by Judy (wishes)
This story is the last in a series that started with "Lair of the Serpent" and continued with "Valley of Regret." Having read those stories may not make this one make more sense. But it couldn't hurt.
I stand on a peak in the high mountains. I am alone. The screech of an eagle directs my gaze skyward. I watch as the great bird, favorite of Zeus, describes majestic circles in the sky. I hear another sound, a rough rustle on the ground. A great snake, long and sinuous, slides across my bare feet. Trying not to gasp or move, I feel its scaled underside sliding, sliding, but the snake shows no awareness of me. I look for its objective and see a nest of woven sticks. Inside lie, unprotected, two eagle eggs. The snake slides smoothly over the edge and into the nest. It opens its mouth, the jaw unhinging until it can envelop the nearer egg. The snake swallows, the egg becoming a large knot in its body. Lazily, the serpent coils around the other egg. Above, unconcerned, the eagle rides currents of air.
"Wake up, lazy bones," a familiar voice growls near my ear. "You're getting soft with all this easy living."
Soft. I stretch and then nestle into my soft nest of blankets. Nest.
I sit up and look around. I'm in the small upstairs room of an inn. Sunlight entering the one tiny ceiling-high window hints that it is long past dawn.
Xena now stands near the opposite wall. She stows some small item in a saddle bag and seems to be searching for something else. Her face is serious, composed, with the sweet serenity children have when they sleep. Sensing me watching her, she sends a smile in my direction. She wears her short leather battle dress and high boots. I note with some surprise that she wears her armor; sword on her back; chakram attached to her weapon belt.
We are in Patral on the north shore of the Pelopponese so that Xena can advise on city defense, a job for pay. Patral is a new idea, a town built by merchants and without walls.
"I thought you weren't carrying weapons--so you can show confidence in the safety of the town," I say.
"It was an idea," she replies.
"Are we leaving?"
"Get dressed. Please." She slings the saddle bags over her shoulder and steps to the door. "We have a visitor." Then I am alone in the room.
The first floor of the inn is a common room. There are several heavy oaken tables with stools and benches. Kegs of ale and stronger drink line part of one wall. There are two doors, one leading to the dusty street, the other, always open, to an outdoor kitchen. There is usually a serving man or girl, but neither seems to be around.
I expect to see Xena sitting at the farthest table, back to the wall, and she is there. Across from her sits another woman, covered except for her face and head, in a long, dark traveling cloak. She turns at my approach.
"Astoni." I hope my voice is neutral. This is not a happy surprise.
"Gabrielle," she acknowledges in a quiet voice.
I walk around the table to share the bench with Xena. I look around. "Are you traveling alone?"
"No, Gabrielle. My brother accompanies me," she explains. Her Greek carries the musical lilt of Arkadia. "He is. . . .seeing to the horses."
I find I have no conversation for this woman whom I associate with a dark and puzzling chapter of my life.
Xena gestures to bread and fruit in the center of the table. I notice that a large rolled parchment lies there, too. When I shake my head at Xena's offer, she sighs and says to Astoni, "Tell your story."
Astoni speaks to me, and I know Xena has already heard this tale.
AFTER YOU AND XENA left Mantinaea, life returned to its usual pattern. Tiro continued to conduct the daily ceremonies of the temple and to instruct Tegea and me in the duties owed the goddess Demeter. As summer drew to a close and the grain ripened, we anticipated the harvest and the days when we would prepare new initiates to join our society.
During the last full moon, all changed. As Tiro, Tegea, and I prepared the evening sacrifice, mounted and armed men appeared in the village. They rode their horses through the village and into the sanctuary. Men and horses within the sacred circle! Tiro told Tegea and me to work our way around the altar and then to run. Then she approached the men. She told them who she was and commanded them, in the name of the goddess, to leave.
One big man, dressed in heavy armor, rode his horse to her and laughed. He said, "I am Metriades. My god says it is you who will go!" And he drew his sword and pierced Tiro through the chest. By then, I was behind the altar, but Tegea had stood with Tiro. She threw herself on Tiro's body, and this Metriades leaned down from the saddle and snatched her up. What happened after that I didn't see because I was running to the forest. No one followed me, but I could hear their laughter and shouts and smell the burning timber as they fired the village and the temple houses.
I hid in the forest all night and the next day. Then I made my way to my home village. I persuaded my oldest brother to bring me here.
Xena's lack of reaction confirms my suspicion that she has already heard this story. As for myself, I'm not sure how to feel.
"How did you know to come here?" is what I ask.
"Since Xena left, we have always known where she was," Astoni says simply.
"How can that be?" For once, I'm the skeptic.
"The goddess has many friends."
Suddenly I wonder at tradesmen of the Pelopponese needing to engage a Thracian warrior's skills. I look at Xena but do not wish to talk--or argue--in front of the young priestess.
A compact man, dressed in a cloak similar to Astoni's, enters through the kitchen door. He nods to Xena and then, more shyly, to me. "Sister, the horses are rested. We should go. There is still much to do."
Astoni rises and steps around the table to Xena, who also rises. They embrace as close friends or sisters might. Astoni kisses Xena on one cheek. "For Tegea," she says and, kissing the other cheek, "For Tiro."
Astoni picks up the parchment and, with one long glance at me, she and her brother, whose name I never learn, leave through the kitchen door. Wanting something to do, I pour liquid from a pitcher into a mug and drink. It is diluted wine. I put it down.
Xena reaches for my mug and drinks.
"What are you planning?" I ask.
Momentarily, she looks surprised. "I'm going to Mantinaea," she answers, as if I had just asked if the sky is ever blue.
"Tiro's dead," I say. "I'm sorry. She was a brave, strong woman. But what do you think we can do? Get involved in somebody's religious war?"
"You don't have to go," Xena says, and her voice is cold.
"Neither do you. There are people all over Greece who need your help. You don't need to ride to Arkadia to avenge some priestess's death."
Xena studies my face. "Is that all Tiro was to you?"
Knowing I should stop, I don't. "To be honest, Xena, I didn't like that woman very much--or trust her. She could be calculating and cruel. And she was using you."
"Using me?" Xena's voice is low, but intense. "She helped me when no one else could."
"Well, she planned to use you. That night after. . . .before the feast, she as much as told me so. She just didn't get the chance!" Xena takes a deep breath that should warn me that her temper is barely under control. I rush on. "I'm sorry Tiro's dead. And Tegea? You know I liked her. But can you think this Metriades left her alive this long? What do you think you owe them. Revenge?"
"If someone killed your mother, Gabrielle, and occupied your home, what would you do?" Xena's voice shows her to be at the outer edge of control.
"Tiro wasn't your mother, and Mantinaea certainly was never your home." I manage to stop my words long enough for a thought to emerge. "You're talking about the ceremonies, aren't you? Some promise you made?"
