Subtext: Xena and Gabrielle as portrayed here are, without question, in love with each other, thereby nullifying the term "subtext." And yes, Rhonwyn is definitely in love with Gabrielle. So there's even more maintext for you. If this idea offends you, there's a good chunk of general fan fiction out there. Go read that instead, and try and broaden your horizons a bit in future. Seriously. I'm not going to be too polite about it. Stop spazzing and get over yourself.
Violence/Content: This story deals with the aftermath of crucifixion, so by default, some rather graphic detail will ensue. Not much, hopefully. Please note: Joxer is in fact present in this story. I did try to write him with as much dignity as possible, but . . . well, you've been warned.
Author's Notes/Spoilers: : My muse was never one for linear thought. Therefore, this story contains spoilers, if you will, for my Janice-and-Mel fanfic novel "Deciphering the Rift," which is, at the time of this writing still unfinished. That is to say, this story will give away elements that I have already planned for future, but unwritten, installments of "Deciphering the Rift." So consider yourself warned. I truly hope you like this story. It proved to be the most emotionally taxing thing I've written to date. Also, if you couldn't tell by now, this story contains big-time spoilers for the fourth season Xena episode "The Ides of March." Other episodes referred to include the India Arc ("Devi," "Between the Lines," "The Way"), "Hooves and Harlots," "Endgame," and "A Day in the Life."
I'd also like to profusely thank Melissa Good for the "Ides of March" episode synopsis that she posted to the MerwolfPack mailing list. That's what prompted me to write this in the first place-before I had even seen the episode. Thanks as well to Xorys for providing me with the proper name for Gabrielle's blouse. You know . . . the one that goes with the HYCM outfit.
I don't know what tribe Amarice is from; I took the liberty of "borrowing" the name of the Amazon tribe to which the character Lilith belongs, according to Young Hercules and the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode "The Academy."
For all intents and purposes, consider this story to be my own vision of the definitive end to the series.
They went about their grisly task with the cool, callous detachment that came of many such previous duties. The sharp wind of the Appenines howled viciously about them, whistling across the barren, snow-covered mountaintop, whipping stray flakes into their faces, obscuring the nearby prison building in a furious flurry of white. But the Roman soldiers paid little heed to the weather, concentrating instead on the process of removing the dead bodies from the rough-hewn wooden crosses. The bodies, cold from the elements and the natural chill of death, laced with angry welts and open wounds, hit the sodden snow with a grisly thud before being thrown into the back of the wagon to become entangled in the growing pile of lifeless limbs that lay there. Ordinarily these dead prisoners would simply be left to hang there, on the crosses; but room on the mountainside was getting scarce, and what with new executions to be carried out all the time . . .
The soldiers moved on, making their way through the gruesome forest.
Only two crosses remained. The young centurion in charge of this removal, one Avinius by name, stood before the final pair and gazed up at the two women who hung there, side by side. The tall, dark-haired warrior, stunning even in death, broken back notwithstanding; the young woman, with the gentle face and the short-cropped golden hair, who had managed to cut down some dozen and more of his fellow soldiers before her capture. The cruel torture that had ended their lives had failed to eradicate their beauty and grace, to dispel the glad serenity that shone even now on their lifeless faces.
The centurion was irritated at being assigned to this menial duty, not to mention somewhat annoyed by the peaceful expressions on the faces of the two women. "Let's get these two down and get out of here," he ordered, his words half-swallowed by the wind's incessant screaming. Two of his subordinates stepped forward, and they advanced toward the cross from which the warrior hung. They had only to get this job over with, and none too soon.
Then, from between the two crosses, a human form suddenly appeared amid the maelstrom of swirling white-a form they had not seen before, and one that was very much alive. A young woman, perhaps several years older than the dead blonde, stood there, a rich green cloak and gleaming silver torc standing out in sharp contrast to the snow. Her face was stony and unreadable, and strands of chestnut hair whipped about her head in the wind.
Avinius heard a muttered curse of surprise to his left. He turned to rebuke the soldier who had spoken, but the newcomer spoke first, in tones so compelling that he could not help but listen.
"You will not touch these two," she said, her voice icy. "By all the gods my people revere, none of your kind will do them further dishonor by laying hand on them again."
In the woman's voice, Avinius recognized the peculiar accent of Britannia. Britons! he thought scornfully. "Stand aside, barbarian!" he snapped. "Do not dare to interfere with my duties!"
Danger flickered from somewhere deep in the gold-hazel of the foreigner's eyes. "Were you wise, it would be you who should stand aside. I tell you again, you will not lay a hand on them."
The centurion snorted. The presence of the wickedly curved sword at the Briton's hip was not lost on him. "Defend yourself then, damned woman!" he snarled, drawing his own sword and rushing at her.
But the Briton made no move toward the hilt of her weapon. Instead, she raised both hands before her, and abruptly the wind changed direction, driving Avinius and his men back with unearthly force. No common warrior could do that, realized the centurion with alarm. Controlling the winds like that? That can only mean . . .
"So," he hissed, "not only a Briton barbarian, but a damned Druid sorcerer as well?" The open snarl on his face was an expression as much of sheer cold as it was of scorn.
"So some have called me," came the level response. "And if you do not stand aside, you will witness the extent of the power I hold, and that I know you fear. Oh yes, I know how your people fear us!" The eyes that bored into Avinius's own were cold chips of dark amber, gleaming with a fierce, unearthly light. "Make no mistake, I know that all too well. Enough of my fellows died on these crosses of yours to demonstrate that fear! You tried to obliterate us because of your cowardice, and the blood of the Brotherhood shouts that cowardice throughout the land! Now stand back! "
"You'll have to make me, Briton fool!" retorted Avinius, with more anger than intended; the Druid's barb about cowardice had struck a very sore spot indeed.
The foreigner arched an eyebrow sardonically. "So it would seem." Another lazy wave of her hand, and the Romans were staggering backwards against their will, straining merely to stand upright against the gale force that screamed into their faces. The wind died down, and the Druid added with pained solemnity, "Oh, to be sure . . . this is by no means revenge for the deaths you visited upon our shores! That revenge is not for me to deal. No . . . I won't taint the sanctity of my mission here with any intention of vengeance."
She gestured again briefly and again the wind rose up, swirling furiously about the three Romans and trapping them within an unseen wall of force. They fought against it, but to no avail, as the wind drove them back squarely into the cold, solid mass of a snowdrift.
Avinius grimaced. He and his two comrades were well and truly caught, stuck solidly in the grasp of the constricting drift, and suddenly at the mercy of an unlikely opponent. The situation was not at all to his liking. "You, who speak of cowardice, plan to kill us like this?" It was a struggle merely to keep the shivering from his voice; the wind and the snow made his breastplate and all the metal trappings of his armor absolutely unbearable. To hide his discomfort, the centurion spat derisively at the Druid, who avoided the mouthful of saliva with what seemed, to him, insolent ease.
"Kill you? Trapped as you are, like an animal in a snare?" Her voice was low, intense. She reached a callused hand out to caress the well-worn pommel of the sword at her side. "Lludchen only strikes when a blade is raised against her, never against a helpless foe. And, as I said, vengeance has no place in what I do here." A grim smile crossed the Briton's face, and the hand on the sword-hilt strayed to a small belt pouch. Reaching into the pouch, the Druid withdrew a handful of powder. She held it in her clenched fist and surveyed the shivering Romans with a scholar's detached eye.
"I'm not going to kill you, no. I'm merely . . . giving you a choice." She strode to within arm's length of them and cast the powder into their faces.
Avinius and his men coughed and choked on the sharp-scented, bitter substance. In moments, they felt a thick haze clouding their brains, blurring their vision and winding a shroud of darkness around them.
"Damn you for a scheming bitch," hissed Avinius through a yawn he could not stifle, all the while fighting against the ever-increasing heaviness of his eyelids.
"Feeling drowsy, hmm? Falling asleep in the middle of a snowstorm proves fatal, you know," observed the Druid with casual coldness. She walked slowly around the snowdrift that imprisoned the Romans, and pulled her sword. It hissed from the scabbard with a clear, high metallic ringing, audible even above the wind. She eyed the keen edge, then turned an almost apathetic gaze upon the three.
"But," she added, sliding the razor-sharp blade into the drift, "if you start running back to that prison of yours right now, I think you just might avoid that fate." Each word was underscored by a cut of the sword that carved away a block of snow, leaving an opening in the snowdrift just wide enough for them to squeeze through one at a time.
"You'd have to start moving right away, of course," the Druid commented breezily. "Those herbs will finish taking effect very soon now . . . I would say that in, oh, five of your minutes or so, you'll be slumbering soundly right here. Very soundly indeed. It's up to you." She arched an eyebrow questioningly. "Gods forbid that you freeze to death, like all these people you've put to death here already." Venom dripped from the words.
"Caes . . . Caesar will not b-be pleased t-t-o hear of this," growled the young centurion through a mouth gone dry and numb. "These two were to be his trophies." At the sudden feral look that crossed the foreigner's face, though, he flinched inwardly and regretted divulging that bit of information.
The Briton glared daggers at him. "Oh, of that I have no doubt. I know of Caesar's hatred for them!" Her voice dropped to a low growl as she went on, "But your would-be emperor is dead, Avinius, stabbed to death by Brutus and the members of the Roman senate. And as for you, who would have supported his claim to be emperor, your time is growing very short indeed. Or do you intend to engage me in a heated debate as the cold slowly steals your life? Go! " The final word was a bark of command. Again she gestured, and again the winds increased, sending an unbearable chill that stabbed through the Roman soldiers as surely as a spear of ice.
They ran. Unwilling to lose their lives to the elements, and unwilling to believe that the leader whom they had so strongly venerated had lost his own, they turned and fled, stumbling through the thick snow and back to the warmth of the prison compound. And the Druid watched them go.
Rhonwyn y Cymodwr, wandering bard of Caer Dyvi, Druid warrior, daughter of King Balach and princess of the Cymry, stood alone among the death-trees and gazed up at the two forms crucified before her. Tears filled her eyes.
"Gabrielle . . . Xena," she whispered. "I came to see you. I always told you I'd come back again, remember?" She threw a shoulder against the rough beam of Xena's cross, straining valiantly for a few moments before admitting to herself that such a task as she was setting for herself would take far more than her own strength to accomplish. There was a ladder leaning against a cross nearby; Rhonwyn went to retrieve it, and placed it against Xena's cross. It was almost an afterthought when she stopped to study the prison building and make note of how close by it was.
Too close. Would it be wise to give them the chance to come out after me? I hardly think so. Searching for a distraction, the Druid shrugged and casually caused another snowdrift to pile up in front of the compound's gate. By now, the snow was falling heavily enough to form a thick white haze; another slight boost to the wind made sure of that. It should be difficult enough to see her through the swirling flakes.
