~ A Different Peace ~
Disclaimer:The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal.No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
My Eternal Gratitude: To LadyKate, Ares' PR rep here on earth. LK was a great sounding board as I bounced all my wacky plot ideas off of her -- even going so far as to convince me that Ares should not be the villain of my story. Special appreciation for her historical know-how, all her good advice, her love of good angst and most especially for her patience with a paranoid, neurotic author.
And to ~Serendipity~ who has sadly left the Xenaverse. She treated my many maddening questions about this story with generosity, patience and good humor.
Warning! This story is Post-FIN. Xena is gone and Gabby isn't happy about it.
The camp was set up haphazardly, without protection in mind. Not that the caravan was unaware of the danger they were in. They were being hunted, after all, and they didn't know the first thing about strategy. That was hardly suprising. One didn't tend to acquire strategy techniques in a life dedicated to love and peace. .
The small blonde warrior was able to sneak up on them undetected and watched them for hours, assessing their strengths and their weaknesses. On one hand she noted several young people who appeared to be strong and healthy, capable of defending themselves. On the other hand they would probably not be inclined to put up a fight. There were four unarmed sentries who patrolled the area in a random pattern and anyone could slip through their meager defense, if it could be called a defense. She assumed the sentries were more a sacrifice than anything, probably placed on the edges of the camp to serve as an alarm to the rest should their "defenses" be breached. A sentry would call out a warning, while the invaders slowed down to either capture or kill him, the others would have an opportunity to escape. If that was the case, the warrior expected crosses to be lining the Appian Way in just a few weeks' time.
She carefully lowered herself from the tree limb she was perched on. Even so, she still had to drop a few feet to the ground. Years of increasing physical prowess could not give her the one thing she still lacked and always would. Height. Hitting the ground softly, she held perfectly still until she was satisfied that she heard nothing in response to her drop.
Drawing a sai from her right boot, she skulked up behind one of the sentries. He was a large man and a running leap at him would have destroyed the element of surprise. Instead, she crouched down, stealthy as a cat, each step measured and calculated, and went for the back of his knee, collapsing it with the hilt of her sai. It wasn't a hard blow, but the shock of it brought him down. Before he had time to call out a warning, her fingers shot forward, stabbing him in the neck. He gasped, and the sounds he attempted to make got lost in his throat.
The warrior held the hilt of the sai in between his shoulder blades. "Don't bother trying to warn your friends. I've cut off your voice. Don't worry, the effect is temporary. Can you stand?" Grasping him under his arm, she hauled him to his feet and nudged him forward through the trees toward the glowing campfires.
No one noticed them approaching at first. Everyone was busy cooking, talking or performing their nightly rituals before bed. All save for one dark haired girl who did not escape the warrior's notice as she came out of the trees and headed for the fire with an armload of wood. The girl stopped, sensing something was wrong, and gazed quizzically at the man as he stumbled towards them.
"Joseph, what's the-?"
She caught a glimpse of the warrior who had been hidden by Joseph's bulk until then and immediately dropped the wood. With a quick motion, she snatched up a thick branch from the pile and took off toward them. Skidding to a halt before Joseph, she squared off against the warrior, wielding the club high above her head, ready to strike.
"Let him go!"
The intruder stepped aside to get Joseph out of the path of an attack and girl adjusted herself so that she faced the stranger, her arm still poised for a blow.
The sai tumbled harmlessly to the ground and the warrior held up her hands. "I don't mean you any harm."
The girl's upraised arm shook. "If that's true then why were you holding a knife to my brother? Joseph? What did you do to him? Why can't he speak?"
"I cut off his voice so that he wouldn't warn you I was coming. Just?don't start swinging and I'll fix it. Okay?" The girl nodded, but still stood ready for a strike. The warrior moved slowly to stand before Joseph. Her fingers shot out towards his neck.
Joseph grabbed his throat and coughed. When he had recovered, he held out a hand. "Soria, put that down. Now!"
His sister curled her lip derisively. "And leave us completely defenseless? She still has another weapon in her boot."
"And she could cut you to pieces before you got in the first blow," Joseph retorted hoarsely, his voice not completely regained. "Besides, if she wanted to kill me she would have done it back there. Put it down!" Joseph's arm shot out and grabbed the girl's wrist, forcing her to drop the weapon. He kicked it away and turned to the stranger. "I hope you have a good reason for sneaking up and attacking me, then frightening these people half to death."
Soria's gaze dropped to the sai lying on the ground. The look in the girl's eyes betrayed that she might make a lunge for it, and the small blonde stranger slipped the toe of her boot over the weapon.
"My name is Gabrielle. I came to offer my help."
The girl snorted contemptuously: "You call this help?"
Gabrielle glanced at her then turned to her brother. "Your defenses are weak. I've been observing you for hours. A small company of Romans would have no problem sweeping right through and cutting you all down. You need my help."
Joseph gazed at her suspiciously. "What makes you think we need protecting against the Romans? We're poor people on our way east-."
"To find the Messenger Eve. I know. I also know you were running for your lives after Rome burned. Nero was looking to lay blame for the fire and he's laid it on the doorstep of another small religious sect-Christians I think they're called. Nero couldn't go after the Elijans at first, they were too big a movement. But since Elijans and Christians are all the same under Nero's eyes, he's vowed to wipe you all out. And he's nearly kept his promise."
Joseph wiped a shaky hand across his mouth. "Are there-are there any followers of Eli left in Rome?"
Gabrielle's face was impassive as she gave a slight nod. "A few. The last I heard they've banded together with the Christians and have gone into hiding. But you?Nero will hunt you down. He's already sent out troops to find you."
"Perhaps we've already been found," Soria said accusingly. "Perhaps the Emperor's hired assassin is in our camp as we speak. Why should we trust you?"
Gabrielle regarded the girl thoughtfully a moment. She chose her words carefully. "Because Nero has no reason to fear you. Why would he send one assassin-or even a spy- when he knows his troops could sweep through here without you even putting up a fight? That's not his style."
"That's right, Soria," Joseph said calmly. "He's insane. I've heard talk that Nero started that fire himself, all so that he could clear the land for his Golden Palace. And the night of the fire? He climbed the tower of Maecenas and sang about the capture of Troy."
"I was in Alexandria when the fire started but I've heard the rumors," Gabrielle said. Sensing the Elijans were more at ease with her now, she bent and retrieved her sai, tucking it into her boot. She brushed the hair from her eyes. "The good news is the Romans believe you've headed west. It won't fool them for long. But we've bought a little time."
"Time for what?" Joseph asked.
"Until I can figure out what to do next."
Joseph offered Gabrielle his half of the tent that he and Soria shared. She started to decline but then actually welcomed the idea of sleeping with a roof, even if it was only a tent roof, over her head. Before she turned in she told Soria that she still had her horse out in the woods and that it had to be tended to. Soria watched in amazement as Gabrielle whistled and the horse came galloping into camp.
As Gabrielle watered, fed and lovingly brushed down the golden mare, Soria felt her defenses starting to be let down. "What's her name?"
"This is Argo," Gabrielle said with an affectionate scratch to the horse's nose. "She's very special. Argo and I have been through a lot together since?well since we arrived in Egypt. She's family."
After Argo was taken care of for the night, Gabrielle went into the tent and sank down on her bedroll. After years of traveling, the exhaustion never quite left her bones and she felt as if she could sleep for a year. Wearily, she pulled the sais from her boots and laid them beside her then pulled her chakram from her belt and laid that atop her sais.
"What is that thing?" Soria asked, pointing at the chakram.
"It's a chakram." And to the girl's puzzled look she said "it's a weapon."
"Why didn't you use it?"
"There wasn't any need," Gabrielle said while stifling a yawn. "I wasn't trying to hurt anyone."
"But you could?with that? You have?"
Gabrielle forced her tired, heavy eyes open to look at Soria. "Yes. Not very often. When you use this," she held up the chakram, "you mean business. And I try to avoid fighting whenever possible."
What an odd remark from someone whose profession was that of a warrior, the dark haired girl mused as Gabrielle drifted off quickly and began to snore. But then again,
she reminded herself, this was no typical warrior. She was a tiny thing, a bit shorter than Soria herself was and no more than 4 or 5 years her senior, hardly more than a girl. But there was a quiet strength and maturity about Gabrielle. Her soft, delicate features gave the impression of someone who was more prone to compassion than hardness. Soria had seen hardness before, in the eyes of almost every Roman soldier she ever encountered. She could recognize it. But in Gabrielle there was no hint of that. Instead, she caught a glimpse of sadness and loneliness in her green eyes, and Soria wondered at that. How did a young girl from Greece wind up in Rome, willing to take on the Empire's legions single-handedly? It was a story Soria would have liked to hear.
She tried for days afterward but Gabrielle was not very forthcoming with any information about herself. Soria assumed that she was quiet and reserved by nature. But it did not keep her from trying.
The caravan traveled long and hard, taking advantage of the daylight in trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the Romans. Soria would ride at the head of the caravan just behind Gabrielle, in the hopes that the warrior would acknowledge her presence sooner or later. But Gabrielle was always more preoccupied with where they were going and what was going on around them, always on alert for an ambush. Her conversations were usually limited to concerns about how their supplies were holding up and recommendations about setting up a defense perimeter when they camped for the night.
At night, those not posted as sentries were at their most relaxed. Deliberately trying to forget the carnage they left behind in Rome and trying not to think about the fate that might await them the next day, they all sat around a large fire, singing and trading stories about happier times. Gabrielle would sit with them, her legs stretched before the fire, and occasionally laugh or smile in appreciation at a story someone told. But she would never contribute. Everyone seemed to sense that conversation was not necessarily a skill a warrior had to acquire in order to be successful. And so they never asked her anything about her past.
When someone spoke of the legend of Cecrops, the Lost Mariner, Gabrielle simply said: "I knew Cecrops." This small, brief glimpse into the warrior's life so shocked the Elijans that all they could do was stare down at their hands uncomfortably until Gabrielle rather lamely completed her thought. "He was a good man." With that, she awkwardly gathered up her weapons, murmured something about relieving one of the sentries and walked off.
On the edge of the camp, Gabrielle stood motionless, her head cocked to one side, listening to the sounds behind the silence. The fire crackled and hissed, the gentle rushing sound of the nearby stream, somewhere to the north an owl hooted and one soft, faint footstep.
The girl stepped out of the shadows into the dim moonlight. "How did you know it was me? Did you recognize my footsteps?"
Gabrielle shook her head but kept it cocked, still listening. "You've been sneaking up to watch me for three nights now. Mind telling me what it is you find so fascinating?"
Soria blushed at having been found out. "I just wanted to learn."
"And did you?"
Soria pressed her lips together. "You've set traps all around the edges of the camp. That's why you've warned us not to wander off at night.
Even in the dark, Soria could see a look of guilt flash over Gabrielle's face. "Have you told your brother about the traps?"
The girl shook her head. "No. What Joseph doesn't know won't hurt him. He and I have some?philosophical differences. He believes in fighting your enemies with love and compassion. That's fine in an ideal world but sometimes you have to fight them with a sword. If we had stood up to Nero back in Rome, we-."
"Would all be dead now," Gabrielle cut her off. She glanced at Soria. "And I bet you want me to teach you everything I know, don't you?"
Soria shrugged in admission.
Gabrielle smiled softly, it wasn't meant to wound. "Soria, a faith abandoned in a time of crisis is not faith at all."
"I respect the faith of Eli," Soria retorted. "But it's never been my faith. It was my parents' way before?" The girl trailed off and shivered. After she regained herself she continued. "And what did it get them but a violent death at the hands of the people they were taught to love? Joseph has chosen the same way and I'm afraid he'll meet the same end. If that's to be my fate as well I want to take as many Romans as possible with me. It's my choice. Doesn't Eli's God believe in free will?"
Gabrielle nodded. "But He doesn't believe in blind hatred and that's what I fear motivates you."
"Lecture me when you find your parents hanging from a cross," Soria snapped bitterly.
Gabrielle started to say something but kept quiet.
"At least teach me so I stand a fighting chance."
Gabrielle was silent for several moments. When she spoke, Soria was sure she heard a catch in the older girl's throat. "I'll think about it."
Soria was awakened the next morning to sounds of Gabrielle moving about the tent. "Where are you going?"
Gabrielle fastened a red hilted sword with an unfamiliar foreign design to her waist. "I'm going to check the camp. Something's not right."
The girl jumped to her feet. "I'm going with you."
The morning was too quiet, too still. Grasping the sword by the hilt, Gabrielle darted from tree to tree. At one point, Soria almost stepped into one of the traps but the warrior snatched her back at the last minute, pulling her behind a tree.
With a tilt of her head, she indicated that something was out there, over the rise. "Soria," she whispered, "run back to camp and warn the others. Tell them to run!"
Soria nodded, her will the only thing keeping her from being paralyzed with fear. She took off at breakneck speed.
Gabrielle guessed there to be twenty to twenty five soldiers coming over the rise. She knew she had very little chance of stopping them alone. But if she could bloody their noses, slow them down enough, the others stood a chance of getting away. As the soldiers began to swarm over the rise, Gabrielle pulled the chakram from her waist and flung it. Aiming for their legs, it took down three men in rapid succession. It rebounded off a tree and she caught it, spinning her arm in the same direction to absorb the impact. She clipped the chakram to her waist and drew the katana.
When she was sure they had spotted her, Gabrielle took off, darting between the trees. Four soldiers were close on her heels. One raised his short sword, about to strike a blow to her neck when Gabrielle suddenly leaped. The blade sliced downward, only grazing her neck. She shot her arms out, landing hands first. Gabrielle tucked her head and rolled, the momentum propelling her back onto her feet. She took off running again, chancing a look over her shoulder. The four soldiers had fallen into the pit she had disguised with leaves and branches, all four impaling themselves on the wooden stakes she had set.
Her mind worked quickly, trying to remember all the traps she had set the night before. The second pit she dug downed two more men. By then, Gabrielle knew she wouldn't fool them a third time. She doubled back, leading the soldiers away from the camp. She made it back to the rise and turned, prepared to confront her pursuers.
Through a clearing in the trees, Gabrielle could see the camp being taken. The Elijans surrendered without a fight, all except for Soria who charged at one of the soldiers, tackling him to the ground. She sprawled clumsily in the dirt and the soldier gained to his feet quickly, drawing his sword.
"No!" Gabrielle whipped her chakram from her waist and flung it, severing the blade of the sword as it was about to come down on Soria's neck. She caught it on the rebound and saw five soldiers charging at her too late. Before she had time to react, a sword came swinging at her, slashing her shoulder open. Gabrielle lost her grip on the katana. Momentarily dazed from the pain, she did not see the hilt of another sword coming at her. The last thing she heard was a sharp, sickly, high metallic ping as the hilt smashed her temple.
She did not know how long she was out. When she came to, her vision was blurry and she didn't know where she was. "Xena?" She attempted to sit up but a hand on her shoulder pushed her down gently.
"No. You're hurt. Lie still and let me clean your wounds."
"Mmmm?" Gabrielle shut her eyes and smiled weakly. "Did you get the name of the Son of a Bacchae that did this? It's not so bad," she murmured. "I hurt myself worse with my staff drills in the beginning. Remember how black and blue I was?" She nearly drifted off but caught herself. "Where were you? I held them off as long as I could but without you I just can't seem to-."
