XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS APOCALYPSE
BOOK 1 NEMESIS
By Brigit M. Morgan
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence, graphic violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
BLATANT HISTORIC AND SCIENTIFIC DISREGARD DISCLAIMER: What would a X: WP story be without the sacrifice of historic and scientific accuracy in favor of the spinning of good yarns? Names, dates, eras, the Latin language itself, etc. have been butchered and badgered into compliance with this rogue bards vision. If that offends you¾ how did you ever sit through an episode of the show?
COPYRIGHT: Xena, Gabrielle, Eve and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
THE BETA BAND: Last, but in no way least, Id like to send out one million and one "Thank Yous!!" to my fantastic Beta readers¾ without which this story would never have been finished (or if it was, it would be full of the kind of gawky and geeky grammar that is present in my disclaimers section¾ which they never got to look at ) Their patience and enthusiasm are greatly prized and appreciated by yours truly. Thank you: Alydar, Beta Barb, Cybernana and Xenasbard!
The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. . . . I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.
¾ Eugène Ionesco, Present PastPast Present
PROLOGUE Palatine Hill
Countless in the surrounding darkness, the sounds of night were carried to Her one at a time, naked in the still air. She closed Her eyes allowing each to pass through Her.
Insects set up a steady drone with their chattering; a foundation upon which other sounds layered themselves. Soon softer, subtle timbres added their tones to the darkness: a dripping cistern, a stable doors rusty hinge¾ each one identified, processed, and situated by Her ear in the hazy summer night.
Somewhere, just beyond the quiet copse of trees where She was hidden, an old man stood, sneakily eating a sweet. The dessert had been simple to identify¾ layers of a honey-soaked pastry peeling with an unmistakable sound. The grinding, guilty gnawing of rounded teeth had betrayed his Secret and his age. She almost smiled at his startled jump when a female voice called out for him.
Further away, a child sobbed at an open window. Sniffles trailed off into the trees above his home. The shift in their pitch indicated when he had cast his eyes to the star-filled sky above. His tiny fingers creaked as they clenched tightly into a fist.
She began to regulate Her breathing, focusing it in the abdomen. Standing with eyes closed, She flexed muscles into readiness¾ one by one filling them with blood. Her ears continued to pull sounds from the air as if from a ball of thread, weaving them carefully into an image.
She could hear someone, most likely a Senator and one of his slaves using a nearby stable. The grunting of their rough and practical lust was easy, though unappetizing to visualize. It was upsetting the horses¾ they pawed the ground and swished their tails with a nicker.
She opened Her eyes.
The town house lay still in the night, though not silent. She had been focused on it most of all¾ centering Herself. Through the din of the arid night, the sounds emanating from this stone building had been louder than the blood in her ears.
She glided silently from Her hiding place, breaking into a steady and controlled jog. Padding closer, She drew Her sword. Carefully synchronizing Her movements to fall in time with the rhythms and melodies of the evening, She made no sound.
The cedar door was unlocked¾ She had heard it gently tapping against its frame. There had not been a steady breeze in Rome for more than a month; the faint tap meant a presence in the room beyond. Quietly inhaling, She pushed on the door and entered.
She found him just on the other side of the portal, as She knew She would¾ an older man in a simple gray toga, slicing a cold leg of lamb. His back was to Her, an added advantage, but one She didnt require. There was the smell of unwashed hair and burning tallow in the air. She moved towards him.
Detecting the open door, the man wheeled around¾ a blank look on his stupid face. She swung Her blade¾ so gently, so easily that his eyes did not register pain. The blood sprayed first¾ strong, horribly red and in time with the heart. She checked Her swing slightly¾ ruining everything useful in his neck, though sparing him from a quick death. Her Master had not wished it, and had asked that the man die knowing who had ordered his death. She watched him, wondering if he did.
His hand went to his neck, foolishly hoping to stem the flowing incarnadine. She looked into his eyes as he feebly attempted to speak. The mans face danced in a flurry of emotions. She wondered if he could see the complex look on his face reflected in the polished silver of Her mask, or in Her helmet. Could he see his eyes become glassy and blank?
Someone was coming down the hall. She turned to Her left and met the gaze of a shorter, older woman carrying a basket of laundry. Dressed in a coarse, simple shift the woman was probably the mans housekeeper. A terrified and angry look played across the womans face when she saw Her standing over the bleeding man.
The strike was quick and probably painless¾ so quick that the womans arms rose to protect her neck an instant after the sword had done its work. Blood began to stain the clothes spilled across the floor.
An angry shout erupted from a young throat, and She almost rolled Her eyes. A young man, most likely the housekeepers son had emerged from the cold cellar and had watched his mothers corpse slump to the ground¾ arms raised. He now advanced vengefully, a kitchen knife in his hand.
Such a good son¾ so brave, and so young. He held the crude blade clumsily in his calloused hand. She adjusted Her stance only slightly against Her new opponent. This would not be the first time She had killed a young man, or a brave man, or someones son.
She shut the door, sliding silently back into the night. The humidity pounced upon Her, sticking to the skin beneath Her armor. Sheathing Her sword She paused just in front of the home. A gentle breeze played in the tops of the trees and with the crimson drapery of Her cape.
Once again, She let Her ears sketch out the unseen. The child, the old man, the master and his slave¾ gone now¾ the absence filled with softer sounds lisping like silk swatches in a gentle breeze. The Palatine Hill rested easily against the warm darkness. She passed softly back into the night. Behind Her the house laid mute, silent, not betraying the darkness She had composed within its heart.
PART 1 Odio Roma
CHAPTER I. Are we there yet?
The girl stopped to wipe her brow. Even sheltered in the shade of the woods, the days heat managed to wrench sweat from her body. She sniffed at herself. It was making her stink, too. She put her light pack down, unstopped the water skin she carried and gulped its contents greedily.
"Phew!" she exhaled. The heat and still air of the forest were making her eyes unbearably heavy. Eating that extra bowl of stew at the last tavern probably didnt help, either. She wiped a tendril of damp hair from her face and surveyed her surroundings. They seemed perfect for an early afternoon nap.
Plenty of shade, soft earth¾ the path wouldnt move parallel to the main road for a while yet, so there would be no chance of strangers happening upon her. Unless someone decided to use this old path But who would? It was considerably overgrown, therefore neglected¾ and she was a light sleeper, so a persons footfalls would be easy to hear. Of course, if they were some kind of warrior or soldier, they might move silently through the underbrush and
What was she doing to herself? She needed a nap, and a nap she was going to have. Warriors, strangers, soldiers be damned!
From her pack she rounded up her bedroll and set about finding the softest patch of earth to lay it upon. Not too close to the younger trees, whose roots would poke out of the earth and into her back. Stay away from ditches, too¾ moisture tended to collect there. Although, considering it hadnt rained in a long time, that might not be a problem. Eventually, she found a soft and mossy spot under an old elm, and began smoothing out her space.
Thats when the feelings of guilt set in. Funny, she thought, I dont remember unpacking those. She sighed, shaking her head. Always distracting her from what she really wanted, she had promised herself that she wouldnt listen to those feelings anymore. It was a promise she could never seem to keep.
She nodded as she made some calculations. There would still be plenty of time to get to where she had to, a little nap couldnt hurt¾ she was still a growing girl of eighteen, after all. Sure she had promised to get there on time, but its not like she would be hours late, right? Maybe an hour or two¾ but no more than three. She lay on the bedroll, smiling approvingly at how soft and comfortable the spot she had chosen really was¾ as though the gods themselves had picked it for her. And who was she to argue with the gods?