"You know I can't talk about any of that."
"You say that Tiro was your mother. I know enough about the cult to know the high priestess is supposed to be Demeter. So you were supposed to be her daughter. . . ."
"You were supposed to be Kore. . . .Persephone."
Xena gives up trying to stop me. "I was Kore."
"Xena," I say as the voice of reason, "it's just a ritual. Symbolic. You've said it yourself. You don't believe in all that. Tiro's dead, and she's still trying to use you!"
Xena gets up and stalks to the street door. "I'm going south. Are you?"
I have expected our journey south to be the wild ride that brought us north months before. It is not. We move steadily south, but Xena is content to take the longer, easier routes. Three times before we enter the mountains, we stop near towns. Each time, Xena speaks of friends she wishes to visit--alone.
The first night we are in the mountains, I watch Xena climb a nearby ridge to check the route ahead. She stands above the narrow valley where we camp. She's a slender silhouette against a sky streaked with rose and azure blue. She has been thus since we left Patral: beautiful, silent, and distant.
When she returns to sit by our fire, she sighs, knowing from a glance that I intend to talk.
"We've traveled together for three years. I've never questioned you. . . ."
Xena shakes her head.
"All right, I've asked some questions."
She looks at me, and I see the beginning of a smile.
"I'm always asking questions," I start again and can't help smiling myself. "Not that you answer many of them. But there's never been a question about my loyalty to you."
Xena agrees, "No question."
"Wherever you've gone, I've gone. At first, I followed. Then I walked at your side."
"Gabrielle. . . ."
"Please be quiet." She blinks, but closes her mouth, no smile now. "When I left my home to follow you, I was grown, but I thought as a child. I was a silly little village girl, chasing after her hero and playing at being a bard. In the world you inhabit, I was a danger to myself and to you. But you put up with me because. . . .I'm not sure why. Perhaps because you were lonely."
I think she might speak now, but she doesn't. Her dark hair shadows the rest of her face, but her blue eyes shine brightly in the fire's light.
"I'm no longer that silly little girl. Oh, I look like her; sometimes I talk like her. But I know much more about myself and about the world. And, whether you want to admit it or not, about you."
"I know that you are not the perfect warrior I thought you were. I know that, for all your great skills and heart, you can be foolish and selfish and misguided or just downright wrong."
I think the blue eyes shine too brightly. Tears?
"But you are still my hero, Xena, and I'll go with you to Hades, if that's the direction you choose."
Xena and I enter Mantinaea from the southwest, a direction from which there is no path. It is full daylight, and we step directly from the dark forest into the bright clearing. Xena takes the lead, sword drawn, slightly crouched. She looks around, but I know that she is listening. . . .listening. . . .She sheathes her sword, and I relax my grip on my staff. No one around.
No one. The small village we visited in the summer is no more. The neat wooden houses are now piles of charred logs. No men and women carry water from the well or engage in other homely chores. No children play games or run and shout in the open space among the houses.
"Where do you think they went?" I find myself whispering.
Xena shrugs. "Into the forest, like Astoni. Then to other villages." She is looking at a burned shape near a path. "Some died here."
We walk around the edge of the clearing, always staying within two of Xena's strides of the forest. We find the temple houses, opposite the village, have also been destroyed. Only one building remains, and it is the small house Xena and I shared for several days. Xena enter firsts then motions for me to enter. Inside it is unchanged: sleeping pallets, low table, mats on the plank floor.
"Why do you suppose. . . .?"
"Astoni said the raiders came in the evening. They probably didn't see this house, isolated, just inside the forest."
I follow her line of thought. "Then those men probably haven't come back! That's what it means, of course. If they had come back in daylight, they would have seen this house and destroyed it, too."
Xena has returned to the door and is looking toward the center of the clearing. Since we have entered Mantinaea, I have avoided looking in that direction. But, having stood--and knelt--where Xena is now standing, I know what she is seeing.
"Xena, don't you think that's what it means? This house still standing?"
She nods. "That makes sense."
Encouraged, I go on, even though I'm speaking to Xena's back. "Those men were probably just raiders. They attacked the village, killed the two priestesses because they were. . . .just because they were here, and Tiro defied them. Then they moved on."
"Is that what you think?"
Xena steps outside the door, and I take up her old position. At first, my memory tricks me into seeing the outdoor temple, with its altar and twelve stone pillars. It is something I have seen in many dreams and that I had hoped to never see again in life. Then reality intrudes on imagination. I blink, but what I see continues to be there. The stone pillars that seemed as permanent as the three mountains that define this plain, the pillars that surround the place that haunts my sleep, lie on the ground. They are but broken piles of rubble, some within the sacred circle, some without. Only the great stone altar is unbroken.
Xena faces me, her expression fierce, but her words soft. "Someone went to a lot of trouble, don't you think?"
Neither Xena nor I desiring to spend the night in what was Mantinaea, we walk through the forest to where we've left Argo. The golden mare recognizes Xena's scent and whickers softly as we approach. I think we might set up camp, but Xena surprises me by leaping lightly into the saddle.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
She looks down, a tight smile on her face. "I need to see a man. . . .about a village."
I know this. "Are we in a hurry?"
I reach up. After a few moments, she surrenders the left stirrup to my foot and helps me to my accustomed spot behind her. "I guess Astoni told you where to find this man?"
"Yes." She leans forward, and Argo is off, as fast as the trees will allow.
When we dismount, Xena releases Argo. I know the mare will remain where we leave her but will come at Xena's softest whistle. As we tread quietly beneath the primeval forest canopy, there is little undergrowth, the shade too dense to allow the growth of brush and smaller trees. This also means no cover, but Xena seems unworried.
Soon we smell wood smoke and hear voices. Crouching behind a fallen tree, solid but moss-covered, we can see into a clearing. It is man-made, as evidenced by the raw stumps and by logs piled haphazardly around the perimeter. There are three tents, but most of the men seem to be camping out in the open. I see what looks like a sentry, but he stays out of the forest and seems to direct most of his attention back toward the camp. City boy, I think. He's thinking about the evening meal and the company of his fellows.
"Stay here," Xena whispers, and, when I open my mouth to answer, makes a downward chopping motion with her right hand. I nod and settle behind the log. I try to follow Xena with my eyes, but, beyond the second tree, she disappears.
The shadows have deepened and even the clearing has been touched by dusk when she returns. I know I haven't slept, but I start when she touches my elbow.
"How many men?" I ask.
I think there is approval in her light eyes. "Over a hundred," she says. "Horses for almost half that number."
"Fifty mounted men?" I ask, knowing that's a large number for any army but a king's.
