruin it first." They shared a mutual grin at the jest, then walked back to the shade of the barracks wall, resuming their seat on the stone bench and their boring stint of duty.
A soldier entered the large room in which the headquarters was housed, clicking his rough leather boots together as he stood to attention and made his report to the commander. "Sir, a farmer is here to sell to the kitchen. Do you wish to inspect the wagon?"
Euribus Pontus looked up from the table. "Hm?" A frown creased his brow, and he looked around the room, spying the young sub-lieutenant nearby. "Lad, you see to it. I'm in no mood for farmers right now."
The young officer stood and walked toward the door. "Yes, sir." He glanced at the scrolls on his commander's table. "More edicts from the governor?"
The old commander tossed a scroll aside. "Damned political types. Pain in the rump."
The young officer grinned at that. "Yes, sir." He motioned to the soldier, who was concentrating on keeping a straight face, and they both stepped out into the sunlight. The soldier led the sub-lieutenant to the wagon, where the farmer waited. After a brief perusal of the wagon's contents and a quick conversation, the young officer nodded toward the farmer. "Seems good enough. Take it to the kitchen, and the cook will write you a tablet for it. Then, bring it back to me here and I'll see that you're paid."
The farmer nodded, then removed his hat and cleared his throat nervously. "Ah, sir?"
The young officer cocked his head slightly as he returned his gaze to the farmer. "What is it, man? Something wrong?"
"Oh, no, sir. Well, yes, sir. That is . . ."
"Ah, sir, might we speak privately?" Puzzled, the sub-lieutenant nodded, then waved the soldier away. Once the soldier had left, the young officer clasped his hands behind his back and stood authoritatively, gazing at the farmer.
"What? Out with it, man."
"Yes, sir. Ah, I was wondering, that is, well . . ."
Slightly irritated, the young officer barked, "What?" Then, remembering his commander's admonition to treat the local residents gently, he softened his expression and continued, "It's all right. You can talk to me."
"Right, sir." The farmer edged closer to the officer and lowered his voice. "If there's a fugitive from the Empire living in the area, you'd want to know about it, wouldn't you?"
The officer raised an eyebrow. "Fugitive? Of course. Is there one here in Potidaea?"
"Well, yes, sir, at least I think that's who it is."
The farmer met his gaze. "I know it. I'm sure that's who it is. Yes, sir, I'm quite sure, actually."
"What fugitive? Who is it, man?"
The farmer swallowed hard, then breathed the name. "Xena."
The young officer's mouth hung open. He stared at the farmer wordlessly for a few moments, then found his composure and resumed his authoritative demeanor. "Oh?" He studied the man for a moment, then continued, "That's preposterous. Xena's dead."
"Oh, no, sir. I saw her yesterday. She lives here."
The officer studied the farmer skeptically. "Uh-huh. What makes you think that you saw Xena?"
"Well, sir, it's like this." The man leaned even more closely to the officer and began whispering, recounting what he had heard from others and seen with his own eyes. When he finished, he stood nervously, twisting his cap in his hands, and asked, "Er, there still is a reward for her, is there not?"
The officer gazed at the man, his look turning slightly cold. "Wait here. I'll find out."
At that, the officer whirled on his heels and paced back into the headquarters building. He strode through the main room, noting the commander standing with his back to the room, gazing out the window. He halted, then spoke. "Ah, sir? Commander?"
Euribus Pontus did not turn around, but kept his gaze out over the flocks of sheep in the distant, rolling fields. "What?"
The young officer hesitated, then responded, "Never mind, sir. It's nothing. I'll handle it."
He saw the old commander's head nod and the voice respond, "That's the way, lad."
"Thank you, sir." He resumed his pace into the next room and sought out the clerk. The man looked up from his writing and stood to attention when the officer entered and began speaking without waiting for formalities. "I need to know something. An old warrant for an enemy of the Empire. Can you find it for me?"
The clerk nodded. "Yes sir, if we have it. Who is it for?"
"Xena? But I thought . . ."
"Just find it, will you?" At that, the clerk nodded and began searching through numerous pigeon-holes built into the wall and housing innumerable scrolls. After several minutes of rummaging, he dropped a sheaf of papyri onto the table in front of him and began flipping through the documents. Near the bottom, he stopped and read silently, pulling the papyrus from the stack and handing it to the sub-lieutenant.
"Here it is, sir. It's quite old, it would seem."
The officer gazed down at the writing, scanning the Latin characters with a quick eye. By the gods, here it is. 'Having been deemed an enemy of the Roman Empire, the Greek Xena of the city of Amphipolis in Macedonia, known as the Warrior-Princess, is hereby sought for arrest.' He looked up at the clerk. "You're right. This is quite old. Is this still in force?"
The clerk shrugged. "Yes, sir. It must be. We go through them all regularly, you know. If it's still there, it's safe to assume that it's still in force."
"Thank you." He dropped the papyrus on the desk, then left the room quickly, returning to the farmer waiting in the sunny barracks yard. The man seemed apprehensive at the young officer's determined stride, and only relaxed slightly when the officer pulled him aside by the elbow, leaning closely to speak with him. "Yes, the warrant is still good."
"Ah, the reward?"
"Two hundred and fifty, Roman silver."
"I'll tell you where you can find her. Ah, look, if we could keep it quiet about my part in this . . ."
The officer's eyes narrowed at the farmer. Miserable coward. You're not getting off that easy. He grabbed the farmer by the front of his tunic. "Don't count on it. You're going to earn this blood money. You're going to show us where she lives, and then stand in front of her and verify her identity when we take her. Do you understand? By all the gods, this had better be Xena. If you make fools out of us, arresting some innocent Greek, I'll have you crucified. Is that clear?" The man paled and began to stammer, silenced when the officer spoke his next words. "Or perhaps you don't want the reward?"
The man drooped, crestfallen. "Yes, sir. Where, and when?"
"Meet me on the main road at the edge of town, late this afternoon. I'll have a detachment of soldiers with me. Don't be late." He released the man, then finished, "You'll get your money when we have her in the lockup. Now deliver your food to the kitchen and keep this quiet, do you hear?"
The man clapped his cap back onto his head and nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll be there." He then quickly ascended the seat of his wagon and clicked the horse into motion. The young officer watched him go, then turned to look back at the headquarters building. The commander should know about this. He paused a minute, mentally weighing that thought, then shook his head. No. The old bird might take the glory for himself. I'm going to do this, and deliver her in chains to him personally in front of his table. What a coup for me! It will make me look good not only in his eyes, but the governor's, as well. I can do this. He rubbed his hands together, becoming somewhat exhilarated at the prospect. Besides, we all know that's how promotions are made. With that thought, he walked off toward the barracks, seeking out the sergeant of the guard to order a detachment of soldiers assembled in mid-afternoon and at his disposal.