Covering her head from the light of midday, she was soon fast asleep.
She was just beginning to dream when a twig snapped ominously somewhere nearby.
"Damn it Lantro!" a hushed voice exclaimed. "Its always you what goes and snaps the twig, aint it?"
She poked her head from under the covers. There was nothing to be seen in her direct line of sight. She began to turn slowly around in her bedroll to get a better look.
"Sorry," the other voice apologized meekly. "I have big feet for my size. Its not always easy for me to "
"I have big feet for my size," the first voice mocked. "Not a big brain though, eh? All that work for nothi "
"Shut up, the two of you!" a third voice barked. "Theres nothing for it now. Cmon!"
She finished turning and immediately saw where the voices came from: three surly-looking types, each with poorly kept, though no-less dangerous looking swords.
Well, here goes She sat up and flashed her best grin¾ which, she had to admit, was not too shabby.
"Hi!" she chirped.
The lead scumbag flashed his best grin¾ it didnt amount to much.
"Well hello there, little girly," he cooed. "What is it that yer doing out here under the trees, all alone-like?"
"Uhm just taking a nap."
The mans filthy smile widened, "Some beauty sleep, is it?" The other men chortled. "Not too much I hope, or wed have to poke out our eyes from gazing upon such a wondrous sight," he laughed.
Trying hard not to roll her eyes and groan, the girl feigned bashfulness instead, and slowly rose to her feet. "Right Wouldnt want that to happen "
"Whats yer name little lamb?" the brigand asked, advancing with the other two moving towards her as well.
"Mira," the girl responded. This was it; he was going to grab her.
He did, just above the wrist.
"Well Mira," the man licked his peeling lips, sprouting them into a twisted leer. "Nap time is over "
"Really?" Mira asked, quickly wrenching her wrist free of the mans grip with a push forward, knocking him off balance. She spun, planting a solid roundhouse kick to his jaw, sending him to the ground. "Then why are you lying down?"
Probably prompted by the shock of the situation, the one with the big feet, Lantro, made a really stupid noise. Mira would laugh when she would recall it later¾ a cross between a nervous titter, an uncontrollable snort of surprise and something entirely of his own design, it sounded a lot like "Shnorph-um!"
The other one, the largest moved towards her with terrible purpose. She would have to eliminate him as quickly as possible, or stay away from him at all costs. Never one to avoid a challenge, Mira chose the first option.
Running straight at him, she managed to land several blows to his legs and groin area knocking the big man to one knee. He reached with his meaty hand and grabbed hold of her shirt. She quickly double-chopped his temples, making his tongue loll out and his grip weaken. Back-flipping away from him, Mira spiraled out of his grasp¾ and into the leaders vice-like bear hug.
"Yer not going anywhere, girly," he chuckled into her ear.
She could smell the teeth rotting in his mouth, and hear the sticky inhalation from his broken nose. He began to squeeze harder. Miras breath was wrenched from her lungs, stars appearing before her eyes. As her head grew lighter, she felt as though her body was leaving the ground.
Snapping out of it, she realized she really was above the ground. The leader had lifted her over his head with both hands. She hadnt the strength to struggle¾ her head dizzy, her vision blurry. With an air of brutal finality, the leader slammed her to the ground with crushing, violent force.
"There!" he said. "Thats how its done."
Mira was not unconscious, but could not move. It was not so much that she was paralyzed¾ just suffering an amount of pain substantial enough to make motion an appealing, though unobtainable possibility. Her head spun out of control, her stomach lurching with every turn.
"Whats the point of bein a big man Andros if ye let little girls beat up on ye?" the leader asked.
"Ssssurprised " was the best the wheezing Andros could do.
Lantro found this pretty amusing, and began guffawing uncontrollably.
"And you," the leader growled at the large-footed man. "Yer as useless as tits on a bull."
Surprisingly, Lantro found this equally hilarious and continued to guffaw.
"Ah shaddup!" the leader spit, to no avail. He moved towards Mira. "Well now girly," the man grinned, blood trickling from his nose. "As I was sayin, yer not goin anywhere¾ not until were finished with you, at least."
Andros had gotten up and approached from where he had been kneeling. Lantro continued to laugh, his giggling taking on a more sinister tone.
Mira tried to move, to breathe and wasnt getting very far with either. Well this was it, she thought. This is what happens when you take a nap instead of just walking like you were supposed to.
"Hey boys," a steely female voice introduced itself. "Thats no way to treat a lady."
The men spun around¾ well, two of them did. Instead of turning, Lantro fell to the ground unconscious, never even catching a glimpse of who had struck him with a well-placed blow to the back of the head. The leader growled, Andros jaw hung open, and the newcomer stood, staring them both down.
She was a small woman, but judging from her muscular build and hardened stare it wouldnt matter. Her hair was golden blonde and cropped short, framing a beautiful face and intelligent green eyes. Dressed in sleek armor and battle leathers, and armed with a dangerous-looking sword, she was an impressive sight.
When they were able to speak again, Andros and Morvan (the leader) would argue over her age. Both men placing her near thirty, but not agreeing on which side. It was a common argument for the woman did not look all of her thirty-six years. Her age rarely showed, and then it was only when you carefully looked in her eyes, and only at the right moment.
Andros attacked first. It was not that he was especially brave¾ and while not a prime candidate for Platos Academy (or even for some of the less distinguished Community Academies)¾ he wasnt especially stupid either. The big man was simply what people would call a basher¾ a guy you paid a couple of dinars to if you wanted someones face bloodied. Morvan, or anyone else for that matter, couldnt blame him for being predictable.
The woman simply sidestepped the charging hulk, using her foot and Andros misplaced momentum to throw him to the ground. He crumpled loudly in a susurrus of fallen leaves. A quick and powerful blow to the back of his head rendered him unconscious.
The woman straightened into a relaxed battle stance, sword at the ready. Her eyes calmly met Morvans.
"Thats quite a sword youve got there," she said, not too wryly¾ motioning to the glorified kitchen knife Morvan was brandishing.
"Itll do me fine against the likes of you," he spat. "Im not as dim as my friends."
"Im sure," the woman said, smirking.
Mira had snuck up behind the pudgy leader with a rather large rock¾ the woman seeing this, decided to extend the usual period of taunting a little and wait for the inevitable. As soon as Mira was in position, she raised the big rock slowly above her head. Licking her lips in anticipation she aimed for a vulnerable, and slightly pimply portion of Morvans skull.
Thats when the twig snapped under her foot.
Morvan wheeled around with a surprised yell, swinging blindly with his blade. The girls close proximity to the man saved her life. Instead of impaling her with his rusty knife, Morvan clubbed her with his meaty forearm¾ throwing Mira to the ground, a surprised look on her face.
The bloody-nosed man made to stab at the fallen girl, when suddenly there was a whoosh of air and a loud clang. Morvan fell face down into the dirt beside Mira. There was a nasty looking welt on the back of his skull. The blonde woman, standing where she had been all along, held a dangerous-looking metal ring in her hand.
Mira smirked, "Took you long enough."
Gabrielle winked, placing the chakram back onto her belt. "A dramatic entrance is an essential tool of the trade."
Mira grinned as she dusted herself off. "Almost had him," she rolled her eyes. "Stepping on a twig is so cliché."
Gabrielle offered the girl a hand, "Though very much a part of being a sidekick, Im afraid." The woman smiled warmly as she lifted Mira to her feet. "Trust me, I should know," she said.
