JOURNEY TO CIRRA
by JayBird (Jay Markle)
It had been a good evening.
The tavern was a warm and homey place, crowded with locals. The venison had been tasty, the bread hearty and the wine sweet. Xena and Gabrielle had more or less taken up residence in a corner table, their chatter and laughter giving way to easy silences and gentle smiles.
Both had needed this. Gabrielle thought back over the chain of events that had started with their pilgrimage to Cirra, followed by Xena's "death" and eventual resurrection, the fight with Valasca, and then another resurrection of sorts...
Gabrielle shuddered. A second later she felt Xena's hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm good." Gabrielle smiled into her friend's blue eyes.
"We'd better get some shuteye. Morning comes early."
"One more toast." Gabrielle held up her mug of wine. Xena sighed and held up hers.
"Well, who are we drinking to now?"
"To us." Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena. "Two hearts intertwined. Forever."
Xena nodded, feeling her eyes well up, She knocked back her wine and got to her feet.
"Hokay... I think I've had all the fun..."
"Xena... Warrior Princess, I presume."
The voice was loud over the chatter of the tavern. Both looked up to see a woman in her forties or so, wearing a simple dress and woolen cape. Her face was kind yet her eyes were hard, reminding Gabrielle of polished stones.
"Yes?" Xena replied.
"I need your assistance." She took a chair and sat down at the table. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and shrugged. Xena sat down.
"I am Shandara of... a nearby village. I have knowledge of a valuable family treasure that would be of great comfort to my son and his family. I wish to pass it on to them before I die." Her eyes gleamed as she glanced from Xena to Gabrielle. "The treasure is buried one day's ride from here. It is quite heavy. For my own reasons I don't want my son to assist me in this venture. I need you two to escort me there, help me retrieve the goods and escort me to my son's village. There are brigands everywhere!" She paused, smiling at Xena. "Well, you're do-gooders, arencha? Do some good then!"
Gabrielle frowned, ready to tell this woman to take herself and her sad little story elsewhere, when Xena spoke.
"Where is this treasure?"
"North. Where the village of Cirra used to be before you and your army sacked it nine winters past. The treasure is buried within the ruins of my home. Where my husband and daughter were killed.
Silence hung over the table like a tangible thing. Finally, Xena nodded.
"We'll need a horse and wagon for the journey. I'll see to them. We'll meet you here at first light."
Shandara nodded curtly and got up, disappearing back into the crowd.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said in a worried tone.
"I know," Xena sighed, then allowed Gabrielle a smile. "Com'n. Morning still comes early."
The ride to Cirra was uneventful enough. The rented wagon and horse clip-clopping along with Gabrielle and Shandara aboard, while Xena scouted ahead on Argo. The sun was hot and straight overhead. They'd probably reach Cirra by sundown.
The silence had been total since their start that morning, finally Gabrielle could take it no more.
"Why did you choose us?"
"Hmph. Don't flatter yourselves. It's not like I had a choice." She glanced at Gabrielle. "I will tell you this, though. For nine years I carried my hatred for Xena like a bright flame in my heart. When I heard she had renounced her evil ways, I didn't believe it. Then I started hearing the stories. How she had helped Hercules free Prometheus. How she stopped a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs. Again and again I would hear of the good she has done." She shrugged. "Maybe I just wanted to see for myself."
Xena rode with them as they approached Cirra late that afternoon. Gabrielle could tell this part of the journey was hard on Shandara -she had told her that she hadn't been here since the town was destroyed- yet Gabrielle had some bad memories of her own to cope with, especially when they passed a massive oak tree by the side of the road, where a deadfall log still rested. It was here she had comforted a dying Xena not two months ago.
Cirra held no surprises. Just a collection of rotting wood and ivy covered stone. They stopped by the ruins of a large house, Gabrielle realized that Shandara's family had been quite prosperous at one time.
In the growing darkness they tromped through the underbrush to the rear of the foundation, where a stone wall had collapsed.
"I didn't know it was this bad," Shandara said in a tight voice. "We'll never get to it. It's buried deep. Here at the cornerstone."
"Don't worry," Xena said. "Tomorrow we'll start digging a hole parallel to the treasure, then go under the foundation and get it that way."
"Thank you, Xena. "I... I mean that."
They made camp in the town square, by the ruins of a rather ornate marble fountain. Gabrielle made the fire and cooked a hearty stew that everyone ate with gusto. Then Shandara took her bedroll and was soon snoring away, exhausted by the long day. Not a dozen words had been spoken.
Gabrielle sat down beside Xena, who was sharpening her sword with a whetstone. Her chakram glittered evilly, laid out on the masonry beside her.
"Are you okay?"
"Is there anything.."
"Look," Xena sighed. "I appreciate the concern, and I admit there are other places I'd rather be. But I am fine. Now go to sleep.'
"Okay-okay." Gabrielle got up and rolled out her bedding. Xena stared at the fire.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered.
"The reason I'm fine... the reason I can get through this... is because you're here with me."
Gabrielle grinned and pulled up her bedroll, moving it next to Xena. She hunkered down beside her.