"Xena, you've been rather quiet this afternoon. Is anything wrong?" Gabrielle glanced up at her companion's face as they strolled back toward Sarah's house from the market, a basket containing fresh fruit over her free arm, her other hand squeezing Xena's arm slightly in concern.
"I don't know, Gab. I can't put my finger on it, but I've been uneasy all day. It's as if . . ."
"As if I feel some danger about us."
"You're just being a jittery old warrior. Look around us. Do you see anything amiss?"
Xena smiled. "I guess not. You're right, I suppose."
"There. Remember what you told me last night? We're going to be fine. Our battles are over."
Anxious to change the subject, Gabrielle commented, "Your hip seems much better today. You're not limping much."
"I do feel good." She smiled again, looking down at the familiar, gentle face which she so loved. "How about you?"
"I feel like I could whip the world."
"You already have, love."
"No. We have."
Xena nodded, then brightened. "I guess we have, at that."
They reached the front of Sarah's house and ascended the short stoop to the door. As Gabrielle placed her hand on the latch, Xena stood very still. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up, and her heartbeat quickened. That sound. It's.... twenty? Yeah. Twenty, at least. She looked at Gabrielle, who stood motionless, her hand still on the latch, just staring at Xena's expression, then down the road. The tramp of hobnailed boots became louder, more audible, and into their view marched a detachment of Roman soldiers, a sub-lieutenant at the head and a Greek in farmer's clothing at his side. Xena squinted toward them and the officer peered back, then drew his sword and shouted a command. At the bark, the detachment halted in the street in front of their house. Another shout sounded, and a rank of the soldiers turned began running in file around the side of the house. The officer walked slowly toward the porch, appraising the two women with a careful eye, his sword still unsheathed.
Xena's heart pounded in her ears and a desperate voice resounded in her head. No. It can't be. Not now. Emotion swelled up in her throat, and her eyes clouded slightly with tears. I won't let it end like this. It's not ending this way. I'll die first. She stood tall, proud, intimidating, and stared at the officer with steely blue eyes, drilling her intimidation into him. He wavered, then halted in the front yard. They stood that way for agonizing moments, then the officer spoke, a voice mustering all the bravado which he could summon under the withering gaze. "You. Are you Xena, the Warrior-Princess?"
Xena could feel Gabrielle's intake of breath next to her, and the hand which placed itself on her upper arm. She placed her hands on her hips and retorted, "Just who wants to know?"
"If you are her, I have a warrant for your arrest as an enemy of the Roman Empire."
Again, they stared at each other for what seemed an endless moment. Finally, as Xena opened her mouth to reply, she was cut off in her words by Gabrielle's voice. It rang clear from beside Xena. "This is not Xena. There must be some mistake. Xena's dead."
The officer considered her, finally speaking. "Who are you?"
"Gabrielle of Potidaea."
The officer nodded. "The warrior-bard of renown?"
"I have been called that."
"There is no warrant for you. Stand aside, and you won't be harmed." The officer then returned his attention to the taller woman, still imposing in her stance, graying hair blowing gently in the afternoon breeze. "I repeat, are you Xena?"
No answer was forthcoming. The officer turned and looked toward the farmer, who nodded affirmation. The officer looked back at Xena. "I assume by your silence that you are. Anyhow, you've been identified by a witness. Come quietly, and we can avoid any unpleasant scenes."
Xena whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "Are you with me, Gab?"
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena. She saw the eyes glint, the feral smile spread across her face, the muscles in her body tense. Oh, no. Here we go again. Whatever's going to happen, it will happen now. "I'm with you all the way, my love."
Xena nodded almost imperceptibly, then spoke toward the officer, her voice a low, guttural growl.
"Come and get me, Roman. If you've got the stones for it, that is."
Rumbles of laughter erupted from the ranks of soldiers behind the officer, and his face reddened. He turned and shouted, "Shut up! Swords!" At that, the laughter stopped, and the sounds of many swords being simultaneously unsheathed sounded. Xena stood proudly, her hands still on her hips, and fixed the officer with a withering gaze. The man plucked his courage up, then approached the step, offering his sword out ahead of him as he neared the two women. He stood at the foot of the step and held the tip of the blade near Xena's throat. "You're under arrest, Xena of Amphipolis."
In response, Xena said nothing, just dealt him a kick in the face which sent him sprawling onto his backside in the dirt. His sword clanged as it fell from his hand, and his helmet bounced across the ground, landing at the feet of his soldiers. Once again, the troops could not suppress their laughter, and the insult added to the young officer's fury. He stood, dusting himself off, and picked up his sword from the ground, wiping at his face and then glancing at his hand to see it freely covered with blood. He whirled around and shouted, "Silence in the ranks!" The laughter abruptly stopped. He then pointed toward Xena with his sword. "Advance! Take her alive!"
At that moment, Xena turned and pushed Gabrielle through the front door, slamming it behind them just moments before the pounding of boots reached them. They lifted the thick wooden bar and dropped it across the door, barely completing the task before the door's frame shuddered with the contact of several shoulders. Sarah stood in the center of the room, her eyes wide. "Xena! What's happening?"
"Romans. Get the children and go to the back room." When Sarah didn't move, she shouted, "Now! Do it!" That shook Sarah from her frozen stance, and she called to the children, who ran to her with wide eyes. As she herded them toward the back of the house, Xena crossed the main room to the wide fireplace, drawing her sword from above the mantle and lifting her chakram from its place above the hearth. Gabrielle was by her side, and snatched her staff from beside the stones of the fireplace. Xena noted this, and quipped, "What? No sai?"
"My hand hurts too much." The last statement was punctuated by repeated blows to the door, and they both glanced toward it. The bar was beginning to crack and the iron brackets in which it rested were loosening from the wall. "So, what's the plan, Xena?"
They glanced at each other, fierce blue eyes locking with intent, wide hazel ones. The communion which passed between them in that instant was intense and spoke silent volumes. They saw in each other's eyes all that was needed to be seen. If they died in the next few seconds, all that was ever necessary to be said between them had been said. They were warriors. They would die together. They would meet their destiny side by side, and it was not to be a Roman prison or a Roman cross. Not now, not ever again.
"Out the back door and through the courtyard. We can get to the horses."
"There's Romans out there."
Xena grinned. "Yeah. You ready, bard?"
Gabrielle returned a grin of her own. "No time like now, Xena."
"Then we go right through them. Follow me."