After Mira had collected her things, they began walking. It was now mid-afternoon.
"How did you know I would take the path?" Mira asked, diverting her eyes.
"You mean beside the fact that I asked you not to?" Gabrielle smiled.
The girl blushed, fidgeting with her pack. "Yeah, well..."
They continued along in silence for a bit. The forest was alive with all manner of birds and bugs and Mira was glad for the noise, hoping it would cover the sound of blood rushing uncontrollably to her head in embarrassment. She pushed a lock of brown hair behind her ear.
Feeling she had let the girl simmer nicely, Gabrielle turned. "One puzzling thing, though," she asked. "What was your bedroll doing out? Those mean men didnt try to steal it, did they?"
"Well, uhm they grabbed for my pack and uhm you know how Im always telling you that Ive been having trouble with that strap uhm right? Well I guess it came undone and the roll uhm " Miras voice became very tiny. "Just popped out." It was unconvincing, even to her.
"And neatly unfurled itself underneath that shady elm?" the older woman finished.
Mira bit her lip. "Yes?"
"Mm-hmm," Gabrielle smirked.
"Hey, I changed the plans a little, so what? It was your idea to split up and let them follow me," the girl narrowed her brown eyes slightly. "You know, sometimes I like to do things my way," Mira couldnt stop the words from leaving her lips.
Gabrielle looked into the girls eyes. "Listen, you dont get to change the plans, got it? Thats just another part of being a sidekick youll need to get used to."
The warriors gaze remained focused, unwavering in intensity. Miras mouth hung open¾ try as she might, nothing would come out. The girl wasnt used to this side of the older woman.
"I Im sorry," was the best she could do.
Gabrielles green eyes softened somewhat. "Look, I know you do a pretty good job of taking care of yourself," she started. "It just makes it easier for me to help when you are where you say you are, right?"
"Right " Mira mumbled.
"I should thank you for one thing, though," Gabrielle smirked.
Mira raised her eyes. "Huh? For what?"
"The look on your face when that twig snapped made my week." Gabrielle bugged out her eyes and made an "o" of her mouth, in imitation. Mira burst into peals of grateful laughter, followed by Gabrielle. The two began to walk along the path once again.
Gabrielle had not meant to sound so harsh. She had always assumed the girl would change the original plan. Traveling the main road was hot and tiring, so it was obvious to the warrior that Mira would leave the dust and grit and seek the shade. Mira was also stubborn and adventurous¾ a dangerous combination.
Reminds me of someone I know, Gabrielle smirked.
Growing up on the streets of Corinth, the girl could handle herself under most circumstances and that was why Gabrielle had tolerated her presence originally. It was why she found herself taking the girl under her wing.
So why am I so upset?
Gabrielle looked up into the sun-tickled tops of the trees as they walked along¾ she adjusted her pack and sighed. She knew what was upsetting her.
It had started right as Mira snapped the twig behind the big leader. Gabrielle knew what would happen next¾ the leader would swing wildly, stabbing at Mira with his knife. She had known what would happen; yet had still reacted too late.
By the time the chakram had left her hand, the brute had hit Mira and she was falling. For a brief second Gabrielle thought he had stabbed the girl, and her heart sank. She realized soon enough that her friend was unharmed, but the initial shock never left. That shock had become misplaced anger, and eventually transformed into the miasma of doubt currently buzzing around the warriors head.
Doubt was nothing new to her. It had always been part of her life¾ a nagging in the back of her head. When you were a girl from a simple farm-town who would never be happy with a simple farm-life, doubt was the voice that pleaded with you to give in and accept what the Fates had presented you with.
When walking the path of the warrior, doubt became a monster she was forced to defeat everyday. Even as a veteran of countless battles, Gabrielle still felt the same degree of fear she had felt in her guts from the first time her life was in danger. She had just become better at dealing with it¾ forgetting about it. She had never been afraid of dying¾ especially after doing it and coming back a couple of times. The numerous close calls, various demons, gods, warlords, and all around cutthroats that threatened her pretty much everyday had often numbed her to the constant threat.
So where was this coming from, then?
The sun beat heavily down upon them as they left the woods and took to the main road. It stretched like a snakes shed skin, parched and dusty into the horizon. A milestone gleamed brightly in the midday sun, just up ahead. Gabrielle sighed and shifted her pack. Mira looked over at the sullen face of the older woman.
"This sun is something else, huh?"
Gabrielle was still lost in her melancholy. "Yes. Yes it is," she answered quite absently.
"Do you mind if I walk under the shade of your furrowed brow?" Mira asked dryly.
"Huh? Oh " Gabrielle smiled warmly, despite her mood. "I was just remembering " her voice trailed off.
Mira wasnt sure if she was supposed to bite, but she did anyway. "Remembering what?"
Gabrielle squinted as they walked side by side down the road. "Oh, just things," she sighed. "Like how much I hate where were going."
"Why?" Mira asked. "Outside of the usual reasons of course."
Gabrielle glanced sideways at the younger woman with an enigmatic and not entirely mirthful smirk.
"Because its sort of where I died once."
She continued down the road, leaving the stammering girl in the dust.
They had traveled along for a few more hours when the younger woman decided to make her move.
"So," Mira probed half-teasingly. "Do I finally get to read The Scrolls?"
Gabrielle crossed her arms in mock admonishment. "Not after that shortcut fiasco."
"Aw cmon!" Mira pleaded. "Half the people we run into talk about how amazing your stories were¾ at least the half that isnt running away from you, or who need your help with something."
Gabrielle smirked at that. "Anyone who remembers my stories couldnt run away unless I helped them."
Mira snickered, "So? The point is they still remember your stories."
Gabrielles shoulders fell with a self-effacing shift, as though she was shrugging off a mantle that had made her appear much larger than she truly was. "Still," she said quietly. "I havent written or told a story in years."
"You dont forget how to do that sort of thing," Mira said. "Not when youre a natural."
Gabrielle looked at the thin girl skeptically. "A natural," she said. "And how would you know I was a natural? I just told you I havent told a proper story in years."
"Not a proper story, no," Mira said. "But just the way you talk about your memories¾ where youve been, what youve done, who youve known..."
This last part she let trail off, realizing she may have entered dangerous ground. She needed to react quickly. "Besides," Mira continued. "I know a natural when I see one." She flashed her very charming little grin.
Gabrielle remained unconvinced, though obviously under the spell of the girls smile. This gave Mira all the momentum she needed.
"Hey! Even that old Homer guy up in Athens said you were a natural," the girl said, grinning. "Said you were even better than him."
Gabrielle blushed slightly as she remembered her old friends compliments.
"Wouldnt be hard, though," the girl continued. "That story he told us put me to sleep!"
Gabrielle shook her head. "The Iliad put you to sleep?!?"
"I meant almost," Mira quickly tried to recover. "Almost put me to sleep."
"What part was it: the decade of brutal fighting, the intervention of the gods, or the forbidden love that almost destroyed two nations?!?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"I dont know," Mira said. "It was too long, thats all." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Epically long," she added.
Gabrielle shook her head and laughed.
Mira waved a finger at the warrior, "Hey, dont change the subject on me!"
"I wasnt." Gabrielle raised her hands as a look of almost angelic innocence crossed her face.
Mira scowled. "Im reading those scrolls!" she stated.
"Fine, fine," Gabrielle laughed. "If Virgil hasnt burned them to make it through a long winters night, you can read all you like."
The girl smiled triumphantly, walking with a newfound spring in her step.