She mounted the ladder and pulled a dagger from her belt. Cutting away the ropes that bound Xena's limbs to the cross would be simple enough; it was the nails through her friend's hands that presented a greater problem. Long, heavy, and thick, they had mangled the flesh of those sword-callused hands and driven into the cross's rough wood, but did not protrude from the other side. Hammering them out was impossible, then, and prying them loose without further damaging Xena's hands would be extremely difficult.
Rhonwyn thought for a moment, then undid the strap of soft leather about her forehead that kept her hair in place. She wrapped it around the blade of her dagger and slowly eased the blade, so protected by the leather, between Xena's hand and the beam of the cross. Steady, steady . . . It took all of her concentrated effort to get the iron spike loose, but after a few agonized minutes of work, it was free of the wood. The Druid gritted her teeth, took hold of the spike, and pulled it out of her friend's hand.
She had left the ropes untouched for now, and so the warrior's body would still be tied to that cross until the other nail was removed, and Rhonwyn could carry her friend down. There was no way that she would allow Xena's body just to fall to the ground.
Once both nails had been extracted from Xena's hands, Rhonwyn took the leather band that wrapped her dagger's blade in her teeth, wrapped one arm firmly about Xena's waist, and cut the ropes. The dead warrior sagged limply against her, but was, much to the Druid's surprise, lighter than expected. Rhonwyn was relieved by that, if puzzled; it did, after all, make the task of descending the ladder much easier.
She gently laid Xena's body out on the litter which she had brought out with her before going back to retrieve Gabrielle's body from the other cross, with just as much care as she had shown to the warrior. The process of removing the nails from the bard's body was the same. But there was something . . .
Why would they nail Gabrielle's feet, and not Xena's? wondered the Druid. Unless . . . She laid the body of the young blonde woman beside that of her soulmate and partner, then slipped a hand below Xena's back. Careful fingers probed at the warrior's spine; eyes widened in outrage and shock at the sensation of the shattered bone there.
"Bright goddess, the indignity!" Rhonwyn burst out. Tears overwhelmed her, and she threw her head back and screamed into the wind, not caring if the Roman soldiers in the prison compound heard her, not realizing that they were too shocked by the news of Caesar's death to care. The cry of anguish that tore from her throat turned into a wordless, keening wail that continued on for quite some time-a mourning-song of the Cymry.
Rhonwyn knelt in the snow and wept openly over her dead friends, too lost in grief to do much else besides claw at her cloak and sob. She was heedless of the cold; her grief numbed her enough to overwhelm mere physical sensation.
"I knew this was going to happen," she choked. "I foresaw it. I had to come back for you . . . I couldn't let them take you away in that wagon and rob you of the dignified end you deserved, treat you like so much carrion . . ."
She brushed a lock of black hair back from Xena's cold cheek with a trembling hand. "There was nothing that I could do to save you this time. I'm sorry . . . I wish there had been. But it wasn't my place to do anything about it. I did what I could, though, and I'm here to bring you back home." The Druid bent and pressed her lips against the warrior's forehead, then the bard's. Sadness crossed her face at the second gesture.
"I still love you, Gabrielle," she murmured. "I always have. I wish you could have known it, but that-that was the one secret you were never meant to know. You and Xena were always meant to be together, and I knew it. That's why I couldn't tell you. I wanted to . . . looking at the two of you now, though . . . well, I have no more regrets about hiding my feelings." Her voice caught in her throat then, and, unable to fight off the cold any longer, she shivered. "I'm getting you two out of here."
Rhonwyn took the end-poles of the litter in her hands and slowly, painedly, dragged it across the snow, back to a small abandoned hut just out of sight of the prison. As she opened the door and struggled in with the litter, a low, sad whinny greeted her. She looked compassionately at the golden palomino standing in the far corner of the hut, covered in a thick horse-blanket, knowing that the horse understood what had happened. "Come here, girl," she called softly.
The mare obeyed, walking to the Druid's side. Rhonwyn reached up and scratched her behind the ears. Fresh tears sprang to the young Briton's eyes as Argo bent her head and gently nuzzled Xena's face, then looked up with a mournful expression.
"I know, girl, I know," murmured Rhonwyn. "And I know you've had to do this before . . . I'm sorry I needed to bring you here for this task, but we have to do this, you understand? We have to bring them home." She laid her head against Argo's neck, sobbing into the white mane. Argo uttered a quiet snort of understanding and stood still for a few minutes, lending support in her own unique way to this young woman who had loved the warrior and the bard as fiercely as the mare herself had, if not more. Faithful traveling companions both, horse and human mourned their loss together.
Finally, Rhonwyn stood up straight and ran a hand over her face. "Time to get to work, Argo. They need to make this last journey with all the dignity that they deserve." She retrieved a bundle from where she had left it in the corner earlier; wrapped in the rough cloth were Xena's armor and weapons, and Gabrielle's clothing.
Laying the bundle on the floor, she fumbled with the knots that held it together, and unwrapped it to reveal the warrior's leathers, sword, and broken chakram, and the bard's clothes. At the mare's snort of approval, the Druid chuckled despite her grief.
"Oh, it wasn't easy getting these all back, Argo," she said to the horse. "I had to sneak into the prison compound . . . and unfortunately, kill a few guards in the process." She winced at the memory. The sword and chakram she'd found lying in the dirt of the courtyard; blood had been spattered all over the ground, and encrusted the weapon as well. Xena's leathers and armor, and the clothes Gabrielle had worn, had been tossed into a room full of discards-ready to be burned, she'd surmised. Rhonwyn shook her head. "I had to do a lot of searching. I'm just glad I was able to find it all."
She found flint and steel, and set about making a fire in the hut's small firepit. "I'll be right back, all right?" Shaking her head at the thought that she was talking to a horse, she took the cauldron that hung over the firepit and dragged it outside. The cauldron was of iron, and rather large, and it took most of Rhonwyn's strength just to drag it across the ground. There was enough snow outside by now to fill it easily, so she did just that, then re-entered the hut and set the snow to melt over the fire.
While she waited, the Druid found an old bowl belonging to the hut's former occupant and washed it out with some of the melting snow. She took herbs from her pack and crumbled them into the bowl. These herbs, once mixed with the water she was preparing, would form a cleansing solution. A second mixture, which she would prepare shortly, would preserve her friends' bodies, as it would be a long trip back to Greece. Rhonwyn knew of Xena's wish to be buried next to her brother Lyceus, and knew with equal certainty that Gabrielle would have wanted that wish fulfilled. But separating the two? Unthinkable. It would just be a matter of persuading the Amazons, and Gabrielle's family . . . and she thought she knew just the way to do that.
"They lived together, they fought together, they died together . . . and wherever their souls are now, I know they're together still," she said aloud. "It's only fitting that their bodies go to rest together, don't you think, Argo?" The mare whickered in agreement, and Rhonwyn smiled weakly. "I thought you'd see it my way. I just hope I can get Herodotus and the Amazons to agree."
Together. Side by side, in life and death intertwined. No one knew, better than Rhonwyn, the cost of preserving that eternal unity between warrior and bard, the struggles that Xena and Gabrielle had endured to keep their relationship intact. It had never been easy for them, not from the beginning; and the events surrounding their first fateful meeting with Rhonwyn in Britannia had marked a new level of difficulty for the two. The nightmares from the time that had nearly ripped them apart forever had never fully gone away; the Druid knew this from her constant correspondence with Gabrielle.
But despite those tribulations, Xena and her lover had fought valiantly, learning to let their love for each other overcome the echoes of their past hatred and resentment. Rhonwyn herself had done all she could to help; she was only too glad now to see that the struggle had not been in vain. On the faces of her friends she could read no trace of the pain that the experiences of the Rift had etched there.
The water in the cauldron was heated now, and Rhonwyn filled the bowl with it. Tearing a strip of cloth from the bottom of the siarc she wore-no longer the black-and-crimson checked one of several summers ago, but a plain dark brown-she knelt by Xena's body, and carefully undid the coarse material in which the Romans had clothed her before the execution. She dipped the cloth torn from her own tunic into the frothing liquid and began to wash away the blood and dirt that covered her friend's body. Hands trembling with grief and cold passed over the dead warrior's flesh in a last, gentle caress of friendship.
The Druid found a second bowl and prepared the infusion that would serve as an embalming solution of sorts, laving Xena's body with it before using her cloak to dry off the excess liquid. She rose, and walked around the wide litter, taking the washing-bowl with her.
Kneeling by the bard, she unwound the rough cloth wrapping her friend's body and began to bathe her limp form. Rhonwyn was, for some unknown reason, taking pains not to wash away the faded brown marks of the mehndi that adorned Gabrielle's skin. She dabbed at the dried blood encrusted on the young woman's face, expressing in these last ministrations all the tenderness that she had never dared to show to the bard in life. But there was a chasteness in her actions, sprung from the reverence she held for the love Xena and Gabrielle shared, a love that was, to her, more sacred than anything in the world. She had honored that love in all the time she had known them, and now in their deaths she would not dare to do it dishonor.
Once Gabrielle's body had been washed and prepared, Rhonwyn set about laying out the bard's clothes, and Xena's leathers and armor. With some hesitation, she eyed the yellow sari-like skirt and form-fitting choli that Gabrielle had acquired in India. She had never cared for the outfit, and would have preferred instead to see her friend dressed as she had been at their first meeting-the Amazon bard as Rhonwyn always pictured her. She was sure she had the old skirt and green top that Gabrielle had used to wear; they had been buried deep in Argo's pack.
The Druid rummaged through the pack; ordinarily she would have been reluctant to go through the possessions of the dead, but she knew that Xena and Gabrielle had trusted her explicitly, and somehow felt that they would not have minded. Sure enough, the bard's older clothes were there. She held them in her hands, wistfully taking in the sight of the familiar material, and wondering why her friend had kept these garments. Almost as if . . . Gabrielle had secretly wanted to hold on to a small part of her former ways? she mused.
The Druid shook her head. Ah, you're reading far too much into things again, Rhonwyn Bach. Far simpler just to say she kept them for sentimental reasons. She surveyed her friend again and nodded slowly in decision.
"Na, that would be wrong, and I know it," she said aloud. "There were choices you made that I disagreed with, and things you did that I never cared for . . . but all the same, they were still your choices. This is the path you chose. I have to honor that." She folded up the green top and wraparound skirt, then reached resolutely for the yellow choli and skirt and laid them out. "I'll keep these safe for you," she told Gabrielle in a softer tone, putting the older clothes away in the pack again.
Carefully, with a painstaking, agonized slowness, Rhonwyn dressed the bodies of her two friends. She brushed out the tangled waves of Xena's dark hair-a task, she remembered, that Gabrielle had dearly loved. Her eyes grew shadowed with thought as she watched the firelight rippling off the deep black tresses. Darkness and fire . . . that was Xena. The warrior, dark and deadly, serving the greater good with a burning passion that all but obscured her tarnished past. The woman who had learned to wholeheartedly embrace the Way of the Warrior as her path to redemption. A sad smile played about Rhonwyn's lips as she cleaned and polished Xena's sword, sheathed it, and laid the bejeweled scabbard at the raven-haired woman's side.