"Looks like it's gonna get cold tonight," Gabrielle offered.
Xena smiled and gently kissed her friend.
"What was that for?"
"Okay, girlie! Move yer butt!! This is a public square, not a damn hotel!"
The loud words woke Gabrielle up, as did the not-so-gentle boot to the mid-riff that caused her to sit up suddenly and take in the scene around her with uncomprehending, open-mouthed surprise.
Cirra was reborn.
A bustling village of people moved about her, lost in their morning rituals. Hundreds of people -cityfolk, farmers, even soldiers- filled the square as merchants plied their trade. Every building and home was intact, the sky was crisp and clear above her head... all seemed right with this world.
Hoooolleeeeee... Hera!" Gabrielle muttered as she stumbled to her feet. The man who had shouted at her was still mouthing off, but she barely heard him as she grabbed up her Amazon War staff. The only thing left from her world.
"Xena..." she whispered.
"Huh?" The man stopped talking and looked at her funny.
"Hah! Wouldn't I like to know! Don't worry, missy! We'll nail that murderous bitch to the wall this day! Why if I was a younger man..." as he continued to talk Gabrielle turned in a slow circle, finally comprehending that this was indeed Cirra. The fountain, now intact and spritzing water as children splashed around. The buildings and homes that had been ruins and rubble last night. This was no dream or trick of the Gods. This was real.
"Excuse me, been nice talking to you," Gabrielle said, leaving the man in mid-sentence. She started walking, not really knowing to where. She knew nobody here... well, nobody except a little girl who would grow up and become Callisto. And of course...
"Shandara!" Gabrielle hissed. She remembered the street her house had been on and started running.
Shandara's house had indeed been a palace. A two story affair of wood and stone, opulently decorated with no lock on the front door.
Gabrielle ran through the empty house, ending up back at the entranceway, out of breath and close to tears.
She turned. Shandara looked the same as last night, except for the big smile on her face.
"Alright, what's going on here?" Gabrielle said, approaching her, realizing she was more angry than scared. "What have you done to me? Who are you?"
"Questions, questions!" Shandara tittered. "I'll be happy to answer them for you, dear."
She beckoned her to an open window.
"This is Cirra. The Cirra I once knew. We are nine years in the past, on the very day that Xena and her army will ravage and sack this town."
"Why bring me here?"
"Because, Gabrielle, you are my champion. My Chosen One. I petitioned the Gods to make right this injustice. They gave me one chance. One... opportunity." She turned to her. "I want you to go to Xena. Talk to her. Do what you have to do to change her mind. Get her to spare Cirra!"
"I... I can't," Gabrielle said. "I don't know this Xena. Gods, she was a different person back then... I mean now.'
"Your Xena is there, Gabrielle. You must find her. Reach out to her. My future... the future that was denied me, depends on it." She sighed. "As does yours."
"What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle asked.
Shandara pointed outside.
"See the little girl playing in the fountain square? Her name is Callisto. What happens on this day will start a chain of events that will end in the death of your beloved husband Perdicus at her hands." She smiled at Gabrielle's shocked reaction. "Oh, yes. I know all. The Gods are quite thorough."
"I see," Gabrielle said tonelessly. "If I stop Xena..."
"Callisto grows up and becomes another pleasant peasant," Shandara said. "If you can alter the past, your future changes as well. Imagine returning to your husband... with no memories that Callisto ever existed." She looked Gabrielle in the face. "But time is of the essence. Xena will attack Cirra just before sunset. As the last rays of sunlight leave the western sky, you will be returned to your own time and place.... for better or for worse."
Gabrielle nodded, unable to take her eyes off the small blonde girl splashing around in the fountain square.
"One last thing," Shandara said. "I have no desire to force this on you. Just tell me, and I will return you this instant to your time, and everything will be as it was."
"No," Gabrielle said. "I'll do this. I want to do this."
"I have chosen well," Shandara said, closing her eyes. "May the Gods be with you, Gabrielle."
And with that she simply faded away. Just as the front door opened and another vision of Shandara appeared. This time she was young, well dressed and had a runny nosed little girl in tow.
"Excuse me," she frowned. "Do I know you?"
"Hiya! I'm the new serving girl," Gabrielle replied. "For the big party tonight!"
"I didn't send for a serving girl," Shandara said. "And who's having a party on the day of an invasion!"
"Oops! Wrong house! Bye!" Gabrielle hurried past her and back onto the busy streets. She knew what she had to do, and had a pretty good idea on how she was going to do it. The wheels were already turning as she hurried to the city square.
The City Hall of Cirra was an impressive, two story structure with a definite Roman influence. In the square below, soldiers and members of the Home Guard drilled. Gabrielle eased through their ranks and made it up the marble steps before being stopped by a guard.
"Halt! State your business!"
"I have to see the magistrate. Or whoever's in charge here."
"That would be the Mayor-General."
"Fine, I'll see him."
"The Mayor-General is busy. There's..."
"Yeah, I know. The big invasion is coming. Look, I really gotta talk to him, okay?"