"You did the best you could," came the voice. "This is going to hurt a little."
Gabrielle felt the cold water sting the gash on her shoulder. She gasped and her eyes came open. "What the-?" She focused on the face hovering over her and her mind cleared a little. "Soria. You're?"
"I'm all right," she said softly. "Thanks to you. You're as crazy as Nero for trying to stop all twenty five soldiers by yourself."
Gabrielle attempted a smile which came out twisted and bitter. "I've seen one warrior take on a lot more than twenty five soldiers at one time. And win."
"Well, you're no Hercules," Soria said.
"No," Gabrielle agreed. "He's much taller and his hair is much longer. Soria, what happened to the others? Are they all-?" She could not even complete the thought.
"They're fine. They're in different cells. Apparently the emperor wants his trophies alive. He wants the pleasure of killing us himself. Can you sit up? I need to tend to your neck."
"If you help me." Gently, Soria helped Gabrielle into a sitting position and the blonde woman groaned. Carefully, she probed her temple. "My head feels like Monday morning in Tartarus." She looked around. "Where are we?"
"As near as I can figure, Thrace," Soria told her while dabbing at the cut on Gabrielle's neck.
That was the height of irony, Gabrielle thought. To die in the birthplace of the woman that gave her life. She shuddered, as if shaking off such a dour feeling. What was happening to her? "We are not dying here," she thought and was shocked to realize that the words had escaped her lips.
"I appreciate your confidence," Soria said dabbing at her neck. "Your foot looks like it's been severed."
Soria touched the base of Gabrielle's neck where the dragon tattoo ended. "It looks as if the foot was cut right off. Where did you get this anyway?"
A sharp clang at the end of the corridor brought their heads up. Footsteps echoed on the cold stone floor. Something inside of Gabrielle forced her to stand. She was not about to let these bastards think they had beaten her. Taking her lead, Soria rose, slipping her hand under Gabrielle's arm to steady her. The guard appeared at their cell door. "All right, you two. Time to look presentable. The General wants to see you."
Gabrielle was expecting opulence in the residence of a Roman general. Instead, his headquarters were functional. There were no statues, no ornate gold decorations. The furniture, she noted, was made for comfort, not for presentation. It was the residence of a true soldier. Whether that was a good omen or not, she wasn't sure.
"Leave us," a strong voice came from behind a large desk. Though the General had his back to them, the guard saluted and left.
"So, you are the two that assaulted my men?"
"Not assaulted," Gabrielle corrected, "defended ourselves."
"And yet you are followers of Eli?" The General turned to them and Gabrielle was surprised by what she saw. He was a relatively young man, perhaps ten years older than herself. His close cropped brown hair showed streaks bleached by the sun, and his arms were darkened to a bronze. His pale blue eyes widened in question.
Gabrielle was unsure as to what her answer was and glanced at Soria. If looks were daggers, this Roman would have been dead by now.
"You're hurt," he commented with such concern in his voice that Gabrielle was instantly wary. "I could have my physician see to your wounds."
"Your concern is admirable considering the fact that you intend to execute us," she spat resentfully.
He pressed his lips together, as if bruised by her contempt. He glanced at Soria. "And your friend? Is she well? Doesn't she speak?"
"She speaks," Soria snapped. "She's trying to find the words to properly convey her hatred of you."
"Understandable," he murmured and gestured. "Sit. Please."
Soria hesitated and glanced questioningly at Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. The small blonde warrior gave the girl a slight nod. Carefully, Gabrielle eased herself into a chair with a faint hiss of pain that escaped through clenched teeth. Soria perched herself on the edge of her seat, letting the general know that to make herself any more comfortable was a compromise she was not willing to strike.
He smiled nervously. "Since you are my prisoners it would be uncivilized if I did not give you the courtesy of knowing who captured you. I am Marcus Placidus, General of the Fifth Legion of Pisae." The women made no reply to this and he gestured to a bowl of fruit on the table. "Are you hungry?"
"We're wondering what we're doing here," Gabrielle retorted.
"Your Latin is curious," Marcus said. "You aren't Roman? Greek perhaps?" Gabrielle nodded slowly and he came around the table. "I was in Egypt until four months ago. All along the Nile there was talk -- legends really -- of a Greek warrior woman with golden hair. It was said she fought with the courage of Hercules and the wisdom of Athena." Marcus circled around Soria, behind them. "The legend became so great that the locals took to calling her the Little Dragon because of her size and the tattoo on her back that was thought to be so magical that even the mystics feared it." He stopped and Gabrielle felt his eyes on her back. "Of course I always doubted those legends. Until now."
"If it's me you want then take me," Gabrielle said over her shoulder. "Let the others go. They're peaceful people and they've done nothing. They're innocent."
Marcus came around to look Gabrielle in the eye. "And if I asked for your word of honor on that?"
"Why would you believe anything that I had to say?"
Admiration was apparent in his smile. "Because anyone that fights like you, with such nobility and humanity, holds their honor sacred."
Gabrielle looked up at him. "And if I give you my word, will you give me yours that these people will not be hurt?"
Marcus nodded without even a pause. "Yes. You have my word on that."
"All right," Gabrielle agreed. "And you have mine. My word of honor that these people have done nothing to offend the Emperor."
Marcus Placidus clapped his hands together delightedly. "Excellent. You see? Diplomacy is better handled with a civilized word than at the tip of a spear. It will, of course, be up to the Emperor to pardon you. But I can promise you that I will speak as your advocate when the time comes and that you will be treated well as long as you are in my care."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll hold you to your promise." She rose with a soft groan only Soria heard. "By the way, your Greek is not perfect, General. The actual saying is 'Diplomacy is better acquired with civilized speech than at the end of a sword.'"
"I stand corrected," Marcus said with a slight bow.
True to his word, Marcus Placidus treated his prisoners as well as he could. They were fed decently. In the afternoons he would let them out of their cells and into the courtyard for fresh air and some exercise. This was always under the close scrutiny of the guards. But Marcus Placidus had his men under strict orders. As long as the prisoners posed no threat, they were not to be mistreated in any way. He was also surprisingly tolerant of their religion. The Elijans were allowed to worship every afternoon.
A week later, Gabrielle was mending well. Soria had sewn her wound closed and Gabrielle was pleased with the girl's work. One afternoon, she walked the courtyard, grateful to stretch her sore muscles. Soria walked beside her, copying her every move. If she stopped walking, Soria stopped. If she started, Soria started, matching Gabrielle's stride. If Gabrielle happened to turn her face to the sun to bask in it's warm glow, Soria did likewise. They went on like this for hours. Gabrielle was torn between mild amusement and irritation.
Shockingly, Marcus Placidus came out to the courtyard one afternoon. He inspected the prisoners well being as they prayed, then crossed the yard to the two women. "Your friends seem to be doing well. Don't you two ever join them in their prayers?"
"I'm not much for praying," Gabrielle said.
He looked to Soria. "And you? Isn't that your brother leading them?"
"Joseph has his way and I have mine." A simple statement but Gabrielle heard the underlying meaning to her words. I would sooner slit your throat than be a hypocrite. The sentiment was there, but the girl held her tongue. That was a step in the right direction.
Marcus Placidus prided himself on intuitiveness. He knew what Soria meant but chose to ignore it, blaming it on the brash impetuousness of youth. "Well, your god does believe in free will, does he not?"
He turned to Gabrielle. "And I see that you're mending well, Little Dragon. I'm pleased. That leads me to a request I have of you now that you're feeling better. Since your knowledge of Greek and Greek literature is obviously better than mine, perhaps you would be willing to undertake a pupil? My library is quite large. But I'm afraid I've never had much of an ear for your language. I'd welcome a guide."
Gabrielle was shocked at his request. But she found herself smiling dryly, as if making a joke at her own expense. "I should warn you. It's been quite some time since I spoke my own language."
Marcus smiled. "Then we'll both learn together."
Gabrielle nodded. "Then I'm at your service, General. But I have one request. That name-Little Dragon. Your men refer to me by it. My friends have even started using it. I don't like it. I never have."
He lifted an eyebrow in question. "What am I supposed to call you? You've never told me your given name."
"Gabrielle," he repeated. "Hebrew for 'God gives strength.' A fitting name for a warrior of your reputation. Well," he gave her a glance that made her strangely uneasy. "Until tomorrow then, Little...Ah, Gabrielle."
Soria waited to show her disbelief until Marcus Placidus was out of earshot. "You're going to tutor him in Greek? That Roman?"
"He'll be a valuable ally when the time comes. Helping him translate Euripides is a small price to pay if it means our safety."
Soria sniffed indignantly. "What makes you so sure you can trust him?"
"He seems like a decent, honorable man."
Soria snorted. "Perhaps you have too much faith in him."
"Soria, faith is all we've got right now."
"I've seen you fight. You could take him."
Gabrielle nodded. "Right. And if I was able to, what about the other fifty or so soldiers in this prison? Do you think they're going to just let me free everyone and stroll out of here? You said you wanted to learn from me. That's your first lesson. Discretion is often the better part of valor."
Soria studied Gabrielle, resentment glinting in her eyes. "That's not what I meant."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It's basic. You've got to start somewhere. The rest comes later."
The girl frowned. "How much later?"
"When I'm sure you won't do something stupid and get yourself killed."
Gabrielle and Marcus Placidus spent many afternoons together in the following weeks. She was surprised and pleased with his near reverence for literature. Gabrielle had never met anyone before that she could talk with for hours about Aeschylus or Euripedes or even Homer. Anytime she would start to talk with Xena about a play or poem she had just read, Xena would nod politely, but Gabrielle could see her eyes glaze over from boredom. She had nearly forgotten this part of herself and was almost grateful to Marcus Placidus for re-awakening it."
Despite herself, Gabrielle was beginning to like him. He was intelligent, exceedingly polite and proper for a soldier and not without a certain sense of humor. At times during their lessons she would have to remind herself who he was and what he represented to rekindle her hatred of him" But those times were occurring less and less frequently and her hatred was diminishing, she observed with some confusion.
Soria was growing suspicious of her relationship with Marcus Placidus and questioned her daily about what they did every afternoon. Gabrielle insisted that all they did was discuss theater and literature, which was the truth. Marcus knew little, if anything about her. And she knew very little of him. And yet despite Gabrielle's assurances, Soria was still openly skeptical.
The two girls were becoming close, partly out of necessity since they shared a cell together. And Gabrielle noticed that the closer they grew, the more irritating Soria seemed to be. She began to resent Soria's youthful impetuousness. Most annoying of all was the way Soria could talk non-stop for what seemed like hours.
When Gabrielle got to the point of almost fantasizing about using physical force to shut Soria up, she decided to redirect the younger girl's energy towards less talkative activities. Procuring two brooms from the courtyard, she started teaching the girl basic staff techniques late at night away from the watchful eye of the guards. In the beginning, Gabrielle would laugh herself to sleep with a touch of satisfaction over the amount of times Soria hit herself in the head performing her drills. But she had to admit the girl was a quick study. And it kept her quiet.
Slowly, Marcus and Gabrielle had come to trust one another. Marcus enjoyed climbing the hills surrounding the prison. He had asked that she give her word not to try to escape if they moved their daily meetings outside of the prison so that they could enjoy the fresh air. Gabrielle agreed and then wondered if she had made a mistake. From their spot on the hill, she could plainly see Amphipolis on a clear day and her heart would ache so terribly that she had to look away.
"Nero has come to Greece," Marcus Placidus announced one afternoon before they had the opportunity to plunge into Prometheus Unbound. "He's on his way to Athens to attend the theaters."
She looked up at him in astonishment. "A Roman Emperor has a taste for the Greek Arts?"
He smiled teasingly. "Scandalous, I know. Nero's own mother was disgusted by his tastes. He'll be coming to Thrace to inspect my legion. He should grant your pardon then."
"And then we'll all be free to go?"
"Free to go," Marcus repeated with a slight nod. He looked down at her. "Tell me something, Gabrielle. I believe I know the kind of woman you are. Courageous and possessing more skills with a sword than most of my men. Why didn't you ever try to escape?"
"Because I would have had to hurt a lot of people. And I know that Joseph and his followers would sooner die than see that happen for their sakes."
Marcus shook his head. "I don't think I'll ever understand Elijans."
"There's nothing to understand. They believe the power of love can conquer hate."
His gaze bore into her. "Do you believe that, Gabrielle?"
"I'd like to believe that love is more powerful than hate."
His eyebrows arched in curiosity. "And yet you go through life with a sword in your hand. And there's a small part of you that hates me."
She moved away from him. "I've never had much affection for Rome."
"So you look at me and you see only the uniform? My wife was the same way when we first met. She hated the idea of war and hated me because of the profession I chose. It took a long time, but she was able to see beyond the uniform to the man underneath."
Gabrielle rubbed her arms for warmth. The sun had ducked behind the clouds and the breeze raised goose pimples on her flesh. "I didn't know you were married. You never mentioned a wife before."
Marcus came up behind her, draping his cloak over her shoulders. "She died seven years ago giving birth to our son. The boy didn't survive a week."
Gabrielle turned to him, recognizing his melancholy tone. She heard it in her own voice every time she spoke -- probably why she chose to speak as little as possible these days. Her pity and empathy for him melted away whatever traces of hatred remained. "Marcus, I'm so sorry."
He held up a hand, shaking his head. He almost seemed on the verge of losing control of his emotions. But the disciplined soldier in him asserted control. "And you? No husband?"
Perdicus had been gone so long and she had traveled so far since then that some days she almost felt herself forgetting him. She shook her head. "I lost my husband several years ago."
"And no children?"
Gabrielle's shoulders stiffened as memories of Hope came flooding to the surface. It was a wound that she had fooled herself into believing was healed. "No," she answered sharply. "There's no one."
Marcus realized how the question disturbed her. Tactfully and as gently as possible, he changed the subject. "Tell me. That first day, how did you know the proper translation of such an obscure quotation?"
"Simple. I wrote it."
He laughed in disbelief. "Wrote it? You? Gabrielle, my command of Greek may not be perfect, but I remember that saying from my Greek lessons back when I was a boy. I'd venture to guess you weren't even born then. That came from the chronicles of the infamous Xena, Warrior Princess."
"Well, I prefer 'legendary', but you're correct."
Marcus smiled, as though amused by her delusions. "Xena was crucified by Caesar almost thirty years ago."
"It's difficult to explain. Do you recall the name of Xena's chronicler? Or did the author make no impression on you whatsoever?" She held up her hand and smiled self-deprecatingly. "No, don't bother to answer. I don't think I want to know."
As the sun was beginning to set, they made their way down the hill back towards the prison. Without knowing why, she had told Marcus quite a lot about her life. Not everything, but enough. In fact, the more Gabrielle talked and the more entertained Marcus appeared to be, the more she enjoyed having an audience again. Even if it was only for the moment, she was a bard again. Odd, she mused. It took a soldier, a Roman soldier no less, to help remind her who she was. It was a part of herself that had been violently shoved aside by that newer part of herself that had emerged, the warrior.