"There are probably more foot soldiers than I counted here. There are two or three other camps scattered in the forest. I can smell the smoke from their fires," she explains. "But this is the main camp." She rises far enough above the log to point. "That's their leader's tent. Metriades."
"How can you tell?" To me, this tent looks just like the other two.
"I asked," Xena says. I don't ask what she means.
Knowing it is well within Xena's capabilities to move unseen through an enemy's camp, I ask, "What's next?"
"Now I pay Metriades a visit," she answers and stands to her full warrior height. "Do you want to go with me?"
Two surprises. "You're going to walk right in there? And I can go?"
"I want you to know that I gave Metriades--and his men--a chance. And I think you need to hear what he says." I pick up my staff and stand. "Leave the staff," she says. "We'll retrieve it later. I want you to be unarmed." I glance pointedly at her sword and chakram, but then I lean my staff against the log and follow her into the camp. I notice that the sentry is gone.
We are halfway to Metriades' tent before we are challenged. Two soldiers in dark garb stop us. One is small and quick and looks like a veteran of many campaigns. The other is young and tall enough to look Xena in the eye. Both draw swords, but the smaller man does the talking. "Don't move if you want to live. Who are you?"
Xena looks down at him and answers coldly, "Xena. Metriades expects me."
"You're lying," the little man snarls. He places the tip of his sword against Xena's cheek, just below her left eye. He flicks a glance my direction, then dismisses me. Xena was right. Small and obviously unarmed, I am not the threat.
"Ask him," Xena challenges. The spokesman hesitates and exchanges glances with his larger companion. If Xena's plans--or mood--were different, that is the instant they would die.
"Come with us," the man decides. "Bring her," he says to the larger man, who grabs me roughly by the arms and pushes me ahead. Xena's shoulders tense, but she allows her "captor" to move his sword to her back and prod her toward the tent.
"Metriades," the small man shouts before we enter.
The interior of Metriades' tent is large and alight with torches and candles. It is as well-furnished as I've imagined a general's tent to be. A bronzed and bearded warrior lounges by a low table. He is obviously finishing his evening meal. At the sight of Xena, he unhurriedly rises to his feet. He is muscular and above average height, only a little shorter than Xena and the soldier who still pinions my arms. He wears a short leather tunic and, over it, armor with an intricate, sinuous design. His hair and beard are long and dark. His eyes, black as night, still somehow shine and remind me of burning embers in a dying fire. Overall, my first impression is of the power of this man. And of the cold darkness of his heart.
"Xena," he says. "I've been expecting you." At his leader's friendly greeting, the little man withdraws his sword from between Xena's shoulder blades, and I feel the grip on my arms loosen. "I am Metriades."
"I don't remember meeting you," Xena replies.
"We've met twice. Both times I was just an ordinary soldier on the opposing side," he says with a show of modesty.
Xena regards him levelly. "Twice? And you're still alive?"
"The second time was near Corinth."
"Ah." Xena inclines her head in a motion that could be taken as respect.
Metriades' eyes sweep over me from head to foot. "What is this, Xena? A present for me?"
Xena's voice is casual. "My friend, Gabrielle."
"Take their weapons," Metriades says to our guards. And to Xena, "A precaution only. So we can talk more comfortably."
Xena makes a show of using thumb and forefinger of her left hand to remove her sword from its scabbard. Instead of handing it to the little soldier, she tosses it near Metriades' feet. Her weapons belt, chakram attached, follows. When Metriades folds his arms and waits, she draws a dagger from each boot and one from a hidden sheath at her waist. These join the growing pile on the ground.
Metriades looks at me, and I say, "I'm unarmed." Again, the slow sweep of his eyes, and then he nods.
"Release them," he tells the two men, "but keep your swords drawn." He motions to me. "If Xena makes a move, kill that one."
When the pressure on my arms is gone, I move to stand at Xena's side. No one stops me.
"Would you care to sit?" Metriades asks. "Perhaps some refreshment?"
"No, thank you," Xena says as politely. "We won't be here that long."
"As you like," Metriades says and remains standing himself. "But I would think you would have many questions."
"About what?" I ask.
He glances at me, then back at Xena. "Perhaps a discussion of philosophy--or of religion."
"Subjects I know nothing about," Xena states.
"All you know is war, right? I think you play the stoic warrior too well, Xena. I think you are attached to many things you won't acknowledge. Things besides your little friend." Metriades steps over the pile of weapons to stand just beyond an arm's length of Xena. "The fact you're here is proof of that."
"I'm here because you burned a village and killed a friend."
He laughs. "Is that all you want? Revenge?"
"I have no desire for revenge," Xena says, and this lie sounds like the truth, even to my ears.
"Good," Metriades says. "Then join me. My master has promised me victory. That victory will be sweeter with the great Xena at my side."
"Who is your master?" Xena asks.
"A god more powerful than any who protected Mantinaea," he answers. "A god who will place me at the head of all of the armies of Greece."
"If your god is so powerful," I have to ask, "why does he need you?"
Although the question is mine, his burning gaze never leaves Xena's face. "My master uses me as we use our swords. I am his tool." He changes the subject. "You were supposed to be dead, Xena. Months ago. When you were called to the south? That was a summons to your death. But, as you have done so many times, you avoided it. That's when the master and I provided a little distraction."
"Distraction?" Xena asks.
It is clear Metriades feels he has the upper hand. "At. . . .what did they call that old village. . . .the one you sacked and burned so many years ago. . . .Cirra?"
Xena is silent.
"At the master's urging, I sent a small contingent of my main army to the north. Under the command of my own lover, Athiel. My bed has been cold, Xena, since you cut her down."
"That was her name?" Xena asks softly. "Athiel?"
"Yes," he confirms. "She looked a lot like you, Xena. Although she lacked your abilities, both on and off the battlefield."
"How would you know?" Xena's tone is still mild.
Metriades laughs and shrugs. "One hears things." He goes on, "But, for whatever she lacked, Athiel was ambitious. I sent her north and told her to loot all the towns in a certain area. She didn't even know that her main objective was the attempt on Cerrapa."
"Cerrapa?" Xena asks.
"The village that grew up where Cirra used to be. You notice that I said 'attempt.' I was told that you would stop her men short of that town. As I said, it was just a distraction, an exercise to occupy you and your protectors."
"I killed her," Xena says, voice flat.
"I know." Metriades feigns regret. "A shame to lose her, but she served her purpose--to draw you north while I got established here."
"She was just your. . . ." Xena starts.
"My harlot," he finishes with a smirk. He sighs. "But so beautiful: tall, black-haired, strong. She wasn't much of a fighter, but she could handle horses, rode like the wind. All right in bed, once I got her broken in. You know, Xena, if you had gotten to know her, you might have liked her as much as I did."