"There is little you could say that would get me to grant you an audience..."
"I'm a friend of Xena's."
Five minutes later she was in a rather large anteroom, standing before the Mayor-General of Cirra and his four counselors. All were older, well-dressed men, except for the Mayor-General himself, who was only in his mid-thirties and wore a rather ornate military uniform, complete with breastplate and sash. He was handsome enough, in a cold and distant way.
"And you are..."
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia, your Honor."
"And you claim to know Xena?"
"I do know her. I'm a traveling bard by profession. Not long ago I happened upon her camp, and regaled her with my stories. She'll grant me an audience and I can tell her anything you wish to say. That is if you can tell me something she wants to hear."
"Well... that's the trick, isn't it?" one of the Counselors said.
"Can you tell me why she's attacking Cirra, your Honor?" Gabrielle asked.
"Simple. Two winters past we had an... altercation with her home-city of Amphipolis over western trade routes. Some lives were lost, but the matter was settled. Or so I thought. Seems some women have long memories."
"That's not entirely true, your Honor," another Counselor said gently. He turned to Gabrielle. "Xena had demanded that we sign a non-aggression treaty. The same treaty she has forced on dozens of other villages and city-states. We must agree to a yearly tribute to her war coffers, and cease calling for militia from other towns and provinces."
"Excuse me, what other militia?"
"We have troops en route from three other provinces," the Mayor-General replied. "They'll arrive before Xena."
"We hope," one of the other Counselors replied.
"But even if your reinforcements arrive in time, do you really want Cirra to become a battleground?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's right, your Honor," the last Counselor spoke up. "We don't even have an evacuation plan."
"Evacuation equals retreat," the Mayor-General snapped. "And I've never retreated in my life. Not as a soldier, and not as administrator of this city!"
"Then perhaps a compromise is in order," Gabrielle said. "Order back your reinforcements, and I'll try to get Xena to work with you on this non-aggression treaty of hers, okay?"
"I don't think so," the Mayor-General replied. "You'd better..."
"Begging your pardon, your Honor!" the first Counselor spoke up. He turned to Gabrielle. "Perhaps if you could give us a moment?"
The door slammed shut behind her as Gabrielle waited in the hall. The guard who had escorted her there smiled.
"How'd it go?"
"Tough room," Gabrielle sighed, leaning against the wall. The corridor was a beehive of activity as minor city officials jostled past soldiers in battle leather and armor.
Suddenly Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat as she recognized a familiar face moving past her. He was walking with four other rough looking men, all loaded down with crossbows and swords. He was leaner, his hair was darker, but it was him.
The warlord who had attacked Xena's home village of Amphipolis eleven years ago -whoops, make that two years ago now- and was the man responsible for starting her on the road to war and vengeance.
He walked by with his men and disappeared down an adjacent corridor.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle said to the guard. "Who were those soldiers?"
"Hmm?" The guard blinked. "Oh, well for starters they weren't soldiers. The Mayor-General has hired on every brigand 'n mercenary he could lay his hands on to back up the Home Guard. Right bastards, they are."
Gabrielle nodded. "Hey, what's the story on that guy anyway?"
"Who? The Mayor-General?" The guard grinned. "He came to town four years ago, claims to have served with the Roman Legion. But he's nothing but talk. His Counselors do the real thinking around here."
The door opened.
"The Mayor-General will see you now," one of the Counselors said.
Once again Gabrielle faced them. This time the Counselors were smiling and the Mayor-General seemed upset.
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia," he announced. "On the advice of my Counselors, I have decided to accept your offer to act as intermediary for the city of Cirra. Deliver this scroll to Xena. It offers generous concessions if she spares this city."
He handed it to her.
"Tell her I will meet with her in person, at a place of her choosing. Please return here with her reply as soon as possible."
"Yes, your Honor," she nodded. "Oh, and about the reinforcements?"
"We have sent couriers ordering all troops back to their home provinces," a Counselor replied. "In truth, none would have arrived here in time."
"I regret this course of action," the Mayor-General said. "But my Counselors have shown me that I have little choice." He smiled. May the Gods be with you, Gabrielle. The hopes and dreams of Cirra are with you."
"Mine too," Gabrielle replied.
The soldiers dropped Gabrielle off on the main road leading east from Cirra, wished her luck and then took off as fast as their horses could carry them. Just ahead was the skirmish-line of Xena's Army.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and started walking, still unsure what she should say to Xena beyond the offer she carried with her. She knew this was less than a year since the treachery of Caesar had left Xena crucified on a beach. Gabrielle knew the fire of vengeance would be burning hot in her soul.
And what of Cortese? His presence nagged at Gabrielle. It was possible he was just another mercenary hired by Cirra... but had he been working for Cirra when he raided Amphipolis two years ago?
Gabrielle shook her head. It didn't matter. All that mattered was getting Xena to spare Cirra. So much now depended on it.
There was a sudden rustle of activity in the woods to the left. She turned as three horsemen broke through the heavy underbrush and blocked her off. All three were rough looking sorts, more brigand than soldier. The oldest -and fattest- eased off his horse and approached her with a gape-toothed grin.