The Druid turned her attention to Gabrielle. "So short," she murmured, chuckling ruefully and giving the bard's close-cropped golden locks an affectionate ruffle. "Ah, Gabrielle . . . you've changed so much since I first met you. You endured so much pain that I only wish I could have prevented, and you grew and matured in ways I never could have imagined. True, you made many mistakes, but that is, after all, a part of growing up. I should know that. You have ever been a true friend and example." Fresh tears choked her voice. "Thank you."
"And Xena," she continued. "You never knew how much I admired you. The courage and strength with which you faced up to your past deeds, and the things you taught me about accepting the path my life had to take. We learned so much from each other, my friend. Not as much as you and Gabrielle learned from each other, though. You shared a bond I was never meant to share, a bond between you and she alone, as it was always meant to be." A strange thought occurred to her. "You were right, Xena. We do forge our own destinies, to a point . . . the end of the path is inevitable. But the journey . . . our deeds, and what we leave behind-those are the choices that we fully control, and those deeds are what will last." A shadow crossed Rhonwyn's face for the briefest of moments, and she added with vehemence, "What the two of you did will never be forgotten. If nothing else, I will see to it. I promise you that." She kissed Xena's forehead, and brushed away a tear that had fallen on the still brow. "You will ever be in my heart, bright warrior . . . and dearest of friends."
She knelt there for a while, resting her hands lightly on her friends' heads and playing out scene after scene in her mind. Visions of Gabrielle and Xena, of adventures and memories shared with them, of images of the warrior and bard as seen in her awen, danced before her mind's eye, full of happiness and sorrow, of pleasure and pain. She closed her eyes and let the images wash over her.
Finally, she got to her feet, and made ready to set out for the long journey back to Greece. But a remembered image from the Otherworld vision that had brought her here made the Druid pause. It was as clear as when she had first seen it, as clear as if she had been there to witness it in person: Gabrielle, taking up Xena's sword to defend her fallen and helpless soulmate. The gentle bard, become a very whirlwind of battle, carving her way through Roman soldiers as though born with the blade in her hand. She heard the dying screams, Gabrielle crying for Xena to get up, Xena pleading with Gabrielle to stop. She saw again the anguished look on Xena's face as the warrior watched her young lover's deadly rage; revisited the stab of pain she herself had felt upon witnessing the carnage that the bard had left in her wake; remembered the pure horror that filled the green eyes falling upon the bloodied dagger.
Rhonwyn understood Gabrielle, knew keenly her friend's revulsion at taking a life. The Druid was no stranger to the cruel necessity of the kill. Her heart ached for Gabrielle-for the pain that the slaughtering rampage must have cost both her and Xena. But the words that Gabrielle had spoken to the warrior just before their deaths-words that Rhonwyn had heard in one of her Otherworldly visitations-were the healing salve that stole most of the pain away.
"I had a choice: to do nothing, or save my friend," Gabrielle had said. "I chose the Way of Friendship."
Fresh tears sprang to Rhonwyn's eyes at the remembrance. "That was ever your true Way, Gabrielle," she said. "I wish you could have known it sooner . . . I could have just told you . . . but you had to work through your pain and discover it for yourself. I, or anyone else, couldn't have said anything sufficient to convince you. I'm only glad that you came to realize that in time." A low, bittersweet laugh escaped the Briton's lips. "You taught me a new meaning of love, Gabrielle . . . and the purity of the love you showed to me made everything I had known before nothing but a poor imitation. It was love that drove you to the choice you made, and for that, you can hold no blame."
She surveyed her friends' still forms, lying in quiet dignity, arranged as they were on the litter. No, she thought. Something about this isn't quite right . . . There was an elusive, missing something that defied explanation, but after a few moments' contemplation, Rhonwyn had the answer.
She picked up Xena's sword and scabbard again, this time laying the sheathed weapon between the two women, placing Xena's callused hand atop the hilt, and Gabrielle's smaller, softer one atop the warrior's. "Your destinies, however seemingly difficult, were always intertwined; your battle, however differently fought, was ever to be fought together," declared the Druid aloud, authoritatively. To herself, she added, Symbolically speaking, this is only right.
Rhonwyn was struck by a sudden thought, and laid her own hand on the grip of the sword, above those of her friends-a final display of the teamwork they had once known. "One more trip together then, the two of you and I. I'm taking you home."
The Druid walked slowly across the hut to her pack, and withdrew a cloth of fine black linen. The expanse of sable was adorned with golden thread in a proud, bold knotwork pattern of the Celtic design, made to reflect the pattern of Xena's armor. Another pattern in bright green was interwoven with the gold, in a design of pure lyricism that evoked Gabrielle's gentle soul and her formidable skill with words.
She'd had the cloth made at the previous summer solstice, when the first cryptic vision of the warrior and bard's deaths had visited her. But she had hoped to never have to use it . . .
Rhonwyn laid a heavy blanket over the bodies of her friends, tucking it in snugly about them, as if to shield them from the cold. She covered the litter with the linen cloth, securing it to the frame of the device. Getting up to hitch Argo to the litter, Rhonwyn found, not to her surprise, that the mare was already waiting patiently in place between the end-poles.
Her hand was halfway to Argo's bridle when a brief glimpse of something in the flickering embers of the firepit made her pause. Not a stray spark, or a collapsing log; not a leaping flame, or a sudden dimming-the fleeting sight that had caught the young Druid's eye bore the unmistakable signs of an Otherworldly genesis.
Narrowing her eyes, Rhonwyn gently eased the litter back down to the ground and crept across the hut to the firepit with a silence that held reverence. The Druidic awen could be deliberately summoned, or fall of its own accord upon one versed in the ways of the Learned Brotherhood, that was true. But for Rhonwyn, gazing into flames was not the accustomed method of seeking out such insight as was afforded to the Druid in that state. She, who traversed the Otherworld paths through the still surface of water, could not ignore the unexpected vision that had beckoned so strongly to her in the flames, and not of her own efforts to seek it.
She knelt before the firepit and stared into the glowing embers. The heat caused the air around the fire to shift and dance in a near-imperceptible pattern that slowly took shape and solidified into familiar images set against a backdrop of bright, hot crimson-orange.
There was a cave-no, a tomb-deep within the heart of a mountain, and a battle. Ares was there, released after long entrapment, and . . . Xena? But it had to be Xena-the fire flashing within the ice-blue eyes, the powerful grace of her every movement, the indomitable aura of strength that surrounded her . . . who else could it be? The clothes she wore, though, were the strangest that the Druid had ever seen.
Gabrielle was there as well, exuding an unusual demeanor of toughness, the hardened look of having lived a difficult life. She was as physically fit as ever, but lines of skepticism and distrust were etched into the face that Rhonwyn remembered as being so gentle. And the bard, as well, was dressed in peculiar clothing . . .
That can't be them! Rhonwyn realized with a start. But, she asked herself again, who else could it possibly be? Not them, but . . . their descendants? The thought made no sense. What descendants? Solan was dead, as was Hope. Rhonwyn shook her head. Surely there was an explanation for this, but the awen would not show her-she could not, after all, control it. And still the vision continued.
The chakram-the broken chakram-was once again whole! In the fire-vision, it flew from the hand of the raven-haired woman, careened madly off the cave walls, throwing sparks, and struck true before returning to her hand. But no one else could handle the weapon that way! This, then, must be Xena's spirit, come to life in the body of this descendant of hers. And the chakram is the key . . .
Unbidden, strains of "The Dream of Rhonabwy" echoed in her ears. It was a long, intricate song, one of the most difficult in the Celtic bard's repertoire. It told of a great king-one who, some bards said, would rule Prydein, be defeated, and yet return again to lead his people. With a jolt like the strike of lightning, Rhonwyn understood. Xena and Gabrielle would be called back to life once more-not now, but in the near future-to imprison Ares in that cave, and when they did, they would eventually give birth to the children who would make this vision a reality.
The Druid thought of the scrolls she had written down, kept safe by her fellows back in Prydein-Britannia, as they called it here. Scrolls that told the story of Gabrielle and Xena, and the Rift that she had once fought to heal. Scrolls that she, and all her own descendants, were geas-bound to preserve against the time that their story would once more be discovered, in order to prevent another Rift from opening between the very two women that she saw in the flames.
The vision faded away, leaving behind it insight and a comforting hope for the future that burned in the Druid's heart. She looked at the two halves of the deadly metal ring that lay on the ground beside her pack.
And she knew what she had to do.
The quiet murmuring of the people gathered on the gentle slope of the hill was interrupted by the sound of a horse's hooves falling on soft, moss-covered ground. The leader of the group, the prophet-healer called Eli, looked up at the unexpected sound. A golden palomino bore the weight of a broad, covered litter behind her, and a young woman walked beside the mare, not so much leading her as accompanying her.
She strode up to meet him, one hand firmly gripping a slender rowan staff, sunlight touching her dark chestnut hair with honeyed streaks. "Hello, Eli," she said quietly. Her voice reminded him of that eerie sort of stillness that precedes a thunderstorm.
Eli blinked in uncomfortable surprise. "How do you know my name?" He had never before met this woman, who spoke in the accents of a foreign land. Intense scrutiny bored into him from the gold-flecked hazel of her eyes, and his stomach churned with apprehension.
"I have my ways," the stranger responded simply. "I know all about you, Eli . . . Devi . . . avatar . . . prophet . . . teacher of the Way of Love." There was something approaching scorn in her words. "And if I'm not mistaken, you know who I am as well."
"Oh, yes. My name is Rhonwyn y Cymodwr, a Druid of Ynys Prydein-you might know the island as Britannia. I was a good friend of Xena's . . . and of Gabrielle's."
He started in recognition at the name. "Rhonwyn . . . yes, Gabrielle spoke very highly of you." But her choice of words nagged at him. "You . . . were a good friend of theirs. What . . . where are they?"
Rhonwyn silently gestured toward Argo's burden, her eyes cold. "Did you really expect the Romans to let them live?" Pity and disdain framed a question demanded in barely-controlled bitterness.
Eli took in the sight of the covered litter, and his eyes widened in shock. "No . . ." came the disbelieving murmur.
"Yes." The Briton's tone was blunt. "The Romans don't think as you do-or did you not figure that out, from the death they had planned for you?"
The prophet had no ready answer for that, and none was necessary; the heaviness of the silence that followed spoke the answer. He lowered his eyes to the ground, avoiding the challenging expression in Rhonwyn's gaze.
"Eli." It was the young man, Simon, one of his more impulsive followers. Simon-who still had trouble reining in his tendencies to react physically to potential threats-had been with them when Brutus had arrested the group, and when Xena had helped them escape. He had not forgotten how the warrior had saved their lives. Simon-always thinking in terms of the immediate situation, looking for the quick solution. "Can't you do something? Bring them back?" he asked.