"I killed her."
"You said that already. Don't worry; given a chance, she would have killed you. I had offered her a great reward."
Xena's expression stays bland. "What? Never having to return to your bed?"
The expression on his face as he steps forward and the slap that follows show that she has hit close to the truth.
"You touch me again, Metriades, and I'll kill you." Metriades looks at his men and, realizing fully that they are no obstacle to her carrying out this threat, steps back a pace.
Xena's voice takes on a commanding tone, "All this is interesting, Metriades. But here is what I came to tell you. Release all captives you hold and withdraw your army from this plain."
"The captives I have, which include the priestess Tegea, are promised as burnt sacrifices to my god. They will not be released, and my army will not withdraw." He speaks confidently, as one blessed by a god.
"Then your army will be destroyed," Xena states.
"I suppose you'll do this single-handedly." He tries to laugh.
"I won't have to."
"My master has promised me much," he says. "I need only destroy Demeter's cult."
"Is that what this is really about?" I ask.
He looks startled, as if he has forgotten my existence. "That, and the water that governs life on this plain. When I have destroyed the cult of Demeter and control the water, I own Arkadia. Then I will take Aechaea, then Attica. . . ."
Now Xena laughs. "Don't start that. It's boring."
Puzzled, Metriades asks, "You've heard it before?"
"Said it. Only I started from the other direction." Xena draws up to full height so he has to look up slightly to meet her eyes. "Withdraw your army. Or, if you will not withdraw, meet me in two days on the Plain of Asea. One army will win the field. One will be destroyed."
Metriades seems unfazed by Xena's ultimatum. Echoing my unspoken thought, he asks, "Since when do you have an army, Xena?"
"I have it. What do you say? We end this war with one grand battle. Something bards will sing of for centuries. Or does your master forbid you such glory?"
Metriades bristles, and I see his hand lift, then drop to his side. "I don't know what you're calling an army. Some priestesses and village boys? But I'll meet you on the Plain of Asea. In two days. And you--and they--will die!"
"Bring Tegea and the other captives with you," Xena says. "Let them see their fates decided. Agreed?"
Xena offers her right hand. Metriades takes her forearm in a soldier's grip and, before he can react, Xena brings her left hand sharply upward under his chin. As Metriades drops, Xena swings around, right foot connecting with the small soldier's head. His larger, slower companion raises his sword and charges. Xena neatly sidesteps and chops him in the throat. As he falls, gasping and clawing at his neck, Xena pulls a dagger from its hiding place and cuts a hole in the back of the tent. I retrieve her other weapons from the ground and follow her into the night.
Xena and I make a cold camp not far from where Metriades and his two men rest in his tent. "Get some sleep," Xena tells me before leaving to scout. I eat a piece of dried fruit and wish I had thought to take the bread and meat left from Metriades' meal.
When I wake in the morning, Xena is honing her sword. Her armor is newly polished, with a gleam she usually disdains, saying it attracts too much attention. Seeing I'm awake, she asks if I will plait her hair. "I want a single plait over the crown that will hold the rest in place," she instructs.
I nod. "That's the way you wore it when we first met." It takes a while to brush her hair free of snarls and separate the strands needed for the plait. This is a labor I love, but one for which Xena usually won't spare the time. I want to talk, have a dozen questions to ask, but I don't dare. What if she becomes impatient and withdraws permission for my task and for the closeness it requires?
It's Xena who asks for an end to silence. "While you work, could you sing that song, the one I like? About the mountains of Thrace?"
Not thinking of the last line until I reach it, I sing:
And blue sky.
In freedom's shelter
May I lie
Near eagle's aerie
When I die.
"It's done," I say. "Your hair."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," Xena says. "For the plait. And the song."
We ride toward the Plain of Asea. Having thrown her spirit before us, Xena's body leans forward and urges Argo to follow it. I remember that desolate plain we crossed from the south after leaving the home of the healer Mercete. I had thought to never see it again.
Now we enter it from the north, and, although I would have thought more speed impossible, Xena asks, and Argo complies. I clasp my hands around Xena's waist and consider which outcome is worse: staying on or falling off.
When we stop abruptly, my face stays buried in Xena's back. "Let go, Gabrielle." Xena tries to pull my hands apart without injuring me. I raise my head and look around. Ahead is what appears to be a large encampment. There are tents and other shelters of various types. Over and around each are flags and banners, and other symbols and devices. Xena gives me her hand and frees a stirrup, and I slide to the ground. I look at the camp and then back at Xena. She hands me my staff. "My army," she explains.
Then, back straight, head held proudly, she collects Argo so the golden mare will trot slowly forward but with each hoof raised high before it comes down to touch the ground. Xena and Argo make an impressive sight and, as I follow them into the camp, I know this is part of her plan.
When I reach the center of the camp, Xena has stopped outside the largest tent. She sits and surveys the camp from her high vantage point. Many men and a few women stand among the shelters, and every eye is on the tall, dark-haired warrior on the golden horse. Xena gives an exaggerated nod, as if well-satisfied, and makes a sweeping, graceful dismount. A man steps forward to take Argo's reins, and I recognize him as Astoni's brother. Indicating by a motion of her head that I am to follow, Xena strides into the tent. Inside stand Astoni and a burly old veteran whose lined and scarred face breaks into a wide smile at sight of Xena.
Xena's smile matches his as they clasp hands and forearms as close comrades do. "Osantes," Xena says, "I'm glad to see you! When I left word with Alcestis the Armorer, he wasn't sure he could contact you in time."
"It was close," Osantes agrees. "I got here yesterday morning. Me and ten good men. The priestess has been filling me in on your plan."
"It isn't much of a plan," Xena says. "On this flat plain, there is little room for tricks. Day after tomorrow, it will be force meeting force. The one that stands wins."
"We'll stand," Osantes states.
"To help that happen, I'm putting each of your veterans in charge of a squad of the younger men. I said that I would take no unblooded men, but you know how it is."
"Some will lie," Osantes finishes her thought. "That's how I got into my first fight. I've already picked out the inexperienced men. I'll put them in the right places--near my men. But don't worry. There's lots of experience out there, too. With the war in the Levant over, there are plenty of soldiers looking for an army to join."
"Yes, I saw too many of them in Metriades army. And a lot more mounted than I like." Xena sounds concerned, but then she laughs. "I imagine they find working for Metriades more attractive. He can pay!"
I have walked over to the table where a parchment is laid out. This is the map Astoni and the big soldier were studying when Xena entered, and Astoni stands there still. Astoni smiles, and I nod in return. The map shows this part of the plain. I can tell by the mountains to the north and the position of the small river Argo swam this morning. This camp is marked by symbols that look like tents. Just north of the camp are other symbols and words that seem to name the units of this army. I recognize Xena's small, neat printing. Most of the names on the map are familiar to me, and I am surprised that they will fight on the same side.