Why did she tell him so much about herself? So much about her life had been too painful to even think about since Xena's death. Why now? Why him, of all people? Gabrielle wondered that to herself as they walked. Perhaps it was her vanity. She loved an audience. And adoration, even if it was only from an audience of one, was even better. It had been ages since anyone had recognized the Battling Bard of Poteidaia and if Gabrielle had to be honest with herself, she had to confess that she liked the fame her scrolls had earned her. Or, she finally had to admit, perhaps it was a desire to open herself to Marcus, for him to know who she really was, not the ridiculous legends of the Little Dragon. That thought baffled her. Since Xena had died, Gabrielle had felt no inclination to open herself to anyone, nor did she ever expect to. Perhaps that's why she didn't tell Marcus everything. She left out many little details of their life together. Small things really, but they were poignant to her. Some things were just meant for her and Xena and would always remain so.
As they neared the gates, Marcus reached out and squeezed her elbow. The contact surprised Gabrielle, but not so much that she pulled away. He told her how much he had enjoyed talking with her all day and proposed continuing the conversation over dinner. She had formed the word "no" but strangely, it stuck in her throat. She was stunned when the word "yes" tripped out of her mouth.
They dined in the typical Roman fashion of reclining, in a relaxed atmosphere. The sweet red wine that had been served loosened their tongues even more and they talked well into the night, barely touching the banquet of food the servants set before them.
Marcus told her about his grandfather who had been taken as a slave in Gaul. His master had been a horse breeder which had suited Marcus' grandfather well. He had an affinity for horses. He was able to train them so well that he and his master had worked out a deal. He would race his master's horses and split the winnings with him. The deal benefited both men. His victories quickly made his master one of the richest men in Rome and enabled him to buy his freedom; soon, he made a fortune of his own in horse breeding. Before the birth of his son, Marcus' grandfather became a Roman citizen, thus ensuring the security of his family.
Marcus' father had been a politician, a life that didn't appeal to the son. But duty to the Empire had been instilled into young Marcus Placidus. He wanted a life of adventure while still being able to serve Rome. And so he became a soldier, a life he was well suited for. He was strong, brave, and loyal and his men were unfailingly devoted to him. "And yet," he pondered, "right now I can't help thinking how it might have been different."
Gabrielle sipped her wine. "Different? How do you mean?"
He laid back on the pillows and brought an orange to his nose, inhaling the aroma. "Our paths are so different. I've sworn an allegiance to Caesar. Yours is to defend the people that Caesar conquers. I know once you're free I'll probably never see you again -- unless it's on a battlefield -- and the thought?disappoints me. I wish it didn't have to be that way. I'm a Roman soldier and it's all I'll ever be. And I'm sorry for that. Sorry for us." He reached out and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand.
Gabrielle felt a stirring the moment his flesh touched hers. It was comfortably familiar and yet excitingly new. The wine had made her vulnerable and weak and she felt her eyes close, momentarily surrendering herself to the warmth and comfort of his touch. But then she forced her eyes open and abruptly sat up. "Marcus, please. You don't understand." She covered her eyes with both hands, trying to choose her words carefully, words that wouldn't wound him. "It's not you. It's not. I don't think I could ever give my heart again. I'm not even sure I have one left to give."
She recalled a passage from Prometheus Unbound that she and Marcus had read just a few days earlier. It struck Gabrielle how succinctly it summed up the state of mind she was in:
Thou losest heart when smitten with disease,
And know'st not how to find the remedies
Wherewith to heal thine own soul's sicknesses.
He sat up and studied her carefully. "You're afraid." It was not a question.
She nodded. "I've lost so much."
Marcus sighed and got up, moving to the window. "When I returned home after my first campaign in Gaul, Aurelia -- my wife -- feared me. She told me that when she looked into my eyes she could only see death. In the evenings she began singing to me and reading poetry. She hoped it would have a civilizing influence." Marcus gazed out the window, at some far off, remote point. When he continued, his voice was tired and pensive. "She reminded me that there was still joy and beauty in the world. I had forgotten that. When she died, I could still acknowledge that joy and beauty she showed me but I could take no pleasure in it. I was empty inside.
"But when I met you, Gabrielle, there was something that?" Marcus shook his head, at a loss. He turned to her. "You made me want to feel?something. Something I don't think either one of us has experienced in a long time. Simple?pleasure."
She realized the implication of his words. "You mean you want to?" How quickly she had been reduced from a hardened warrior to a na´ve, shy girl.
He smiled gently. "I want the same thing I think we've both wanted for weeks."
She shook her head and spoke, her voice husky with emotion. "It's been such a long time, Marcus. I don't even know if I can."
He crossed the room to her, leaned down and kissed her forehead tenderly. "Neither do I. But we could try-together."
Gabrielle and Marcus took one another on a journey of discovery that night. They moved slowly, exploring one another's bodies and reactions and emotions. It seemed to take hours for them to climb into bed together. She was amazed that a man like him, a soldier, could be so tender and giving and gentle. He was astonished that a warrior like her could be so soft and vulnerable when she allowed someone to breach her boundaries. They both gave one another something that night. Neither really understood it at the time and so they couldn't put a name to it. But it was there between them as they lay entangled in one another's arms. A small flicker of hope.
As the sun rose in the window, soaking the bed in a soft orange glow, Gabrielle stirred and stretched luxuriously, feeling Marcus' fingertips trace the dragon on her back. She could hear the smile on his face.
"I would like to make this dance."
She laughed, a satiated, genuine laugh. "I believe you did that a few hours ago."
He leaned over, kissed her neck and held himself there, gazing down at her. She could feel his hot breath travel down her naked back and she shivered, fondly remembering things he had done to her in the night.
He leaned down and whispered in her ear: "Would you stay with me, Gabrielle? Forever?"
She stiffened under his touch and twisted her head to look up at him. "Marcus, I?you know I can't."
His hand kneaded her tense shoulders. "Gabrielle, a few hours ago I found something I didn't think I'd ever find again. Peace... Don't tell me you didn't feel it too."
She rolled beneath him to look up into his eyes. "You know that it can't happen, Marcus. Your empire is an abyss between us. I've dedicated my life to the greater good. Yours is dedicated to the glory of Rome."
"Some would argue that the greater good is the glory of Rome," he said.
"Tell me that when you've been nailed to a cross," she said bitterly and pushed him off. She got out of the bed, dragging the wrinkled sheet with her. She stood with her back to him, drawing the sheet around her. "I could never be a wife of Rome, Marcus. You should know that."
He got out of the bed and moved behind her, drawing his arms around her chest and pulling her tightly against him. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. But after all that's happened, how am I supposed to let you just?walk away?"
She placed her hands over his and leaned her head back to rest on his shoulder. He unmistakably heard the melancholy in her voice when she said: "You don't have a choice."
Soria was on Gabrielle the moment the cell door banged shut behind them. "Where have you been? I was worried that something had happened to you. If Marcus Placidus has hurt you in any way-."
Gabrielle patted her friend's shoulder reassuringly. "I'm fine, Soria. Fine." Too shy and embarrassed to explain any further, Gabrielle retreated to her cot.
The look on Gabrielle's face did not go unnoticed by Soria. She had never seen such a look of tranquillity from her before. She looked more closely. There, in Gabrielle's softening features, Soria was sure she might have even detected a small glimmer of shameless fulfillment. She slit her eyes disapprovingly. "So how was he?"
Gabrielle glanced at Soria, her face instantly darkening from anger and annoyance. "I'm not having this conversation with you, Soria."
"Why not?" the girl sneered. "What are you afraid of? Afraid that maybe we'll find out you betrayed us all just so that you could become the General's whore? Tell me, now that you've embraced Rome will you nail us to the cross yourself or is being a spectator at our crucifixion amusement enough?"
Gabrielle flew off the cot with a guttural yell. She hurled Soria against the bars and closed her hand around the girl's throat. "Now you listen to me. Whatever happened between Marcus and me has got nothing to do with us. We're all going to walk out of here together. Got it?" As if for emphasis, she tightened her grip around Soria's throat. The girl gasped and groped at Gabrielle's hand, but she was not strong enough to loosen her grip. Soria was not about to surrender and Gabrielle knew she would have to kill her before Soria admitted defeat. The girl was that stubborn. Gabrielle released her and the girl fell to the floor, gasping for breath.
Furious, Gabrielle spun away, stalking to the other end of the cell. She bent her head and pressed her palms against the cold stone wall, trying to rein in her anger. "Focus," she whispered to herself.
The internal warning came too late. Soria moved up behind her, raising the staff she had fashioned from a broom. She struck a hard blow between Gabrielle's shoulder blades. More from the surprise than the pain, Gabrielle fell to her knees. She heard the staff slice through the air again and rolled away just before it came down on her head. She leaped to her feet and held her hands out in a placating gesture. "Soria, what are you doing?"
The girl swung at her furiously with the staff. "I like to know who my enemies are!"
Gabrielle jumped back. "I'm not your enemy! I haven't done anything to-."
"Liar!" the girl spat and lunged at her.
Gabrielle sidestepped the lunge and grabbed for the staff. Quicker and stronger than Soria, she was able to wrench it from the girl's hands. She spun around, angling the staff to sweep the girl's feet. Soria landed on her back with a dull thud. Before she could leap up, Gabrielle swung the staff down, the end grazing the tip of the girl's nose. "Stay down! Don't make me hurt you anymore."
Soria looked on the verge of continuing the fight. She stared up the length of the staff and saw the resolute expression on Gabrielle's face. Miraculously, good sense won out and the tension seemed to melt from her body.
Satisfied, Gabrielle threw the staff across the cell and held her hand out. Soria hesitated a moment before taking it. When she did, Gabrielle pulled her to her feet. "You are so stubborn. What were you trying to prove? Sometimes I feel as if I'll have to kill you to get you to see some sense."
Soria turned away from her and stalked to the bars. "Then do it and get it over with."
Gabrielle gaped incredulously. "What makes you so sure I've betrayed you? Ask yourself this: if I had, why did I come back here? Believe me, there are plenty of other places I'd rather be than stuck in here with you."
Soria kept her back to Gabrielle, giving no indication that she had even heard her.
Gabrielle glanced around, as if searching for a way to reach the girl. "Why are you so obsessed with fighting?"
The girl gripped the bars so tightly that Gabrielle half expected them to bend under the pressure. "Vengeance." There was something about the way Soria said it, so cold, so calm, almost matter of fact, that it sent a shiver through Gabrielle. "For your parents?"
Gabrielle came up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. Soria's response was a flinch but she did not throw the hand off. "I know how you feel. Believe me when I say that. But once you set yourself on a path of vengeance there's no turning away. You know, a very wise friend once told me that 'blood will have blood.' I was lucky I heard that message before it was too late."
"If I lose my life avenging my parents then that's fine with me."
Gabrielle spun Soria around so that she faced her. "I'm not talking about losing your life. I'm talking about losing something more important. What's in here," she tapped Soria's chest. "You've got a good heart, Soria. Why do you think I've taught you as much as I have? If I believed you were going to waste all that on a vendetta I wouldn't have wasted my time. I could teach you a lot more but you have to let me. Let the cycle of hate stop right here, right now."
A tear shimmered on Soria's cheek. As if annoyed with it, she wiped it away. "So what are you saying? That you want me to be some sort of student of yours?"
Gabrielle smiled, inwardly laughing at a joke only she got. "Well, I prefer the term sidekick, but you're correct."
"Caesar will arrive in Thrace tomorrow."
Gabrielle sat upright and glanced at Marcus. It was weeks later, after another afternoon in which Aeschylus had been abandoned in favor of more secular pursuits. Perhaps too many afternoons, she thought to herself ruefully.
She should have been ecstatic. They had been rotting in that prison for months now. Her life had never been a sedentary one and the endless hours she spent in her cell were beginning to take their toll. At night, restless and unable to sleep, Gabrielle would pace her cell like a caged tiger. Xena had once teased that there was nothing like an active love life to release pent up energies. Gabrielle had scowled at the memory of her advice. All those afternoons spent in the arms of Marcus had done nothing to channel her energy. Sometimes in the middle of the night she would even wake Soria and challenge the cranky, half asleep girl to practice bouts with the staff.
And yet despite this, the mention of her pardon, of freedom from that small, dank cell did nothing to lift her mood. It had even put a touch of melancholy into her voice. "Then this will be our last afternoon together."
"Probably," he said with a rueful smile and reached out to pull a strand of grass from her hair. "Some weeks ago, I sent a dispatcher on to Athens petitioning for the pardon of you and your friends. Caesar will most likely demand an audience with you."
Gabrielle nodded silently, not relishing the idea of being traipsed out like an animal, as a prize of Rome. "What is Nero like?"
Marcus sighed. "He cuts a rather bizarre figure. Usually in public he wears a dressing gown with no belt to hide his pot belly and wears a scarf to disguise the girth of his neck. He smells horrifically and is covered with strange spots. And he rarely wears shoes." He thought a moment and frowned. "Perhaps I shouldn't speak so candidly or irreverently. He is the Emperor after all."
Gabrielle studied Marcus' lean and tanned muscular frame, as if comparing his attributes to Nero's flaws. She shook her head. "How does a man like that become emperor?"
"I'm a soldier, Gabrielle. I don't ask those questions. I've sworn an oath of allegiance to Caesar."
"And therefore you don't feel the need to question right and wrong? Caesar decides that for you?"
"To a certain extent-yes!" he growled, losing patience with her. "That dedication and loyalty has made Rome the greatest empire the world has ever known."
"Regardless of who they trample along the way. What would you do, Marcus, if Nero ordered me to be executed? Would you do it? Would you do it for the glory of Rome?"
"That's not going to happen!" he snapped.
"But what if it did?" she persisted while brusquely pulling on her boots. "Would that finally make you question your duty and your loyalty? I pray the day never comes when you're forced to ask yourself whether that price is too high."
Marcus turned on her so fiercely that Gabrielle fell back on her elbow. Almost menacingly, he stood over her. "You're a fine one to talk about the price of duty. How many have you killed? And how many did you agonize over? How much of your own soul have you sacrificed in the name of this greater good that you serve? Don't presume to pass judgment on me when you can't even be honest with yourself."
Angrily, he turned, walked a few feet away and took several deep breaths. It was not until he had calmed himself that he turned back to her. "I've got to get back. There are preparations to be made for the Emperor's visit tomorrow. I trust you can find your own way back?"
Her fiery green gaze was the only answer he received.
Marcus bent and retrieved his sword. It seemed ages ago that they first climbed the hill. In their passionate frenzy the sword had been carelessly flung aside. He fastened it to his waist. "Tomorrow when you're released, your horse will be returned to you. Your horse and your weapons. I'm sure you'll have use of them." With that, he turned and stalked down the hill.
Not surprisingly, the Emperor had requested the presence of Gabrielle the next evening. What both surprised and troubled her was that while one guard bound her hands behind her back, the other one turned to Soria. "You too. Caesar wants you both."
When she and Soria were led into Nero's residence, every one of Gabrielle's senses was offended. Roman orgies were a disgusting display of gluttony and crudity. In a quick survey of the hall, she observed the lecherous looks that middle aged men gave in response to the suggestive gyrations of half clothed, dancing slave girls. Several guests had passed out either from too much wine or overeating, or a combination of both. Gabrielle wondered how Marcus could be a part of this.