"Welly, welly. welly. What 'ave we 'ere?" he laughed. "State your business, milady!"
"I wish to see Xena," Gabrielle replied. "I have an important message for her."
"Sure!" He turned to his friends. "Lancus, how long 'fore the relief gets 'ere?"
"Oh..." Lancus was a skinny kid who looked all of fourteen. He picked his nose as he squinted down the road. "Mebbe... ten minutes."
"That's long enough!" He grinned as he unbuckled his breeches and loosened the laces of his fly.
"Hey!" Gabrielle said, bringing her staff to bear. "Come on now..."
"That's my intent, milady," he chortled as he advanced on her. "Now this won't hurt, much!"
"Don't count on it," Gabrielle muttered. She swung her staff up into his groin with all her might, following through with a strike to his kneecap and then a sock to the noggin that left him on his back, grunting with pain.
His friends blinked in surprise, looked at each other, then hopped off their horses. One unsheathed a double set of razor knives, while Lancus pulled a broadsword almost as big as he was.
Gabrielle backed up, bringing her staff back to a defensive stance. She kept her eyes on them as they kept approaching... and then as they stopped, looking above her in sudden fear.
Gabrielle kept backing up until she bumped into something that snorted hot breath over the back of her neck. Shrieking, she spun around as the biggest, blackest stallion she'd ever seen in her life reared up on her. She stumbled back and fell right on her butt as the rider gentled the massive steed.
The rider was Xena.
She looked no younger, not a day. Her black hair was cut short except for a pleated braid off one shoulder. She wore skintight black leathers studded with bronze, along with heavy gauntlets and boots.
The face was hers, but it wasn't the friend she knew and loved. This was indeed a stranger.
"I paid you three to be scouts," she said in a flat, merciless voice. "Not rapists of little girls."
"In Ares' name, Xena," the big one grunted, getting to his feet. "We thought she was a spy from Cirra! We..."
"A coward and a liar." Xena dismounted and drew her sword in one smooth movement. "I can stand one but not both."
Please, my Princess..." he stood before her, unarmed and fairly ridiculous looking with his pants down by his ankles. Xena swung her sword across his belly and gutted him like an animal. Gabrielle stared in open-mouthed horror as his intestines spilled out onto the road. He fell to his knees, reaching out like he was trying to stuff them back into his body, before falling face down in the dirt, still twitching.
"Live like a pig, die like a pig," Xena said, She turned her attention to the other two. Lancus dropped his broadsword like it was red hot. The other one came at her with his razor knives flashing. The fight was short. A flash and clang of metal on metal and a few seconds later the man stumbled back, staring at his dismembered forearms lying in the road. One of his hands still gripping a razor knife.
Xena laughed and waved good-bye. The man screamed and took off through the woods, blood still spraying from the stumps of his arms.
The boy, Lancus, seemed resigned to his fate. He simply dropped to his knees and shut his eyes. Xena rewarded him with a quick beheading.
Xena flicked her sword to remove the excess blood as she approached Gabrielle, who had gotten to her feet. She seemed almost feral, like a predator approaching her prey.
"I don't know you," she growled.
"True enough. I'm just a traveling bard seeking my fortune. The city fathers of Cirra gave me this," she held up the scroll, "to give to you."
Xena stopped, now standing very close to her.
"You stand your ground. I like that in a person," she said. "Where did you learn to use a staff?"
"I trained with the Amazons."
"I thought I recognized the technique." She smiled. "Now go, little one. Before I grow weary of your existence as well."
"You wouldn't harm me."
"Really?" Xena smirked. "I wouldn't bet my life on it."
"Read it." She held the scroll up. "Please."
Xena frowned. "Do you have family in Cirra, or what?"
"No. But I do have... someone, whose very life depends on what happens this day."
"Well, he's got a lot of company," Xena growled as she snatched the scroll from her hand and opened it.
She quickly scanned the words and began to laugh.
"Ohhhh.... Oh, my... You have no friends in Cirra either, little one." She tossed the scroll on the ground. "I received this communiqué a week ago. You've been set up."
"No..." Gabrielle looked up at her. "They... They promised they would recall the militias... that's something isn't it?"
"They're just trying to buy more time. The militias they so desperately want are close, but not close enough. Now go. Find a hole to hide in before I do something you'll regret."
Xena turned her back on her as she put her boot up on the stirrup of her saddle. Gabrielle just stood there with her mouth open, trying to find the words that would change her mind. She was just realizing that no such words existed when she heard the pull of taunt fiber and the squeak of wood, as a bow was drawn back and an arrow was released from somewhere in the woods.
"Xena!" she screamed her name as the arrow cut through the air... aimed true. She reached out for it as Xena turned her head and saw Gabrielle catch the arrow a scant inch from her left eye.
Then Gabrielle felt something punch her in the back. She looked down and was surprised to see the bloody shaft of another arrow piercing her chest, just above her left breast.