"That is why were going, isnt it?" Mira asked. "Writing, I mean?"
Gabrielle looked towards the hilltop they were about to crest.
"Thats right," she sighed.
Mira suddenly realized something and turned.
"Say, Gabrielle, why did you stop "
"Mira," the warrior cut her off. She leveled her green eyes at the young woman, "Dont."
Mira blinked. "But "
Gabrielle maintained her sea colored glare. "Enough."
Mira relented, but made a secret pact with herself to keep chipping away on that one. There had been a number of times when Gabrielle had marked certain of her memories off limits¾ but with some well-timed questions and just the right pout or grin, Mira had managed to learn quite a bit about the often laconic blonde warrior.
While she thought about this, a sad look passed over the young girls face. She maintained the same brisk pace as her older friend, moving a little closer to her.
It soon became obvious that Mira wanted to speak but was maintaining a painful, though respectful silence. The girl began to wring her hands and tap them against her thighs impatiently. Sometimes, she would turn her head slightly, barely parting her lips before thinking better of it and continuing along quietly. Other moments would find her moving various items between the myriad of hidden pockets in her leather vest and her forest-colored tunic.
Gabrielle managed to hide the grin that threatened to erupt from inside of her. She rolled her eyes and smirked at the irony of history holding up its cruel little mirror to her.
I remember exactly how she feels.
The warrior smiled inwardly, as she often did around the girl.
"Hey there it is!" Mira said. "Rome."
They had crested a hill and could see the great city in the valley below them. It was hard to make out the details as they approached from the north¾ the buildings were partially obscured by a thick layer of shimmering haze. Mira shifted uncomfortably and grabbed for her waterskin.
"Were almost there," Gabrielle said. "Virgil should be meeting us well before we hit the gates."
Mira straightened slightly and took a large gulp of water. Squinting down the road, she wiped her lips and gestured.
"Looks like someones coming."
A small cart drawn by two donkeys was kicking up the dry, loose dust of the road in the distance.
"That would be Virgil," Gabrielle grinned warmly and raised her arm in a happy wave.
Within minutes, the slow moving cart shuddered to a stop before them. Mira could see that the vehicle was one of very good construction and undoubtedly expensive.
The driver was slouched almost drunkenly in the drivers seat, a floppy straw hat obscuring his face. He wore an array of silks that probably kept him cool in the unrelenting burn of the sun. Miras hand gently brushed the nose of the donkey closest to her.
"Well," Gabrielle stepped towards the cart, gesturing to the donkeys. "I see a writers salary hasnt improved since the last time I was here," she smiled.
A hand tipped the straw hat from a face that was mischievous and strikingly handsome. The tanned mans grin was roguish and free¾ like a wild fox playing at the edge of a town, just out of reach. He appeared to be about the same age as Gabrielle but, while not unhealthy, was nowhere as fit as the warrior. Regardless, it was hard for Mira to pry her eyes from the older mans face¾ suddenly she found the day had become much warmer. The girl adjusted the front of her suede breeches.
He wryly indicated Gabrielles travel-worn boots, and then smiled at the road-weary and somewhat parched blonde.
"Nor a warriors, it would appear," he said, smirking.
They both erupted into laughter and Virgil sprang easily from the cart and scooped up his friend in his large arms.
"Its been too long, Gabrielle," he said, obviously with more emotion than he had intended.
They separated, remaining at arms length, gazing fondly at each other.
"You know it had nothing to do with you, Virgil," Gabrielle offered.
"I know," Virgil nodded, sadly. "Now," he brightened and flashed his smile at Mira. "Who is this?"
Like an apple tumbling from a bowl and rolling across a table, a smile fell clumsily upon Miras face in answer. She put the donkey she was absently scratching between herself and the tall man.
Gabrielle smirked knowingly, "Virgil, this is Mira. A good friend."
Mira wasnt sure how she didnt explode from the dangerous concoction of pride, embarrassment, bashfulness and attraction that the combination of Virgils gaze and Gabrielles endorsement of friendship had elicited within her.
Virgil floated around the donkey, running his fingers up its nose until he swept up Miras hand in his own. He grinned at the young girl.
"Mira," Virgil poured the name from his tongue like an oyster might its pearl. He held her hand. "A beautiful name," he purred.
Mira could only manage a breathy, "Thank you."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Virgil, you could charm the mane off a lion," she laughed.
"Maybe," he smiled. "Though one must practice hard when living in such a charmless place," he motioned to the great city behind them.
Gabrielle nodded. "Well," she grimaced. "Lets get this over with."
Virgil helped Mira into the back of the cart and Gabrielle got in beside her. She handed the obviously tired girl the water skin.
"Make sure you drink plenty of liquids," Gabrielle sighed. "This place has a way of sucking the life right out of you."
Soon the cart had turned and was making its way towards the city.
CHAPTER II. Roman Wilderness
It was a matter of pride to Mira that she was extremely well traveled for someone so young. That said, she had never seen such a busy place. Even the markets and streets of Athens or Thebes were small by comparison.
Peoples faces were different, too. The eyes seemed harder, more focused on where they were going, or what they were doing. You got the impression they would walk right over you if you didnt keep your wits.
Miras head spun with stimulus as she stepped easily through the sweaty throng. At least six different languages buzzed in her ears. Her nose inhaled smells both sweet and sickening. Merchants held out brightly colored ceramics, spiced meats steaming on skewers, delicate cages filled with tiny songbirds for her perusal.
While the synaethesia of Rome was intoxicating to her, Mira began to notice something infinitely more tempting. Dashing about in their daily affairs, Romans were an extremely preoccupied bunch. This meant they couldnt pay as much attention to the little things¾ like a dove coming to rest in a shriveled fig tree, or an old woman fanning herself in the doorway of an Artemisian temple.
Or their wallets, Mira smirked to herself.
Miras mouth watered at the sight of it all. This place was a goldmine¾ almost literally. There was enough distraction, friction and preoccupation here to make this a cutpurses Elysium. She shook the kinks out of her fingers and arms.
It had been a long time.
She smiled as she remembered It had been a busy day at the fair grounds in Corinth¾ her only mistake had been in her choice of prey. Gabrielle admitted later that she had always admired Miras ambition¾ though it hadnt stopped her from painfully twisting the girls wrist, just before the pickpocket had snatched the wallet from the warriors belt.
Mira had never regretted the encounter. Something about the enigmatic blonde woman with the kind eyes drew the girl to her¾ in addition to the fact that Gabrielle had not let go of her, and had physically drawn Mira towards her.
The warriors gaze had passed over her, quickly changing from annoyance to wry interest.
"And just what did you need the money for?" the woman had asked.
"Theres a young girl I know who could really use it," Mira said, half-smiling, unafraid.
"Oh?" Gabrielles eyes had narrowed. "Who?"
"Me," Mira shrugged.
The jade eyes met Miras own, and softened slightly. The girl was used to figuring people out from their eyes¾ it was an important skill in her line of work. This womans eyes revealed a depth and sadness that Mira had never encountered before¾ and beneath it all, a compassion that was dizzying.
The woman had relaxed her grip. "You have mud on your face," shed said, as she gently wiped a smudge from Miras cheek.
Miras grandmother had always told her that there were only a few times in life where the presence of the Fates could be felt¾ times where you "saw their threads," as she would put it. That had been one of those times, Mira was convinced. Of course it had taken a little longer to persuade Gabrielle about it, but she came around.