As if remembering her manners, Xena takes my hand and pulls me to her side. "Gabrielle, say hello to Osantes," she urges.
"Hello, Osantes," I say, feeling I am supposed to know this old soldier.
"This is Gabrielle?" Osantes asks before recovering from his apparent surprise. "It's good to see you," he adds to me.
Xena has already turned her attention to Astoni and the map. After greeting Astoni with a kiss on each cheek, Xena asks, "Is everything ready?"
Astoni nods and then adds hesitantly, "With one exception."
Xena raises an eyebrow.
"We need them, Astoni."
"Oh, they're here," Astoni assures her. "But they're. . . .difficult."
Xena chuckles. "Tell me about it." She meets my eyes as she rubs her left shoulder. "Thanks to them, I can predict rain."
"Maybe you could talk to them?" Astoni suggests.
"I will," Xena agrees. Turning to Osantes, "You'll see to the matter of the inexperienced men."
He nods and is rewarded with a smile.
I follow Xena since she doesn't say I can't. I have to trot to keep up as she strides purposefully through the camp. Head held high, fierce gleam in her blue eyes, Xena is in full warrior glory. From the looks and the shouts of "Xena!" that follow her progress, it is having the desired effect on her soldiers.
One man has the boldness to step in front of us. She starts to push him aside before he says quietly, "Warrior Princess."
She really looks at him then. "Marmot?"
"Yes, Warrior Princess."
"What do you want?"
"Some of us here are from your last army. We want you to know we never wished you harm. And to know if our presence is welcome."
Xena speaks slowly, as if searching for words. "You all did me great harm--and good. You are all welcome to this fight."
"Thank you," he says and steps aside. As we leave him, I think I hear him repeat softly, "Warrior Princess."
The LoSethe camp by themselves to the west of the main encampment. They sit and stand in the open, no shelter other than the skin helmets they wear. These are wild-looking men carrying long bows that look like they've bent whole trees to their will.
The wildest and meanest looking, obviously their leader, stands to meet Xena. He stands half-a-head taller than my tall warrior and is twice as broad. Dressed in shirt and breeches fashioned from both skins and cloth, he reminds me of tales I've heard of the northern barbarians. He greets Xena in perfect Greek, "Is this Xena, Slayer of Serpents, Destroyer of Nations?"
"I am Xena," she confirms.
"I am Tho, the one who speaks for the LoSethe, favored of the Titans."
"Do the LoSethe have a problem with the battle plan?" Xena is nothing, if not direct.
"Not with the plan."
"With me as the commander?"
He shakes his head. "Nor with you."
"Then with what?"
"With the company. Too much civilization. Too much about the goddess. Too much talk altogether. We move clear over here, and we still can hear the chatter! Every soldier in this army thinks he is a bard!" Tho spits, showing the depth of his disgust. The other LoSethe follow suit.
Xena stares at Tho. "An army of bards!" she exclaims. Then she throws back her head and laughs. It is a deep, full-throated laugh that startles me as much as the LoSethe. Xena reaches out and claps Tho on the back. I realize that he has started to laugh, also. Then another LoSethe laughs and another, until they are all laughing and wiping their eyes. I am the only one who doesn't think there's a joke or, if there is, that it is funny.
The laughter finally subsides, and even the silliest grins turn back to habitual glares.
Xena says to Tho, "If the company is so disagreeable, why are you still here?"
"We are sure Bacchus is the god behind Metriades. You know that he is the greatest enemy of our gods. His cult and ours are blood enemies forever."
"So you're not here because you are friends of the goddess," I interject.
He answers, fixing me with a savage stare. "No. But that doesn't mean we can't fight the same enemies."
Dawn is breaking on the day appointed for the battle. Xena's army is already arrayed on the field in imitation of the marks on Astoni's map. Only the LoSethe still rest in their own camp, making no move to come forward.
This has me worried, and I broach the subject with Xena. "Xena, if you need archers, why didn't you ask me to send for the Amazons? All I had to do was ask. They would have come."
Xena fixes me with her cool, blue stare. "Yes, on your word, they would have come."
"So why didn't you ask me?"
"Gabrielle, many fighters are going to die today. How would you feel if some of your Amazon friends, here on your word, were among them?"
I close my mouth, and Xena mounts Argo. "Wait here," she says. "I may need to find you quickly."
I watch her ride through the lines to the front. She rides the full length of the lines at a trot, then turns and races Argo back along the same course. All around, I hear a rising cry of "Xena! Xena!" As first light appears, the shouts become a roar accompanied by the din of swords and spears beating on the leather and metal of shields.
The new light reveals that this army is not alone. Across the field, in similar array, is another army. At its head on a prancing black is a dark rider. I know it must be Metriades. Dropping her reins, Xena rides forward, hands outstretched to show they are empty of weapons. Metriades rides forward to meet her halfway. Business quickly done, Xena whirls Argo and rides back through our lines and to me. She reaches down and pulls me onto Argo's back. "Metriades has placed Tegea and the other captives on that hill to the east. We're going over to see that he has kept his word and that they're all right."
The low knoll hardly qualifies as a hill, but it is the highest ground on the plain. Reaching it, we find Tegea and seven other women. Tegea is dressed in dirty rags, but she moves with the pride and grace I recall. This woman I can bear no grudge. Xena drops me to the ground, and I hug Tegea. Xena does not dismount. She calls to one of several soldiers standing with the captives. "Hey! Why are you here?"
"Metriades told us to care for the captives, protect them from stragglers or any other harm!"
Xena nods and asks Tegea, "Are you all right?"
Tegea gives a tight smile. "We've been treated well enough. It seems that Metriades' god desires the sacrifice of. . . .undamaged goods."
I reach for Xena's hand so I can remount, but she pulls it from my grasp. "You're staying here, Gabrielle," Xena orders.
"No," I say, grasping my staff. "I can fight!"
"Yes, you can fight," Xena agrees, "but I won't have you kill. And down there? There won't be any way to avoid it."
Xena's gaze takes in Tegea, me, and all the captives. "I'll come back for you," she says. "I promise."
Then she kicks Argo and gallops to our army's lines. Again, she races along the front until the cries of "Xena" grow into a frenzy clearly heard on our knoll. Then, over all the rest, I hear a high-pitched battle cry. Metriades, as if taking that as a signal, leads his men onto the field, horsemen first, then foot soldiers at a full run. From my vantage point, I can see how much larger his army is, and I feel icy fear around my heart.
Xena, having given her cry, waits at the front of her troops. Why doesn't she give the order to charge?