She fell to her knees as Xena mounted up and kicked her mighty warhorse in the ribs, wheeling him about to protect Gabrielle as another flurry of arrows sailed in from behind brush and trees.
One arrow caught Xena's horse in the neck, another in his side. Xena reached down and grabbed Gabrielle's flailing hand and pulled her over the saddle as another arrow buried itself in Xena's upper leg.
Screaming her warcry, she took off down the road, her wounded horse at full gallop, as her attackers broke from their cover and kept firing until they were staring at her dust.
"Alright, Alright!" Cortese shouted at his men. "Save your arrows! I have a feeling we'll be needing them."
"Well, damn!" One of his men hissed. "That sure as Hades didn't go the way "his Honor" planned!"
"Tell me about it," Cortese muttered.
"What now?" another one of his men asked. "Back to Cirra?"
"Are you crazy?" Cortese laughed. "Now we beat feet, boys. By sundown Cirra will be ashes and embers f' sure!"
Gabrielle returned to consciousness looking at blue sky and clouds. She also heard the clatter of metal on metal, the cries of many horses and the overlapping voices of men. The sounds of an army breaking camp.
She looked around, realizing she was propped up on a log, laid out close to a cookfire. Around her hundreds of soldiers were mounting up and forming lines. She looked down and saw that the arrow had been removed from her chest, while heavy bandages were wrapped about her chest and shoulder. She felt no pain, but she couldn't move either. It was then she realized Xena was beside her, carefully stitching up her own leg wound.
"Xena..." Gabrielle croaked.
"Shh..." Xena hissed. "This is the tricky part..."
"Xena!" An adjutant trooped up and stood at attention.
"What?!" Xena snapped. "I'm trying to work here, okay?!"
"S... Sorry, my Princess," he replied, shrinking back. "But a courier just arrived from Tracus' column. They've engaged the militia from Rendova and sent it in retreat. Should they pursue?"
"Do not pursue. Tell Tracus to cover the north road and the ridges around Cirra. Don't move in, let the enemy come to him."
"Yes, my Princess."
"Here." She nodded at her wound. "Put your finger there, willya?"
The adjutant nervously extended his finger towards her still bloody wound.
"Well, com'n! It isn't gonna bite!"
He placed his fingers over the stitches as Xena twirled a bow and knotted it off.
"Yes, my Princess." He took off like a scalded dog while Xena dabbed at her wound.
"Ahh... he's a good kid." Xena said, turning to Gabrielle and examining her bandages. "You're going to live by the way. A hairsbreadth to the right and you would've been having a picnic on the Elysian Fields right now."
Gabrielle tried to speak.
"Don't worry. I've deadened your body to the pain. A little trick I learned not long ago. You're paralyzed... but only for awhile. Gives you a chance to heal." She grinned. "You'll be safe here."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to work her mouth, but the words wouldn't come. All she could feel were the tears streaming down her face.
"Look at me, little one."
Gabrielle met her eyes, the vivid blue she knew so well.
"I just had to put my warhorse down. He saved my life today and I had to kill him. You saved my life as well, and for that I am grateful."
"Spare..." Gabrielle croaked. "Cirra..."
"Those bastards set you up y'know. Sent you out to die with me. I can't let that kind of treachery go unpunished. I take no joy in this, but what must be done, must be done. This day, Cirra dies." She stood up, favoring her wounded leg. "If it comforts you any, I shall revenge you this day as well."
Gabrielle leaned back, her silent wails turning into screams no one could hear. At that moment, she knew the tortures of the damned.
"Farewell, little one. If you are fortunate, we'll never cross paths again."
Xena limped over to a soldier holding a fresh warhorse.
"This is the best you could do?" she grumbled.
"On short notice, my Princess..."
She managed to get into the saddle by herself and faced Gabrielle again.
"Hey! How'd you do that arrow trick?" she called. "If we meet again, you'll have to teach me that one!"
And with that she grinned and galloped off after her men.
Slowly, Gabrielle flexed the fingers of her right hand, working some feeling back into her joints.
As the last of the soldiers broke camp and the sun began to touch the western horizon, Gabrielle jerked her hand across her belly and over her breasts. Trying to find the release points that would free her from the paralysis.
"Ahhhh!!!" The pain was incredible. A sharp, unforgiving stab of agony in her chest. But she also felt the numbness receding, until her whole body felt like pins and needles.
Gabrielle sat up, still dizzy and woozy. There were a dozen or so soldiers -stragglers she supposed- still hanging around. Her prized War staff was gone, but she managed to get to her feet and stagger to a hitching post, where several horses were tethered.
"Hey!" One of the soldiers started towards her. "Where d'ya think you're goin' girlie?"
"Gotta find... Xena."
"Fine, but not on my horse..." He reached her just as she managed to pull herself up into the saddle.
She kicked him in the face, grabbed the reins, kicked the horse in the ribs and hung on for dear life, as the animal did what any other trained warhorse would do.
Head straight for the battle.
Against the backdrop of a blood red sunset, Cirra was burning.