Eli considered briefly. He had often rebuked the young man before for his lack of forethought and overhasty decisions, but for once, perhaps Simon was right . . . He was, after all, learning quickly, and might be a good choice in future as Eli's successor. "I could try," he mused. The healer made a move toward the litter, but Rhonwyn moved swiftly to block him.
"No," she declared compellingly. "Don't even try." She had to force her voice to stay firm. Oh, but it's a tantalizing thought, all right . . .
"Why not?" asked Eli. "They did so much good. Don't they deserve another chance? Doesn't this world deserve it?"
Rhonwyn's face hardened. "'They did so much good,'" she echoed acidly. "So you finally acknowledge that Xena, the warrior, the one who fought evil with the blade of her sword, did good in her own way? In the Way of the Warrior?" She allowed herself a moment of satisfaction at the look of guilt that briefly stole his expression. Och, but now is no time to be petty, Rhonwyn Bach! she scolded herself. The Druid schooled herself to calmness and continued, "No matter. That chance is not for you, nor I, to give them. Or-"here an eyebrow arched with cool curiosity, in a manner not unlike Xena's-"do you not think that I know how to heal as well? Make no mistake, Eli, they will return . . . but in the proper time. And now is not that time."
"But . . ." he protested once more in consternation.
The Druid cut him off. "You teach of love, Eli. And had you stayed long enough to see for yourself, you would have known that love was the driving force in the events that led to their deaths." She read disbelief on Eli's face, and before he could speak, continued, "I know much of love myself, Eli. And no one knows more clearly the purity of the love that existed between Xena and Gabrielle than do I. Because I sacrificed my own heart to preserve it!"
She paused, debating the wisdom of telling him of the carnage which Gabrielle's love for Xena had ultimately left in its wake . . . then decided against it. Instead, all she said was, "It was love that surrounded and sained every last moment leading to their deaths, Eli. Would you taint the sanctity of that love, that end?"
Eli sighed and acknowledged the truth in Rhonwyn's words. "All right. Where are you taking them?"
"To Xena's home, in Amphipolis. You can come along if you wish." The questioning eyebrow was raised at him again.
"Both of them?"
"Both of them." The next words sprang from her lips before she could prevent them. "And if you even try to make me do otherwise, you damned well may not survive the argument." The vehemence of the proclamation was no shock to her, but it made Eli suck in an alarmed breath.
"No . . .no, of course not," he stammered. "You're right. They deserve to stay together." He glanced quickly around at his followers. "We'll accompany you."
A curt nod. "All right, then."
"No funeral pyre for the Queen? But that's absurd!" Shalapa stormed across the hut to hide her growing anger, and avoid the Druid's piercing gaze.
"Shalapa, believe me when I say this. It is out of the question." Rhonwyn's practiced tones were low and soothing, meant to placate the agitated Amazon.
"Out of the question to give our Queen the honored funeral she deserves? To defy our tradition?" demanded the Regent-now-Queen, whirling to face Rhonwyn with undisguised rancor.
"Was Gabrielle a traditional Queen?" countered the Briton. She sighed, and looked over to the bier where Xena and Gabrielle's bodies lay in state. "Shalapa, listen to me. I've foreseen it. If you commit their bodies to the flames, you will be robbing the Amazons, and all of Greece, of a peaceful future. Would you do that? Would Ephiny have allowed it? Would Gabrielle?"
Shalapa's brow furrowed in consternation. "I don't understand."
Rhonwyn strode to Shalapa's side, took the taller Amazon by the shoulders, and looked her sternly in the face. "They will return, Shalapa, to life. Not now-I don't know when, but one day the will be called back to this world in order to confront the greatest danger that Greece will ever know. These bodies must be kept safe for them, against that time."
The Amazon chuckled bemusedly. "I still don't think I understand, but . . . Gabrielle trusted you implicitly, so I suppose I'll take your word for it. All right then, you have my permission to take her body to Amphipolis, and forgo the pyre. Will you have any kind of ceremony for them?"
Rhonwyn nodded. "Of course."
"I'll send Masalina with an entourage, then, to represent us."
The Druid smiled. "Gabrielle wouldn't have wanted it any other way." She paused. "Given what events are going to take place in future, though, there is one more matter to attend to."
Shalapa gave Rhonwyn a questioning look. "What's that?"
Rhonwyn bit her lip. "Xena's back. Callisto shattered her spine."
"Sweet Artemis," came the gasp of reply.
"I think I can fix that . . . it needs to be done. But if I can't manage it, I'll have to call that damned prophet to help, and I don't care to do that."
"Oh, yes. Eli. Amarice doesn't think much of him."
"Neither do I," Rhonwyn replied. An understanding smile passed between Amazon and Druid. "All right . . . let me see what I can do."
Rhonwyn crossed over to the bier where Xena's body lay. Gingerly, she slipped a hand beneath the warrior's back, trying to feel through the thick leather for the damage that Callisto had caused. She placed the other hand on Xena's stomach, then shut her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she recalled the techniques that she had learned from that golden-eyed young Druid from Dyfed, the one they called Myrddin . . .
She felt the energy begin to flow from her, envisioned the shattered bone and ruined tissue knitting itself together beneath her fingers. Sweat broke out on her forehead, barely even noticed by the young Briton, who was deep in a trancelike state. Nothing she had ever done even began to approach the difficulty of this new and unusual task. It was, in a way, a peculiar sort of awen trance, one more physically draining than customary, and left the recipient in a disorienting state of semi-awareness. Indeed, it took all of Rhonwyn's mental faculties to keep herself focused.
Shalapa stared in awe. The wounds on Xena's hands were disappearing, healing themselves slowly under the Druid's careful touch. Slowly, slowly . . . flesh bloodied and cruelly shredded by unforgiving iron spikes became whole and fresh once more. The sight was something the young Queen had never expected to see, and likely never would again, and its ineffable wonder dazzled her. She barely managed to shake herself back to alertness in time to catch Rhonwyn as she slumped to the floor, pale and gasping.
"It worked," said the Briton in awe. "By Lleu himself, it worked!" She groaned and rubbed her eyes. "Though I can tell you, I won't be attempting anything like that very often!" She was no less awed by the accomplishment than Shalapa. So what I said to Eli was more than just a bluff after all! she marveled.
"It worked," echoed Shalapa. "And Rhonwyn, look." She indicated the restored flesh of Xena's hands. "Can you do that for Gabrielle, too?"
Rhonwyn grimaced, feeling the fatigue that followed this first, untrained healing effort. "I . . . I suppose so, yes. It would only be fair, wouldn't it?" she added with a weak smile. She struggled to her feet beside the bier, shut her eyes again, and laid her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.
It was an exhausted-looking Rhonwyn indeed, who emerged from the hut at Shalapa's side. The Queen addressed the Amazons gathered around the door. "It will be as Rhonwyn has said. There will be no funeral pyre for Queen Gabrielle." Cries of protest rose, but Shalapa held up her hands to silence them, and went on, "The bodies of Xena and Gabrielle will be taken to Amphipolis, and laid to rest there."
"You put so much faith in the word of a foreigner?" came an angry voice.
"This foreigner was a trusted friend of Queen Gabrielle's," replied Shalapa firmly. "I believe her, and I believe that it is in our best interests to do as she suggests."
The protesting died to soft murmurs, as the Amazons looked dubiously at one another.
"Masalina." Shalapa addressed her champion.
"Yes, my Queen?"
"You'll take an entourage of a dozen or so of our warriors to accompany Rhonwyn, and guard the bodies of Xena and Gabrielle. You'll represent us at the funeral."
The whip-thin blonde Amazon bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Yes, my Queen." She immediately began to move through the crowd, selecting the women who would undertake the journey.
One of them was the impulsive young transplant from the Telequai tribe-Amarice, who had left the village to travel with Gabrielle and Xena. She had returned to the village barely two days before, distraught and on the verge of hysteria, and bearing word of her erstwhile companions' capture. In fact, a rescue party had been organized, and was prepared to set out after them when Rhonwyn had arrived, with the news that they had been dreading. Amarice, it seemed, was much subdued and changed by her experience. Shalapa and Masalina, along with many of the other Amazons of the tribe, could recognize the influence of both warrior and bard on the young woman. On those grounds alone, they found it unthinkable to exclude her from the trip.
And so, when they set out again, they were joined by a score of Amazons, as well as Tyldus and five representatives from the Centaurs, all of whom had refused to be left behind.
They reached Poteidaia, where the most troublesome challenge lay: bringing the news to Gabrielle's family. From what the bard had mentioned of her father, Herodotus would likely blame Xena, Rhonwyn knew. She also knew that she did not trust herself to react well to the vitriol with which his comments would be loaded. Slurs against a personal friend were insulting enough, but when compounded with disrespect toward the dead . . . She ran a hand over her face with a heavy sigh.
"I'll come with you to break the news," offered Autolycus gently. They'd come across the King of Thieves in the town of Laurel, and to his credit, the charming rogue had immediately abandoned all preparation on his latest scheme to join them. Minya, as well, was now with the party; with as much as she had admired the Warrior Princess, none of them would have even contemplated preventing her. It was Autolycus, though, who had taken the initiative to contact others who had been counted among friends of the warrior and bard.
Rhonwyn shook her head now and smiled at him with a hint of the old tenderness. "Autolycus, you're as caring as ever, beneath that flippant fašade of yours, but you know as well as I do that your reputation gallops ahead of you by miles. Bad enough that I'm a stranger from a land of which they know nothing, bringing them word of this, but Herodotus will be highly displeased by your presence. Hecuba and Lila, at least, should be spared any further unpleasantry."
Autolycus nodded and laid a hand on the Celt's arm. "I understand. This is going to be hard enough on them all as it is."
"Thank you, though," Rhonwyn murmured.
"They've always liked me." It was Joxer who spoke; he had joined them on the road to Poteidaia. The clumsy would-be warrior was barely recognizable, grief having lent him a transfiguring kind of dignity. His large brown eyes were somber as he met Rhonwyn's gaze. "I'll come with you."
The Briton's gold-hazel orbs were locked with his understandingly. "All right, Joxer. You're probably the best choice, I think."
The lanky young man stepped close to Rhonwyn, drawing her a small distance away from the others. He ducked his head, and lowered his voice. "You loved her too, didn't you?" he asked softly. At her nod, he added, "Then I guess you know, like I did, that it was never meant to be. She and Xena were always meant for each other. I think I always knew that." He gulped down a sob. "That doesn't make it any easier, though . . ." Tears spilled down his face, and he made no attempt to hide them.
"It never does, my friend. It never does." Rhonwyn pulled him into a tight, comforting embrace. "Let's get this over with."
Autolycus and the rest of the entourage watched as Rhonwyn and Joxer walked slowly across the town square.
"Sweet Artemis," muttered Amarice. "I hope it goes well."
"I hope so too," Minya commiserated. "Oh, do I ever." And then, all there was to do was to wait.