My answer comes with a high, singing sound that grows in volume. Over the heads of Xena's soldiers, flight after flight of arrows cut through the morning air. Metriades' men are still an impossible distance away. Why did the LoSethe, so tardy to the line, now release their arrows too soon?
Cries and moans of men and pitiful screams and thrashing of horses erupt all along Metriades' line as the LoSethe arrows prove their true range. Metriades remains mounted to ride back to his foot soldiers, but most of his horsemen are down. The singing of the arrows stops, and Xena's battle cry is heard again.
With a seemingly endless shout, her men charge forward. Metriades, knowing that the onslaught of deadly arrows is over, leads his remaining men to meet them. The two masses meet near the middle of the field and resolve into pairs and small groups, fighting, fighting, sword and mace and spear. Each soldier fights to save his own life and to take the lives of others. I try to watch over Xena, but she soon dismounts, and I lose her in the fight. The battle never moves closer to our army's camp and, with the sun still not at its zenith, the battle line moves northward, toward the mountains. Then men are running again, but now it's not a charge. Metriades' men are running for their lives as he and the few men still mounted try to rally them to make a stand. Xena's soldiers give chase, cutting down the wounded and the slow. I turn my back, unable to watch.
When next I look, I see Metriades and the eight or nine surviving horsemen. They race away from the battlefield and toward the knoll. I yell for Tegea and the other captives to run, but the soldiers left to "protect" us have become our guards.
Hardly slowing from a gallop, each horseman grabs up a captive. Metriades himself grasps me by the hair and pulls me up in front of him. I struggle, and his fist smashes into my face. Then I see nothing.
When I next come to awareness, we are galloping into Metriades' camp. He drops me to the ground and, unprepared, I land painfully. Swinging to the ground, Metriades grabs me by the hair again and pulls me with him toward several posts set in the center of the camp. Set in each post are chains and shackles. Tegea is dragged by her captor to the nearest post and securely bound. Her eyes meet mine and say she is unafraid. The other captives are dragged to other posts and similarly bound. Metriades' men are hurriedly carrying firewood and piling it around the captives, making the base of each post into a pyre. One man pours a clear liquid on the wood and on the clothing of each captive. When all is prepared, there is one post left, and I know it is mine.
Lifting on my hair, Metriades snarls, "Walk or be dragged!" Unable to get away, I walk with him to his tent. Once inside, he picks me up and throws me roughly on his raised bed. "I ask myself," he says, "which will hurt Xena more? Finding a burnt corpse, perhaps unrecognizable as yours? Or to find your sweet face and body and know the defilement and torture it has endured?"
Before he can answer his own question, there is shouting outside the tent. I look up to see Xena push aside the flap and enter. Several of Metriades' men are at her back, but they do not try to stop her. Metriades has moved behind me, and he holds a sharp knife against my throat.
"Let her go," Xena says, "and you still may live."
Metriades laughs. "You can kill me, Xena, but not before I slice her throat. And not before my men set fire to the oil-soaked wood at Tegea's feet."
"What do you want?"
"We've been over that ground."
She accepts this change in the bargain. "And then?"
"I let all the captives go, even this one."
"Untouched," he confirms.
She considers. "Release them now."
"No, Xena," I try to yell, but the knife is biting into my throat.
"Release the captives," Metriades orders his men. Xena raises the tent flap to watch. "Give them horses," she says. Metriades nods, and one of his men goes to see it is done. In a few long moments, I hear horses galloping from the camp.
"Now her," Xena says.
"No," Metriades' knife digs a little deeper, and I can't hold back my gasp.
"I know what your word is worth," Xena reminds him.
"I want to let her go," Metriades says. "Someone to tell how I killed the great Xena. Someone to tell how you died. For the glory of my god."
Xena reaches for her sword, and I'm glad, even as Metriades' knife hand tenses. Then she drops the sword on the ground, not far from where it rested before. Her weapon belt, chakram, and three daggers follow. "The other one," Metriades warns. The last blade is revealed and dropped with the others.
Metriades nods to his men, and they grab Xena. She lets them lead her to the thick pole that supports the center of the tent and does not struggle as they bind her with chains. Her eyes seeking mine, she says, "It's not your fault. Promises have been made."
Metriades pulls me from the bed and shoves me toward one of his men, who grasps me tightly around the shoulders. Metriades walks to a large box at one side of the tent. He reaches in carefully and pulls out a snake. It is striped and about as long as a man's forearm. As Metriades holds it firmly behind its rectangular head, it hisses and strikes the air.
"This is the way my master has decreed for you to die, Xena." Metriades approaches Xena with the viper.
"Who IS your god?" Xena asks. "If he has this much interest in my death, I think I should know."
"He never says his name," Metriades confides. "But I know. It is Ares, great god of war, who whispers his instructions in my ear."
Xena laughs. "Ares? Whisper? Sorry, Metriades, but I don't think so."
Metriades holds the snake near Xena's face. "Do you know what this is?"
"A worm?" she guesses. "It's so tiny. Hold it closer so I can see."
"This little. . . .worm will surprise you." He takes her at her word and brings the serpent ever closer to her eyes. "My little friend is an asp. Any bite will kill, but where he bites makes the difference in the manner and quickness of death."
"NO!" I scream and kick my captor, almost pulling from his strong grasp.
"Little girl, would you like to hold your friend's hand during her last moments? Let your bright eyes be her last sight on earth?"
For the first time, Xena tests her bonds. "No, Gabrielle, stay back!"
"I want to be with you, Xena," I plead. "I'm not afraid."
Metriades studies the snake in his hands before looking at me. "Then you're even more foolish than I thought. You try anything, and my little friend and I will see that the warrior's death is so agonizing the gods will weep." He orders my captor, "Bring her here, but hold her!"
He lets me come within a pace of Xena but won't let me touch her. I am close enough to feel heat and energy radiating from her. How can all this be stilled? Be cooled? And by what? A snake smaller around than a man's finger? Xena, the slayer of the great serpent of Locoan, fall victim to THAT?
Metriades moves the asp to Xena's leg and says, "It bites you here, and death is slow." He moves the asp away, and I tense, hoping for a chance. He places it near her throat. "It bites you here, and death is instant. Choose."
Xena looks into my eyes. "Will you let Gabrielle go now?"
Metriades is implacable. "No. She watches."
"Then make it quick."
I hear her words but know it is all a trick. Xena will break her bonds in a moment. She will free me, and together we will fight these bastards. Metriades lifts the asp again, but this time there's no tease. The asp bites the tender spot below Xena's jaw. Her eyes flutter for an instant, then hold steady with mine. And the radiance that lights those eyes from within is. . . .gone.