As the history books would later record, Xena's strategy was brilliant. Her mounted troops thundered into town, where they engaged the Home Guard, who fought bravely. Most of the mercenaries had already fled north into the clutches of Xena's forces on the ridges, where they were annihilated.
Some say Xena's own troops started the fires that would quickly engulf the town, others say that the mercenaries did to cover their escape. It mattered little, with no evacuation plan and the fear of the Great Warrior Princess in their minds, the people of Cirra stayed huddled in their homes and perished. Only a very few survived...
Gabrielle rode into town past raging infernos that consumed entire city blocks. Most of the carnage was over as bodies littered the streets and Xena's soldiers started looting what wasn't burning. A few refugees wandered about, looking like lost souls. Gabrielle saw children among them and wondered if one would grow up to become Callisto.
Gabrielle reached the fountain square. The fountain was still intact, only now the Mayor-General and his Counselors were part of the display. Their heads impaled on steel pikes, looking out over the remains of their city.
Gabrielle dismounted and started walking. The constant jolting of the horseride had opened her wound up and she was bleeding like a stuck pig.
The heat and roar of the flames were almost hypnotic. She understood now how Callisto lost her mind here. She could feel the madness dancing around the edges of her own soul as well.
She spotted Xena as she entered the square, directing troops and giving instructions to couriers.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed. She started running towards her, arms flailing. "Xena, you bitch!!! I gave you a chance to make it right... A chance to fix everything!!!"
She crashed into the side of Xena's horse. She looked up to see Xena looking down at her with a mixture of amusement and surprise.
"I gave you a chance!" Gabrielle screamed. "And you threw it away! You threw me away!!!"
She clawed at Xena's boot, screaming and weeping. Xena sighed and kicked her away. Gabrielle stumbled back and hit the dirt.
"That's enough!" Xena called out. "Give the all clear! We'll reassemble on the north road!"
Bugles and trumpets sounded. When Gabrielle looked up again, she was gone.
Maybe she never existed.
Maybe she was a bad dream, and I'll wake up and my Xena will be back... the Xena I love.
"Don't... Don't leave me, Xeeeeena!!!" Gabrielle screamed. She continued to scream until she could scream no more, as the last rays of the setting sun disappeared from the western sky.
Gabrielle woke up.
Looking about, she realized that she had been safely returned to her own time and place. All was as it had been. Cirra was in ruins. Callisto had lived, died and been reborn. And her beloved Perdicus was dead, his ashes scattered to the four winds.
She pulled her blanket off and sat up. Xena was gone but her bedroll and rucksack were still here. Gabrielle examined herself. The wounds she had suffered were only memories. No scars. At least not physical ones. Even her war staff was back by her side.
The Gods are indeed thorough, Gabrielle thought.
The distant call startled Gabrielle until she realized it was Xena calling from somewhere in the ruins. The calls continued for some time until Gabrielle thought she would scream.
When Xena returned to the square on Argo, she saw Gabrielle sitting by the fountain with her knees drawn up by her chin. She was gently rocking, staring at nothing.
"Glad you're up," Xena said, hopping off her horse. "I can't find Shandara anywhere. Horse and wagon are where we left them, but Shandara just walked off the face of the earth."
"Well put," Gabrielle whispered.
"Shandara was never here. She was a ghost... a spirit. Who knows? She died nine years ago on the day you sacked this town."
"And how do you all this?"
"I was there."
Xena stood over her, an incredulous look on her face. "What in Hades are you talking about?"
"Last night while I slept, Shandara took me back in time, to the very day you destroyed Cirra. She thought I could talk to you... get you to spare her town... her family." Gabrielle looked up at her. "She was wrong."
"Look," Xena said. "I don't know what kind of dream or hallucination you had last night, but there is no way you really went... back through time. Not even the Gods..."
"Didn't you tell me the Three Fates once sent you back?"
"It was real. It happened," Gabrielle said. "Don't you remember? You were there. On that day you stopped three of your soldiers from raping a young girl. This girl had a scroll from the Mayor-General of Cirra. This girl saved your life..."
"When she caught an arrow," Xena whispered. "Meant for me."
"The girl was badly wounded. You saw to her wounds and left her at your camp..."
"And then... I saw her here. At this very square, during the attack. She was... screaming that she had given me a chance, but I had thrown it away... and... and..."
"Thrown her away."
"Gods." Xena slipped to the ground as her legs gave out beneath her. "I do remember. After all this time. I... I sometimes think of that girl, and what she said... but I could never put a face to her... until now. That was you, Gabrielle."
"Yes." Their eyes met. Xena saw the cold, dead look and recognized it instantly. She had carried it herself for too many years.
Xena blinked. A single tear coursed down her cheek.
"I've lost you," Xena whispered. "Haven't I?"
Gabrielle couldn't answer. All she could do was close her eyes and look away.
They left Cirra before noon. Xena had released the old horse from the wagon to let him wander the fields of Cirra. They had broke camp and walked together the way they had come, once again passing the old oak and the deadfall log where Gabrielle had once comforted her.
The road soon forked, and they stopped there to say their farewells.