"Executed . . . by the Romans? My daughter? This was all her fault, wasn't it?" Herodotus's voice was barely more than an angry growl. "That damned . . ."
"Herodotus!" Hecuba held up a trembling hand to silence her husband. Though she had never particularly cared for Xena herself, she had at least seen the warrior a bit more favorably than had he. "You know it was Gabrielle's choice to stay with Xena. She was old enough to make her own decisions." The words were spoken with bravado and a quivering lower lip.
"Her own decisions . . . and look where they led her! She was too trusting . . . I told her that woman was nothing but trouble, and you see what's happened now because of it?" The sturdy peasant glared at Rhonwyn poisonously. "And now this foreigner comes in and tells us . . ."
Joxer stepped forward bravely, interrupting the older man's tirade. "Sir." His tone was respectful but firm. "Lila is taking this hard enough as it is. Please, don't make it any worse for her . . . or for your wife." He glanced over his shoulder, to where the demure young brunette was crying softly in her mother's arms, face buried in her hands. "I've known Xena for a long time, and with all due respect, sir, I can tell you that she'd never have let this happen to Gabrielle, not if she could help it."
"And that is the truth of it." Rhonwyn fixed a pained stare on Herodotus. "She loved your daughter more than life itself. I too have traveled with them, and been trusted by them, and have seen and heard evidence of it firsthand. You should know how much love Gabrielle was capable of giving. She taught Xena to do the same, sir." The Druid paused briefly. "If I may show you something . . ."
She led Herodotus and Hecuba to the doorway, and gestured toward the motley crowd of friends gathered outside-Amarice, Masalina, and the Amazons; Eli and his followers; Tyldus and the Centaur representatives; Autolycus, and Minya. "This peculiar group represents but a few of the lives that Gabrielle was able to touch."
"Centaurs . . . and Amazons . . . together?" Hecuba marveled.
"Among others-many others," Rhonwyn confirmed. She fell into the emotional, persuasive tones of a practiced storyteller. "You should know that your daughter was greatly responsible for bringing about that unity. They may call me 'the Reconciler,' but . . ." The Druid smiled ruefully. "Gabrielle was ever the more deserving of that title. Not one of those people you see there could claim that she did not change their lives for the better. And there are many more who could say the same. Be proud of what your daughter accomplished! Do you think she would have ever had these opportunities if she had stayed at home?"
There was silence as Herodotus absorbed that revelation. When he turned to look at Rhonwyn again, he was a man transformed. "She did all that . . . my daughter?" The craggy lines of his face were softened now, anger dissolved in the amazement that washed over him. There was new respect, even awe, in his much-subdued voice. "I never realized . . ." It was all he said, but Rhonwyn heard his unspoken words clearly: Then maybe . . . just maybe, Xena wasn't so bad after all.
"You're taking their bodies to Amphipolis?" asked Lila. She swallowed nervously and cast a furtive glance at her parents, her mind working furiously around a newly-formed thought. "Take me with you," she said decisively.
Hecuba and Herodotus exchanged an alarmed glance that said, We lost one daughter to the perils of the road . . . now the other wants to leave?
"Lila," Joxer said quickly, "I don't know if that's such a good idea."
But the timid young woman surprised him with her response. "No!" she snapped. They could almost feel the keen edge of the steel ringing in her voice. "I'm not talking about leaving for good; I just want to be there at the funeral. This is my sister we're talking about. I need to be there. I am coming with you, whether you like it or not." There was nothing timid about the resolve written in her features.
Rhonwyn smiled through the haze of fresh tears triggered by Lila's outburst. Her eyes-the eyes of this young woman, sister to Gabrielle-were smoldering with determination, and the Briton found herself wondering how many times she had seen those same defiant sparks snapping in a certain pair of orbs of the most brilliant green.
"She's right, Joxer. She should accompany us. She has every right to do so." The Celt turned a tired gaze on her companion. "Given, of course, that she has permission, and . . . Lila, you are aware that the journey may be dangerous?"
Lila squared her chin and met Rhonwyn's eyes bravely. "If my sister could throw herself into a lava pit to save Xena's life, then I guess I can make the trip to see the two of them buried."
"Sweetheart, I'm not so sure . . ." began Hecuba doubtfully.
"If she wants to go, let her go," interrupted Herodotus's gruff voice, surprising them all. "Gabrielle would have liked her to be there." He looked at Rhonwyn, his expression more openly pleading than he would normally care to allow. "Just keep her safe. That's all I ask."
Rhonwyn smiled in response. "I doubt that one person in our rather large traveling party could refuse that request." Her eyes warmed as she moved closer, and continued in tones meant for him alone. "I do thank you, sir, for consenting to allow this."
The villager's expression was bleak, but benign. "What else could I do, really? I only ever wanted them to make something good of their lives . . . accomplish things to be proud of. My mistake was trying to define exactly what those things should have been. It's-" He struggled valiantly against the tears. "It's too late to tell her now, I suppose, but she really did things that mattered. I realize that. And maybe, by going with you and meeting some of the people Gabrielle called friends, Lila can learn something from her sister's example."
Mighty Manawyddan, marveled the Druid. So Gabrielle got some of that sensitivity from her father after all! "Oh, I trust that you don't mean she's welcome to go gallivanting off after former warlords . . . but building some character, yes, I think she can learn that on the journey." A touch of mirth danced about Rhonwyn's smile, quickly replaced by impassioned determination. "But sir, I must tell you that someday she will indeed know your true feelings. I will make sure of it." She knew the statement sounded peculiar, and so she told him quickly of her vision, taking satisfaction in the comfort it yielded to this man grieving in his own reluctant way.
Herodotus allowed himself a fleeting smile as he took in Rhonwyn's words, then nodded, commenting, "That certainly does put a new face on things. A reassuring one, certainly." He extended his arm to the Druid, who grasped it firmly in the traditional gesture of acknowledgment and respect. "I wish you good journey. Thank you for bringing us word . . . and for opening my eyes." The last words were barely above a whisper, and the Druid understood that the halting admission had been a difficult one.
"Thank you, sir," she responded simply. "On behalf of all those whose lives Gabrielle touched, I thank you and Hecuba both, as those who gave her life. I thank you for the wonderful gift that she was."
The sturdy peasant lowered his eyes to the floor. "She certainly was a treasure. But no one would have ever known it, had she stayed home like I wanted her to. And I suppose that Gabrielle might not have realized what she was capable of . . . if she hadn't decided to go wandering about the country with that warrior." He looked up again at Rhonwyn, almost shyly. "She loved telling those stories of hers. But when she was home, I would never let her tell about the adventures she'd had. I wish I could hear about them after all . . . I think I'd be ready."
Rhonwyn smiled again, compassionately. "Then . . . someday I'll come back, and tell you those stories. Ah, but I am not the storyteller your daughter was."
He blinked in surprise. "But a Druid bard . . . I thought you were supposed to be some of the most skilled storytellers in the world!"
"That we are, sir, and make no mistake. We are trained to memorize even the tiniest detail to perfection, to use the voice to evoke the most precise emotion, to choose our words with utter exactness. But, in the art of story as well as anything else in life, there is still only so much that one can be taught, and there is something far more important than the knowledge of one's craft." Gold-flecked hazel eyes were distant, pensive, touched with wistful recollection. "Gabrielle possessed an innate ability to touch people's hearts . . . to infuse even the simplest of phrases with life and meaning so exuberant that it seemed they would leap from the page, or take physical form before her. That, sir, is a skill that no amount of mere training could ever achieve."
"She meant a lot to you."
"That she did." For all her control, Rhonwyn knew that her face and voice had betrayed the true depth of her feelings. But it could not be helped, and perhaps it was just as well. Everyone, it seemed, had loved Gabrielle . . . and that was the end of it.
"Well." Herodotus went to his daughter's side. "Have a safe journey, Lila, and be careful." He glanced at Rhonwyn. "You're in good hands, I think . . ." He trailed off and gave a curt nod. "Make sure you come home."
Impulsively, Lila threw her arms around him, surprised and pleased at this behavior. "Thanks, Dad. I will." She hugged him tighter, out of gratitude and a newfound need to express her affection, as she remembered again the reason for this trip she was about to take.
"We'll take care of her, sir," Joxer was quick to reassure Lila's parents.
Herodotus looked long at him and at the Druid, with measured trust. "I know."
A surprising turn of events found them as they set out from Poteidaia the next day. Two warriors-one tall, with long brown hair, the other shorter and stockier with wild, curly golden locks atop his head-hailed the strange entourage.
Autolycus squinted at the approaching figures. "No. That can't be who I think it is. Hercules and . . . Iolaus? But I thought Iolaus was . . ."
"Dead," muttered Minya. "Or at least, that's what I heard."
"Well, you heard right," declared Hercules's companion, who, along with the demigod, had just come into earshot for the last part of the conversation. He continued breezily, "Because, you see, I was dead, but now . . . oh, it's a long story."
"It always is," Rhonwyn observed wryly.
The fighter waved to Autolycus, Joxer, and the others, then offered a hand to Rhonwyn. "Hey, I don't believe we've met, have we? I'm Iolaus, and this is my buddy Hercules . . . but I guess you knew that, huh? You're . . .?" he prompted.
"Rhonwyn. From the land you call Britannia." There was something innately comforting about Iolaus's unwitting, breezy cheerfulness that caused the faintest of smiles to flicker weakly across her face. "You don't know me, but I . . . I'm an old friend of Xena and Gabrielle's."
"Pleased to meet you then!" cried the fighter enthusiastically. "Any friend of-"
Hercules abruptly held out a hand, silencing his friend. "Is that Argo?" he asked, worry darkening his features. "Xena's horse, but . . . where's . . ." The litter hitched behind the palomino caught his attention at the same time that it did Iolaus's. "Oh, no."
The shorter man winced, caught unaware by a far-too-similar memory from several years ago. The same horse . . . a similar burden . . . trees and a forest path much like the one they were on now. But the litter, bearing an elaborate coffin, had been narrower then, and the young bard who had so faithfully led Argo on that past journey slept now beneath the simple black cloth, beside the warrior who had been her lover and soulmate.
"What happened to them?" His voice was choked, somber, with no trace of the cheerful affability of just moments past.
"In a word? Caesar." Rhonwyn spat the words out with grim precision. "He had them executed . . . crucified. But the bastard got his due, all right. Dead at the hands of the Roman senate. They stabbed him to death in the middle of the Senate chamber."
"No great loss to the world," Iolaus growled darkly. He looked over at the litter again, and his expression softened. "I can guess where you're taking them."
The Druid nodded, remembering what Gabrielle had told her about encountering Hercules's best friend on the way to Amphipolis that last time. "You'd be right."
The curly-haired fighter looked miserable. "This was something I never wanted to relive . . . absolutely no pun intended, whatsoever." He shook his head. "Especially not with both of them."
"Care to join us?" asked Autolycus.
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a brief glance. There was no question, no hesitation.
"You're on," they said together.