She glanced around the hall, trying to catch sight of him. He stood between two lounging guests, one was an older looking gentleman that Gabrielle assumed was a politician. He was far too old and withered to be a soldier. Next to him was a young woman, thin, not unattractive, dressed in the height of fashion and impeccably groomed. Gabrielle noticed her hand surreptitiously reach out and stroke Marcus' thigh. Her cheeks flamed involuntarily in outrage and she forced herself to look down only at her feet.
The crowd seemed to part around them and a moment later Gabrielle felt someone come up beside her. A hand gently grasped her elbow and she looked up into the grim face of Marcus who had extricated himself from the gropes of the Roman noblewoman. "Everything will be fine," he whispered furtively and led her forward.
Gabrielle glanced behind her to Soria. From the look on her face, the girl appeared shocked and not a little confused by the displays of depravity going on so casually about her.
With gentle pressure on her arm, Marcus signaled Gabrielle to stop. He strode forward and cleared a throng of people. When they had moved aside, Gabrielle got her very first look at Emperor Nero.
She had always had a talent for sizing people up quickly, and what she saw in the emperor sent a shiver through her. Marcus had not been nearly candid or irreverent enough in his description. Nero was as fair haired as Gabrielle was. As Marcus had told her, he wore a strange sort of dressing gown and scarf to hide his large belly and thick neck. He was shoeless and suspicious looking spots mottled his skin. From her position several feet away from him, Gabrielle caught a whiff of his foul odor. But his freakish physical appearance was nothing compared to what she read behind his pale blue eyes. He was a strange mix of paradoxes. Brutal yet weak, sensual and erratic, extravagant, sadistic, and almost certainly deranged.
Marcus gestured to the girls. "The prisoners, Caesar."
Nero's gaze slid from Gabrielle to Soria. "These are the two that attacked your men, Placidus?"
Marcus bowed his head in deference. "They are, Caesar."
Nero rose, an amused expression on his face. He strode forward and stood before Gabrielle and Soria, studying them. "Well, well, well. The bitches have bite, do they?"
Gabrielle almost gagged from his stench. Her head bent, she looked at Soria out of the corner of her eye. The girl was trying vainly to hold her breath. Gabrielle suspected that Nero realized this because he lingered a moment longer, as if trying to suffocate them before turning away.
"I've found the culprits responsible for the conflagration of Rome. That barbarian sect who call themselves Christians. Disgusting bunch of rabble. They would sooner give their devotion to one god, whom they believe has the power to raise himself and others from the dead, than to Rome. What power can this one god have against the might of Rome when we were able to crucify him?"
He glanced back at the two girls then looked at Marcus. "You have petitioned for their release, Placidus. And I'm inclined to grant your request. The Followers of Eli are nothing to me now. But these two are a different matter entirely. They attacked Roman troops. What reason can you give me that I should not feed them to the lions just for the sport of it?"
Marcus glanced at Gabrielle. "An excellent reason, Caesar. The Empire would lose one of its greatest Grecian poets."
Gabrielle cringed at how quickly Nero was able to change demeanors. In an instant he went from bemused threats to almost girlish giddiness. "A Grecian poet? One of these?"
Marcus moved beside Gabrielle, laying a hand on her shoulder. "This is Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Poteidaia." Marcus turned his head slightly to address the room. "I'm sure our Greek Bard would be honored to entertain you and your guests, Caesar."
Nero rubbed his chin in thought. "Yes," he mused. "That certainly might be more entertaining than an execution." He glanced at Gabrielle expectantly. "Well?"
Gabrielle was so shocked, so appalled that she was rooted to her spot. Marcus gently nudged her forward. Though it left her feeling sullied, she bowed her head in a show of veneration to Nero. "Is there anything you prefer, Caesar? Romance? Adventure? A comedy?"
Nero took a seat, arranging himself in a comfortable position. "Oh, I don't think any audience could be disappointed with an epic adventure. Do entertain us!"
Gabrielle was astonished that she could still recite stories from memory that she had written thirty years before. She spoke passionately, spiritedly reciting the story of Ulysses. Every eye in the hall was on her, holding their breath in anticipation as she described how Ulysses attempted to string his bow to prove his identity. She was revolted by the knowledge that the performance of her lifetime had to be wasted on the likes of Nero.
When she was done, Nero leaped to his feet, applauding loudly. "Wonderful! Brilliant! You paint a vivid portrait. If only my mother could have heard you. Then she would not have been so critical of my tastes for Greek culture."
Because Gabrielle noticed Marcus slightly inclining his head behind Nero, she bowed her head. "You are too kind, Caesar."
Nero glanced eagerly at Soria, as if noticing her for the first time. "And your friend? Is she a poet too?"
"She's my student, Caesar." Gabrielle hoped the questions would end there.
But Nero was too delighted to not be inquisitive. "What has she taught you, girl?" Do you posses some talent that you could entertain us with?"
Thankfully, Soria spoke briefly and respectfully. "She has taught me the art of the staff, Caesar."
Nero raised an eyebrow. "The staff?"
Soria nodded. "Defense. You see?I was orphaned and without a father to protect my virtue, I had to take it upon myself. Gabrielle has been an excellent teacher."
"Tragic, tragic," Nero murmured. "The animals that men can be. Perhaps you and the Greek Bard would care to amuse us with a bout?"
The girl's smile was deceptively sweet. "We are at your service, Caesar."
Gabrielle restrained herself with Soria. She could have easily beaten the girl but that would not have sat well with Nero. He wanted to see a true contest of skills.
As they parried, Gabrielle began to realize that Soria was good. Very good. Probably better with a staff than she herself had been after only a few months of practice.
She allowed Soria to take the offensive a number of times, almost recklessly driving them both into the crowd. The guests quickly saw that it was prudent not to get too close and moved farther back. This created a direct path between them and Nero, a temptation that Gabrielle feared would be too great for Soria to resist.
Gabrielle quickly took the offensive again, deciding to end the bout quickly. She attempted the same move she had used on Soria when she had defended herself against the girl's attack in the cell. She spun, angling her stick for a sweep of the girl's feet. Soria was a quick study. Too quick. That move didn't fool her a second time. She leaped straight up. While still in mid-air, she raised her staff and delivered a solid blow to the bridge of Gabrielle's nose.
Gabrielle sprawled, landing on her back practically at Nero's feet. Her staff went rolling away. Soria swung her staff down so that it was positioned just above Gabrielle's heart, ready to deliver the "killing" blow. Gabrielle braced herself for a hard strike.
And then Soria hesitated, drawing back slightly to shift her weight to her other foot. From their angle, only Gabrielle could see Soria's tactical glance at Nero. The girl hesitated a moment longer, as if debating who she should strike.
Gabrielle held her breath. Don't do it, Soria. Don't do it. Her gaze implored the girl. She held perfectly still. If Soria made the slightest move towards Nero, Gabrielle was prepared to take her down with as much force as necessary.
As if on impulse, the girl stepped back and tapped Gabrielle's shoulder. She dropped her staff, then held out her hand to pull the defeated warrior to her feet.
Nero clapped enthusiastically, encouraging everyone else to do the same. "Inspirational! The student has surpassed the master."
Gingerly, Gabrielle touched the bridge of her nose. Nothing broken, but she felt blood beginning to trickle down to the corner of her mouth.
Soria bowed. "My victory is a tribute to my teacher, Caesar."
"And my pardon shall be mine to you," Nero said. He turned to a man standing at his shoulder. "Why can't we have more entertainment like this, Cassius? See to it."
And just as quickly as his demeanor had changed earlier, Nero forgot all about Gabrielle and Soria, now concentrating his efforts on finding "more interesting prisoners."
Marcus quickly whisked Gabrielle and Soria out of the hall. "The Emperor reserves the right to be fickle," Marcus hissed under his breath. "Let's get you out of here before he changes his mind."
When she found Argo saddled and waiting for her in the stables, Gabrielle almost wept. She could not resist the impulse to raise herself on her tiptoes and throw her arms around the mare's neck.
The cream colored mare snorted in greeting.
"A beautiful animal," Marcus commented. "Damnedest thing though. She wouldn't let anyone ride her."
"That's loyalty," Gabrielle said with an appreciative pat to Argo's shoulder.
Marcus said that he would accompany them to the prison to see the Elijans safely released. The three of them mounted up and made their way through the forest. It was slow going, there was no moon out that evening to help light the way. Several times, Marcus rode ahead to find the path, leaving the two girls alone.
On one of those occasions, Gabrielle took the opportunity to say to Soria: "I'm proud of you."
Soria looked across her spirited stallion's head to Gabrielle. "For what?"
"I know you wanted to kill Nero. I know you could have. But you resisted the temptation. For a moment there, I wasn't sure you would."
Soria shrugged. "Well, I thought about everything you told me. I never really believed any of it at first. But just as I was about to strike him I remembered what you said about stopping the cycle of violence and hatred. If I had killed Nero, it would have made me no better than he was. And my friends would have suffered for it. That wouldn't have served the greater good. And that's what we stand for, isn't it?"
Gabrielle smiled in bemusement. "We?"
Soria reigned her horse around to face Gabrielle. "Yes. I admire you, Gabrielle. And not just because you fight. It's the way you fight. You have such courage and compassion and wisdom. I want to be just like you."
Gabrielle shook her head skeptically. "Soria, are you sure you know what you're asking for?"
The girl shook her head. "No. I would be a fool if I said I did, wouldn't I?"
Gabrielle said nothing.
Marcus returned. "I found the path up ahead. We're nearly there." He glanced at Gabrielle. Something silent passed between them that Soria caught.
Considerately, she turned her horse around. "I'm going to ride ahead. You can catch up with me."
He glanced in Soria's direction as she rode off. "Your friend seems slightly more tolerant of me than when we first met. You've had a positive influence on her."
"I don't think she quite believed me when I told her you were a decent and honorable man. She's stubborn as a mule, but I think she's finally learning to trust my judgment."
Marcus smiled almost shyly and looked down at his hands clutching the reins. "I want to thank you, Gabrielle. I'll always cherish what we had. And I want to apologize. I realize now that we were never meant to be. We have very different ideas of duty and loyalty."
"We're not so different, Marcus," she said wisely. "You're a good man. I just don't think you've asked yourself what price you're willing to pay for your duty and loyalty." She sighed wearily. "But anyway, I don't think this is the time or place for another philosophical debate. We don't see eye to eye and we probably never will. And that's sad. I suppose all there is left to say is thank you. For everything. For the consideration you showed my friends. And me. For that I'll always be grateful."
Marcus leaned forward in the saddle and pressed his lips to her forehead chastely. He pulled back and there was a mischievous smile on his face. "Now, let's catch up with your friend before she decides to break in and free the prisoners herself."
As they neared the prison gates, Marcus squinted in the darkness. "Something isn't right," he whispered over his shoulder.
They moved closer toward the gates and with a touch of alarm, Gabrielle could see what was amiss. "Those aren't your men."
He shook his head. "No. They're Praetorians."
With a sinking feeling in her chest, Gabrielle turned to Soria. "Caesar's elite guard. Stay here," she ordered.
Soria nodded and Gabrielle and Marcus rode toward the gates.
"You! Praetorian!" Marcus called out. They reigned in their horses before the two guards at the gate. "What's the meaning of this? Where are my men?"
The guards saluted. "We were ordered not to let anyone pass in or out of the gates, General."
Marcus' voice deepened to a guttural and threatening tone. "What the hell are you talking about? This is my prison. Caesar has pardoned the Elijans and I'm here to set them free. Get out of my way."
Gabrielle's spine tingled. She felt them being surrounded. Furtively, she reached for the hilt of her sword should it become necessary.
"I'm afraid that's not possible, Placidus," came a voice out of the darkness.
Gabrielle and Marcus both turned in their saddles. Surrounding them were a dozen more Praetorians. One stepped into the center of the semi-circle to confront Marcus. "Emperor Nero has sent me to inform you that your Greek whore and her friend are free to go. But the Elijans are enemies of the state. They're to be held here to await execution."
"Otho, you damned fool," Marcus growled. "Caesar pardoned them. I heard it with my own ears."
"It's the Emperor's privilege to have a change of heart. I would strongly suggest that you dismount and surrender your weapon. The girl should turn around and ride away. Anything else will be considered an act of treason."
Marcus let this sink in in angry, resentful silence. He glanced at Gabrielle and saw her hand resting on the hilt of her sword. "This isn't about the Elijans, is it, Otho? This is a test. Nero is using the Elijans to test my allegiance to him. Do you doubt my loyalty, Otho? After all we went through together in Gaul and Spain?"
Otho drew his blade halfway out of its scabbard. "It's not my place to question the motivations of the Emperor. I have my orders. Surrender your weapon!"
"Like hell I will!" Marcus spat and drew his sword.
Gabrielle reacted quickly. As she drew the katana she spurred Argo forward, knocking two Praetorians on their backs before they could charge Marcus. She turned just in time to see Marcus deliver a vicious downward slash with his sword, cutting down one of the guards. Six more men surrounded him and Marcus swung at them wildly.
Gabrielle saw Otho raise his arm, leveling a crossbow at Marcus. She tossed her sword into her left hand and pulled her chakram. Precious seconds were lost when the two guards she had knocked aside charged at her, their swords raised over their heads. With an animal-like cry, Gabrielle delivered a savage backhand stroke with her sword, nearly severing the heads off of the two men. She felt the warm stickiness of their blood spray her bare arms and legs as they crumpled to the ground, dead.
She tossed the chakram at Otho, cutting off three of his fingers in the split second after he had fired the crossbow. Otho yelled out in pain, dropping his weapon. The arrow struck Marcus in his left shoulder. Gabrielle could see him recoil from the impact and gasp for breath.
She kicked Argo hard, charging the mare forward. She shot her right hand up and snatched the chakram out of the air as she saw Marcus swing again, slashing a man open from shoulder to belly.
"Reinforcements!" Otho screamed frantically while clutching his mutilated hand.
As Gabrielle galloped by, she brought her sword down on his neck, killing him instantly.
The gates swung open and dozens of men poured out. They divided themselves, half encircling Marcus, the other half intent on stopping Gabrielle from coming to his defense. Marcus was dragged from the saddle but he refused to surrender his sword.
Enraged and blind to the odds against them, Gabrielle still spurred Argo forward, ferociously cutting down every man that got in her way. She saw half a dozen men leap at Marcus, finally prying the sword from his hand. Marcus dropped to his knees as the men fell upon him, beating him with their fists.
"Gabrielle, go!" she heard him shout as three men formed a blockade between her and Marcus.
"No!" she screamed back, taking down the first man who rushed at her.
"Dammit, go!" he ordered, his voice growing fainter as he was crushed under a hail of fists.
Almost as if the mare had a mind of her own, Argo turned and cut a path through the men swarming around them. For a moment Gabrielle had the impulse to wrench the reins so hard that the horse would have no choice but to turn back.
But as she galloped away, her rage abated and her mind was able to clear a little. There was nothing she could do. Marcus was probably already dead and she would be too if she went charging back to fight. And she still had an obligation to the Elijans imprisoned back there. What good would it do them if she got herself killed in a fight that at this point would have been only for the sake of vengeance? That was why Marcus sent her away. If she was killed, the prisoners lives would surely be forfeit to a torturous death.
But she would save them and avenge Marcus, she silently promised. No matter what the cost, she was about to go to war against Nero.