The soldiers who stood in the back yard heard some commotion in front of the house and glanced at each other uneasily. Something was clearly happening there, but they could not see, and in the absence of an officer, did not know what their response should be. Finally, the one in charge of the line drew his sword, and the others followed suit. They began approaching the courtyard and were frozen in their paces when a piercing, shrill battle cry resounded. Two women emerged from the door at a brisk run, one flashing a sword and one wielding a long staff. The taller one in the front swept her arm out to one side and something shiny whizzed across the yard, glancing off a tree and returning to fell four of the soldiers on the left of the line before impaling itself in the chest of the fifth one. The instrument pierced his chest armor with ease, and the man grunted and collapsed. At the sight, the men rallied and charged, meeting the tall one with their swords flashing. Metal rang on metal as the fight ensued, two of the men leaving the fray to corner the smaller woman on the courtyard. As they approached, they found themselves pummeled repeatedly by blows from the long staff, one being struck so soundly across the face that he collapsed unconscious in a heap, the other finding himself flat on his back in the dirt as his feet were unceremoniously knocked from beneath him. The last thing he remembered was the sight of a determined set of hazel eyes beneath grayish-blonde hair, and the specter of a staff's end colliding with his head and knocking the helmet away.
The front door splintered and the sub-lieutenant led his men through the door, entering the house. He detected the cries of children in the back room and motioned with his sword toward the short hall, sending two of his men in that direction before resuming his trek toward the back door. As he emerged into the courtyard, he saw the last standing soldier buckle underneath the determined blows of the woman identified as Xena. Shocked at the carnage in the back yard, he hesitated just slightly, then waved his men forward. The soldiers poured out across the courtyard and onto the dirt beyond, spreading out around the two women. They stood, back to back, the taller one swishing her sword in figure-eight motions about her, the shorter one brandishing an Amazon staff in fighting stance. The soldiers stood about them, their weapons at ready, but hesitant to offer battle until the officer shouted a command and the soldiers once again closed with their very determined opponents.
The fight resumed with more ferocity than the young officer had ever witnessed. His soldiers fell, one after another, as they attempted to close with the fugitive and her companion, and the officer shook his head. He shouted once again and his remaining soldiers backed warily away from the two women, swords still at ready but distancing themselves just enough to avoid combat.
Xena, her heart pounding and perspiration beginning to sting her eyes, glanced quickly around and noted the change in tactic. The soldiers were refusing to fight, possibly stalling for time until more could be summoned. That was unacceptable to her. She decided to goad them a bit and see if she could crack their discipline and encourage them to attack. Then, she could finish the fray. She offered a feral grin and the exclamation, "Come on, then. You're Romans, aren't you? What's the matter with you? Are you gonna let a couple of old women beat you?" The taunt seemed to be working; the soldiers glanced at each other, unsure of what to do, and looked for their officer to give the word to attack yet again. The command never came. Instead, the officer's voice resounded, "Stop! That's enough!"
At that, both Xena and Gabrielle glanced over toward the courtyard. The officer stood, his face still bloody, one hand grasping his sword and the other hand firmly around Sarah's upper arm. He looked at Xena. "Surrender now. Do it, and she goes free. Do it not, and she gets arrested with you." An awkward silence reined over the yard for a moment, broken by the officer's next words. "Harboring a fugitive from the Roman Empire is a serious offence." Another heavy, silent moment passed as Xena drilled him with her eyes, her sword still level. "Come on, Xena. You can stop this here and now. Unless, of course, you want three children to be orphans, and I don't think you want that."
Gabrielle's voice was urgent behind Xena. "Don't listen to him, love. We can do this." Xena looked toward Gabrielle, who was still standing at her back, her staff at ready. She then glanced at Sarah's face, seeing the wide eyes and the horrified look as she viewed the dead and wounded soldiers scattered about the yard. A soldier herded the three children out into the courtyard. They were whimpering and frightened, and the officer shot a quick glance over at them and then back at Xena.
"All right, then. We'll take the children as well. Rome deals in slaves." Sarah cried out, a piteous cry, and turned to plead with the officer, but he just grasped her more firmly and shook her into silence. "What's it to be, Xena? Surrender, and this woman and her children are free. Fight us, and we'll take them and then hunt you down. You can't fight all of Rome, and you can't run forever."
Xena felt the years descend upon her as her body ached with weariness and her hip protested the rigor of battle. She sighed deeply, then looked over at Sarah and the children once again. Their fear was palpable. It seemed to reach out to her and tighten around her soul. In a split second, as she had made so many momentous decisions in the past, she made another. It could possibly be her last. She gestured toward the little bard behind her. "She goes free as well, and you have a deal."
Gabrielle spun and stared incredulously at Xena. "What? No! We can take them." She got no answer.
The officer considered the words for a moment, then shook his head. "She lifted a weapon against Roman soldiers. That is a serious crime. She is under arrest, as well."
"Then prepare to die, Roman."
The officer and Xena glared at each other for a moment, and then the young man nodded. "All right. Tell you what. You surrender, and we'll recommend mercy for your companion. That's the best I can offer. I'm not the governor, you know."
Gabrielle's voice echoed behind her, aghast. "You're not considering this, are you?"
Xena turned, and their eyes locked. Within the blue depths, Gabrielle could see intense weariness, a sadness which broke her heart and made the tears well up in her eyes and begin to trace a path down her cheeks. Choking, she whispered, "Is this what you want?" The blue eyes just peered back at her and Xena's head nodded slowly. "All right. I'm with you, love." At that, Xena just let the sword drop from her hand. Gabrielle followed the example with her staff and wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, burying her head in the folds of Xena's shirt and weeping openly. She felt long arms comfort her in her hurt, until the hands of Roman soldiers pried them apart and pulled them one from another.
Euribus Pontus entered the main room of the headquarters and looked around. Noting no one present, he stuck his head out the front door and detected the sergeant of the guard walking across the barracks yard. With a shout, he summoned the man, who trotted over to him and stood at attention.
"Where's my sub-lieutenant? Seen the lad lately?"
The old sergeant nodded. "Yes, sir. He took a detachment of soldiers into town."
"Really? I authorized no patrols this evening."
"He said that he was going to arrest a fugitive of some sort. They expect to be back shortly."
The commander straightened up at the words, and he narrowed his intense gray eyes at the sergeant. "What fugitive? Who?"
"Sir, I overheard him say that he was going to arrest, what was it, now? Oh, yes, sir. A 'warrior-princess', whatever that is."
The old commander looked as if he had been struck with a fist. "Why wasn't I informed of this?"
The sergeant was taken aback. "Sir, I had assumed that you knew of it. That you had approved it."
"When did he leave?"
"Some time ago, sir."
The commander growled under his breath, then looked at the sergeant. "Don't go anywhere. I'll be right back." Without waiting for a reply, he turned on his heels and stomped into the clerk's chamber. The clerk looked up from his tablets, then stood to attention. "What's this about the arrest of a fugitive this afternoon? The sub-lieutenant's doing. Do you know anything about this? Speak up, man."
The clerk stammered slightly, then found his voice. "Sir, all I know is that he came in here earlier today and requested any warrants for a Greek named Xena."
"Do you have one?"
"Yes, sir. Here." He picked up the papyrus from the table and handed it to the commander, who glanced over it and dropped it back down onto the table. "Is this thing still in force?"
"Yes, sir, as far as I know."
"As far as you know? You're not certain?"
"Well, um, it must be, sir. It's still in our file."