The last year had proved her grandmother right, many times over. Although, Grandma had also told Mira that her real Grandpa had been some guy who called himself the "King of Thieves," but no one had ever believed that¾ not even Mira.
The young pickpocket fixed her attention on the temptations at hand. It would be easy¾ even if her skills were a little rusty. If only that nagging voice in the back of her head would just go away¾ the little voice that told her to do what Gabrielle had asked.
"Just buy the supplies and come back to the house, Mira. No shortcuts, okay?"
She had been really excited that Gabrielle had let her venture into the markets by herself. More so that the warrior had left her responsible for their supplies and trusted her to find her way back to Virgils home. Mira began to wonder if it would be best to just do as the warrior had asked¾ in order to maintain the newfound trust she had been granted.
A portly man, dazed and drunken, dizzy in the heat staggered past Mira swinging a parasol with fey distraction. From his belt, a bloated coin purse dangled tantalizingly. The would-be thief took a step forward and then hesitated. Resolve returning she followed once more, and then stopped again as it vanished just as easily.
"I cant. I cant do it," Mira whispered to herself. "Damn."
The girl shook her head. "Just buy the supplies and come back to the house," she said, repeating Gabrielles words. "No shortcuts."
"Youre not used to displaying such restraint," a voice behind her said. "Are you?"
Mira wheeled around to see a young boy, probably two years her junior (although it was hard to tell with boys¾ some were younger than they looked and some older) smiling almost sweetly at her.
"I dont have a clue what you mean, Shorty," Mira said, without missing a beat. "Beat it."
"Okay. Although," he paused as he turned to leave. "One thing about Claudius you might want to note: his bodyguards trail about twenty feet behind to prevent any mishaps that may befall him."
Mira quickly noted two shifty-eyed and muscular men who followed the strolling fop purposefully.
"I knew that."
"Im sure you did."
"No trouble at all," he said, smiling.
"Youve got a pretty good eye for detail."
"Im not from around here, so I have to keep my eyes open."
"Im from outta town too," Mira shrugged.
"I figured," he said, smiling.
"Yeah well," Mira rubbed her neck and grinned sheepishly. "Maybe Ill see you around." What was she saying?!?
"My father and I are making some repairs to a shop not far from here," he pointed to the west side of the forum. "Well be here for at least another month."
"Okay then," Mira said, waving to the boy. "Have fun with that!"
She turned and moved very quickly towards wherever the farthest point away from this travesty was.
Just buy the supplies. Just buy the supplies and head back to Virgils. Mira couldnt believe how geeky she was behaving. She was rarely caught in the act like that. Maybe thats what it was. Yeah, thats what it was.
Had he been watching her the whole time? If so, why? Mira didnt like being spied on, no matter how nice the creep was. She would have to stay focused, and be on guard. You didnt get to where she was by not watching your back.
It wouldnt hurt to check up on this kid either. Maybe do a walk-by of this shop he mentioned. See this father he was talking about, too. She wouldnt tell Gabrielle about it yet¾ might be nothing to worry about. Mira decided to do it tomorrow, after a night of rest.
As Mira began appraising supplies, she realized that she had never asked the boy his name. All the more reason to check him out, she decided. She smiled to herself as she squeezed an apple to determine its ripeness. Sometimes her cunning amazed even herself.
Maybe Grandma was right about Grandpa, after all
Virgil could be heard padding down the hall towards the library where she sat. He entered bearing refreshments on a platter and a smile on his face.
"This should improve your mood," he cooed and placed the tray heaped with dried fruit, cheese, olives, bread and wine on the low table. "Help yourself."
Gabrielle brightened significantly. Her appetite, like her lifestyle, hadnt quit its own breakneck pace, as she grew older. The bread yielded to a gentle exploratory push and she sighed.
"Soft bread, youre spoiling me." The warrior scooped up a fragrant roll and took a large bite.
"I figured you might like something you didnt have to soak in water or oil," he said. "Or worse."
Gabrielle laughed. "I dont know what people have been telling you, Virgil," she said, popping a large green olive into her mouth. She leaned back and began chewing thoughtfully on its salty flesh. "I havent completely abandoned my graces," and with that spit the pit onto the small empty plate Virgil had provided.
Virgil erupted into rich laughter. "I told you this would improve your mood," he poured out some wine, cutting it with water.
"Theres nothing wrong with my mood."
Virgil spun the wine in his cup, gazing into it. "Gabrielle," he drawled, as though speaking to a child caught in a lie.
The warrior scanned the room quickly, desperately¾ pottery, paintings, statues and her scrolls. They were lined up neatly near various other works in the library. She sighed.
"I see you kept the scrolls."
Virgil sat back, his mouth becoming a thin line. "Of course I did," he said.
"Good thing too," she said, sniffing at a piece of cheese. "Mira has her heart set on reading them."
"Ill make sure she does."
Gabrielle nibbled at the soft cheese, its saltiness making her mouth water.
"So," she said. "Your story. How can I help you with it?"
Virgil brightened somewhat at the mention of work. "I need to borrow your flare for adventure. And your firsthand knowledge of it as well," he said.
"Youre writing an epic," it was more of a statement than a question.
"Thats right," he said proudly. "I figured it was as good a time as any."
"Whats it about?" she asked, unable to curb, or conceal her interest.
"The foundation of Rome."
She rolled her eyes.
"A couple of kids raised by wolves? Not exactly an epic," she said. "Weird¾ but not an epic."
"No," he said with a grin. "A new story. Something rousing, unifying¾ a tale everyone can get behind."
Gabrielle paused just as she was about to pop an olive into her mouth.
"Unifying? For whom, Rome?"
"Are you crazy? These people are barbarians, Virgil. You know what theyre like; what theyre capable of." She was incredulous, bordering on furious. "Now youre just going to use your gods given talents to rally them and make them stronger?"
Virgil smiled wryly.
"Gabrielle, Im flattered that you hold my talents in such high esteem."
"Dont deflect, Virgil," she popped the olive between her lips. "This is serious."
"Look, Rome isnt going to go away any time soon. Why not try to change things? Show them different options¾ choices. Something can be good as easily as it can be evil, right?"
"Im not so sure."
"How can you of all people say that?"
She looked at him soberly.
"Redemption and reform have their prices, Virgil¾ high prices. Especially, on a scale this large."
"Youre not telling me to give up, are you?" he said, crossing his arms. "That just doesnt seem like something you would do."
She rolled the olive pit around in her mouth.
"No, I would never tell you to do that," she said. "Youre just going to need my help, thats all." She smiled at him, baring the clean pit between her teeth. Virgil laughed in surprise.
"Oh Gabrielle! Im so glad. I didnt think I mean well, since you havent you know "
"At a loss for words, huh?" she laughed. "Not a great start, my dear."
They both laughed. She knew he didnt need her help. It seemed Virgil had discovered the secret to healing stubborn warriors¾ disguise the treatment.
Well meaning, but foolish, she thought. Just like his father.
Unconsciously, Gabrielle glanced at the scrolls again. The parchment had yellowed; the ends had curled¾ their cases scarred slightly, gathering dust. Not unlike their author, she smirked.
Virgil watched her with a practiced objectivity.
"Its been over twelve years. Why wont you finish them?"
Gabrielle popped a dried apricot into her mouth, with dishonest nonchalance.
"People love an unfinished tale," she said, sarcastically smirking. "Its a story in itself."
"But that story has an ending, Gabrielle."
"No it doesnt," her voice pushed the words through clenching teeth. "I never wrote an ending."