"It just hasn't been the season for my friends to stay alive," Hercules was saying glumly to Rhonwyn, as the group, led by these two, made its way across a solidly built plank bridge. "Iolaus, over there, was lucky; he got another chance. But-" The demigod sighed and spread his hands wide in a helpless gesture. "Ephiny wasn't so lucky. Neither were a lot of others . . ."
"And yet there are people like Callisto, and Alti, who one way or another manage to defy death, return, and wreak more evil still," Rhonwyn finished for him. The air around her seethed dangerously with the potent bitterness in her words.
"Yeah." Hercules nodded. "And it doesn't strike me as fair, not in the least . . . and it just doesn't make any sense! "
Rhonwyn merely nodded quietly. She realized that Hercules, even through his frustration, knew all too well that life was never fair, that it never played by logical rules. All his experiences had burned that lesson into his mind, like it or not, with a kind of indelible touch.
But she allowed him the outburst. One lesson, if no other, the Druid warrior knew well: that knowing a fact with the mind makes it no easier to accept with the heart. So she said nothing, and understood.
She glanced back over her shoulder, to where Amarice and Lila were having an animated conversation. It had come as a surprise to her when Gabrielle's timid sister had struck up a comradeship with the fierce young Amazon, but considering the people that made up this group of travelers, it was . . . entirely fitting, somehow. She inclined her head slightly, and listened.
"I did some thinking about it, and I realized that every one of us here has something in common," Amarice was saying. "All of us are different in some way, so we don't quite fit in, you know? Like most of the world can't quite understand us for some reason or another."
Lila shook her head, puzzled. "I don't get it."
"Well, there's Autolycus, for one. He's a thief, he cooks up all these crazy schemes, he gets a huge kick out of stealing things, he thinks it's fun to make off with treasures nobody else would have the nerve to try to steal. Always in it for the money."
"But a nice guy, all the same."
"Right. Anyway, it doesn't make any sense to people, how much fun that is for him." Amarice shrugged. "Then there's the Centaurs. Humans are kind of weird about Centaurs. They're different from us, so a lot of people are either fascinated, or afraid of them. Sometimes even both at once. And a lot of people hate them. The Amazons used to. Most Amazon tribes still do. It's part of why Ephiny's tribe is so isolated. Ephiny even married a Centaur, you know . . ."
Lila was incredulous. "She did?"
"Yeah." The Amazon girl indicated a young Centaur walking alongside the litter like a flank guard. He was about half the size of the rest of Tyldus's group; his face was open and innocent, and the definition of the muscles beneath his glossy hide, though strong and healthy, lacked the fullness of a full-grown Centaur's. "That's Xenon. Their son. Ephiny's and Phantes's."
"Xenon . . . named after . . ."
Amarice nodded and hacked idly with her dagger at a twig that happened to be protruding into their path. "Uh-huh. She's the one who helped deliver him. Saved Ephiny's life, and his." The Amazon cast a sidelong glance at her companion. "It was thanks to Xena and your sister that there wasn't a war between us and the Centaurs. I wasn't here then; I was still back with my tribe. While we still had a tribe. But you could ask Shalapa, or Liane, or Masalina, or any of them . . . they'd tell you that story in a heartbeat. It's one of the parts of Amazon history that they're proudest of."
The Poteidaian girl gazed at the Amazon entourage with amazement and some trepidation. Masalina and her warriors were a formidable group, to be sure. Even Amarice, young as she was, bore sword and dagger, and had the air of a battle veteran, and a dangerous one at that, about her. Clearly, these women were not to be trifled with. All the childhood tales that Lila had heard about the Amazons had taken flesh in these warriors traveling with her-but they were human beings, not the unearthly creatures of the village lore, made real to her through the sharing of their lives and experiences. And these were, she realized, women who had acknowledged her sister as their ruler.
"My sister," she murmured dazedly. "My sister was their Queen?"
Amarice nodded somberly. "Sure thing. Yeah, there were a few of us who disagreed with her methods sometimes, but every single one of them . . . of us . . . still loved her, when it all came down to it." She gave a pensive chuckle. "It was kind of funny that way, I guess. The last time, when we were fighting Pompey and his men, after Ephiny was killed . . . Xena was the battle leader they all trusted and followed. But she wasn't an Amazon. And a lot of the warriors were afraid of her. And then Gabrielle . . . she was the rightful Queen, but she'd never been much of a fighter in the first place. Not that she wasn't good, 'cause from what Xena told me, she was damn good with that staff she used to carry. It was just that she was on this total peace kick, thanks to Eli over there." Amarice let out a disgusted snort and jerked her head sideways to indicate the prophet.
"So she refused to fight at all," she continued. "And I thought it was stupid. So did a lot of the others, at first. I mean, an Amazon Queen who won't fight? A peaceful person, ruling a tribe of warriors? What kind of sense does that make, you know?" The young Amazon's eyes glimmered with sadness, and a hint of newfound maturity. "Xena used to yell at me for not giving Gabrielle any credit. For not listening to her. She said I could've learned a lot from your sister. I didn't believe her then. But thinking about it now . . . if Gabrielle hadn't tried to make peace with the Romans . . ."
"You'd probably still be fighting now," Lila guessed, interrupting.
"No, we'd probably all be dead now," Amarice corrected her indulgently. "But you know what I realized? By proposing that peace treaty to Caesar, Gabrielle pretty much made sure that we'd survive. Me, I wanted a war to fight, butts to kick, all that. To go out there and bash in some heads. And Amazons are warriors! So I was pretty mad about the peace treaty. But, looking back on the whole thing, well . . ." Her tone grew more thoughtful. "If Brutus managed to kill Ephiny, what chance of surviving did the rest of us have? Barely half of us survived Pompey's attacks to begin with . . . my tribe is pretty much gone, except for a few of us who lucked out. There was me, my friend . . . who survived because she was off at the Academy . . . her mother . . . maybe a dozen more. That's it."
"And the Amazon Nation has fallen so much apart in the last few years." Shalapa's voice cut in suddenly, surprising Lila and Amarice. She sighed, the sound of someone admitting reluctantly to an undesirable truth. "It was dying. We didn't want it to be true, but it was. I was there when Gabrielle and Xena first came to our tribe-when your sister was made Amazon Princess, Lila, and when they stopped us from going to war with the Centaurs. It would have been a mistake anyway . . . it was all a trick, you see. The two of them probably saved us all." The young Queen placed one hand on Amarice's shoulder and one on Lila's, her expression grave. "If it weren't for women like Gabrielle, and Xena, and Ephiny, there might not be an Amazon Nation today."
The young brunette just shook her head. "I had no idea. Gabrielle always said that she wasn't cut out for life in the village, but I didn't think she'd go off and save the world!"
The na´vetÚ of the words drew a chuckle from Iolaus, who heard and came over to the women. "Your sister didn't save the world," he told Lila. "There's too much hatred and wrong in Greece alone, not to mention everywhere else, for any one person to conquer. Hercules, over there, he's half god, and he can't do it." The stocky fighter smiled, indicating his taller friend. "But I'll tell you one thing. If anybody had the heart to save the world, it would be your sister. She had more love in her heart than anyone I've ever known."
"That's one way of putting it." Hercules was behind them suddenly, arms folded across his chest, expression thoughtful. "People say that I'm the one responsible for what Xena became after her reformation. That it's because of me that she's so devoted to the fight for good. But that's not true, really. Yeah, I taught her to find the good in her soul, but after that, what she would become was all up to her. Whether she stuck to the path of good or not was her choice. And if it hadn't been for Gabrielle, maybe she never would have. For Xena, Gabrielle was . . ." He paused, searching for the right words.
"A light." It was Rhonwyn who spoke now, a reflective smile on her face. "Gabrielle was, to Xena, all the goodness and love and innocence that she herself lost. She had faith in Xena of the most profound kind, trusted and believed in her when no one else would. Most people would have just dismissed Xena as evil and unredeemable, but like Hercules, your sister never believed that. She saw from the first that there truly was good in Xena's soul, and many times it was she who reminded Xena of that." The Druid laughed quietly, measuring her words as much for Amarice's benefit as for Lila's. "Oh, I could tell you story upon story! Make no mistake about it-those two were everything to each other."
Lila absorbed this thoughtfully. "Rhonwyn," she began, her voice uncertain, "how much did they love each other? I mean, were they . . . you know, were they lovers?" She flushed a brilliant red, then quickly added, "Not that I'd-well, I wouldn't-just, um, well . . . it wouldn't bother me, I don't think. I'm just not used to the idea, is all. Not yet, anyway."
Honey-flecked amber eyes were searching, low voice gentle. "They were, Lila, and something more than that: true soulmates, made to balance one another in every way, complemented and completed each by the other. You see, Lila, we Celts believe that there is a certain perfection to where opposites meet and find common ground. The moment where night surrenders the earth to daylight, the place where the sea touches the land . . . such things are sacred to us, as where the Otherworld and this worlds-realm overlap. And in the union between Xena and Gabrielle, I saw the sacredness of such a junction in its purest form."
"Every time Gabrielle talked about Xena, you could hear the love in her voice," remarked Lila. "Dad, he never thought much of Xena . . . but did she really love my sister all that much?"
The Briton nodded enigmatically. "Oh, yes. Autolycus can tell you of that far better than I, though." She nudged the thief, who had come to walk beside her.
He blinked. "I can? Oh! Oh, yeah, I can. You see, Xena had died once before, only her spirit was still hanging around, like she had a reason to come back. And actually, she did. But she had to get her body back, first, and then steal the extremely well-protected Dagger of Helios to get to the ambrosia and come back to life. Now, let me point out to you that the Dagger was a priceless treasure, guarded by the most advanced security measures, and crack sentries. Not the easiest thing in the world to steal, I can tell you that! So," he added with a flourish, "who better to accomplish that impossible task than the one and only King of Thieves?"
Lila was already giggling over the harangue, and Rhonwyn rolled her eyes, amused. "Just get on with the story, trickster." The admonition was teasing.
"Anyway," continued Autolycus, "she took over my body to do it, and to steal her body back from the Amazons afterward. It was weird. I was sharing my body with her, and every now and then we'd fight over who was in control. But even when she was in control, I was always there. I saw everything-like I was the one in action, but watching myself at the same time."
A grin of comprehension stole slowly across Amarice's face; the young Amazon had been listening to the entire story in rapt attention. "And you felt and thought everything she did, too."
He hesitated, not sure how much information he was at liberty to divulge. The truth was, Xena had never been aware that her thoughts and feelings had been so perfectly clear to the thief. And Autolycus, for all his carefree irreverence, held the warrior in the highest regard. But then, he thought, she never did make a secret of how she felt for that little bard.
"Yup. And I can tell you that the whole time her spirit was in my body, there was only one thought that never left her mind: I have to get back to Gabrielle. I know a thing or two about love, and I never felt anyone's love for someone else as much as I did then. I can't even explain it, it was so intense." The dark-haired rogue shook his head in wonder, remembering. "And no one was ever as happy as she was when she used me to speak to Gabrielle. It was like every reunion between two lovers that ever happened, all lumped together, and then some. Just . . . overwhelming."