"Going home to Poteidaia?"
"No," Gabrielle replied tonelessly. "There's nothing there for me. I'm going to stay with the Amazons. At least for a while."
"Fine. I... I won't..." she sighed, trying to find the words. "I'll stay away. You have my word."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said. "Goodbye, Xena."
But she had already turned away, walking the road alone.
Xena watched her, suddenly aware of how much she had grown since that day she had first started tagging along with her. So much had changed. Gabrielle was a woman now. Walking tall and straight and knowing where her destiny called. Who could want more?
Xena mounted Argo and headed off in the opposite direction.
The roads around Cirra were rarely traveled, most were overgrown and little more than paths. Xena traveled west at a slow pace, not wanting Argo to injure herself.
By late afternoon she came to a wide, deep creek. The stone bridge over it had crumbled through the middle leaving her on a road to nowhere.
Xena thought about looking upstream for a place to ford, but instead she dismounted, slipped Argo's bridle off and let her meander down to the creek for a drink.
She walked up the crumbling remains of the bridge and stopped at the edge, looking down into the swift, clear running water. She sat down on the edge, her boots dangling over the side and looked up at the sky.
"Ares, show yourself."
She heard bootsteps behind her. There was no burst of flame or light show today. Ares, God of War, eased down next to her and grinned.
"Hello, Xena." He seemed to be in a good mood. Almost mellow. Like a man who knew he had won but was too good a sport to rub it in. The swaggering bravado that made him so easy to hate wasn't there.
"Why did you do this, Ares?" Xena asked. "Why take from me the one person on this earth I wanted... the one person I needed."
"You won't believe me, but I took no real joy in doing this," he replied. "As to the 'why?' I came to the conclusion some time ago that you would never return to me as my Warrior Princess as long as your Gabrielle remained by your side." He shrugged. "In the past, I employed treachery and deceit to bring you back to the fold... and failed every time. I finally realized all I really needed was... the truth."
"The truth of who you are. I knew that if Gabrielle ever saw the real Xena... the Xena I loved, that she would leave. Never to return."
"Oh, Shandara is real. She lives in the Elysian Fields with her family. She died that day in Cirra, and she did petition the Gods of Olympus to right this injustice. I just happened to be the God who listened to her plea, and granted her wish."
He leaned in next to her. "As I said, Xena. No treachery. No deceit. I just let Gabrielle see the truth."
"And you think now that Gabrielle is out of my life that I'll return to you?"
"Well, not this moment..." he replied. "But in a year, or a month... or maybe even tomorrow, something will happen that will let your True Self break free. And then you'll return to me."
"It's destiny, Xena. You believe in destiny don't you?"
"I used to."
Ares grinned. He got up, brushing off his backside.
"I really gotta be going. Things to see, people to do. I won't bother you again until you call for me."
"Ares," Xena said. "Answer me one question."
"If I can."
"Why me? What makes me so special to you? There must be hundreds of warlords and half-assed emperors from the Celtic Isles to Persia who would be honored to do your bidding. Why me?"
"A fair question," Ares replied. "And since the truth has been working so well for me lately, I'll tell you." He took a breath, looked to the east and pointed. "Everyday... I hear their voices. In the past it was only whispers, but now the voices have grown stronger. They speak of... Him... in tones of reverence and love." He chuckled. "The wandering Jews call Him 'Yahweh', except for the ones who call him 'Jehovah'. And now in Persia they speak of 'Allah'. Many names. One God. The supposed One True God, who created all." He laughed. "Even me!"
"And you fear him?"
"They still talk of his power in Egypt. He bested the Gods of the Pharaohs and forced them to release the Jews from slavery. A God of such power, but also a God who forgives. A God who asks nothing... but faith. Of course I fear Him. All of Olympus fears Him."
"And what does this have to do with me?"
"Well, y'see... that's where destiny comes in." He kneeled down next to her, his breath hot in her ear. "Right now He is a God of commoners, nomads and dirt farmers. His followers are scattered about the world with no real army to speak of. But... an army led by you could wipe this gutter religion off the face of the Earth!" His voice became a whisper, almost desperate. "I have been to the Oracle of Delphi, Xena. I have seen your destiny... you are the only one who can accomplish this!"
"And what if I believe this would be a better world without you?"
"Believe what you will. For now. Your soul is a caged wolf gnawing at the bars. When the wolf is free, you will beg to be my Chosen One."
"I think not, Ares." Xena turned to look at him, smiling for the first time. "I'll let you in on a little secret of mine. I have faith. Not in 'a' God, or even 'the' God. My faith is in a girl from Poteidaia. Right now she's horrified at what she's seen in me. But she has a sharp mind. And a good heart. She just needs to work things out in her head, and then she'll forgive me of my sins... and return to me."
"Wishful thinking," Ares said.
"Faith," Xena corrected.
Ares laughed, that deep, hearty laugh of self-righteousness that Xena knew so well.
"Ohhhhh... Allow me to give you a piece of advice," he said as he stood up, wiping a tear from his eye. "Reserve your faith for a God. Any God. Never put your faith in a mortal. They'll disappoint you every time." He looked down at her wistfully. "I should know."