At the strike of the snake, the man who holds me jerks back, then relaxes his grip. Feeling my chance, I kick him in the knee and, lunging forward, grab the snake. As Metriades struggles to hold it, I feel a sting that becomes fire in my right hand. Seeing the strike, Metriades releases his hold. Many hands grab for me, but now I hold the asp, and it is a deadly weapon. I hold it tenderly, as if it is my child, and slowly bring it to my breast. I feel another sting, this one bursting outward, pain taking possession of my body. I try to say, ". . . .if that's the direction you choose."
I think I am in a cave, and it is very dark.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice.
"Yes, here," I reply.
"What did you do?" Xena's voice, annoyed.
The cave is still dark, but somehow I can see. Xena steps from shadows. Her leather and armor gone; she wears a short, light tunic. I realize it is the ceremonial gold and white tunic she wore once before. I look down. I wear my usual clothing.
"I had promises besides Metriades' that you would be released unharmed. So you must have done something." She folds her arms and gives me an accusing glare.
"I never was very good with snakes," I explain. I realize I'm holding something tightly in my right hand. It is the asp. Reflexively, I drop it to the ground. "It's dead."
Xena chuckles. "Gabrielle, Slayer of Serpents."
I shudder. "Now what? Is this Tartarus?"
"No, if it was Tartarus, you would know. Come, we have things to do." With Xena in the lead, we walk into a smaller cavern.
Although there are no torches, this cavern is light. It is circular in shape, and in the center is a stone altar like the one in Mantinaea. Beside the altar stands Tiro in her white gown. "Who enters?" she asks formally.
"Friends of the goddess," Xena answers in the same tone.
"Are you of the society of the goddess?"
"I am," Xena says. "The other is my dear companion."
"Approach the altar."
Xena takes my hand and leads me to within a few feet of the altar. She feels warm and solid, not the insubstantial wraith I'm expecting. She pushes me down. "Kneel" Tired of being pushed and pulled around, I obey nevertheless. Xena, too, starts to kneel, but Tiro takes both her hands and prevents her from doing so. Tiro drops Xena's hands and places her own on either side of Xena's face. Xena leans down the short distance that is necessary, and Tiro kisses her tenderly on each cheek, as a fond mother greets a prodigal child.
"I've been waiting, Daughter," Tiro says, and I wonder if this is still part of the formula.
"I know, Mother. It took time for me to understand. And more time for events to be arranged."
Tiro looks in my direction. "The girl?"
"She. . . .volunteered."
Tiro laughs. "Then she can assist me."
Xena's voice shows concern. "Mother, I have shed blood. And she is not of the society."
Tiro places a finger against Xena's lips. "Forget the rules. I am she who makes the rules." Tiro motions me to join her at the altar, and I do. "Child, do as I ask. Do not question or argue. Do you understand?"
I open my mouth to speak, then only nod. Tiro pats my cheek approvingly. "Give me what I need. All right?" I look at the objects on the altar and, realizing I've seen Tegea fulfill this office, nod again.
Tiro faces Xena and talks only to her. "Remember these words and these actions so you may perform them. Grain is the life of the earth, given to mortals so they may live. By scattering it on the earth, we give back some of the bounty we have been given." She holds out a hand. I pick up a small bowl of barley and place it in her outstretched palm. Tiro scatters some of the grain around Xena's feet, then scatters the rest in a circle that encompasses the three of us and the altar. Finished, she returns the empty bowl to me.
Tiro again faces Xena and continues to instruct her. "As grain is survival, fruit is knowledge beyond survival. Grain makes life, but fruit makes life worth living." I place a piece of fruit and a bone knife in Tiro's hand. In doing so, I touch its blade and am surprised that bone can be honed so sharp.
Tiro cuts a small slice from the fruit. There is no sacrificial flame, and I wonder what she will do. She eats this slice, the goddess share.
Tiro cuts the remainder of the fruit in two. She turns and places one portion in my mouth. It is very sweet and sour; it is bitter; the fruit holds every flavor I have ever known and some I've not yet tasted.
Tiro places the other piece in Xena's mouth, and I see on Xena's face the same look of wonder that must be on my own.
The priestess reaches out her hand, and I look at the altar. All that is left is an empty stone bowl, the twin of the one that held the grain. I hand this to her. Tiro hands the bone knife to Xena. Xena takes the knife in her left hand and, in one swift motion, slices her own right palm. I step forward, but it's too late to interfere. Bright red blood wells up in the cut, then pours out. How can this be? Do the dead bleed?
Xena turns her hand, which now cups the scarlet fluid, and lets it pour into the bowl held by Tiro. As Tiro reaches out her hand again, I see one more thing on the altar, a small roll of white cloth. I hand this to Tiro, who quickly binds Xena's hand. Xena winces. Can all this be real?
Tiro holds the bowl above her head and turns to each of the directions before facing Xena again. "For all the bounty the earth offers, for the life-sustaining grain and the soul-sustaining fruit, this is all mankind can give in return."
To my horror, Tiro offers Xena the bowl, and Xena drinks. Tiro approaches me, and I shrink back. "Drink, my child. One sip. Let this offering be accepted."
I look in the bowl. I see no offering, only my friend's blood, bright red and smelling like copper.
"If those who continue to live refuse the sacrifice of those who don't, is not that sacrifice in vain?" Tiro's voice is soothing, gently persuasive. I let her hold the bowl to my mouth.
"No." Xena's voice cuts between Tiro and me like the knife through flesh. Tiro steps back. She holds Xena's eyes with hers as she herself drinks the blood.
"The sacrifice is completed. The ceremony is completed."
My eyes close and, when I open them, Tiro is gone. Xena's arms are around me, and she is petting my hair. I lean my weight against her for a moment, then pull back. I take Xena's right hand. It is still bandaged, with some red seeping through at the palm. I hold it to my cheek.
"Gabrielle," Xena says gently, "we have to leave."
"Where to?" I remember what I've promised. "To Hades?"
"No, up." She gestures to what looks like a small tunnel. I've not seen this opening before. The tunnel looks dark, damp, and uninviting. Seeming to read my thoughts, Xena adds, "Beyond is life."
Xena bends to enter the tunnel, and I follow. It is a tight fit. At first we crawl. Then, as the tunnel narrows, we creep and even slither. Finally, we must fight the walls for every inch of progress. If I reach ahead, I can touch Xena's foot to make sure she is still there. I wonder how Xena, with her broader shoulders, is able to move at all.
Finally, when I feel I can move no farther, I feel hands reaching under each of my shoulders. Xena's strong hands, I'm sure. She pulls, and I come free of the tunnel. Xena continues pulling and lifts me to my feet. I hug her tightly around the waist, unwilling to ever let go. I hear and feel her laugh. "I should spank you for including yourself in that little adventure."
"My mother said the midwife did that--and I started talking."