"Damn it all, man. Why wasn't I informed?"
"I, ah, assumed . . ."
"Yes, yes. Not your fault. Carry on."
"Yes, sir." The commander strode out of the clerk's area and returned to the front door to see the sergeant still standing at ease. At the commander's return, he stood to attention.
"Get my horse saddled and in front of this door double-quick, sergeant."
"Yes, sir!" At that, the sergeant wheeled and sprinted for the stables.
The commander cursed liberally, then drove a fist into the palm of his other hand. He glanced about the room, then stood out on the front of the headquarters building and drew in a deep breath, his bellow causing the soldiers within earshot to freeze. "I want my orderly, and I want him now! Wherever he is, he had better show himself!" A flurry of footsteps sounded off to his left, and the young soldier detailed as the commander's orderly sped around the side of the building and screeched to a halt on his heels, almost tripping in his frantic effort to avoid a collision with the commander. The commander waved him inside and spoke flatly. "Help me on with my armor, lad, and do it quickly."
In a moment, his quilted padding was on and being laced at the sides by shaking hands. The chest armor followed, then the shin greaves. The young soldier handed the commander his sword and scabbard, and he slung it over his shoulder to rest next to his left hip. The helmet was offered out, and the commander plucked the item from the young orderly's hands and thrust it down on his head, fastening the chin-strap as he strode out of the headquarters building and stood in the late afternoon sun. He did not have to wait more than a minute to see his horse being led around the side of the building toward him. He took the reins from the attendant's hand with a nod and hefted himself up into the saddle, turning the horse's head toward Potidaea and thumping his heels into the brute's sides. The horse clattered through the barracks gate at a headlong run, the guards standing back and watching in amazement as their commander passed them by at a furious gallop.
Gabrielle felt her wrists chafing from the binding which held them together in front of her and her body ached from the exertion, not only of the recent combat, but of the pace forced upon them in order to keep up with the soldiers which surrounded them. Her chest felt heavy and her heart ached as if it would burst. Tears still stung her eyes, following the tracks of tears dried earlier upon her face. They were approaching the market square. She could see the fountain in front of them as they trod on, and the people which dotted the stalls and square stopped and stared in fascination as they watched the procession clump toward them. She looked to one side and then peered up slightly to study Xena, who limped along beside her. Her hands, as well, were bound to her waist, and her gaze was straight ahead, her eyes squinted in the pain which her hip radiated at each step. This is really it, isn't it? This is our end, our destiny? We almost had it. We almost lived out our lives in quiet. It was so close I could taste it, and now it's all gone. We lost the greatest battle of all our lives, the struggle for just a little peace. I'm just so tired. She returned her gaze to her feet, struggling to keep pace. She felt, rather than saw, Xena's presence next to her and decided, We die together. Strangely, I'm not afraid. I'm just so weary, I want it to be over and done with.
Euribus Pontus reined his horse to a halt in the town square and dismounted swiftly, striding toward the haggard Roman column with a purpose. He stopped in front of them, his fists on his hips, and fixed the young sub-lieutenant at the lead with a lethal stare. The young officer raised a hand and called out an order to halt, and the column wavered to a stop. Pontus walked forward until he was standing in front of the officer, and then he spoke clearly, purposefully. "What is going on here? You'd better have a damned good explanation for this, sub-lieutenant."
The officer clicked his boots together and answered, "Sir, we've arrested a fugitive from the Empire." The old commander just considered his words for a moment, then grunted.
"Oh? And who might this fugitive be, lurking in the backwoods of Greece?"
"Sir, it's Xena of Amphipolis, the Warrior-Princess."
The commander nodded. "Hm. Quite a coup for you, young man."
The commander ran his eyes over the detachment of soldiers and noted their condition. "Your detachment seems a bit the worse for wear."
"The prisoners put up a fight, sir."
The commander nodded again. "I'd say, from the looks of your men, that you got your asses kicked right smartly." Snickers of laughter erupted from a few of the soldiers in formation. "And you, sub-lieutenant, you don't look so good yourself."
The officer cleared his throat. "Um, they put up a very spirited fight, sir."
"I see." He looked at the wavering formation, then turned back toward the officer. "What were your casualties?"
"Four dead, sir, and twelve wounded."
"Like I said, right smartly." He looked over the ragged ranks of soldiers, then addressed the officer. "Stand your men easy." The sub-lieutenant repeated the order at a shout, and the soldiers relaxed somewhat. One collapsed on the street at the back of the formation, his body thudding on the dirt, his helmet rolling away. The commander witnessed the spectacle, then shook his head slowly. "A couple of you, pick him up. Don't let your comrade lie in the dirt like that." Without waiting, he returned his attention to the sub-lieutenant. "So, show me the ferocious warriors who did this to you and your detachment."
"Yes, sir. They're here." The officer motioned, and a couple of soldiers bustled Xena and Gabrielle forward to stand before the young officer and his older commander. Pontus noted them, then looked at his junior officer.
"Quite a coup." The commander glanced around the square and noted a crowd forming, watching the scene intently. This will have to be handled carefully. "Yep. You got your asses kicked by two women old enough to be your mother. Are you telling me that they did this to the elite of Rome?"
"Well, sir, it is Xena."
"Hmmm. Which one is supposed to be Xena?"
"This one, sir." The sub-lieutenant pointed toward the taller of the two women.
"Yes, sir. I have a witness who identified her."
The commander looked around. "Oh? Who?"
The farmer eased forward, his hat in his hand. "Me, sir. That is, ah, me."
The commander confronted the man, fixing him with a dour look, then leaned forward and sniffed at him a couple of times. Turning back toward the sub-lieutenant, he asked in an incredulous voice, "You took the word of this drunken half-wit?"
"Well, yes, sir."
The commander's voice raised just a notch. "You arrested these two women on the word of that moron alone? How do you know that he's not lying to claim the reward?"
The farmer began to protest. "Oh, sir, I wouldn't lie. Trust me, that's Xena."
The commander whirled to face the farmer. "Oh? Do you personally know Xena? Do you?"
"Well . . ."
"Silence!" The farmer shut his mouth and twisted his cap in his hands nervously. "You're lucky that I don't stretch your carcass on a cross." The farmer visibly paled and swallowed hard. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Ah, Meletis, sir."
"Well, Meletis, I'll deal with you later. Stand aside and keep your mouth shut." The farmer backed away slightly, his eyes wide. The commander glowered toward his sub-lieutenant, then stepped forward until he was just in front of Xena. He stood, feet slightly apart, hands on his hips, and looked into her face. Xena pulled herself to her full height, standing a bit taller than him, and gazed back. The detachment was silent to a man, and the young sub-lieutenant squirmed slightly as he watched the exchange. Flinty gray eyes locked with steely blue ones; the commander and the Warrior-Princess just stood that way for what seemed an endless moment. No words passed between the two. None were necessary. The commander studied the blue eyes, looked deeply into them, and saw what he had expected to see from the greatest warrior that Greece had ever produced. He read the look as pride, fierce passion, eyes which had seen what no mortal eyes should ever see and absorbed all the pain and anguish with which a lifetime of battle and suffering had endowed them. She met his gaze easily, proudly. Only once before had he seen such eyes, and he recalled them now. The commander allowed just the barest hint of a smile to touch his lips and the two pairs of eyes flashed in recognition at each other. Then, he nodded his head almost imperceptibly, and he saw in the woman warrior's eyes the glint of a response.