At first, Soria was frightened by the wild look in Gabrielle's eyes, and the warrior was covered in so much blood that Soria was convinced she had been wounded. Gabrielle assured her in a flat voice that she was fine.
Stoically, Gabrielle told Soria what had happened. Rather than erupting in rage, the girl felt a cold fear for her na´ve yet noble-minded brother, Joseph. He was the only family she had left and she would lay down her life if it would spare his. And her friends, fated to meet the same end as her brother. Hadn't they all suffered enough? In a rush of clarity, she at last completely understood what Gabrielle had meant by the cycle of hate. When would it all end?
As the sun began to rise, Soria sat on the banks of the creek they had camped near, on watch as Gabrielle bathed, washing the blood off of herself. The warrior had said very little after recounting the story of Nero's treachery. Soria was patient, knowing Gabrielle was wrestling with her own demons. Recently, she had begun to speak a little about her past and Soria knew that she had lost someone very dear to her not long ago. And now Marcus was most likely dead. Soria suspected that Gabrielle had deeper feelings for him than she cared to admit. The girl felt a sharp stab of pity for her new friend. All Gabrielle really wanted was peace -- and she could not seem to break free of the violence.
Gabrielle rose and emerged from the creek. Soria waited until she had dressed before speaking. "So what are we going to do now?"
"We aren't going to do anything," Gabrielle snapped as she laced up her boot. "You're going to hide here while I ride down towards Amphipolis. There's someone I need to see."
Soria shook her head calmly. "No. I'm going with you."
"I don't have time to argue this with you, Soria. This isn't-."
"This isn't what? This isn't my fight? It's as much my fight as it is yours. Maybe even more so. That's my brother in that jail. If you think that I'm going to sit back and wait while he's about to be crucified, you're mistaken."
Gabrielle cast a challenging, almost threatening look at Soria, but the girl would not back down and Gabrielle relented. "All right," she muttered. "But we're heading out soon. Be ready."
They rode hard and fast, making it to Amphipolis before the morning was too old. Gabrielle had explained to Soria that too many people knew her here. It was safer for everyone concerned if they slipped into the village undetected. They approached through the forest. Finally Gabrielle reigned in her horse on the outskirts of Amphipolis and Soria looked around and gaped.
"This is it? This is what we came for? I thought you were coming here to raise an army."
Gabrielle hopped down off of Argo. "I did."
"Gabrielle, this is a tomb. It doesn't take a Roman general to figure out that the dead can't fight the living."
"Well, that depends upon [change to "on"] how you look at it," Gabrielle told her curtly. She strode towards the tomb entrance and stopped, looking almost afraid to go inside.
"This is where your friend rests, isn't it?" Soria asked, the sudden realization flooding her with regret for speaking so callously. "The Warrior Princess?"
With her back to her, Gabrielle nodded. "Yes." She took two more steps forward and hesitated. As if steeling herself, Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Wait here." She disappeared inside the tomb.
Gabrielle felt weak and dizzy as the cold, damp air of the tomb hit her. It was so quiet and peaceful that she almost envied the three people that rested here. Her life had been anything but those things. It seemed that the harder she wished for peace, the more it eluded her.
She moved towards the two coffins in the tomb. Each time she returned, she paid her tributes to both Lyceus and Cyrene. It was what Xena would have wanted. She lay her hands on both coffins and tried to surround the spirits of Xena's brother and mother with silent veneration. Even if she could think of the words to say right then, Gabrielle was afraid that if she opened her mouth she would either be sick or weep uncontrollably. Or perhaps both.
When she was done, she stepped back and her eyes began to search the far wall of the tomb until she found what she was looking for. Hand outstretched, Gabrielle staggered forward and caressed a loose stone in the wall. Behind that stone she had laid the ashes of her beloved friend to rest. She knew that there were still many people out there who coveted even the remains of Xena, Warrior Princess. And rather than see Xena so dishonored, Gabrielle had chosen to hide her ashes in a niche where no other mortal would think to look.
She pressed both her palms against the stone, hoping it's cold smoothness would somehow offer her comfort. She could almost feel Xena, hear Xena speaking to her and tears welled in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just don't know what else to do."
Gabrielle stepped back and swallowed hard. She inhaled deeply to regain her composure and then called out in a strong yet shaky voice: "Ares." She glanced over her shoulder. "Ares, I know you're here. Answer me."
She saw the flash of blue light out of the corner of her eye and spun. There before her, stood Ares, God of War. They had not seen one another since long before Xena's death. Their mutual grief had not drawn them closer together. Both Gabrielle and Ares felt they reserved the right to a special kind of mourning and each regarded the other's lament begrudgingly, as if a defilement of their own personal grief.
Ares studied her curiously. "Amazing." He nodded towards the niche in the wall. "She's the only one that could ever do that. Did Xena teach you something that I don't know about?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No."
He cocked his head to one side and stroked his beard absently. "Then how did you know I was here?"
She gave him a sorrowful look. "Because it's where I come to mourn too."
His cool exterior melted and he turned away. "You could have told me yourself."
"You knew. You didn't need me to tell you anything. And I just couldn't face?" she trailed off into silence.
He drew his sword and turned back to her, angry. "What? You couldn't face what? The cold hearted bastard?"
She shook her head. "No. No?I?" She covered her eyes with both hands. "It was just too much."
With a frustrated snarl, Ares slashed through the air with his sword. Then he stopped and contemplated her -- not exactly with concern, but in some bizarre way he felt he owed her something. "So if you can't stand to look at me then what are you doing here?"
Gabrielle lowered her hands from her face. Ares felt uneasy at the sight of her tears. If she was looking for consolation from him, she was even crazier than he thought.
"I came because I need your help."
Ares laughed out loud. He had to hand it to the little bard. He hadn't laughed in months. "You need my help? You-asking Ares, God of War for help?"
Gabrielle's expression was so deadly serious that the wry grin fell from his face. "I'm going up against Nero. He lied to me in order to destroy a friend of mine. And now he intends to execute some Elijans that I've sworn to protect."
"And I'm not going to let that happen."
Ares tugged at his ear musingly. "With my help, of course."
She gave a slight shrug.
He circled her slowly, a smug expression playing across his face. Clearly Ares was taking great pleasure in this. "Even discounting the fact that you and I have never had much use for one another, I don't have a lot of interest in saving a pack of Elijans."
"Ares, Nero is the one who set fire to Rome. He was clearing land so that he could build his Domus Aurea."
He shrugged tiredly. "His Golden Palace. So?"
She frowned. "One of your temples was destroyed in that fire. Nero destroyed your temple simply because it was in his way."
Ares flinched. Oh, the little wench knew just what card to play with him, his ego. "And if I did agree to help you, what's in it for me?"
"What do you want?"
He pressed his lips together, regarded her thoughtfully for a moment and then his gaze slid to the niche in the wall. "Well, I can't have what I really want. But I suppose I'll have to settle for the next best thing. You pale by comparison, though -- almost like expecting a trip to Elysia and winding up in plain, old Poteidaia."
"Then we're agreed?"
He leveled his gaze at her. Gabrielle was suspicious of what seemed to be genuine concern in his dark eyes. "Think about it, Gabrielle. Think about what this means for you. Is this what you really want?" Oddly, Ares reached out to touch her.
She stepped back, out of his reach. "What I want doesn't matter. The lives of those people are what's important."
Ares studied her a long moment, then grinned devilishly. He held his arms wide in a magnanimous gesture. "Then you've got your war. It's pretty ironic, don't you think? Who would have really thought all those years ago that it would be Gabrielle, Warrior Queen?"
Gabrielle came out of the tomb, a sick expression on her face.
Soria rushed to her side. "You were gone so long! I was beginning to worry. Are you all right?"
Unable to answer, Gabrielle lurched away. Rather than try to comfort her, Soria held back. She didn't really know Gabrielle all that well, but she knew enough to realize that the warrior was too proud for anyone to see her vomiting in the bushes.
Dark clouds had rolled in behind the army of five hundred when they descended from the hills. Faint but ominous thunder boomed rhythmically in the distance. The air seemed still, as if holding its breath in anticipation of the coming storm. The birds had ceased chirping, not even a blade of grass stirred. Gabrielle seemed aware of none of it and yet aware of all of it at the same time.
It was a different Gabrielle, Soria noted with a touch of fear. This was not the Gabrielle that Soria had come to know, the Gabrielle that would turn her face to the sun simply for the pleasure of basking in its warmth and glow, the Gabrielle that had the ability to tame a hostile crowd with the purity and beauty of her poetry, the Gabrielle that had taught Soria that true courage did not come from using a sword but from not using one. That Gabrielle was gone now, replaced with the cold, hard warrior with a narrow focus that divided the world into two irrefutable categories. Enemy and ally.
Soria wondered which category Gabrielle fit her into. Until a few hours ago, she had been a friend, perhaps even a bit of a confidante. But in those eerie hours between leaving the tomb of the Warrior Princess and taking command of a fully equipped army in the hills over the prison, Gabrielle had shoved her aside, rendered her insignificant. Stay out of my way, the warrior growled just before she swung up into the saddle of her black as night war horse.
The horse had been the first of their arguments. Soria had suggested, pleaded, then finally resorted to threats to convince Gabrielle to leave Argo behind. She had feared for the well-being of the gentle mare. If Gabrielle was intent on getting herself killed, Soria was not about to let her take an innocent creature with her. You'll take this horse over my dead body. That had given Gabrielle pause. She genuinely seemed to consider that option. And then almost as if on impulse, she spun and marched away, choosing a horse named Titan to carry her into the battle.
At first, Soria had been tempted to heed Gabrielle's warning and stay out of her way. She had no desire to witness the once gentle poet's surrender to savagery. Gabrielle was someone that she had learned to admire for her intelligence, compassion and nobility. It was easier to turn her back and run away. Gabrielle had taught her so much that the very least the girl owed her was friendship and a voice to serve as her conscience when she feared Gabrielle would need it most.
Though Soria knew nothing about battles, it was evident this had been a crushing and bloody defeat for the Romans. No surprise there, she thought cynically. Gabrielle's army had outnumbered them ten to one. The bloodied and mutilated corpses of the Praetorian guard littered the courtyard. Soria began searching the faces of the bodies, looking for signs of life. One man had been stabbed in the back, obviously running away. She shook her head and moved to the next man, the putrid smell of death already assailing her nostrils. The bile rose in her throat but she swallowed against it. She saw a small twitch of movement in the fingers of the Roman she knelt beside. Alive or just a post-mortem spasm? Clutching him by the shoulder, she rolled him onto his back, only to be confronted by dark, terror-stricken eyes that were very much alive.
"Don't kill me," he whispered.
Soria glanced around. Men were sorting through the bodies in the courtyard, anyone that still clung tenuously to life was finished off with a sword. A few weeks ago she would have delighted at the prospect of seeing a Roman suffer. Ironically, all she felt now was horror at such a grotesque waste of life. Gabrielle's influence, no doubt -- even more ironic.
"I'm not going to kill you," she said gently. "Can you walk?" She crooked his arm around her neck and with a grunt of exertion pulled him to his feet. Soria half dragged him into a doorway, laying him gently on his back. "Where are you hurt?"
She tore his tunic to get a look at his wound. It was a deep and bloody gash from his ribcage to his hip. It would need to be stitched, but he would survive.
His dry, cracked lips moved as he struggled to speak. "Water."
Soria nodded slowly. Unconsciously, she laid her palm against his cheek. "I'll find some water. Be right back."
She went to the well in the courtyard, drawing a bucket, running back to the Roman so fast that half the contents sloshed out, drenching her shoes. When she returned, two of Gabrielle's men were hauling the soldier roughly to his feet as Gabrielle stood by.
"Tie him up with the others," she ordered.
The wounded man let out a cry of agony as Gabrielle's men began to drag him off by the forearms.
Soria dropped the bucket of water and ran forward, blocking their path. She held up her hands. "Gabrielle, this man is hurt. His wound needs to be treated."
The warrior glared coldly. "In a few hours his wound will be the least of his worries."
The burlier of the two men reached out and roughly shoved Soria aside. "Out of the damned way!"
She stumbled, sprawling in the dirt. Gabrielle pivoted to walk away, then abruptly turned back and leaned down, extending her hand. Soria swiped at her resentfully. "I don't need any help from you!"
She gained to her feet and dusted herself off methodically. When she was done, Soria looked around, absorbing the gruesome scene in the yard. "What are you planning to do with those men you've taken prisoner?"
"Drop it, Soria. I'm warning you."
She grabbed Gabrielle's arm roughly. "No. I have a right to know!"
The warrior's jaw clenched. "I'm sending a message to Nero. 'An eye for an eye.'
Soria's jaw dropped in horror. "You plan on burning them to death." Deep furrows appeared in her brow as she attempted to sort out the logic of such an act. "I'm having a problem with your vision here. I thought the point of all this was to free the Elijans."
Gabrielle averted her gaze. "If Nero sees his own guard die the same way it might make him think twice about going after the Elijans again."
"Or it might infuriate him to the point that he doubles his efforts against us. When is this all going to end? You told me to stop the cycle of hatred and all I see you doing is perpetuating it."
Gabrielle gripped her shoulders. "This is war! What did you expect? Your brother and the rest of his followers would have been dead by tomorrow morning if I hadn't freed them."
Soria wrenched free. "If they knew the price of their freedom I'm sure they would have chosen death. You're no better than Nero is. It's probably better that Xena is dead. If she could see what you've become-."
Gabrielle's lip curled back to display a row of even, white teeth and she lashed out, backhanding the girl with a ferocious, primal snarl.
Soria's head snapped in the direction of the blow but she refused to be felled by it. She held herself very still, biting her lip against the pain, fighting the tears stinging the corners of her eyes. When she was once again in control, she turned back to Gabrielle, her gaze burning with disappointment and resentment. "Xena would be disgusted to see the butcher you've turned into." She turned and walked away.
This is insanity, Soria thought to herself as she crossed the courtyard. This wasn't a rescue mission, this was cold, swift, brutal vengeance. Soria doubted the Elijans even came into play in Gabrielle's mind. This was retribution for Marcus. And more than that, it was her rage finally erupting to the surface over the loss of her Warrior Princess. Gabrielle felt she was fated to walk through the rest of her life alone and she was going to make the world pay. They were going to feel her suffering.
Soria hesitated beside the well from which she had drawn water before. Damned if she was going to turn into the kind of monster Gabrielle had become. Though it might cost her own life, Soria was going to try to alleviate at least a small amount of suffering.
Drawing more water from the well, she carried it over to the dozen men chained together like animals. At first they regarded her offer of the dipper of water with suspicion, eyeing it as if it might contain poison. But their thirst soon overcome their misgivings and they drank greedily, sending Soria back to the well three more times before she was halfway done.
"Doesn't make any sense," one of the Gabrielle's soldiers said and snickered. "They're all dead men anyway."
Compassion still makes sense, Soria thought to herself as she carried the empty bucket back to the well. Gabrielle had taught her that much.
She leaped as thunder cracked overhead. The skies had darkened to a foreboding gray and thick raindrops began to spatter down with an audible plop as they hit the ground. Already her arms were beginning to ache from carrying the water. Reaching the long line of doomed men, she dropped the bucket with a tired groan and plunged the dipper in. She drew it out and offered it to the next man in line.