There was an unaccustomed sincerity in the thief's demeanor as he concluded, "To be loved that way . . . the way Xena loved that little blonde bard . . . it's . . . it's the best thing anyone could ever wish for."
"I was jealous of them, you know," offered Minya. "You know how much I wanted to be like Xena, Lila . . . how much I wanted to be her. It was so clear to me, right off, what the two of them shared; I felt like whatever it was that Hower and I have was nothing compared to what they had. So I envied her . . . well, more for how much Gabrielle loved her than for who she was, even though I wanted that too. And I guess I thought that if I could be more like her, then maybe I could get from Hower the same kind of love Xena got from Gabrielle. At least I think that's how it works. I don't really understand it."
"You make it sound like everyone could tell that they were in love," Lila observed. "Why couldn't I tell? You'd think it was completely obvious."
Rhonwyn laughed and patted the young woman on the shoulder. "Yes, one would think that. It certainly was obvious to Minya, as she can tell you!" Behind them, the stocky farm woman gave a low chuckle of confirmation. "But believe it or not, Gabrielle herself once said the same thing."
"She most certainly did. But that is a story all its own . . ."
Later that night, as the travelers huddled around their small cluster of campfires, the air was warmed by the buzz of a dozen amiable conversations. Lila and Amarice listened in rapt attention to Tyldus's tales of the near war with the Amazons, thwarted as it was by Xena and Gabrielle's efforts. Joined by Hercules and Iolaus, Autolycus and Joxer were, for once, having a serious discussion, peppered by none of the usual cutting remarks that the thief usually aimed at the clumsy fighter. Minya, much to her delight, had been gladly welcomed into the Amazons' company, and the simple farm girl and the warrior women found that they had much to learn from each other's way of life.
Rhonwyn sat apart, at the edge of the camp, Lludchen laid out across her knees, keeping watch over the campsite and over Xena and Gabrielle's bodies, which were now protected within the twin coffins that had been a parting gift from the Centaurs.
She stared into the embers of her fire, half-afraid that another vision would visit her there, but unsure of what else to do. She thought of her daughter, home in Caer Dyvi and safe in the care of Cynan, the clan's Druid. Cynan was young, but Cuall had taught him well; Rhonwyn remembered the man who had been her own teacher now with some fondness, for he had died two winters before.
It had been Cuall who had taught her not to run from the destiny that lay in store for her and her descendants. The Briton found herself wondering about the two women of her vision back in Rome, and how her own descendants might one day figure into their life story. It was only the knowledge of that future that kept her from surrendering to despair now.
A gentle voice cut into her melancholy musings. "Mind if I join you?"
She looked to the source of the voice, and it was Eli. The Devi stood, awaiting her response, his features solemn as always. Rhonwyn shook her head slowly. "No, I suppose not."
Eli settled himself carefully on the ground next to the Druid, drawing his knees up to his chest and staring off into the darkness. "So you're the one who helped them to overcome the hatred they had for each other once," he managed awkwardly.
Rhonwyn was silent for a few moments, not sure of how to act toward him. She found Eli's teachings impractical, and blamed the man for the difficulties that Xena and Gabrielle's relationship had encountered after the bard had embraced his Way of Love. Still as defensive of their love as you ever were, Rhonwyn Bach, her mind teased gently. But all the same . . . love is what he taught, and love is the virtue that you yourself uphold above all! And when it came to love, Gabrielle was perhaps the wisest of all . . . so why hold someone in disdain for a perception that you view as flawed? No one's vision is perfect-you know that!
"No," she said at last. "I only reminded them of the love that they had for each other. Overcoming the hatred was entirely up to them, in the end."
"So love was at the root of it, when all was said and done." Eli smiled into the fire. "Then maybe, Rhonwyn, you and I aren't so different in our beliefs after all."
The Druid turned to look at him, and her smile of surprised understanding met his own. "No. I think you're right."
The preacher remarked, "You know, I think that you and I are just . . . looking up at the same mountain, but from two completely different directions. Gabrielle said that you understood her better than anyone else but Xena, and that she understood you. And she told me about how hard you always fought to keep the two of them together."
Rhonwyn was surprised. "I didn't think she'd noticed . . . but nothing else meant more to me. I loved-still love-her so much myself, but she and Xena were ever meant to be together. So what else could I do? I never could tell her how I felt, so I made my feelings known in the only way I could: making sure that the best thing in her life would be safe."
A thoughtful nod from Eli. "You said, when we first met, that you gave up your own heart to preserve their love. You didn't fight to have it for yourself. In a way, that's like what I teach."
Devi and Druid stared at one another for a long moment, equally surprised by the truth they both recognized in the statement. Unlikely as it seemed, they were similar in some elusive, yet profound, way.
Finally, Eli broke the silence with a question. "Tell me honestly," he said. "What happened to them?"
So she told him. Told him, in the simplest way, of Xena being laid low by Callisto's hand, and of Gabrielle's battle to save her. There was no embellishment, none of the elaborate method of the Celtic bard enhancing the story she recounted-just pure honesty. But the story spoke for itself; the facts of their friends' last stand, and the emotions that had driven their actions, lent a level of eloquence that Rhonwyn's most skilled language could not have adequately expressed.
"Then Gabrielle gave up the Way of Love to try and save Xena's life." Eli spoke thoughtfully, no condemnation in his tone, as if he doubted the accuracy of his own words. "Just before Xena came to rescue us, Gabrielle and I were meditating. She managed to achieve the state of emptiness that, as I teach, is necessary in order to become a perfect vessel for love. How ironic . . . I never thought it would manifest itself like that." He chuckled, the sound almost, but not quite, rueful.
Rhonwyn traced a fingertip absently along the length of the sword across her knees. "The fact that she was willing to do so, at the risk of her life and soul, speaks clearly for the perfection of that love, I think. What greater selflessness could there be than that?"
Eli considered this. "I can't think of one, to be honest."
Rhonwyn smiled again. "Then remember this, Eli: that there is no greater love than that which allows a person to lay everything down for the sake of a friend."
He nodded, then extended a hand to her. "I will remember that . . . friend."
The Druid gripped the Devi's arm in a heartfelt, if unexpected, gesture, and stared in amazement at the sight of their mutual hand-on-wrist grasp. This man, whom she had for so long seen in enmity, whose path she had so long considered to be directly opposite her own, was now acknowledging her in friendship, and she was returning the sentiment without reservation.
And they call me the Reconciler, she thought. Gabrielle . . . Xena . . . you've done it again.
Agoras hurried into the tavern, maneuvering deftly between tables and guests in search of the establishment's owner. He found her behind the bar, putting plates and tankards away in their proper places.
"Cyrene," he said quietly, "there's a large crowd of people gathered outside. They're looking for you."
The innkeeper's heart lurched at the news. A memory was surfacing in her mind: an angry mob assembled here in her tavern, prepared to lynch a certain rogue warrior. Her own wayward daughter, a child of the village, finally come home amid clouds of doubt. What troubling event could have brought about a repeat of that day?
The blacksmith sensed her fear. "They don't look threatening," he quickly added. "Not at all. They seem rather subdued, as a matter of fact, and said that they had something important to tell you."
Cyrene quickly wiped her hands on a rag and hurried out of the tavern after Agoras.
She could not possibly have been more ill-prepared for the sight that greeted her. Six Centaurs, some twenty Amazons, nearly as many men and women from lands further East, a handful of Greeks, and a young Celt stood clustered around a horse that she immediately recognized as belonging to her daughter. A sickening sensation gripped her.
"What's happening?" Her voice-if the voice she heard was truly her own-was trembling.
The Celt, a slender wooden staff in hand, walked toward her. "Cyrene." Her face was compassionate. "It is an honor indeed to finally meet the mother of a woman I . . . count . . . as one of my dearest friends. I only wish that it had been under better circumstances."
Cyrene looked into the young woman's face, and read the truth.
There are those who can accomplish feats many others would deem impossible, and do achieve them. Such are heroes born. Over time, their lives become the stuff of which tales are told, and invincibility looms about them like a mantle of nobility. But a mother knows the humanity that lies beneath her child's legend. And Cyrene, who had borne and nurtured the Defender of Amphipolis, the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess, had always known in her heart that this day would come.
"Tell me what happened," she said simply, reaching for the Celt's hand in a plea for support.
"She broke into a Roman prison to save Gabrielle and some friends whom Caesar had arrested. They escaped-as you can see, for they stand here with me now. But . . ." She sighed. "Your daughter and Gabrielle did not fare so well, I'm afraid." The young Briton held Cyrene's hand in both of her own, communicating what wordless comfort she could through the contact. "They were captured in the attempt, and executed under Caesar's orders."
Cyrene's eyes were wet with tears, but she held the young woman's gaze firmly. "Thank you for bringing her back to me, ah ... "
"Rhonwyn," the Celt quickly supplied. "And it is not I that you should thank. Hercules, here, and Gabrielle-they are responsible for bringing her back to you. I only made sure that she made it home this last time."
The innkeeper walked slowly through the assembly toward the coffins hitched behind Argo. Bowing her head, she laid one hand atop each. She had come to love Gabrielle as much as her own daughter, and in fact thought of her as such. Xena had told her of her relationship with the bard two winters ago; Cyrene had not been angry, as Xena had feared, but simply overjoyed to know that her daughter had finally found her soulmate.
How different this was from the time Xena had returned home after her reformation. Cyrene had been ready to drive her away then, too ashamed and disgusted by Xena's warlord exploits to want anything to do with her. But the former Destroyer of Nations had more than atoned for her past deeds. This was indeed the child of whom Cyrene was proud, whom she was only too glad to welcome with open arms. It was a great comfort to her now, knowing that she and Xena had long since reconciled their differences.
It made this news as bearable as possible.
"I'll make the preparations for the burial," she said quietly.
"So everything's set, huh?" asked Amarice, from her seat on the edge of the bed. It had been two days since they arrived in Amphipolis; today, Xena and Gabrielle would be interred in Xena's family tomb.
Rhonwyn nodded, and finished tying her hair back with a leather thong. "I do believe that this is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done."
She studied her reflection in the mirror. In honor of her friends, she had chosen to wear her most formal attire, as befitted her rank. Her leather breecs had been abandoned in favor of a pair made of fine, deep blue wool. Her siarc, the distinctive red-and-black checked design of her clan, was bound snugly about her waist by a belt made of polished silver discs, from which Lludchen hung in an ornamental scabbard. Her silver torc glinted at her throat, catching the candlelight in the same way as the golden amulet that she wore.
"Amarice, my cloak, please?"
"You got it." The Amazon girl reached for the freshly washed green cloak that lay on the bed, and helped Rhonwyn put it on. She studied the Druid's expression. "You're not going to say goodbye to them, are you?"