"Perhaps," Xena said, smiling.
Ares smirked and turned away, but stopped in his tracks after a couple of steps and screamed.
A scream as primal and terrifying as any mortal's. Xena almost fell off her perch on the bridge but managed to hang on and haul herself up to her feet. She went to Ares, who by then was just gasping for breath. Staring at the road behind them, looking wild-eyed and scared.
Xena squinted down the road but saw nothing.
"No..." he whined. "She can't... not now..."
She looked again, this time noticing a tiny figure on a horse topping the last rise, still far down the road. The figure waved and she could hear a distant call.
Xena leaned back and whooped, punching the air with her fists and dancing a jig around Ares. She put her hands to her mouth and cut loose with her famous war cry, this time feeling an exultation she had never felt on any battlefield.
"Xena..." Ares croaked.
"Sorry, Ares," Xena said, whistling up Argo, who came trotting up. "Win a few, loose a few."
"Don't walk away from me, woman!" Ares shouted. His anger sudden and fierce, he grabbed her left wrist. "I am your destiny!"
"Ares..." Xena growled. "Right now you're a pain in the ass."
And with that she hauled off and punched him in the face as hard as she could. It was like hitting a stone wall, and her arm went numb all the way to her shoulder, but it rocked him back on his heels and forced him to let go as his hands covered his nose. Xena replaced Argo's bridle and mounted up. She glanced down at her right hand, which throbbed unmercifully and saw she had split her knuckles and probably broken some bones. But, damn... it had been worth it!
Ares looked at his hands and saw the impossible.
"Blood!" he moaned. "You... You can't make a God bleed!"
"Maybe that's your problem," Xena said. "Who can have faith in a God who can't take a punch in the nose!"
She laughed, wheeled Argo about and galloped off.
Ares stood there for a while before finally disappearing in a spectacular flash of flame that nobody saw.
Riding hard, Xena saw that Gabrielle was on the broken-down horse she had released near Cirra. Despite her best efforts of whacking its butt with her staff and kicking it in the ribs, it refused to go any faster than its usual gait. Gabrielle finally hopped off and started running towards Xena herself.
As they approached, Xena jumped off Argo and grabbed Gabrielle in a tight hug, spinning her around... laughing and crying until they were both dizzy. They tumbled to the ground, still laughing. Argo stood there, looking at them with wide eyes.
Breathing hard, Gabrielle scooted over beside her.
"You don't have to say... anything," she said, trying to catch her own breath.
"You're back. That's all that matters."
"I was wrong..."
"You're mortal. You're entitled."
"I'm sorry. What I did to you..."
"That's alright," Xena said. She took Gabrielle's hand into her own, intertwined their fingers and placed them over her heart. "I had faith."
On the evening of the following day, Gabrielle sat alone at the corner table of the same tavern they had met Shandara in two days ago.
She sipped her wine and pondered her life. She thought of Shandara, then Callisto and finally Perdicus, who would always have a place in her heart.
And then there was Xena, who was her heart.
Xena walked into the tavern, pushing her way through the crowd and dropping her gear on the table.
"Wuz wrong?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ahh..." Xena sat down and put her boots up. "Damned rental agent charged us fifty dinars for losing that wagon. Didn't really care if we brought the horse back or not."
"Well... I guess we coulda gone back to Cirra..."
Xena gave her 'the look', and then smiled when she realized Gabrielle was putting her on.
"Hungry?" Gabrielle asked.
"Goody. I ordered the venison again." She poured some wine into another mug and topped off her own.
"So I guess I've got some catching up to do."
"Thas a girl!" Gabrielle said. "Hey! Howza mitt?"
"Okay..." She looked at her hand, immobilized in a rough cast of wood and plaster of her own making. "Remind me next time to just chop his head off."
"Hey, hey, hey..." Gabrielle said. "I've been thinkin' bout howz you popped ol' Ares in the snot locker like that. Maybe that Ambrosia I gave you finally took."
"If it had I wouldn't have broken my hand on his face."
"Oh. Yeah. True, true." Her face brightened. "I know! maybe it was that One Grue Tod guy!"
"Tod who?" Xena asked. "Oh, you mean the One True God."
"Yeah, yeah. Thas what I said!"
"I dunno." Xena sipped her wine. "I'd be nice to think so. Besides, Ares takes Him seriously enough. And you know what they say, 'The enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine.'"
"Ohhhhhh... Thas a good 'un!" Gabrielle said. "I gotta write thas one down... sometime. But first!" She held up her mug of wine. "A toast!"
"To who?" Xena asked, trying not to get the giggles.
"Oh, who ya think! To us! You 'n me, girl!" She waved her mug in Xena's face until Xena picked up her own. "Two souls... uh..."
"Intertwined," Xena continued.
"Yeah." Their eyes met. "Forever."
"Amen to that, sister. Amen to that."
My special thanks to Allen Vu for his invaluable technical assistance. ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Comments to JayMarkle@webtv.net
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