The commander turned toward the sub-lieutenant and spoke authoritatively. "Yes, sub-lieutenant, quite a coup, but there's just one little problem. This isn't Xena." A look of shock spread across the young officer's face.
"It's not Xena."
"But . . ."
"Have you ever met Xena?"
"No sir, but . . ."
"I have. I'm telling you that this is not Xena." He stepped closer to the young officer, the volume of his voice carrying across the square. "And if it's not Xena, then just who have you arrested?"
The officer was flabbergasted. "I, ah, don't really know, sir." He quickly pointed toward the shorter women, and added, "But that's Gabrielle the bard."
"Oh? Are we arresting bards now?"
"Well, no sir, but she . . ."
"She what, sub-lieutenant?"
"She raised a weapon against soldiers of Rome."
"Hmm." He stepped over to stand in front of Gabrielle. She, too, pulled herself up to her full diminutive height and returned his gaze, not flinching from the examination. The commander studied her face for a moment, then spoke to her in a quiet voice. "Are you Gabrielle?"
He looked about him, voicing the next question to the soldiers. "Do you have the weapon she used?"
A soldier stood forward slightly, offering out the staff. The commander took it wordlessly and examined it, noting the carving and the bindings on it. Then, he turned back toward Gabrielle. "Is this your staff?"
"It's Amazon. Are you an Amazon?"
"I am. Former queen of the tribe of Thessaly."
"This woman next to you. What is she to you?" He paused, then asked, "Is she your consort, your sworn protector?"
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, then back at the commander. She announced proudly, "She is my consort, my protector and my friend."
"I see." He turned to the sub-lieutenant, his voice resuming its commanding tone. "Well, sub-lieutenant, it would appear that you've arrested two Amazons." A slight murmur ran through the ranks of soldiers. "I don't recall it being a crime to be an Amazon, do you?"
"Amazon? Ah, no, sir. But they fought us. They raised weapons against Roman soldiers."
The commander's voice raised in volume. "You threatened them, provoked them. You attempted to deprive them of the one thing which Amazons value most, their freedom. You probably burst into their home with swords drawn. What did you expect them to do, set you a banquet?"
"Aah . . ."
"And this queen, she responded in the finest Amazon tradition. She kicked your young ass."
Again, some snickers erupted from the bloodied troops and the young officer's face reddened as he attempted a reply. "Aah . . ."
"And her consort, her sworn protector, did you expect her to just stand by? Did you?"
"Aah . . ."
"Speak up, sub-lieutenant. I can't quite understand you."
The commander pointed toward Xena. "None of this would have happened if you had bothered to assure yourself of this woman's identity before you charged out into town arresting people. As a result, we have dead and wounded soldiers in a town which is otherwise so peaceful that duty here is a holiday. Rome's best, humiliated and roundly beaten up by a couple of old Amazons. I'm really surprised at you, lad."
"What? Let this be a lesson to you." He turned and addressed the entire detachment. "Let this be a lesson to all of you young troops. Thank your gods that the Amazons are all but extinct. In their day, they were the proudest of warriors. I should know. I fought them myself, when I was your age. Now release them and return their weapons to them." The soldiers guarding Xena and Gabrielle hastened to release their bindings, and Xena found her sword and chakram offered gingerly back into her hands. The commander, Gabrielle's staff still in his grip, approached her and placed it in her hands. "Please accept my deepest apologies for the actions of my overeager young sub-lieutenant. I assure you, queen, that he will be disciplined. You and your consort are free to return to your home. And you . . ." He looked toward the sub-lieutenant. "Report to me in the morning, sub-lieutenant. Right now, take your detachment back to the barracks and see them to the healer." He then motioned toward the farmer. "Take him with you and throw him into the jail. I'll decide what to do with him in the morning." He studied the sub-lieutenant, then added, "And clean yourself up, lad. You look like shit."
"Yes, sir." The young officer shouted a command, and the detachment of Roman soldiers formed two rather shaky lines, trooping off toward the edge of town and carrying some of their comrades. The crowd, who had been watching the spectacle, offered out a hearty cheer and applause, then began disbursing. In a few moments, only three remained in the street; Xena, Gabrielle, and the commander. They stood facing each other for a moment, then the commander cleared his throat and offered, "Please, if you will allow me, I will see you safely home. Let me just retrieve my horse."
The two women looked at each other for a moment, then the tall one deferred to the shorter one. She turned toward the commander and said, "Thank you. We accept your gesture of friendship."
The old commander's eyes twinkled at that, and he bowed slightly. "You are an Amazon queen, aren't you?" He turned and walked over to his horse, grasping the reins and leading the animal as he returned. "Please, show me the way."
As they walked down the streets, the commander attempted to engage Gabrielle in some conversation about Amazonia, she replying softly to his questions. Xena said nothing, just walked alongside the pair. The commander noted the limp which the taller woman exhibited and asked, "Would you be more comfortable riding my horse?"
At that, the taller woman spoke her first words. "No, I will manage." She looked down at Gabrielle, and continued, "If the queen walks, I walk."
Not long afterward, they arrived at the front of Sarah's house. The commander noted the shattered door and pointed toward it. "My men did that?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm afraid that they did."
"I'll have it seen to before the night falls."
The two women turned and faced the commander. He removed his helmet, holding it under his left arm, bowed slightly toward Gabrielle and said, "It has been an honor, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." She returned a slight bow, a regal smile on her tired face.
Then, the commander faced Xena. "And as for you, Xena , Warrior-Princess. . ." Her eyes flashed, but she just awaited the rest of the sentence. "I owe you more than you will ever know. If I can ever be of service, you have only to speak, and I will be there. I am Euribus Pontis, commander of the XXI Legion of Rome's cavalry." He extended his open hand toward Xena. A slow smile crept across her face and she clasped the commander's arm, forearm to forearm, a warrior's salute, her voice tinged with just a hint of inquisitive irony.
"It would seem, Euribus Pontis, that you already know me."
"Better than you may remember."
"Thank you for what you just did for us." Xena's words were simple, but heartfelt.
"It was my honor." He grinned at Xena and confided, "Besides, I rather enjoyed knocking that young pup down a peg or two."
Xena allowed a broad grin to cross her face and replied, "Lucky you. I only got to break his nose."
When the arms dropped away, the commander continued, somewhat shyly, "Might I ask a dear favor?"
Xena spoke gently. "What is that?"