"You know what I mean," Virgil kept his voice calm. "You went to Jappa, you saved Higuchi, and you fought Yodoshi. It happened. She "
"The scrolls are a story and stories dont end that way! Besides," she was panting. "I dont write stories anymore."
Virgil chose to abandon this thread of conversation gracefully and ate an olive.
Gabrielle looked out the window again. A cat, looking slightly underfed, moved through the dry grass with that mysterious purpose common to all felines. It passed silently through a space in the hedges, and Gabrielle wished she could follow.
An arid breeze kicked up layers of dust outside, blowing some through the open window into the library. The warrior backed away and looked to Virgil.
"How long?" she asked, indicating the dust, the heat, and the drought.
Virgil cleared his throat. "It hasnt rained since the early spring. But about a month ago, thats when the heat really picked up¾ thats when things got really tough."
"I could tell it was bad when we rode by the markets," Gabrielle said, nodding stoically. "People werent buying."
"Prices have become ridiculous for most citizens," Virgil shrugged. He motioned to the snack on the tray, "Even staples have become luxuries."
The older woman nodded. "The stocks are low¾ the wares shoddy. This goes right up the whole chain. The merchants, the suppliers, the farmers¾ the droughts wearing them all down. Its only going to get worse¾ this place is one big tinder box."
Virgil sipped at his wine, reflecting, "Having a maniac as an Emperor doesnt help matters."
"No it doesnt," Gabrielle agreed. "But its nothing new, either."
"True," Virgil smiled. "But psychopaths are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. Neros uhm tendencies are too unpredictable. Hes the epitome of chaos."
"Sounds like a typical Roman Emperor to me," the warrior spat.
The poet refilled his glass, not adding water this time. "Say what you will about its rulers, Gabrielle, but Rome is the pinnacle of everything humans have accomplished. You shouldnt judge it by its faulty parts¾ youd be missing the whole point." He took a thoughtful sip. "When Rome works as it should, there is nothing to equal it," he said.
"And when it doesnt, people get killed," Gabrielle thumped her glass down for emphasis. "Lots of people. Ive seen it."
Virgils eyes burned into the warriors quickly making Gabrielle wish she hadnt spoken her thoughts.
"No one better than I knows that, Gabrielle."
And you called yourself a bard once, she flung at herself.
The poet stood and walked to the window, where he squinted thoughtfully into the afternoon haze.
"Rome didnt kill my father Gabrielle," Virgil said. "Eve did."
The warrior swallowed hard at the memory¾ more than a decade later, it was still one of her most bitter.
Virgil turned and regarded his friend, "But I forgave her, Gabrielle. There was good inside of her, and a will to share it. To reject her wouldve been as vile an act as the murder of my father."
Gabrielle stood up. "Virgil I " she began.
His eyes met hers. "Isnt that what you were fighting for all those years?" he asked. "Isnt that why you both were?"
The heat in the room became languid, soft¾ like a pillow over her face. Gabrielles mouth quivered open without words to fill it, to answer him.
His eyes softened, "What happened, Gabrielle?"
The warrior let the question fall through the air between them.
"What didnt?" She turned away.
The front door opened and Miras humming began to fill the home. Virgils eyes were still seeking an answer from Gabrielle, when the girl walked into the library.
"I managed to get everything. Though the prices these guys are asking are a crime. PHEW!" the girl said, oblivious to the tension in the room.
Virgil turned, smiling at Mira. "Why dont I help you put everything away?"
They left the room and Gabrielle could hear them laughing in the kitchen. The warrior moved to the window again, looking out over the garden and into the gritty, late-afternoon haze draped over the city.
CHAPTER III. Insomnium
She landed soundlessly upon the roof of the large mansion. For a brief second Her scarlet mantle hung static in the air, concealing the moon like a caul, before it too fell silently about Her. Moving to the edge, She cast her eyes down to the surrounding gardens and grounds below.
The bloated night air was a fitting bearer of the decadent sounds emanating from inside the building. Revelers lit by braziers, projected crude shadows upon the shrubs outside. The grounds themselves seemed overrun by the spirits of the debauched and the depraved.
It was an easy descent to the earth and a quick jog to the back of the large home. The entrance to the kitchens and servants quarters was open, allowing a flow of fresh air into the building. She passed quickly through the cooling rooms and into the corridor.
The hallway was gaudy, hung with tapestries and decorative weaponry. Dust gathered on statues of the Olympian gods, of Romulus and Remus, of Caesar himself. She moved silently past the oneiric scene, further into the dark building.
Smells emanating from the large celebration hall threatened to turn Her stomach, a mixture of exotic meats, raw incense, desire, and various forms of bodily issue¾ hung in the air. There were even far-flung scraps of food just outside the large room, noticeable as She approached its slightly open door.
A loud, low groan somehow rose above the rest of the din. Genderless, almost surprised, it was ugly to hear. Soon though, unsure of its identity as an utterance of pain or pleasure¾ it receded into the tumult of gasps, gags and giggles like a stone into the sea.
Without peering into the room, She barred the large door with a sturdy looking ceremonial javelin. After testing it with a tug, she sprinted up the stone stairs to the second floor.
Bypassing the hallways to the bedrooms and smaller chambers, She moved towards the gallery above the celebration hall. Closing the door behind Her, She noted that the sounds and smells from below had wafted up to the second floor as well. Moving out onto the arched balcony, She finally allowed Herself to behold the scene beneath Her.
Fat-engorged flames sputtering from iron braziers lit the writhing nakedness. She could make out twenty to twenty-five of themmen, women, boysin various states of congress. Many wore gold leafed masks depicting hideous perversions of animals and baser deities. Several waited, or simply watched, gorging themselves on spilled platters of boar, venison and flamingo. Others maundered towards the sides of the room to spew half-digested meals onto the marble. A fat and pockmarked man passed out, pulling down one of the large tapestries hanging upon the walls. Laughter arose from the throng as the cloth draped languidly over half the roiling orgy.
She drew her sword, the divinely crafted metal shifted to achieve a perfect balance in Her grip. Its polished surface picked up Her reflection, which She regarded momentarily. The blades image could be seen reflected upon Her silver cowl, which in turn was again reflected within the blades likeness and so on into infinity. She looked away, and focused her breathing and muscles.
Then suddenly, She flew from the gallery, descending silently, slowly to the floor below.
A jaded looking man with a greasy forelock pasted to his skin followed Her descent. Regarding Her at first with dazed indifference, and soon with mouth agape, he quietly said, "Oh my goodness," as She landed before him.
She stood proud, unmoving, about two strides before him, lit starkly by one of the braziers beside her. The flames danced upon the polished sublimity of Her mask, Her helmet, Her chest plate, greaves and gauntlets. Her swords blade however, became dusky, as though fighting the lights ability to make it tangible, real.
Staring at Her terrible beauty, the jaded man leered and clapped his hands. The orgy slowed to a halt with disappointed groans from some. But soon the participants were speaking in hushed whispers about the armored stranger in the red cape.
"Well, what divinity is this, which stands before us?" the man said, grabbing a goblet of wine and walking towards Her. "It is as though the spawn of Ares and Aphrodite themselves has lighted before us. Dangerous as a rose; beautiful as a sword; malevolent as a "
"We get the idea Proclus!" the crowd groaned in unison.
The man grinned and regarded Her once more. "Would you honor us by sharing a drink?" he said.
The man giggled and offered Her the wine. With a free hand She accepted the goblet, never removing Her cold blue eyes from his bleary stare. She quickly drained the contents, much to the amusement of the crowd.