Rhonwyn finished fastening the cloak around her throat with a silver brooch. "No. I plan to sing their lifesongs, and honor their deeds, but I will not bid them farewell." A thoughtful look crossed her face. "I'll see them again someday. I know it."
Amarice nodded. "I believe you . . . and Rhonwyn? When you do, tell them 'thank you' for me." She swallowed hard. "For everything."
The Druid picked up her rowan staff and regarded her young friend warmly. "The best way to thank them is to use what they taught you in the best way you can," she said. A fragment of past conversation came to mind, and she smiled. "Besides . . . you just did." She put an arm around Amarice's shoulders companionably. "Let's go. They're waiting for us."
The guests were already assembled by the time Rhonwyn and Amarice reached the tomb. "You're on," whispered the Amazon encouragingly.
Rhonwyn tugged at the hem of her siarc in an effort to steady her trembling hands. Strange, how nervous she was, a Druid bard trained almost from birth in the skills she needed to employ now. But then, no one had ever touched her life as profoundly as these two whose lifesong she was about to sing.
Part of her still wanted desperately to deny that they were gone, even with the knowledge that they would eventually return; each step of the journey to Amphipolis had driven the reality of that fact a little bit closer to her heart. She feared the sense of finality that this ceremony would bring.
But she remembered Xena, riding toward that prison compound, despite knowing that in her vision, her death and Gabrielle's would be at the hands of Romans; she remembered Gabrielle, defending her fallen warrior against a cadre of elite Roman soldiers and odds she could not have possibly hoped to overcome. Rhonwyn Bach, her inner voice chided gently, could you do any less? She took a deep breath, and strode toward the head of the assembly.
Rhonwyn laid her staff on the ground at her feet and raised her hands before her in the traditional style, palms facing outward, one hand at shoulder height and the other above her head.
"Friends." Her gaze swept slowly across the group, meeting the eyes of every person there with a calm familiarity. "I stand before you here today not to sing of the deaths of Xena and Gabrielle, but to celebrate their lives. For theirs is a bond that transcends this life, and death has not defeated them. Therefore, to speak of this as their end would be to do them disservice-we wish to honor them instead. Hear then, if you will, the lifesong of Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia . . ."
In her best bardic style, Rhonwyn sang of Xena's life and deeds, of her redemption and her fight for good. She sang of Gabrielle's dreams and ambitions, of a destiny that far outreached the borders of her little village, and a heart that could have held the world. Her song spoke of every emotion that ever resided in the hearts of humankind, of shame and glory, of two souls bound for eternity.
An awen born of love and friendship descended on her, and through the song, she struck a chord that resonated within every person there, all of them united by a common love for warrior and bard.
Lila listened, and finally understood her curious sister and the inexplicable pull that had taken her from her home. Minya listened, and discovered the true depth of her admiration for the two women who had saved her village. Autolycus, Hercules, and Iolaus listened, and fondly remembered their own adventures with these friends.
Masalina, Amarice, and the Amazons listened, and resolved to take the lessons Xena and Gabrielle had taught them, and use them to strengthen and rebuild their Nation. Eli listened, and began to truly comprehend, as if for the first time, the essence of his own teachings. The Centaurs listened, and gained a new appreciation of honor and loyalty. Joxer listened, and felt the pain of his unrequited love washed away by the purity he saw in the story of the two soulmates. And Cyrene listened, and thought her heart would burst with a pride for them more intense than she had ever felt before.
Rhonwyn felt the cloud of grief lifting from the gathered mourners, and smiled. A new awen, a prophetic one, fell on her then, and from somewhere deep within its grasp, she began to speak.
"Among my people," she said, "they sing songs that foretell the coming of a great warrior king who will unite all of Prydein under a single glorious banner. He will drive the darkness of war and strife from the land, and oversee the rise of a kingdom that shines with summer's golden purity, a realm full of peace and prosperity such as this world has never known. But the darkness will return, and put an end to his reign, and war and strife will tear the land once more. Many will forget his existence, but those who remember have hope, for though dead, or disappeared from this worlds-realm, the king will return in the time of Prydein's greatest need; once more will he defeat the darkness, as was ever his destiny."
She felt a fresh surge of elation wash over her as she continued, "Small is my land, and far from here. But I have seen that Greece, too, shall have need of a savior like this king of ours. And I tell you that once already have her footsteps graced this soil, and once already has she fought on your behalf-indeed, her name is known to you. She sleeps now, but will awaken again, when he who brings strife to this land wreaks havoc of the most deadly kind, when he whom only she can defeat becomes a threat once more. And with her will return her true soulmate, she who truly understands love in its many forms. For together they are the greatest force for good that this worlds-realm will see, and they are united in a bond that transcends time, life, and death-a bond that can never be broken. When the need so warrants it, then they will be roused from their long slumber. So take heart, people of Greece, and endure the meantime with the hope that this knowledge brings: the warrior and bard shall return to you one day."
"Mother, I tell you the truth, I am not happy with your undertaking this journey alone!"
The old Druid stood and held a hand out to silence her daughter. "Peace, Goewyn. There is no other way. I have been bound to keep this appointment, and the future of a nation is at risk. Don't fret; I know I will complete this mission safely."
It had certainly been many long years, and Rhonwyn y Cymodwr had lived them well. More than eighty winters had seen the chestnut hair turn to silver, and wrinkles now creased the hands that still grasped the rowan staff. But her frame was straight and sturdy as ever, and the fire still burned strongly within the gold-flecked hazel of her eyes.
Goewyn looked at her mother resignedly. "You won't be returning, will you?" she murmured.
"No." Rhonwyn shook her head. "That is how it is meant to be; you must understand that." She pulled her daughter into a strong embrace, only now allowing the tears to come. "Remember to keep safe always the legacy that I have entrusted to you. The future depends upon it. And remember, daughter of my heart: I have always loved you."
Goewyn smiled. "And I you, Mother. Farewell."
"Never say it, Goewyn. There is no farewell." She shouldered her pack, already filled with the things she had prepared, and stepped onto the ship.
Amphipolis had changed little since the day she had left it so long ago, she noted. The old Druid's steps were firm as she approached the tomb. She could sense the threat of war and chaos seething in the very air about her, lending urgency to her stride. Yes, Ares was indeed on the move again.
She entered the tomb, and stood at the foot of the matching sarcophagi in which Xena and Gabrielle slept, near Lyceus. A single wave of her hand caused the lids to slide away; within lay the warrior and bard, their bodies, miraculously enough, fresh and unravaged by the years.
A smile touched Rhonwyn's lips. "Time to wake, old friends."
Just a moment-then the Druid heard a breath that was not her own echoing in the tomb. It was followed by another, and still a third, joined by another's breathing. Then Xena stirred, and sat up in the coffin.
"Gabrielle?" she gasped, blinking and looking about her in confusion.
Seemingly at the sound of the warrior's voice, the bard awoke. "Xena!"
Green eyes met blue in a loving, familiar embrace, soon matched by another embrace just as intense, but fully physical as well. Lips met in a warm, avid kiss, a touch full of the elation that came from being in familiar bodies once more.
"What are we doing here?" Gabrielle asked when they finally pulled apart, overjoyed and bewildered all at once. "In these bodies . . . again . . . I thought . . . what about those future lives that we saw?"
"They have yet to be lived," said Rhonwyn, who had just re-entered the tomb, after having discreetly stepped outside. "You have not yet completed the task set for you in this lifetime."
They turned in unison at the unexpected, familiar voice. "By the gods-Rhonwyn!" exclaimed the warrior. "How long has it been?" she asked, shocked by the sight of her aged friend.
"Far too long indeed." The Druid chuckled as she was caught up into a bone-crushing embrace. "Easy, my friend, easy . . . I'm not as young as you are!" Xena released her, just in time for Gabrielle to throw her arms around Rhonwyn. "Lleu himself knows, I've missed you, my friends! And speaking of the gods . . . that is the reason you are here again."
The three spent a few playful minutes reveling in each other's company, until Xena fell back into a businesslike mood. "First things first," she declared briskly. "What needs to be taken care of?"
Rhonwyn's peal of laughter echoed through the tomb. "Almost seventy years of being dead hasn't slowed you down in the least, I see!" She quickly grew more serious. "The trouble is this, and it is a grave one: Ares has had a hand in things, more so than in a long time. He knows that his time is drawing to a close, and means to go out in a last great conflagration of chaos and destruction. He has already stirred Athens and Sparta up against each other, and all of Greece has begun to take sides with one of the two. All that he needs now is to push one side or the other just a little bit further, and . . ."
"Greece will tear itself apart," Gabrielle concluded. She blew out a long breath. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."
Xena, for her part, was already fastening her sword and scabbard to her back. "My chakram . . . where is it . . . oh." She remembered seeing it in pieces on the ground those years ago at the prison compound, and her face fell.
"I believe you were looking for this?" Rhonwyn held up the pack she had been carrying, opened it, and held it out for them to survey its contents. Inside were the two halves of the chakram, and Gabrielle's scrolls.
"My scrolls!" breathed the bard. "You kept them safe for me?"
"I had to." Love and loyalty glimmered in the old Druid's eyes. "And now, about that chakram . . ."
She withdrew the two curved pieces of bejeweled steel from the pack, placing one half in Gabrielle's hand, and the other in Xena's. "Each of these pieces is one half of a whole, just as the two of you are halves of a whole. Together, you can restore it: touch the two halves together, and the chakram will be whole. But the enchantment will only last until you imprison Ares, and then it will be shattered again, until the time when it will be needed to fulfill that purpose once more. I am sorry, but it has been made known to me that this is the way of it."
Xena glanced at the piece she held, and hesitated. The chakram was her most powerful weapon, and as such held a special place in her heart. The thought of living out her second chance at this lifetime without the chakram was a hard one. And yet Ares had to be stopped . . .
Gabrielle saw her lover's moment of hesitation and understood. She laid a gentle hand on the warrior's arm and let a sparkle of loving sympathy show in her eyes. "The greater good," she whispered.
Xena gave the bard a grateful smile, then bent her head to brush her lips against her lover's. "Always. We can't let him win, not at any cost."
She gazed warmly at her soulmate, and touched her half of the chakram to the half that Gabrielle held, with no hesitation about the action. There was a flash of light and smoke, and when it cleared, the restored weapon was firmly in the warrior's grasp. Blue eyes sparkled at Gabrielle, then back at Rhonwyn. "Ready?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "Um . . ." She cast a sheepish glance at Rhonwyn's rowan staff.
The Druid laughed and placed the staff in her friend's hand without further question. She hefted the bag containing Gabrielle's scrolls, and fell in behind the two. "Let's go. Ares is waiting for you . . ."
This story is dedicated in most humble gratitude to Bill McCord and to Trish Shields, and to the Merpups. Your friendship and support sustained me through the long and often draining journey of this story, which was one of the most difficult and challenging things I have ever written to date. Thank you all so much; I couldn't have done it without you.