"Would the two of you honor me by sharing a drink with an old, tired warrior?"
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, who flashed her eyes up at Xena and nodded. Xena returned her gaze to the gray eyes and said, "As one old, tired warrior to another, you are welcome in our home. Come in, won't you?"
"Thank you. Lead the way, ladies." The three slowly, wearily trod the short steps up and into the house, the horse lowering its head to nibble at some shoots of grass which sprouted by the stairs.
Two months later.
Euribus Pontis sat in the shaded courtyard of Sarah's house, savoring the taste of the Greek wine in his cup. He looked over at Xena, who held a papyrus in her hand and glanced at it, then brought her eyes up to meet his. "Once again, thank you, Euribus. I owe you."
The old soldier waved a hand in front of him. "Nonsense. It was the least I could do for a friend."
Gabrielle, who sat next to Xena, her hand on Xena's leg, voiced her disbelief. "Euribus, you're a miracle worker. How did you get the governor to rescind the warrant on Xena?"
Euribus shrugged. "Not hard at all. He's a political type, concerned with image. He was happy to accommodate me when I explained what good will it would engender among the people here. It would seem that you two are something of folk heroes in these parts." The flinty gray eyes sparkled, and he added, "Besides, he's happy with the tribute which he acquires from Potidaea and the lack of trouble here. It makes him look good in Rome's eyes."
Gabrielle smiled at the Roman. "That's in no small part to your gentle hand here. These people respect you, you know."
"And I respect Greece, Gabrielle. This is a good land and a good people." He sipped his wine, then added, "I'm thinking of settling here when I retire." He assumed a suddenly shy expression, and asked, "Do you think that I would be at all welcome?"
Xena answered, "I think that you would be. Certainly, you are always welcome in our home."
"And I do so love these visits. You have been kind to have me into your home time and again."
Sarah stepped out into the courtyard, placing a pitcher on the table. "I brought you more wine. Thought you might be getting a bit thirsty." The three nodded their thanks to Sarah, and Gabrielle's eyes twinkled slightly as she noted the commander's expression light up as she approached. Sarah hesitated, then wiped her hands on her apron. "Well, ah, must see to the children. They're making a wonderful mess washing the dishes." She turned to disappear back into the house, and Gabrielle rose to follow her.
"I'll just see if I can help. Excuse me, won't you?" She turned and followed Sarah into the house, hearing Euribus and Xena strike up conversation behind her.
Sarah had dismissed the children from the kitchen and was repairing the last of their enthusiastic mess when Gabrielle sidled up next to her. "Can I help?"
Sarah shook her head. "No, all done." She smiled, then voiced her next thought softly. "Euribus seems a good man, don't you think?"
Gabrielle assumed a noncommital expression. "Oh, yes, I think that he is one of the most honorable men I've ever met."
"There seems to be a great loneliness about him."
"That's the price of command, you know."
"I imagine that's why he visits so often."
Gabrielle eyed her niece with a wry smile and a perceptive glance. "Oh, that's part of the reason, I imagine." She chuckled, then leaned close to Sarah and whispered, "Tell me, do you think him handsome?"
Sarah nodded brightly. "Very, in a rugged sort of way." Then, realizing that her response was just a bit too enthusiastic, she cleared her throat and confided, "But of course, I've always had a secret weakness for warriors."
Gabrielle just laughed. "Me, too." At that, she patted Sarah on the arm and left the kitchen to return to the courtyard. As she settled herself on the bench next to Xena and picked up her cup, she eyed Euribus mischievously and asked, "So, Euribus, have you never married?"
He sipped his wine and collected his thoughts, replying softly as his eyes almost seemed to drift away to some long-ago place. "Once, when I was younger. She was frail, poor thing, and not cut out for a soldier's wife. She died of sickness, one harsh Gaul winter."
"I'm so sorry."
"Me, too. I still miss her. There's something about a woman's touch on a man's life which gives it a richness nothing else can replace." He looked over at Xena and Gabrielle and smiled. "Now you two, I envy you. Through it all, you've had each other."
Xena placed an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Through it all, and all that's yet to come." She then studied her Roman friend. "Perhaps you'll marry again, Euribus."
He shrugged and looked down to study his wine cup. "I often doubt it. I rather imagine that's why I've kept soldiering all these years. I fear that retirement would be just too lonely." He then glanced up and attempted a joke. "Besides, who'd want an old war-horse like me?"
Gabrielle chuckled audibly, then elbowed Xena in the ribs as she voiced her next thought. "Euribus, my friend, you're in luck. I think we have just the girl for you."
Five years later.
Gabrielle and Xena entered the pleasant rooms which Euribus and Sarah had seen constructed for them at the back of the house, now enlarged and kept in marvelous repair by Euribus' constant, unremitting attention to detail. They hung their light cloaks on the pegs near the door and doffed their sandals, Xena walking to the pantry to pour them two cups of wine, their traditional nightcap. Gabrielle smiled her thanks as Xena handed her a cup, and they sat at the small table which occupied one corner of the main room. They drank in pleasant, companionable silence for a few moments, then Xena spoke.
"You told a rousing story tonight. The children loved it."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "In spite of themselves, you mean. I sometimes think that they're getting a bit old to enjoy them anymore."
"Nah. They just like to pretend that they're too old for them. They still love it." Xena studied Gabrielle for a moment, then added, "You look tired tonight. Are you feeling well?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I am tired, love. Let's go to bed, hey?" With that, she rose from the chair and wavered slightly, grasping the table's edge. "Oh! I'm a bit dizzy."
Xena noted Gabrielle's expression, and her own face betrayed deep concern. "Gab? What's the matter?"
Gabrielle attempted to make light of it. "Just too much rich food, I suppose." She extended a hand toward Xena. "Come on, now. It's dusk. Time for sleep." Before Xena could stand and grasp the hand, Gabrielle's face contorted and she cried out, a pitiable cry, and collapsed onto the floor. Xena was out of her chair and kneeling beside her in a flash.
"Gab? What's wrong? Talk to me." Gabrielle could make no response; her face was twisted in pain, and her hands grasped at her chest. Her mouth was open but her eyes were tightly shut, a tear trailing down from the edge of one eye. Xena gathered her into her arms and held her, a deep stab of fear running through her as she watched in shocked silence. After what seemed an endless moment, Gabrielle's face relaxed somewhat and she opened her eyes. She looked up into Xena's face and her voice was barely above a whisper.
"I'm here. What's wrong, love?" Xena, in her heart, knew the answer and hoped against desperate hope that it was not so. Gabrielle's next words confirmed her worst fear.
"Can you get the elephant off of my chest?"