"Seems we have a real party girl here, friends," the man said. The crowd laughed heartily. "You must be one of those Macedonians we keep hearing about!" he said, guffawing at Her.
The laughter picked up at this and began to echo with menace against the walls.
Calmly, She turned towards the brazier and without ceremony spit the wine powerfully through the blaze. An explosion erupted, instantly engulfing a tapestry in flames, quickly spreading to the others; the walls were soon swallowed in fire. Screams went up throughout the room as a rush of heat came from the conflagration.
She gave a spinning kick to the brazier, tumbling it to the ground. Rivers of burning fat and fuel flowed into the room, causing the fallen tapestrystill with many quivering revelers under itto catch fire. Much of the air in the hall was spent in feeding the flames, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. The panic began in earnest as those burning and suffocating tried to escape through the only exit, finding the way barred¾ the door locked. The fat man who had passed out started awake and screamed like a girl. A voluptuous woman succumbed to the smoke, falling naked onto a platter of fruit, spilling it into the air. A young boy knelt, catatonic¾ tears falling.
She stepped closer to the man, Proclus, who hadnt moved. He could only stare in horror at Her. She stepped towards him, raising the blade that seemed to darkly pulse in her hand with a need, a thirst.
Not raising his voice over the chaos, his lips were easily read: "Who?"
"I am the Sword of the gods," She said. "I am Nemesis."
The blade sang its pure note and the head of Proclus erupted from his body¾ rolling past the silent, crying boy, who soon fell unconscious and gasping to the floor.
Some of the more agile libertines had begun to climb up onto the balcony, their legs dangling frantically. Walking around hotspots, She pulled them down into the flames by dangling scraps of clothing, or their sweating legs. One by one they screamed, plummeting to the marble, feeding the fires.
Most of the Romans were dead or soon to be, burnt, suffocated, or clawed and trampled to death in panic. The flames began to retreat into a controlled burn, and air in the room was considerably scarce.
One fat man scratched feebly at the main door. She stepped toward him. He began to beg for his life. She sheathed her sword and he fell at Her feet, believing his life was spared. Kneeling, she lifted the mans obese chin with Her fingers. He had a blank expression on his burnt, flushed face.
With a powerful round kick to the jaw, she sent him spinning into the door, shattering it. Her battle cry pierced the air as she launched herself out of the crucible just as torrents of oxygen rushed in causing an eruption of fire that filled the large hall¾ blowing the balcony doors off their hinges and spilling out into the halls.
Quickly passing through the passageway and out the kitchen doors, She flew like a smoldering arrow into the belly of night.
"The entrance is just behind these vines," Xena said. "Here, give me a hand." She began to move aside the ropey tendrils that grew thick against the cliff-face.
Gabrielle watched as the warriors shoulder muscles flexed beneath bronzed skin. The bard slipped into a daze that was part daydream and part soul-satisfying relief. She had thought that she would never see her friend again, but here she was¾ in the well toned, rippling flesh.
A faraway grin appeared on Gabrielles lips. A grin that endured even for a brief second after she realized the warriors blue eyes were trained disapprovingly upon her.
"Well?" Xena said, indicating the vines with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh! Uhm...I " Gabrielle stammered. "Sorry "
Xena lay her most withering of gazes upon the bard, but could soon only grin. Gabrielle blushed, but soon felt patronized.
"What?" she demanded.
"Huh? Its just oh, nothing. Nothing."
"Forget it!" the warrior said. "Ill tell you later."
"I will!" Xena said. "Look, we need to clear a path large enough for Argo to get through¾ now."
Gabrielle felt badly for forgetting the injured horse, and began clearing away the vines. The plants obscured what appeared to be a passage between two portions of the cliff. The women worked steadily for almost a half candlemark¾ lost in the task at hand, speaking little to one another. While not exactly a cave, the viney pass went through the rock about twenty feet with still no end in sight.
"How did you even find this place?" Gabrielle asked.
"I have many skills," the warrior said with a grin.
"Yknow, thats one thing I didnt miss. That whole "enigma" thing you do. You really need to tell me more," Gabrielle said. "Open up a little, maybe?"
"An enigmatic presence is an essential tool of the trade."
"Im only half joking, you know? Communication is pretty important."
Xena met the young womans eyes with a warm gaze. "I know," she said, placing her hand gently on Gabrielles shoulder.
They continued to work in silence, tearing the foliage and moving it aside. The lush vegetation gave off a sweet aroma and gentle humidity, even if it was stubborn and thick. Occasionally, the warriors gaze would fall on the bard when she didnt notice, and other times the bard would quickly glance at the warrior lost in her work.
Gabrielle was about to speak when Xenas hands removed some vines, revealing the end of their struggle. Sunlight was breaking through the wall of plant life, poking through in hazy beams, and the bard could make out a large open space on the other side. They increased their pace. Soon, the way was clear and their goal was finally revealed.
"Wow," Gabrielle gasped. "Its breathtaking!"
They stood at the mouth of the rocky channel looking out upon a wide and verdant valley, completely hidden among the surrounding mountains. There were scattered fruit trees, soft high and low green grasses, and a stream winding its way down from the mountains to a peaceful looking pond at the valleys center. Mute-colored wild flowers bloomed, speckling the grasses and lining the shore of the stream. Pollen and insects danced in the air, swirling, as a sweet and soft smell spun on the breeze like a lullaby. The bard even caught the sun-speckled splash of a fish leaping from the pond.
"Ill go get Argo. You close your mouth and set up camp," Xena said, smiling. "Kay?"
The warrior walked away, leaving Gabrielle in awe of the wonderful sight before her. She had to remember to thank Argo for hurting her ankle¾ maybe mix some sweet apple blossoms into her oats, or something.
The bard looked around, mouth agape, wondering why Xena had been hiding this place. The two of them had been in the area before, so why hadnt they visited this little Elysium?
Gabrielle felt she had a pretty good idea. Whenever Xena avoided a person, place or thing, it usually involved some incident from her past. Maybe something terrible happened to the warrior here. Or maybe she committed some unspeakable act¾ a massacre maybe. It wasnt the first time they had trod on ground soaked in the blood of Xenas history.
Gabrielle sighed to herself. Maybe it was worse. The bard did her best to stop the feelings quickly overtaking her. It was hard to believe that anything horrible had occurred in this beautiful spot, ever. Maybe the memories of this place were of a happier time for the warrior. Maybe Xena had come here with someone special. Someone very special I shouldnt do this, the bard thought. Its crazy and its her business
Absently, she clutched at the leather of the saddlebags, and realized she should be making camp. She walked towards a blossoming apple tree near the banks of the pond¾ it seemed like a nice spot. Perfect really, she thought. The bard began unpacking their gear and setting up camp.
The grass was pillow soft beneath her tired legs, and a happy little sigh escaped her lips. It would be nice to relax for a while¾ given all that had happened to them recently¾ given all that had happened to Xena. Another sigh escaped her, less cheerful this time. She wiped her eyes.
Just as Gabrielle was unpacking Xenas wet stone, she noticed the warrior and her injured horse approaching in the distance. Argo favored her left front hoof and Xena offered the golden mare soft words of encouragement, her hand gently stroking the horses neck. The bard found herself entranced by the simple, rhythmic motion of her friends slender hand.
The warrior freed Argo from her tack and gave the mare one last pat before letting her graze on the sweet looking grass. She approached the spot where Gabrielle was sitting, a peaceful smile on her lips.