He was only half conscious, his chin resting on his chest. Soria inspected him a little more carefully. Blood caked his hair; there were bruises blackening his arms, and she could see the festering wound on his left shoulder through his torn tunic. Oddly, his wounds appeared older than the fresh ones the other men had just sustained. Soria touched his chin gently to raise his head to drink, getting a look at the damage that had been done to him. His face covered in dried, brown blood was disfigured almost beyond recognition. His lips and left eye were swollen to twice their size and his nose had been broken. But there was something familiar in his one good eye. Its shade of pale blue stirred something familiar in her. She paused, trying to jog her memory. Slowly, recognition dawned. "Marcus Placidus!"
The right side of his mouth attempted to lift in a weak smile of acknowledgment. Soria laid a delicate hand against his cheek. "Marcus, don't you recognize me?" She wet the sleeve of her blouse and used it to carefully wipe his face.
The cold water helped bring Marcus around and he focused on her blearily. "Mmmm?the pugnacious kid."
Despite the incongruity of it, Soria laughed. "That's right. It's me. Soria." She gained to her feet and turned to the guard who had laughed so callously at her before. "Cut him free!" she demanded against a loud clap of thunder.
"I said cut him free!" she demanded, raising her voice to be heard over thunder and pelting rain that had just begin to fall. "Now! He isn't one of?one of them."
The guard glanced over at Marcus and back at Soria, a bemused expression on his face. "He looks just as dead as the rest."
Soria hadn't even stopped to consider her next move. Instinctively, she brought her foot back and kicked him hard between the legs. The guard doubled over in pain. She bent and grabbed the bucket by the handle, swinging it at his head. He flew backwards, landing on his back in the mud with a hard plop, unconscious.
She found Gabrielle up on the prison walls, posting sentries. Soria stood motionless, indifferent to the torrent of rain drenching her. She followed Gabrielle's every movement with her eyes. A silent, glowering judgment of the woman she once dared to call 'teacher'.
Gabrielle knew she was there, of course. But the harder she tried to ignore the girl, the more persistent Soria's reproachful glare became, gradually making the warrior more and more ill at ease until she began to stumble over her words with the sentries. Finally, Gabrielle was able to steel herself enough to Soria's unwavering stare to issue her orders. She dismissed the men with a frustrated wave of her hand.
Soria wiped the steady trickle of rain from the end of her nose, waiting for Gabrielle to turn to her. But she would not, whether out of anger or fear, Soria couldn't be sure. "You plan on executing every last man down there?"
She saw Gabrielle's shoulder lift, as if trying to shrug off Soria's condemnation of her. Trying and failing. She brooded in silence a moment. Then: "Yes."
"Can you look them in the eye before you do that? Do you have at least that much honor and decency left?"
Gabrielle rounded on her. Soria's first instinct was to shrink away from another blow. But something in her rooted her to the spot. If she faltered even slightly before Gabrielle they were all lost.
The warrior pivoted away with an awkward jerk, checking the impulse to strike the girl again. "Do you think I enjoy this?" Her voice came out in a pained whisper.
Soria gave a slight nod, devoid of empathy. "Yes. In a way, I think you do."
Only because Soria was watching her carefully did Gabrielle force herself to march down the line of captured men, looking each one of them in the eye. She could not bring herself to look upon them with hatred. But neither could she allow herself even a glimmer of pity. If she did, she would never have the resolve to do what needed to be done. Instead, she adopted an impassive stone-face, attempting to regard each one of them in a detached, emotionless state. It would have made it easier if Gabrielle had seen malice in their eyes. Instead, all she saw was fear. Most of them shook violently. Whether it was from the cold sheets of rain falling upon them or terror she wasn't sure. Probably a combination of both.
As she moved down the line, a tiny voice began to prick at Gabrielle's conscience. You understand hatred but you have never given into it. Gabrielle bit her lip, as if the sharp pain would quell the voice. But it grew in ever increasing clarity. People like us should listen to Gabrielle?I had to learn from you the final, the good, the right thing to do... Worst torture of all was when she heard the voice of her former self coming back to taunt her. I was going to break the cycle, all that pain and that violence was going stop with me. I was going to revere life, bring peace, heal. It's the one thing that I never doubted?If I kill you, you win. I become like you?
Her ears fairly rang as another voice bellowed it's outrage. You call yourself a warrior? You're not a warrior. You're a murderer. She knew this voice. It was her own. The stone-face she had worked so hard to set in place crumbled and she turned away from the prisoners.
She took a few steps away from them and paused to speak over her shoulder. "Put them down in the cells. Make sure their wounds are treated and that they receive food and water." She gave Soria an almost sheepish glance and the girl realized that Gabrielle was talking to her.
Soria nodded. Satisfied, the warrior turned to stumble away. "Gabrielle!"
She turned back, her eyes widening in impatience. "What?"
Soria made a gesture with her hand. "It's Marcus."
Gabrielle treated Marcus's wounds herself. Knowing the pain it caused, she winced more than he did when she had to push the crossbow bolt through his shoulder in order to remove it. "It's already infected," she told him in a quiet voice.
He nodded with a pained expression. "I know. Not a good sign."
She dipped a cloth in a bowl of warm water and gently began to cleanse his wounds. "In Egypt, I saw them use cumin to treat infection. You're going to be fine."
"That's a matter of interpretation," he said with a small gasp as the water seeped into the gash in his shoulder. "Gabrielle?I've withdrawn my oath of allegiance to Nero."
She bent her head, almost as if in mourning. "I'm sorry. I know what that means to an honorable man like you." She laid her palm on his chest and rubbed him soothingly. "Why, Marcus? Why did Nero lie to us?"
Marcus shook his head and sighed. "Three years ago there was a plot against Nero, led by Gaius Calpurnius Piso. When it was uncovered, there were nineteen executions and suicides. Piso was one of them. Since then, if Nero suspects you, or if you happen to have an enemy among his advisors, he simply executes you, without anything even resembling a trial. A great hero of the Armenian wars by the name of Corbulo died in that manner last year.
"One of Nero's advisors is an enemy of mine. Tigellinus. I can only assume that he planted a seed of doubt with Nero as to where my true loyalties lay. What happened was a test of my allegiance." He wiped a shaky hand across his brow, beaded with sweat. "And I decided that my allegiance to Nero wasn't worth the death of innocent people. I would have rather fallen on my own sword, even brought dishonor upon myself than follow the path he wanted to lead me down." He smiled ruefully. "You were right after all. I finally had to ask myself whether the price of my loyalty was too high."
She frowned. "I wish I wasn't. Things might have turned out differently. For all of us."
He studied her closely. "What are you going to do now?"
"First things first. I want to make sure that things are quiet here. I've had scouts out all day looking for signs of any legions moving down into the valley. So far there's been no movement. That worries me."
"If there's a fight, you can count on me and my legion. They'll still follow their general."
Her hand reached up to brush the hair from his eyes and Marcus smiled sleepily at her touch. "You need to rest. We'll worry about that when the time comes."
He fell into a deep sleep even before Gabrielle had finished dressing his wounds. When she was done, she padded out of the room and went down to the prison.
Soria had done a remarkable job of transforming it into a hospice in so short a time.
Gabrielle found her bent over a man laying upon a stretcher, stitching the wound on his arm. She moved towards the girl tentatively. Out of the corner of her eye, Soria saw her approaching but refused to acknowledge her.
Gabrielle's mind worked feverishly to come up with something to say, something that would make up for all she had put her young charge through. At a loss, she simply said: "How are you doing?"
Soria leaned down and bit through the thread she had been using to stitch the soldier's arm. There was no acknowledgment, not even an indication that she had heard her.
Gabrielle pressed her lips together, searching again for something to say. She inspected Soria's work on the man's arm. "You have a gift for healing. Where did you learn?"
The younger woman wiped her bloodied hands on the scrap of cloth that served as her apron and turned away to the next stretcher. "My mother was a midwife. When I was old enough she began to teach me all about childbirth and healing."
The warrior resembled a child anxiously seeking forgiveness from a scolding parent as she followed Soria to the next stretcher. But the girl would not oblige.
Gabrielle had never considered herself particularly prideful before. That was a characteristic of Xena's that had caused her no amount of exasperation. And so she was a little surprised to blunder her attempt at an apology. "Soria?listen. I was-well?what I mean to say is I'm?sorry."
Soria looked up at her with a chilly smile. "Sorry? Well, Gabrielle, then that makes it all better, now doesn't it?"
Her gaze fell upon the girl's swollen and purple cheek where she had backhanded her earlier. She looked away guiltily. "No. But I don't know what else to say. I did what I thought I had to do."
"No you didn't," Soria muttered resentfully. "You did what you did out of anger and revenge. Don't try to pretend any different with me."
Not in any position to argue, Gabrielle bent her head, chastened. "I'm grateful to you, Soria. You saved me from making a horrible mistake." Funny how a simple act of decency like bringing someone water could be the key to restoring sanity and compassion.
"How is Marcus?"
Gabrielle sighed tiredly. "He's weak but he'll mend." She suddenly felt lightheaded and gripped the edge of the stretcher to keep from swooning.
Soria reached out and gripped her arm to steady her. "When was the last time you slept?"
"Well, go lie down before you collapse."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'll be fine."
"Listen, even you need to take care of yourself. Especially now. You need to sleep. I'll have someone wake you if anything happens."
Too weak to argue, she nodded wearily with an upraised hand. "All right. You win." She turned to leave then stopped, turning back. "Soria? I'm really?I wish you knew how sorry I am. I hope someday you'll be able to forgive me."
"We'll see, Gabrielle. I just don't know right now."
Gabrielle collapsed on the pallet she had set up on the floor beside Marcus, falling into a deep sleep. Her dreams were vivid, more vivid than any she had had since Xena's death.
She walked across a rich, green field, reveling in the comfort and warmth of the golden sun shining down upon her. A gentle breeze stirred and she inhaled deeply as the fresh perfume of dewy grass filled her nostrils.
Crouching down, Gabrielle scooped up a handful of earth. She recalled the hard, dry, cracked fields of Egypt during a drought. The land was barren and nothing would grow despite the farmer's supplications to the gods. But this ground was different. It was dark and cool and slightly damp to the touch. Rich and fertile land.
In the distance she saw an ewe grazing, her lamb close at her side and Gabrielle smiled.
Wishing to stay in that field forever, she sank down and stretched herself flat in the cool grass, relishing the warmth of the sun, the rich scent of the freshly rained upon ground and the gentle baas of the sheep.
Her eyes flew open in response to hearing her name. It was almost as if she was hearing it again for the first time in ages. She scrambled to her feet, gaping at the sight before her. It was Xena. As young and beautiful as when Gabrielle first met her.
"I'm here, Gabrielle."
She threw herself at Xena's feet. "Why? Why did you have to go? You said you'd never leave me."
"I never did, Gabrielle. You stopped listening to your heart."
A loud rapping at the door brought her bounding up with a violent start. The feeling of serenity drained from her before she was even fully awake. She glanced around despondently and the rapping persisted, louder this time.
Pelas, one of her lieutenants, burst through the door. He saluted her. "You need to come now. There's a Roman platoon outside the prison walls."
Gabrielle rode out to meet the Romans dressed for battle. A hundred of her best men accompanied her. The rains had ceased but the cold damp air and grey skies remained. When the Roman leader saw her approach, he galloped forward alone to meet her. She gestured with her hand for her men to hang back while she rode out to him.
His horse slipped in the mud and he was almost thrown from the saddle. He was able to regain control and reined his horse in to face her.
The two would be opponents took stock of one another for a long moment. Then the Roman saluted her. "I am Marius Quintus of the Praetorian Guard."
She nodded warily. "State your business with me, Quintus."
He looked past her shoulder, and nodded to the force behind her. "Is that really necessary?"
"You tell me."
He drew an exasperated breath. "I'm here to offer you an alliance."
"An alliance? Against whom?"
"The Emperor Nero. News of your uprising has spread throughout the countryside. The Praetorians no longer recognize his authority."
A dry, cynical laugh escaped from her throat. "You certainly did Nero's bidding when you arrested a decent and honorable man like Marcus Placidus. I'm supposed to trust you?"
Quintus gave a slight nod. "We will remove him from power. Many others are encouraged to do the same." He reached under his cloak and produced a parchment for her inspection. "This was signed just this morning by the generals Metellus and Calpurnius. They have withdrawn their oath of allegiance to Caesar and are marching their legions on Rome. With the army of Mars allied with us we're sure to be victorious."
A part of Gabrielle was tempted to bring Nero down in as wicked a manner as Nero himself had done to so many others. It only seemed fitting. Only by chance, she happened to look over her shoulder. And there she caught sight of Soria who had slipped out of the prison gates amidst the soldiers. She watched Gabrielle with a sorrowful, reproachful eye.
And then that voice she heard the day before came back to visit her yet again with an admonition from the past. Somebody has to say no to this lust for revenge. It was the voice of a younger, more na´ve Gabrielle. It was a Gabrielle that she often looked back on with regret and even anger, believing that Gabrielle could no longer be of any use to her. That girl would surely be dead by now. But, she mused silently, was death any less attractive than what she had become? The Warrior Queen who led an army in the name of Ares? The young, earnest and pure Gabrielle would have surely decided that if that was the cost of survival then the price was too high.
Somewhere she had lost her way and never quite found it again. Though Xena never said so, she had mourned the loss of that Gabrielle. That idealistic girl had been slowly chipped away at until Gabrielle deemed her useless in the face of violence and cruelty. But that girl had been anything but useless to Xena. She was the one, her friend constantly said with a kind of awe, that kept her demons at bay.
Xena had cherished her purity and innocence and light and had never wanted her to walk a warrior's path. But it was a path Gabrielle had embraced after Xena's death. She considered it an homage to her friend to carry on in the name of the Warrior Princess. Anyone can fight with a sword, Gabrielle. But not everyone can heal a tortured soul. That's your gift. Perhaps it was time to try to regain what she had lost so long ago. Perhaps that was the best tribute she could ever give to her friend.
Quintus was growing impatient with her silent reflection and brought the head of his horse up sharply. "So are we agreed? Will you join with us?"
Gabrielle let out a smile that bore no traces of bitterness or cynicism. "Not interested. I've done what I set out to do. I liberated this prison and saved the lives of the Elijans. I've done enough."
With that, she turned and rode away.
Because of her connection to Xena, the inhabitants of Amphipolis welcomed Gabrielle and the Elijians wholeheartedly. Now relatively safe, Joseph spoke of settling there and Soria enthusiastically agreed.
Gabrielle had brought Marcus there to heal. Cyrene's tavern stood unoccupied but she felt it a kind of betrayal to Xena to bring him to the home where her friend grew up. Instead, she brought him to a cozy, slightly rundown house that rested on the edge of a lake that Xena and her brothers used to fish at as children.
She was not sure what Ares held in store for her now that she had abdicated as his Warrior Queen. She wondered what the protocol was for such an act. Was there a protocol even? Had anyone ever simply walked away from Ares before? Her army had followed her to Amphipolis and had camped up in the hills, as if awaiting her orders to attack. Gabrielle hoped they would simply grow bored with the inactivity and go away. But for three nights, she watched with uneasiness as the campfires glowed in the hills and she knew they were still there.