I realize no bright sunlight has greeted us. Looking up through tree branches, I see stars. They are a welcome, if cold and distant, sight.
"Where are our bodies?" I ask.
"I think these ARE our bodies. Do you want to go back to Metriades' tent and see?"
"No. I would rather not. This feels like my body. And this. . . ." I hug her tighter. ". . . .feels like yours." I notice something and step back. Xena is dressed again in black leather and wearing her armor. "You certainly weren't wearing THAT when we squeezed throught the tunnel!"
Xena whistles, and Argo appears through the trees. Xena's sword, weapon belt, and chakram are tied to her saddle. "Hey, where is my staff?" I complain.
Taking down and donning her scabbard and weapon belt, Xena promises, "Your presence was unexpected--by everyone. We'll get you another staff."
"Well, I'll need some weapon when we make our return visit on Metriades," I say.
"We're not going back there, Gabrielle," Xena answers.
"You mean he's just going to get away with all this?" I can't believe I'm the one who has to urge Xena to action.
"Metriades isn't going to 'get away' with anything. He has no power. His army is destroyed. And I'm sure his god will be far harsher with him than I ever could be." She stares me down. "Let it be. We have more important things to attend to."
"The temple," I guess.
"Right. We finish that business first." She mounts Argo and reaches down to help me up. "And don't forget: My army awaits my return."
Xena and I arrive at Mantinaea while it is still dark. We emerge from the forest beside the small house that was so briefly our home. It is no surprise that Tegea awaits us. She kisses my cheek and inclines her head to Xena with a new deference. "All is prepared," she says.
"I'll be there soon," Xena replies, and Tegea leaves, as if dismissed.
"Another ceremony?" I ask.
Xena smiles ruefully. "The last one. Tegea is meant to be Tiro's successor, not I."
"Aren't you going to change your clothes?"
Xena looks down at her leather and armor. "Not this time. For a little while, to quote Tiro, I'm the one who makes the rules."
"Then make one more change," I say. I take Xena's bandaged hand in mine. "No more blood, all right?"
"No more blood," she agrees. "Enough has been spilled." Xena leaves, and I shut the door. I've had enough of goddesses and ceremonies to last quite a while. To the soft sound of women chanting, I go to sleep.
Xena wakes me with pan bread just after dawn. "No feast this time, Gabrielle." I eat hungrily, unable to remember my last meal. Xena holds out a cup.
"Barley soup or kykeon?" I ask.
"Milk," she answers. "One of the women found a goat."
We have one more task, and Xena and I hurry toward it. We enter the army encampment and ride directly to the main tent. Osantes greets us as we dismount.
"Xena," he says and gives her a soldier's greeting. He nods to me, "Gabrielle."
"Tell me how things stand," Xena orders as we enter the tent. I see that there are now pallets on the ground, and a few wounded men are being cared for there. Astoni kneels beside one unconscious man and holds his hand. I'm surprised she's here instead of with Tegea.
"We had only twenty-three seriously wounded. Each group cared for their own. Astoni organized the care of the others, the ones not part of any group. Just these seven are here now," Osantes reports.
Astoni rises and walks to us. She smiles tiredly. "Xena, all but that one poor boy should make it." Xena starts to go to him, but Astoni stops her. "It's no use. He had an arrow through his spine."
"An arrow?" Xena looks surprised. "Then he was. . . ."
"Sh," Astoni warns her. "He was one of Metriades' horsemen. None of the other wounded men have figured it out. Not that it matters. He'll be dead before evening."
Xena nods. "How many dead?"
"Four here," Astoni informs her. "Osantes?"
"Twelve on the field."
"TWELVE?" Xena clearly can't believe it.
"On our side," Osantes says. "The other side was a different matter. Again, each of our separate groups cared for their own dead after their customs. The rest, enemy and friend, my men and I placed on pyres and burned yesterday. Everyone in the camp has stayed healthy. Oh, yeah, and one baby was born yesterday. A boy, but I wouldn't be surprised if his name is. . . ."
"Don't say it, friend," Xena interrupts. "Has anyone left?"
Osantes grins. "Goddess be praised, the LoSethe disappeared right after the battle!"
"Gather the men for review. Same order as before the battle," Xena directs.
Osantes nods sharply and strides away. Xena and I walk through the big tent and talk with the wounded men. Xena examines their wounds and is pleased with the work Astoni has done. Each man thanks Xena as if she has done him a great boon. We pause for a moment beside the young man for whom Astoni has predicted death. Xena motions to the other men. "He doesn't look any different from them, does he Gabrielle? Yet he joined a different army, making him the enemy. And for that, I had him killed."
Xena straightens. Saying goodbye to Astoni, we leave the tent. With Xena leading Argo, we walk silently to the north side of the camp. There Xena's soldiers stand waiting. Xena places a hand on my shoulder briefly, then mounts and rides slowly to the front of the line. Beyond is the battlefield where she so recently led their charge. I follow to stand this time in the front ranks.
I have often thought of seeing Xena as she had once been, proud warlord, fierce chieftain at the head of her great army. Now, as she rides along the front, acknowledging each group, each soldier who risked all for this victory, I am seeing it--and it is beautiful and terrifying. Xena is beautiful and terrifying. As she did when preparing them for war, Xena rides slowly down the whole line, then races Argo back its length, this time in salute to her soldiers' bravery. The cry begins again. "Xena! Xena!" I feel its rhythm and want to shout myself.
Unbidden there comes a thought. Should she give all this up as she has done before? With these men as the core, she could build an army that could rule the world. With the power she would wield, Xena could end all the petty rivalries and wars and bring about a fairness the world has never known. . . .I shudder. Although the thoughts may be my own, I feel a presence I have known before. "Be gone, serpent," I say aloud, and the unwelcome presence is gone.
Xena stops in front of her troops. She accepts their cheers for a few more moments, then motions them to quiet. I know the first part of what she will say because I have helped her with it. "There is the battlefield where all of you fought bravely. There you have left your blood, and some of you have left forever comrades and friends. Those for whom this was your first battle left your innocence there as well. By making these sacrifices, you have defeated a great darkness that would have been a blight on this land. Thank you."
Xena looks up and down the silent line, and I wait, as do these hundreds for what she will say next. It is said quietly, but in a voice that carries to every man. "Now go home."
I stand on a peak in the high mountains. I am not alone, for an eagle has come down from the lonely heights to perch nearby on her nest of woven sticks. Something lies near my feet, and I see that it is a large snake. Dead. I kick it and watch as it falls to the valley floor below. I look in the eagle's nest and see one egg, perfect and safe. The eagle spreads its wings to soar again in the dawning. It gazes down one last time before reaching the heights, and I realize its eyes are the color of the Thracian sky.