At the words, Xena felt a surge of emotion rise into her throat, cutting off any reply that she could have made. Her eyes filled with tears as she held Gabrielle, and she could feel them spill freely down her face and see them drop onto Gabrielle's shirt. She could do nothing, say nothing, only weep. She rocked back and forth slightly as she sat on the floor, cradling Gabrielle in her arms. After a few moments, she felt a hand wipe the tears from her cheek. It was Gabrielle's hand, the fingers trailing softly over her face. The hazel eyes were sad, imploring, as her voice whispered, "Love, don't cry. You know that breaks my heart, to see you cry."
Xena sniffed loudly, then attempted a smile. "Sorry. Can't help it."
"I feel better now. Help me up." Xena lifted her into a sitting position, and Gabrielle looked down at herself. "Oh, look at me. I've wet myself."
"Don't worry over it. I'll clean you up." With that, she wormed an arm under Gabrielle's knees and lifted her with a deep grunt, struggling into a standing position. As she walked toward the bed-chamber, Gabrielle admonished her.
"You shouldn't do that, you know. Your hip will hurt tomorrow."
"Shh. I don't care. Be quiet now." Xena carried her to the bed and laid her gently down, turning toward the nearby table and pouring some water from the pitcher into a large pottery bowl. She took a towel and dipped one end into the water, wringing it out and placing it over her shoulder. Then she returned to Gabrielle. "Let's get you out of these clothes. Where's your night-shirt?"
"Where it always is, silly. With yours, there."
"Of course." She helped Gabrielle shed her clothes and bathed her gently with the towel, dressing her in her night-shirt and turning down the bed's covering. As she pulled the covers up to Gabrielle's waist, she leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Do you want some hot tea?"
Gabrielle smiled slightly at the offer. "That would be nice. Is the fire still going?"
"Yes. I'll be back in a minute." Gabrielle nodded and Xena stood, pacing toward the door. She stopped, her hand on the jamb, and looked back toward Gabrielle, who was watching her from the bed. Her thoughts must have been written on her face, as the little bard attempted to set her fears at ease with a joke.
"Don't worry, love. I'm not going anywhere yet."
"I'll hold you to that." Xena turned and exited the bedroom quickly before Gabrielle could see her stifle another tear.
As the water grew hot over the fire, Xena paced and fretted. Damn it, I feel so helpless. I always knew that this would happen one day, but not today, please, not today. Give us just a little more time together. Just a little more, that's all I want. As she tested the water's heat and made the tea, she kept up a constant mental harangue. It should have been me. I always thought that I would be first to go. She's strong enough to get by without me, but I can't imagine having to bury her. I just don't have the strength. She is my heart and soul. How can I go on without her? She picked up the finished cup and a lighted candle and quietly walked into the bedroom, placing the candle on the small bedside table and kneeling by the bed. As she studied Gabrielle's face, she gasped loudly as a thrill of hot fear knifed through her soul. The face was serene, eyes closed, unmoving. A shaky hand placed the cup on the floor next to her knee and Xena's other hand went to feel Gabrielle's chest. It was softly rising and falling.
The eyelids fluttered, then opened. Her face turned toward Xena and she said, "I guess I dozed off for a moment. What's the matter, love? You look pale."
"I thought . . ." She shook her head, and offered up the cup of tea. "Never mind. Look, here's your tea." Gabrielle took the cup and sat up slightly, leaning on one elbow and sipping at the drink.
"Um. It's wonderful. You know just how I like it. Thank you."
"Of course. Look, I'm worried about you. I'll just go and get the healer." Xena rose, but felt Gabrielle's hand on her wrist.
"No, Xena. I'll be all right, really. Don't worry the old fellow." She winced as she spoke, and Xena studied her with concern. "I still hurt just a little, but I feel much better now." After another sip, she added, "I'm sorry I scared you so."
"Don't worry about me. You just get better. What else can I get for you?"
Gabrielle smiled at her. "You. Come to bed, Xena. Lie down with me for a while?" Gabrielle's eyes seemed to Xena to take on a sudden pleading, and Xena once again felt her heart begin to break. She blinked away a few tears and turned to gather up her own night-shirt, quickly shedding her clothes and dropping them by the foot of the bed. As she was about to lift her night-shirt over her head, she heard Gabrielle's distinctive chuckle and the statement, "You still look great, you know that?"
"Sure you do. Now come to bed." Xena reclined next to Gabrielle, sliding her feet under the covers and nestling close to her friend. They remained that way for a long time, whispering softly to each other, Xena offering what comfort she could and Gabrielle repeatedly reassuring her that all would be well. The dusk deepened into night and they passed the time in quiet reminiscence, occasional soft laughter sounding as they offered a joke or recounted an event from the passage of years which still made them smile. For a time, they just rested in silence, bodies entwined, relishing the feel of closeness as the candle burned ever lower. After a while, Gabrielle spoke.
"Do you remember that you once told me that we'd die together?"
"When I'm gone, I want you to persevere. Live for both of us, Xena."
Xena was silent for a moment, then whispered, "I'm not sure that I can do that."
"Xena . . ."
"Shh. Don't, Gabrielle. Please don't ask that of me. Ask anything, but don't ask that."
Gabrielle felt hot tears wet her shoulder in the night, and the sudden realization struck her that Xena was scared, more scared than she had ever known her to be. This was a woman, Gabrielle mused, who had faced down countless enemies, conquered impossible situations, engaged the gods themselves in battle, yet she was so scared right now that she could only cry. She turned slightly and kissed the forehead next to her, squeezing her gently. "All right, love, if that's what you want to do."
"I will never leave you, Gabrielle. Never. Not through all the worlds, not through whatever lies ahead for us. Never."
"You and me?"
She felt Xena's head nod in the night. "You and me."
"Don't be frightened, Xena. I'm not."
"Hold me, Xena. I feel so tired, so . . . cold."
"You're scaring me. Stop it." Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's face and turned her head slightly so that she could peer into her eyes. Those eyes gazed back at her serenely, lovingly. "Gabrielle? Talk to me."
The voice which answered was a whisper, poignant, heartbreaking. "Love? Kiss me and tell me that you love me." Once again that night, Xena felt a surge of emotion sweep over her and her eyes clouded in tears. "Please?"
Xena leaned forward and kissed her, a kiss which lingered, and she felt Gabrielle's lips respond. When they parted, she smoothed the gray-blonde hair back from Gabrielle's forehead and softly spoke. "I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too, Xena. Now sleep with me? I'm so weary."
"Sleep, Gab. I'm right here." Xena lay close and wrapped her arms around the smaller form in bed with her, placing her head on Gabrielle's chest and listening to the heartbeat, feeling the soft rise and fall of her chest, taking reassurance in the rhythms she felt. No more words passed in the night until, after some time, she heard Gabrielle's quiet whisper break the silence in the room.
"Mama? Is that you?"