She quickly forgot Ares when Marcus contracted a bad infection from his wounds. For two days and nights he lie in the bed, ranting feverishly. By the time his fever broke early on the third morning, Gabrielle was exhausted and collapsed beside him, too tired to even dream.
As the days passed, Marcus grew stronger. Gabrielle nursed and doted on him and was pleased when he rose from the bed for good a week later. For his first meal at the table she caught some fish from the lake and fried them up. When they sat down to eat, Gabrielle almost gagged from the smell. She sniffed at her plate diffidently.
Marcus had his appetite back and was shoveling the food into his mouth as fast as he could. But he paused when he saw the green look on her face. "Is something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No. Suddenly I'm not very hungry for fish." She filled her stomach with the grainy bread set on the table and the strong beer she had brewed from barley bought in the village. She and Marcus had both developed a taste for the sharp tasting drink in Egypt.
After the meal, Marcus leaned back in his chair and smiled as he watched Gabrielle tear off pieces of bread from the loaf and pop them into her mouth. He stared so long she began to feel self-conscious.
"What's the matter?"
He laughed and shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing. I just noticed something." He reached across the table to stroke the knuckles on her right hand with his thumb. "You look radiant."
She flushed and looked away. "I'm pleased you're mending."
"Thanks to you. In fact, I'm feeling so good that I'll be able to take command of my legion again in a few days time."
Her face fell and she pressed her lips together, making no response.
"You know I can't sit idly by while Nero is still in power. I have to join Metellus and Calpurnius in stopping him."
She nodded. "I know that."
Marcus looked at her steadily. "I love you, Gabrielle."
"I know that too."
It had been the first time Marcus had admitted that to her. He had wanted to tell her for months but didn't, assuming that she would give her final and absolute rejection of him. For months, Gabrielle had held him at arm's length. She was able to embrace him with her body, but she shied from embracing him with her mind and soul. There had been something in the look on her face a moment before that made him think that perhaps she might be ready to give herself completely to him. And yet she still held back, unable to return his sentiments. Perhaps he was being selfish, he thought to himself. Perhaps she had been hurt too badly to ever give herself to anyone again. Some wounds never heal. Marcus realized he would only ever be able to have a small piece of Gabrielle and yet he needed more. A part of her was not enough.
He sighed and squeezed her hand. "Promise me something before I go. Don't ever abandon your writing again. The world needs people like you, Gabrielle. People that can find beauty and meaning in everything and be able to put it into words. And one other thing. Find peace within yourself. I want that most of all for you."
It was his parting benediction to her. It was over and they both knew it. There was nothing left to say.
Gabrielle excused herself saying that she wanted to go for a walk. From the doorway she could faintly see the campfires in the hills as the men cooked their meals. No, that was something she could not think about right then. She turned and walked in the other direction for miles until she found herself at the place she had perhaps unconsciously intended to go all along.
As was her custom, Gabrielle first paid her tribute to Lyceus and Cyrene, then turned to confront the niche in the wall. She laid her palm against the embedded smooth stone and bent her head. Marcus had told her he loved her. And though Gabrielle desperately wished she could return the feeling, she could not. Odd, she realized. Xena's ashes rested behind that stone but something else lay buried there as well. Gabrielle's heart.
She caressed the stone reverently. "Since you've been gone I've lost my way. I told myself that I was doing what needed to be done, just like you would have. But I've made so many mistakes and caused pain to so many people. I can't blame Soria if she never forgives me for everything I've done. Or Marcus for the things I haven't done? Everything is so much harder for me without you." She bowed her head forlornly. "I hate being alone."
"You're not alone."
She spun to the sound of the familiar voice. And she was there, so real that Gabrielle believed she could reach out and touch her. This was not a dream. "Xena-. You're?"
"I'm dead," Xena replied in her typically matter of fact way.
"You've-you've come to get me so that I can join you?"
Xena smiled gently and shook her head. "No. Not for a long time. You've got your whole life ahead of you. It's time to start living it."
Gabrielle shook her head so hard that tears flew from her eyes. "I can't. Not without you!"
"Gabrielle, Battling Bard of Poteidaia, Empress of Denial and Bearer of all Guilt. What about that soldier?"
She raised her head to look at Xena, her mouth puckering up defensively. "What about him?"
"Gabrielle, I may be dead but I'm not blind. I can see how you feel about him."
"Leave him out of this!" she snapped, jerking her head away from her friend's touch. "He's just a friend."
"Mmm-hmm." Xena rolled her eyes. "Are you trying to convince me or yourself? I can see into your heart, Gabrielle. I know the truth. Does being happy make you feel that guilty?"
Gabrielle turned away.
"Because of me?"
"Yes, damn it! Because of you!"
Xena came around to face her, pressing a tender palm to the cheek of the smaller woman. "I never wanted that, Gabrielle. There was once so much light inside you that touched everyone you met. It touched me, changed me forever. You taught me the beauty of selfless love. And I can't think of a greater gift to give you than to give you back the love you gave to me every day. And that's what Marcus is. He loves you so much. I know. I've looked inside his heart."
"Wait! Are you saying that you sent Marcus to me?"
Xena shrugged. "Not exactly. Let's say I encouraged you to find one another. I knew he was the man for you if only you let yourself see it. Though sometimes I had to push you towards him even though you fought me like a mule."
"Well?get out of my head!" Gabrielle spat resentfully.
The silence hung there between them. Gabrielle sulked angrily while Xena stood in confused silence, grasping for the right thing to say or do. Just like so many conflicts they had had when Xena was alive. In a way, it was comforting in its familiarity.
"When will you tell Marcus about your child?"
"He knows about Hope."
Xena shook her head. "I mean your child. Yours and his."
"Are you trying to tell me I'm pregnant?" Gabrielle scoffed. "I don't think so."
"Oh, yes." Xena laid a hand on Gabrielle's stomach. "I can feel it. You can feel it too. I know all about your dream. You felt it then. You just wouldn't admit it." Xena's hand caressed her lightly and she smiled. "She'll have your compassion and her father's strength."
"Xena, I-I just don't-."
"Gabrielle, seeing you happy will make me happy."
Gabrielle looked away. The set of her jaw and the tilt of her head made her almost resemble a chastened child. It implied that she would consider the possibility. But only consider it. It was all the acquiescence that she would give.
"Will you do something else for me?"
Gabrielle wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. "What is it?"
"Set things right with Soria."
She shook her head. "I'm not sure that's possible."
"It is," Xena retorted gently. "She worships you. You above all people know how hard it is to see that someone you admire is human after all."
"The last thing I wanted to be was a role model to anyone."
Xena smiled sadly. "I think deep down you were using Soria. You were playing warrior and sidekick all over again. And every mistake I ever made with you, you wanted to repeat on Soria to punish yourself. For who you were. For who you became."
Gabrielle crossed her arms and frowned in admission of her guilt. "And I thought I was supposed to be the one with all the insight."
"Will you do that? For me? She'd be a good friend to you if only you'd let her."
"She's just a kid!"
Xena smiled silently, wisely.
"?And older than I was when I forced you to take me with you," Gabrielle said, hearing Xena's thoughts and speaking them aloud. She nodded with a sigh. "I'll try."
Xena smiled in that lopsided, smug way she had when she knew she had won. It had always irritated Gabrielle. "You should go now."
"Xena?will I ever-? You won't leave me?"
Xena grasped her hand and kissed it in benediction. "Gabrielle, I never did."
Gabrielle returned late. Marcus was already in bed, flat on his back and fast asleep. She undressed and lie down beside him, her hand drifting furtively over her stomach.
She knew, had known for weeks but chose to deny it when her cycle didn't come and didn't come. She laughed to herself. Gabrielle, Battling Bard of Poteidaia, so-called fearless warrior was afraid, petrified of motherhood. What kind of a mother would she make given the long list of tragic mistakes she had made the last time? Could this child be different? Xena certainly thought so.
Maybe it was time to put the demons to rest, to come to terms with all the pain and past mistakes. It was the only way to begin to have a future. She had to release the guilt she still held onto. Guilt for letting go of that idealistic, na´ve girl from Poteidaia, for her failures as a mother, for abandoning a way of peace and love in favor of following the sword. And worst of all, for being the only one to survive. She may have looked young but she felt so old. Aside from her sister, Gabrielle was the last of the friends and family of her youth. It was time to let all of that go. Otherwise there was nothing but emptiness and a life she would look back on with regret.
She propped on her elbow and gazed down at Marcus, snoring lightly in his sleep. How would he feel about a daughter? Xena had specifically referred to the child as "she". He might want a son. Maybe later, she thought. Neither one of them had been part of a family for so long that it would take some getting used to. But she had to try.
Reaching out, she ran her fingers lightly through the hair on his chest. She had never been with a man before that was truly a man. Perdicas had been a boy. She had been just a child herself and didn't know the difference. Her husband had been a simple lover. He had not had the chance to develop the skill and patience Marcus had with experience and maturity. While Perdicas had made love to her with his body, Marcus made love to her with every fiber of his being.
He seemed to know instinctively what parts of her body gave her the most pleasure. With Perdicas it had been trial and error, not that they had had much time to explore one another. And even if they did had, they had been still too young, too shy, too inexperienced to even try. Marcus had encouraged her to explore his body. She did so, tentatively at first. But with his guidance she learned him and grew a bit bolder, arousing him all the more. It excited Gabrielle to learn the kind of power a woman could have over a man.
She leaned over and kissed his chest, loving the way his hair tickled her lips.
Marcus stirred and stretched, as if believing that he was in the grips of a particularly good dream. But when he opened his eyes and realized that it was her, he looked up, studying her carefully. "What was that for?"
She shrugged. "Just because."
She could tell by the tone of his voice that he was still hurting and angry over the cool way she had treated him earlier. Something in the room dictated that this was the moment to take that final step towards him. If she didn't do it now, he was lost forever.
Gabrielle sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. "Because-what you said before-to me-I wanted you to know that I have similar-." She gestured awkwardly. "You know-feelings of?" Damn. She was making a mess of it. Such a simple thing to say. A phrase that used to slip out of her mouth so easily, without even a moment's hesitation. And now the words stuck awkwardly in her throat. She raked a hand through her hair and inhaled deeply. Now or never. She looked down at him, intently into his eyes and the words just seemed to tear free. "Because I love you too."
It took a moment for Marcus to absorb, a long moment in which Gabrielle held her breath in anticipation of his reaction. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. It was touched with wariness, but it was a smile nonetheless.
"Well this is a new Gabrielle."
She laughed in relief. "All of a sudden, I feel like a new Gabrielle." She lay down, stretching out against the length of him. "What would-what would you think about coming back here? I mean after things are settled in Rome. How would you feel about living here? As a family?"
He smiled teasingly but he also asked just to be sure. "You mean with you?"
His head came up in surprise. "Then what?"
She smiled softly and Marcus could see her eyes brimming with joy. "With me?and our child."
Three days later Marcus was well enough to begin his journey towards the coast to rendezvous with the Generals Metellus and Calpurnius.
Gabrielle spent those days trying to shower upon him all the affection she possibly could, to make up for what she had denied him for so long and to make it last until they could be together again. It wasn't easy at first. Emotional detachment had become a habit of self preservation for her and it wasn't easy to break. With wisdom and years of experience behind her, Gabrielle at last understood just how drained Xena must have felt during their early days together. Love was like a muscle, she realized. It atrophied if it wasn't utilized once in a while. The more you used it, the stronger it became.
As Marcus was about to mount his horse, Gabrielle grabbed him, kissing him unabashedly and without reservation, squirming her tongue into his mouth. He felt it brush against his own for a wickedly delirious moment and was surprised, albeit pleasantly so. She had never been particularly aggressive before, always taking a more passive role as he initiated everything. When Gabrielle finally pulled back, Marcus grinned down at her.
"That's certainly worth coming back for." He swung up into the saddle and she reached up, laying a hand on his knee, stroking it imploringly.
"Be careful, Marcus. Promise me."
He rumpled her hair playfully, affectionately. "I promise. Don't worry. With the Rhine and North African legions as the latest to declare themselves against Nero, it won't be long. I'll be back in time to see the little one born."
"Our daughter," she corrected. "It will be a girl. Xena told me so."
"Some day you're going to have to tell me all about these many skills that Xena had."
"I'm going to write all about them in my scrolls while you're gone."
His mouth dropped in delighted surprise. "You're going to start writing again?"
She smiled and shrugged. "Maybe it's time to put the Battling Bard of Poteidaia to rest and just be the plain old Bard of Poteidaia -- for awhile at least."
He smiled teasingly. "Until the next defenseless victim needs a champion." Marcus touched her cheek fondly and nudged the flanks of the horse with his heels, setting off at a slow, relaxed trot. He had almost made it to the bend in the road when Gabrielle ran, calling after him.
"Marcus! Marcus, wait!"
He turned the horse back. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. I just wanted to tell you again before you go?I love you."
He grinned and winked at her. "I know."
Gabrielle watched Marcus ride off until the bend in the road hid him from sight. She turned back towards the house and gasped when she saw that she was not alone.
"That was so touching, Gabrielle. If I wasn't a god, I'd be sick right now."
"Ares." She slit her eyes suspiciously. "How long have you been watching me?"
"Long enough to know that you intend to trade in your chakram and sais for a cradle and diapers."
She adopted her best Xena-snarl. "Yeah? What are you going to do about it?"
Ares chuckled and patted her on the head. "Please, Gabrielle. You can only act so tough with me. But still, I have to admit it. You impressed even me."
She clucked her tongue. "Thanks. I'll sleep better at night knowing I've earned your approval."
"You could have been great, you know. You could have taken Rome."
"Oh, you would have liked that, wouldn't you? Just think of all those new followers you would gain as the patron god of Rome. I'm onto your game, Ares." She turned to walk away but he caught her arm.
"Hey! You came to me, remember? You make it sound as if I plotted this whole thing."
She shrugged. "I wouldn't put it past you."
Ares laughed and bowed. "Gabrielle, I never realized you gave me so much credit for cunning intelligence. I'm honored. But much as I hate to admit it, I'm totally innocent."
She jerked her thumb over her shoulder towards the hills. "Well if that's the case then why don't you take them with you?"
Ares rolled his tongue in his cheek and glanced up at the hills, inviting her to do the same. Gabrielle turned and searched with her eyes, scanning every crevice and clearing for a sign of the army. Nothing. She turned back to him, her mouth gaping open.
"They've been gone two days now. You've been so wrapped up in this sentimental, touchy feely nonsense that you never even noticed. Pathetic." He threw out his arms wide in exaggerated bafflement. "What kind of a warrior doesn't notice when an army disappears from their front door? People like you give warriors a bad name."
She blushed, genuinely embarrassed at such a gross oversight. "I-I was busy-."
"Right. The guy. You know, you really surprised me there. I never thought you had it in you."
"What's that supposed to-?"
"It means you're not the one. I don't know what I was thinking. Call me an old softy, but I guess I did it for old times sake." And in response to her eyebrow raised in skepticism, he said: "Oh, not our old times, mind you."
Something occurred to Gabrielle and she held up a hand, attempting to sort out her thoughts. "Ares, wait a minute! Right after I took the prison, legions started deserting Nero. And now in places as far off as North Africa and the Rhine. It all happened so quickly. Too quickly."