"You picked the perfect spot," she said.
"You really think so?"
"Yup. Im going fishing, what do you feel like? Dont say salmon."
"Umm whatever. Surprise me."
The warrior raised her eyebrow and grinned. "When havent I?" She headed towards the stream, unfastening her armor.
Gabrielle shook her head, in an attempt to remove the blush that heated her face, her entire body. Gods, Im helpless, she thought. Im hopeless She leaned back on her arms, blades of grass tickling the soft skin near her elbows, and watched her best friend wade out into the warm shimmer of the pond
Gabrielle eased slowly out of the dream. Always the same dream
It was still dark outside. She opened her eyes as it quickly became apparent that sleep had abandoned her for the night. She sighed. Rising, she wrapped a silk robe about herself and left the oppressive humidity of her room.
The rest of the villa was still and cool. She moved silently through the halls, checking in on Miras room. The girl had fallen asleep on a pillowed chair, an open scroll in her hands¾ a candle still burning in the corner. Gabrielle took the papyrus rolling it up and gently placing it back in its case. She turned to the dozing girl.
The warrior tenderly lifted her friend and placed her in bed. The exhausted young thief never stirred. Still, she had made it through three of the scrolls before falling asleep. Gabrielle brushed a stray lock of hair from the girls face and smiled. On the way out of the room, she extinguished the candle.
Virgils home was filled with rare art and pottery, lining his halls, his rooms¾ even his garden. Gabrielle passed works by many of the worlds greatest artisans, her attention finally captured by one simple piece¾ a tiny urn with sides as thin as a whisper.
Well, that looks delicate, Gabrielle marveled to herself.
The warrior found herself compelled though afraid to touch its frail beauty, as one might be with a sleeping child. In the end, she withdrew her hand¾ the simple elegance of the potterys ivory skin only accentuating the dirt gathered under her fingernails. Like a stone at the bottom of a clear pool, the urn remained silent, pale and somehow unreachable.
Gabrielle pushed a sweaty lock of hair from her eyes, dirty nails be damned.
She could remember a time when she had desired something as simple as pottery: as a keepsake, a memento¾ a pointless extravagance, even. Something, anything to possess, to inhabit, to haunt¾ something static and real like a chair or a bowl, a barn or a bed. Something silent, something still. A legacy¾ mundane, though tangible and undeniable and hers.
Gabrielle smiled. This tiny, almost ethereal object represented so much weight to her now. You could not afford anything so trivial as sentimentality in her line of work. Accumulating possessions, connections only slowed you down¾ each attachment adding to the burden, until eventually you stopped moving altogether.
She sighed quietly, turning her attentions from the urn to the window overlooking Virgils garden and the sleeping city just beyond it.
She also recalled a time when she had desired that type of weight¾ when she would have gladly stopped running. Every fiber of her had ached for it. She could have easily made and shared a home, filling it with such things¾ with her love.
But she had never stopped running. There had always been one more battle, one more journey¾ until everything she could claim as a part of her had been stripped away. Until there was nothing, no weight holding her in place, and the choice taken from her.
She shook her head, rubbing her moistening eye sockets. Youre tired, she thought. Then laughed at how deeply true that was. Sliding wearily onto the sturdy divan, she switched her attentions to her temples.
"Gods, I hate Rome," she said to no one.
The city bore down on her with all of its weight¾ crushing, pressing the essence from her. She placed her two hands on the sill, holding herself up.
It had always been this way¾ Rome had fought them always. The streets, the buildings, the flora, the fauna, the people, especially the people, had always tried to destroy them, to break them apart.
But the Empire had never truly succeeded, though it had left its scars. It had made them doubt themselves, and each other. It had battered them. It had broken them. It had even managed to kill them once¾ putting Heaven and Hell in between.
She shuddered at the thought. But they had been true to themselves, to each other, and had returned to this mortal coil¾ stronger than ever. And still Rome cried for their blood.
Gabrielle sneered bitterly and wiped her eyes.
Rome had never succeeded, but it would persevere. She understood enough about the hearts of men to know that something as insidious as the Empire could never end. Rome would be victorious. It would endure; it would evolve¾ outliving them all. Powerless against eternity, she stood alone. It had been that way for a long time.
Outside the window, a chorus of rooks chattered into the early morning from the soughing tops of the trees. To Gabrielle, it sounded like laughter, cackling and cruel¾ born from anothers misfortune. It sounded like Rome. Sighing, the warrior left the room for the uncertainty of her bed, passing the tiny urn without a glance.
Rome was beneath Her feet. Sprinting across the sleeping city, She skimmed from roof to roof on Her way to its outskirts. The scarlet cape snapped in rhythm with Her soundless steps.
Lights were out in the city, and there was little movement below Her. Rome was aberrantly malleable, ambiguous¾ vulnerable in the humming darkness. The wind beat powerfully in Her ears, almost drowning out the steady pound of Her heart.
Soon, she arrived at the temple¾ a simple, modest little acropolis built to the Goddess Aphrodite. Plain columns, free of adornment and a small courtyard of broken tile led to the entrance. She entered with a quiet stride.
Walking towards the small dais at the rear of the main chamber, She could make out two forms¾ one seated, one standing. She kneeled¾ head down, eyes closed.
"What is your bidding, Master?" She asked.
The seated figure stood, smiling down upon Her.
"Youve done so much already," Ares said. "Why dont you take a little beauty rest?"
"As you wish," She said, bowing Her head. Rising, She moved towards the hallway behind the throne, and the simple cubicle containing the cot that was Her bed.
Ares watched her leave, his eyes smoldering with admiration.
"She is awesome!" He said, laughing. "I did good. I did real good."
The God of War snapped his fingers watching his creation pass through the door into the hall. He turned to the figure standing in the shadows behind him. "And I couldnt have done it without your help, Sis."
Aphrodite scowled at her brother.
"Dont remind me," she said, rolling her eyes. "Just another case of me-and-my-big-mouth-itis."
"Dont sell yourself short," Ares said, descending onto the floor of the chamber. "Realizing what I was doing wrong was a stroke of genius."
Aphrodite lowered her head, picking at the skin beside her thumbnail.
"And of course," the god said stepping towards her. "Once you added your special touch and I blocked out those annoying little memories: VOILA! Instant bad girl!"
The Goddess of Love groaned.
"Ironic isnt it?" Ares said. "The God of War cant create a proper Nemesis without giving Her the capacity to Love."
"Yeah, its just super-faboo," Aphrodite said. Her features shifted to a subtle sadness. "I just hope you know what youre doing."
Ares spun around, glaring at his sister. "Of course I do," he said. "Who cares about this place anyway? Whats wrong if I want to put a little god-fear back into these people?"
He gestured out the door to the sleeping streets of Rome. "Theyre snotty, arrogant troublemakers¾ and their Emperor thinks hes one of us," he said incredulously. "I mean, can you believe these people?"
"Actually, they sound right up your alley."
"Whatever," Ares said, waving it off. "They dont listen¾ they never did. Im going to break them up into little pieces and have em tormenting each other in no time."
Aphrodite resumed her uncharacteristic melancholy. "Theyre not the only ones," she said quietly.
Ares turned to regard the Goddess. "And whats that supposed to mean?"
"You know who just arrived, right?" Aphrodite said with a shrug.
The God of War crossed his arms, puffing out his chest.
"Oh yeah, I know who came into town," Ares said, with a rich belly laugh. "And that means the fun is just beginning "
[To be continued in Part 2.]
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