The chest rose again, and then Xena felt a deep sigh from Gabrielle. The rhythm stopped; the chest ceased its movement, the heartbeat stilled. Xena jerked her head up and looked into the hazel eyes which she so loved. They were drooping, half-open, unmoving, unblinking. A thrill of panic seized Xena, and she knelt in the bed next to Gabrielle and lifted the candle, now burned quite low, from the bedside table and held it in front of Gabrielle's face. In the glow of the low candle, she could see no trace of light, no sparkle, no life's energy which had animated those eyes for so long. She slammed the candle's base back down on the table and clenched her fist, bringing it down on Gabrielle's chest.
"Gabrielle? Don't leave me." She struck the chest again. "Don't you leave me!" Again, she struck the chest, but the light did not return to Gabrielle's eyes. Xena's face contorted in a look of absolute anguish, of desperate heartbreaking helplessness and she wept openly, lifting Gabrielle's limp form into her arms and hugging it close to her. For a moment, she just held her so, then threw back her head and cried out repeatedly, the piteous, agonizing sound of a heart which had irrevocably broken for the last time. After what seemed an eternity, she found that she had no voice left and just knelt, exhausted, the still body in her arms, her entire being numb and bereft of strength.
Xena? Come with me.
Her voice was a hoarse whisper. "Gabrielle?"
Come with me, love. I'm lost without you.
Sarah sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake, the hair on her neck prickling and her heart pounding. She listened for a moment, unable to recognize the sound which echoed from somewhere nearby, then turned and shook Euribus awake. "Husband? Wake up."
Euribus stirred, then turned his head toward Sarah. "What? What's the matter?"
"Don't you hear that?" The cry echoed again, and he bolted from the bed and picked up an oil lamp from the table nearby.
"Check on the children. I'll have a look around the back."
She rose from the bed. "Is that . . . human?"
He slid the sword from the scabbard on the wall. "I don't know." With that, he left the room and paced through the main room, walking out and onto the courtyard. He stood, lamp high above his head, sword in his hand, and peered around at the dim barnyard for several moments, but the eerie cry had ceased. After a time, he walked back through the house and met Sarah in the door of their bed-chamber. "Are the children all right?"
She nodded. "Sleeping right through it, whatever it was."
"Well, let's return to bed. I'll have a better look around in the morning."
Sarah hesitated. "Perhaps I'd better check on Xena and Gabrielle."
"I'm sure that they're quite all right. Don't disturb them, hey?"
Sarah wavered in a moment of indecision, then relented. "I'm quite sure you're right." They returned to bed, but Euribus kept his sword unsheathed and in reach near the bed for the remainder of the night.
The next morning, Euribus entered the house through the courtyard door to see the children up and at their morning meal. Sarah looked up from the bread which she was slicing and asked, "Did you see anything?"
Euribus shook his head. "No. It's a puzzle." He walked over to the kitchen and tore off a small piece of bread, tasting it. "You should be the town's baker, Sarah. You can work wonders with bread."
She laughed and set the knife down. "And you're just used to army food. Anything would taste good after that."
"I haven't seen the two girls up yet this morning. That's not like them."
"Especially Gabrielle, missing breakfast. She still eats like a horse. I'll go and check on them. They're probably sleeping late." Sarah wiped her hands on a towel and cast it on the kitchen table as she walked out through the courtyard and toward their rooms. Several minutes later, she reappeared and stood in the door, her face ashen. Euribus noted the look with alarm.
"Sarah? What's wrong? You look as though you've seen a ghost."
"You'd better come and see this." Wordlessly, Euribus joined her and they walked out into the warm morning sun, heading toward the entrance to the back rooms. When they entered, he looked around the main room. The fire was out, and two cups sat on the table near the hearth.
Sarah waved him toward the bed-chamber. "Here." She waited for him to enter first, and he fixed her with a puzzled expression. She motioned to the door, which was slightly ajar, and he nudged it open, entering the small room. Next to the bed, he noted a half-drunk cup of tea and a candle which had melted down into nothing, tendrils of wax overflowing the candle's base and onto the wood of the table. In the bed, Xena and Gabrielle lay motionless. He could see the blue-gray mottle on their skins and knew instantly what he would find. He had seen death too often in the past to mistake it. He stared, then turned toward Sarah. She covered her face and left hurriedly, leaving him alone in the room. He walked quietly to the bedside and peered down at the two faces which he had grown to admire so much. Gabrielle lay on her back, her eyelids drooping, her expression serene. Xena lay next to her, her still-open eyes fixed on Gabrielle's face, a mark on the side of her neck, a trickle of dried blood under her nose, her hand on Gabrielle's chest. Euribus just gazed at them for some time, then leaned down and gently closed both sets of eyes with his hand. As he straightened up, he whispered, "Inseparable, even in death. Never have I seen such love." He then walked silently out of the rooms and stood in the morning sunshine, leaning against the door-jamb. After a moment, the old soldier bowed his head, covered his face with a hand, and wept openly and unashamedly for the first time in many years.
Outside of Potidaea, on the crest of a gentle hill overlooking the Aegean Sea, a white obelisk stood, marking the common grave of Xena and Gabrielle. Flowers grew in abundance here, glorious splashes of color augmenting the rich green of the grass which covered the hillside. It was a favorite spot for those who sought the quiet of contemplation or for young lovers who wished to declare their devotion to each other. Over the years, many quiet truths had been realized near this hill and many hearts had been joined in union. Indeed, a tradition had grown among Potidaeans that a love declared at this site would be a timeless bond through all the unknown realms.
It was also a place of pilgrimage for young bards who wished to emulate the greatness of the Warrior-Bard Gabrielle, or for an occasional remaining Amazon wishing to pay homage to the former glory of her heritage. Today, however, a warrior paid quiet tribute.
The newest Roman commander of Potidaea stood near the crest of the hill, his helmet in his hand. He stood alone, as he had ordered his cavalry to remain a respectful distance from the hill. His eyes studied the beauty of the hillside, then swept out over the blue Aegean waters. Old Pontus was right. This is truly a beautiful place. There is a magic here, it would seem. When I seek direction or find love, it is to this hill that I will come.
His eyes then traveled to the obelisk, noting the inscription in both Greek and Latin. Here rests Xena, Warrior-Princess of Amphipolis and Gabrielle, Warrior-Bard of Potidaea and Amazon Queen, inseparable even in death. All who seek to understand the Greater Good or timeless love can do no better than to start here, for they are its greatest testament.
After reflection, he turned and walked partway down the hill, stopping to admire the sound of birds in the distance. His young sub-lieutenant approached him, speaking quietly. "Sir, we should be on our way."
The commander nodded, then looked about him once again. "Take command and complete the patrol. I think that I shall remain here for a while yet."
"Yes, sir." With a salute, the young officer returned to the column of Roman cavalry and mounted his horse. With a shout, he led the long column down the dusty road. The commander stood, watching quietly, until his men were out of sight. Only his own horse remained behind, grazing contentedly. He then walked around the hill, sat in the grassy, flowered hillside and cast his gaze out over the Aegean. For once, it seemed, he felt the unfamiliar emotion of peace in his own soul, a soul which had known so much war. It felt good.
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