"Well, I guess Nero doesn't inspire a lot of loyalty in his men."
"?And when that Praetorian came to me, he spoke of an alliance with the army of Mars -- your army. How did he know about that?"
Ares shrugged. "Who knows? I guess those Romans aren't as stupid as you think."
"It was you! You were the one to encourage them all to desert Nero."
Ares shook his head in astonishment but it didn't ring quite true to her. "Me? Gabrielle, why would I do that?"
"Because any legion still loyal to Nero would have gone to war against me. This way, Nero is brought down but by his own legions. I don't have to fight." She took a step back and her eyes widened in shock. "You were looking out for me."
"And what would I gain by that? You were supposed to take Rome in my name, with my army. We could have ruled the Empire together. That is until you turned back into this peace loving?irritating little blonde. I should have learned my lesson. You'll always be a goody two shoes. What Xena saw in you is beyond me."
Gabrielle smiled. "You did do it, didn't you?"
"You know, you're even crazier than I thought you were."
"Insult me all you want. But I know the truth." She reached out to touch his arm. "Thank you, Ares."
"Don't thank me." He sniffed indignantly. "You'll have people believing I've gone soft and it'll ruin my image."
Gabrielle gazed up at him. Sometimes he could really surprise her. "It's funny, but in some strange sort of way, I can almost consider you a friend. I'm willing to bet you feel the same way about me. That's why you let me go so easily."
"You are such a silly, naive girl," Ares said, his tone dripping with condescension. "One of you is bad enough. I couldn't stand the thought of a smaller version of you hanging around me and my army all the time as well. Spouting all that love and peace nonsense you'll no doubt infect your kid with. I'd never be able to get a decent war off the ground."
"Well?thanks just the same. I won't ever forget this, Ares."
"I don't suppose your gratitude would extend to looking the other way the next time a good war breaks out? No, of course not. I wouldn't expect any less of you." He gripped her shoulder, looking down at her with an intense gaze. Gabrielle was half expecting some kind of fond parting gesture. Instead, Ares arched one eyebrow and pointed down at her chest. "What's that?"
Without thought, she tipped her head downward.
Ares brought his index finger up and thumped her on the nose. He snorted and shook his head. "You fall for that every time."
And without another word, the God of War vanished in a flash of blue light.
She shook her head as her smile betrayed mild amusement. You never learn, do you, Gabrielle?
Perhaps, she thought, underneath all the conceit and bloodlust lurked some compassion and empathy after all. Perhaps being mortal had affected Ares. He had told her all those years ago that even gods can change. Had he? Was she seeing the emergence of a more benevolent and sensitive God of War? Gabrielle paused a moment to consider such a notion and then shook her head, as if shaking off any sentimental feelings for Ares.
She rode into the village the next morning. Though she had promised Xena, Gabrielle had avoided speaking with Soria. She knew that that would be hardest of all to do. How could she begin to make amends for all that she had put the girl through?
The Elijians were still living as nomads in tents. But though their shelters were temporary, they were already working towards making this their permanent home. They spoke of planting fields and building homes. Joseph was already making preparations to erect a Temple of Eli.
Gabrielle found Soria issuing orders to a group of workers digging a drainage ditch. Bossy as well as stubborn, she thought to herself with a touch of bemusement. She always knew the girl had it in her to be a leader.
Soria saw Gabrielle dismount from Argo. With a stern admonition to the workers to "keep digging," she went over to Gabrielle. "This is a surprise. Joseph was concerned because he hadn't seen you in some time. He was going to ride out to your place this afternoon."
Hardly an effusive greeting, Gabrielle noted, but it was a start. "I was busy tending to Marcus. His wounds have healed. He left for Rome yesterday morning."
Soria nodded and glanced over her shoulder to make sure the workers were still digging. "I know. I heard the rumors." She was still as curt as she had been after the prison raid. Clearly the girl wasn't going to make this easy. Well, that was to be expected. Gabrielle couldn't blame Soria if she never spoke to her again.
"Soria, I came here to apologize. For everything. My anger and my ego nearly destroyed everything I ever believed about humanity and compassion. It was you that reminded me of those things again. I'll always be indebted. If it wasn't for you I might have?" She trailed off. Some things were better left unspoken.
Unconsciously, Soria's hand drifted to her cheek. It still bore a faint, purplish bruise from where Gabrielle had struck her.
Gabrielle reddened and looked away. "I made a lot of mistakes and I want to make up for all of it. I don't even know where to begin. I just hope that you'll let me try."
Soria grimaced and gazed at Gabrielle. Her look was neither friendly nor unfriendly as she considered the apology. After a thoughtful silence, her head dropped and she looked down at her feet. "I'm sorry too. I suppose if you put someone up on a high enough pedestal they're bound to fall off. There was a time I thought you were perfect and when I discovered you were human just like the rest of us I hated you."
Gabrielle smiled gratefully. "Maybe we can start again. This time on a more equal footing."
"I'd like that, Gabrielle." She frowned guiltily. "I didn't want to, but I've been worrying about you since I heard Marcus left. Are you all right? Out on the lake all by yourself?"
"Fine." And then she shook her head and smiled. "But I'm not alone."
"Oh." Soria nodded. "You mean the baby. So you've finally admitted it to yourself?"
Soria rolled her eyes. "Of course I knew. My mother was a midwife, Gabrielle -- and lucky for you. You'll need me when the time comes."
"A lot of people need you, Soria. I've been doing a lot of thinking about you since the prison. When we met, you were looking for your path. Perhaps it's found you. Have you ever considered opening a hospice?"
Soria laughed. "Me?"
"Don't laugh. I saw what you did in the prison. Xena was like that too. You have a gift for healing. It shouldn't go to waste."
Soria considered it a moment. Then: "Even if I wanted to, how could I? The little tent Joseph and I share doesn't exactly have any spare room for a hospice."
"There's Cyrene's tavern."
"You mean that old abandoned-? Gabrielle, that's a lot of work for one person. How am I supposed to do all that alone?"
"We could do it together. You and me."
Soria let that sink in. Slowly, a tiny smile worked it's way across her face. "Us? You mean partners?"
Gabrielle shook her head and slipped her arm around Soria's shoulders. "No. I mean friends."
The summer came. Gabrielle was growing heavier and heavier with her pregnancy. Soria insisted upon staying with her friend and caring for her as Gabrielle's time drew near.
The situation was hardly ideal at times. The two girls still had the ability to irritate one another. There were nights Soria would storm out of the house in exasperation. Gabrielle sometimes wished she could do the same but she was too big and slow now. Soria always beat her to the door.
But the hard feelings never lasted for long. There was a quality to their relationship that both had been too stubborn, too focused on themselves to ever recognize before. Both girls brought something to the friendship that helped complete the other. Gabrielle contributed her maturity and wisdom, setting an example to Soria as the kind of woman she would one day grow into. And Soria helped to remind Gabrielle that not all youthful passion and idealism was necessarily a bad thing. Through Soria, she remembered who she had been and who she hoped to be again. They liked and respected one another. But most importantly, they had grown to appreciate one another. Not for what they wanted the other to be. But for who they were.
During the early days of summer, a messenger appeared at the lake early one morning, just as the sun was beginning to show itself over the hilltops. Fearing the news he might be bringing, Gabrielle would not go out to meet him. It was Soria who went out and took the message from his hands.
Asking the rider to wait, Soria quickly ran into the house, casting a cautious glance at Gabrielle. Her friend was sitting beside the cool fireplace, slowly rocking back and forth while one protective hand covered her large belly and her green eyes grew larger and larger in terror. Soria ran back outside, offering the messenger a loaf of bread, olives, honey, freshly made goat cheese and wine. It was almost all the food they had but Soria was superstitious. She felt that if she did not treat the messenger well, it would be unlucky and the message he carried would surely bring bad news.
Clutching the parchment in her hands, Soria marched back into the house purposefully. She dreaded the news it might contain, but she hid that from Gabrielle.
She held out her hand, offering the parchment. "You need to know what it says."
Gabrielle shook her head and drew back.
Soria knelt down and laid a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. "Should I read it for you?" Gabrielle nodded mutely and Soria carefully unfolded the message. After weeks of traveling across Europe, it was dry and cracked at the edges. "It's in Greek," she said after a quick glance. "I think I understand." She read the message haltingly, trying to translate the words as she read. "On the 9th day of June?" her brows knitted together in confusion and she held the parchment out to Gabrielle. "What's that word?"
As if it was a viper, Gabrielle stretched her neck to see. "Flogging."
"Oh." Soria cleared her throat and started again. "On the 9th day of June, having been condemned by the senate to death by flogging, the Emperor Nero took his own life?wait." She scanned the message. "This is from Marcus! Gabrielle-." With a relieved smile, she held the parchment out and Gabrielle snatched it.
Soria rose from her knees and turned away, giving her friend some privacy. After a moment, she heard Gabrielle laugh and knew it was safe to turn back.
"He's fine! He says he'll return to Greece before the end of the month." From the look on Gabrielle's face that wasn't all that Marcus had to say.
Soria felt such joy that this good news could have almost been hers. When she had first met Gabrielle, she had seen how the sadness and loneliness clung to the warrior like a funeral shroud. She spoke once of a husband, now long dead. And Soria had long suspected that Gabrielle had had a child before. But assuming the child's fate was a tragic one and that her friend wasn't able to speak about it, she never asked any questions. Nor had Soria said very much when Gabrielle told her in as brief a manner as possible about the death of her parents. She had listened in sympathetic silence. And then there was the death of her beloved friend Xena, a wound that was still raw and gaping when they had met. Gabrielle had considered herself alone in the world, without friends or family. And yet now, it was as if she had been given a second lease on life.
Soria had always known that Gabrielle wished for nothing but peace, an end to the vicious cycle of violence and hatred that she never seemed able to break free of. Perhaps the key was in a different kind of peace. Maybe peace had eluded her for so long because she had never been able to find it within herself. Now, with friends and family, Soria hoped Gabrielle would find it at last. She had Marcus, she had their child. And despite the often rough and bumpy road they had traveled together, she had Soria.
Marcus did not make it home in time for the birth of his child. Gabrielle felt the first pains of labor on a warm evening, her painful grunts waking Soria from a sound sleep.
"Everything's fine! Everything's fine!" Soria gasped nervously as she checked the progress the baby had made.
"I know!" Gabrielle said after letting out a deep breath. "?I suppose you should know. I've done this before."
Soria looked up at her in shock. She had long suspected it, of course. But she never dreamed that Gabrielle would admit it to her. Trying to mask her surprise, she smiled confidently. "Then this should be simple."
And it was. In all the years she had spent helping her mother bring children into the world, she could not remember a labor that had been so quick or simple. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Gabrielle, Soria noted regretfully, was a screamer. Worse than that, Soria almost expected her to become violent as the pains came closer and closer. Shouldn't a warrior be able to take pain in stoic silence? Apparently that was a lesson Gabrielle had missed. Bad combination, Soria decided when she realized that Gabrielle also had lethal combat skills. She wished that Marcus had left behind his armor.
But as the pains came closer and more intense, Gabrielle went suddenly still. Alarmed, Soria looked up the length of her to see if she had passed out. But Gabrielle was still very much conscious and the picture of tranquility. Oddly, her head was turned to the left and her eyes drifted upward as if gazing at someone who stood at her shoulder. Her left hand was upraised and clenched, as if someone held it. Well, even if it was only a figment of Gabrielle's imagination, Soria was grateful for the diversion as the baby began to crown.
The baby came quickly after that. Soria had not even had the opportunity to slap the girl's backside before her red face scrunched up and she let out an impatient wail.
"A girl!" she burst happily, never realizing that Gabrielle had known all the time.
The new mother fell back on the bed with an exhausted but delighted sigh.
As Soria worked expertly cutting the cord and cleaning the girl up, she felt a presence in the room that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. Rather than feeling frightened, she accepted the presence as if she always expected it to be there. All at once she understood the significance of Gabrielle's face turned to look over her own shoulder and her clenched hand. Xena's spirit had come to comfort her friend.
And when Soria turned, she saw her. It was a fleeting, hazy glimpse but she knew it was Xena. She was the exact opposite of Gabrielle in almost every way, tall and strong, dark haired and blue eyed. Xena gazed at the girl with a soft, appreciative smile. Soria had not expected her to be so beautiful.
I didn't really do anything. It was a simple delivery.
I don't just mean the baby.
For being her friend.
Marcus returned home late the next morning, galloping up to the house, whooping loudly to announce his arrival.
Almost acting as a guard, Soria rushed out the door, shushing him as he leaped off the back of his spirited gray stallion with a grin. "You'll wake Gabrielle!" she warned Marcus.
He was more muscular and healthier than when she had last seen him. His arms and face had turned a deeper shade of brown from exposure to the sun.
"Wake her?" Marcus repeated, his brow furrowing in concern. "Why is Gabrielle in bed? Is something wrong?"
Soria knew that the wife and son he had lost in childbirth were very much in his thoughts. She held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Gabrielle is fine. She gave birth to your daughter just yesterday."
"A daughter? Yesterday!" Slowly, his face fell in regret. "And I wasn't here?You said Gabrielle is fine? And the girl?"
"Perfectly healthy," Soria said with a reassuring smile. "Gabrielle has named her Leah."
"Leah," Marcus repeated, the name unfamiliar to his own tongue.
Soria nodded. "In her language it means 'glad tidings'."
It was evening before Marcus could tear his eyes away from the sight of his newborn daughter. He was already talking about having an entire brood of children to fill their home. Gabrielle only laughed, telling him that the future would take care of itself.
Soria fixed them all a light meal of fish and bread dipped in honey. They ate in a companionable way, laughing and talking like old friends, making a fuss over the child, wondering and debating who she truly resembled.
"I think Leah looks like me," Marcus declared proudly. "Her eyes are blue like mine."
"All babies' eyes are blue," Soria told him. "They might turn. But she's got Gabrielle's fair hair."
"My mother had fair hair as well," he retorted.
Soria jogged Leah's foot lightly, with affection. "Well, she's little like Gabrielle."
Gabrielle laughed. "For once I'm not the smallest person in the room."
Marcus grinned impishly. "Oh, that won't last long." All three of them laughed.
Gabrielle felt lighter, cleaner than she had in a long time. When Xena had died, her soul was exhausted. In a way, she hadn't really cared about living or dying. She stumbled from day to day. Life happened all around her while she stood on the edges of it, merely an observer. A ghost. She had expected to disappear altogether one day and for no one to take any notice.
While Leah fed at her breast, Gabrielle finally understood that her daughter was just another part of the cycle of life. Birth and death, joy and sadness, love and hate. They were all part of that cycle. There could not be one without the other. And Gabrielle felt a part of the world again.
And yet it wasn't only Leah that had brought about the change. It was also Marcus and Soria. And Xena. Xena had been the one to persuade her to stop clinging to the dead and instead embrace life again. Because of them all, Gabrielle found she was able to look forward to her future and come to terms with the past.
Only Gabrielle could see the spectral figure standing at her side, stroking the pale, downy fluff atop Leah's head. The two old friends exchanged a smile.
Soria and Marcus made a joke and Gabrielle turned to laugh with them.
She had finally found peace.