Disclaimers: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess and all other associated with the television series of the same name are owned by MCA/ Universal Pictures. This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.
I serve Principia. This is my work. It is my love. Now she stands on the second floor of this building. She looks into the provincial courtyard. She has done this every day since we came here. A week. We've been in this hole for a week. So I've had time to look out that same window. I know what she sees. A stone circle between shops and taverns. Some straw and sand scattered on the stones. Probably to catch what the pigs do. This in a provincial capital. Pigs running loose as in the poorest village. Like the goats in the village from which I came. Came halfway around the world. To serve Principia.
I hate this town, its smells and flies. I hate this island. When will we return to Rome?
I am Detreus. Not Detreus the Slave. I will not stand for that. Detreus. Or Principia's Detreus. When people look at the muscles in my arms and legs. My scarred black face and torso. My head, hairless, far above them. Leather battle dress, this I wore in the arena. They do not call me Slave.
Principia has turned from the window, and she looks at me. Her eyes are nearly level with mine. She wears red today. It falls in folds from her shoulders. There is gold in it, too. Real gold. I have heard her waiting girls talk of this. They undress and dress her as I stand there. Like I was a eunuch. Put that braid in her black hair and wind more gold strands through it. Paint her fingernails and toenails. Powder her pale skin. Place sandals on her feet. And she looks over their shoulders at me. And smiles. Warriors like us. Putting up with this. That's what that smile says.
She is not smiling now.
Janus Polonius trots into the room. I hate that little man. I want to crush his throat. But he belongs to her. Her nobleman in his purple robe and curly white wig.
"Principia, they are waiting for you. In the courtyard. You must come and judge."
Her look says that there is nothing she must do. I hope he makes her mad. Hope she gives him to me. Principia turns away. Back to the window. People must be there now. If there's a Judging.
"Let the governor judge. That's why I let him steal half the taxes," Principia says. She doesn't even turn around. "Or you do it. Pity the poor prisoners in either case."
He doesn't leave. "One of the prisoners is Greek."
"So?" She sounds bored. I am across the room. But I can hear it. The warning. I wonder if I'll kill him quick. Or slow.
"It's a capital crime. Sedition. And treason." Janus Polonius won't feel my hands on him today. The little man is right. Principia will judge the case. When it is a Greek. When it is death. Even in Britannia.
Principia walks to the door. She brushes Polonius out of her way. Mosquito of a man. I follow Principia down the stairs. A slave ahead of a nobleman. Men rush from rooms and hallways to follow us. The sun has started dropping in the sky. But they finish dressing as they run. Principia reaches the broad stone steps. Four steps. Her carved chair on the top one. We are a parade. Like entering Rome. Banners and pennants. Uniforms of two colors. Principia's colors. Red and black. No gold, except on one banner, the eagle. And on Principia herself. A waiting girl, red-haired Tali, catches up. She carries a black pillow, and on it is a crown. The crown is gold. It is heavy with jewels. I remember cutting off a head. This crown was on it. Principia lifts the crown. She places it on her own head, as she did that first time. She sits upon her chair. Heads above hers find a lower step. Tali drops to her mistress's feet. White against red. I stand at Principia's left hand. I am allowed to be tall.
We face the circle that is the courtyard. Around it are people from the town. People from the farms. Come to see who rules them now.
The governor stands on the stones of the courtyard. Leather sandals keep him from feeling its heat. Yellow robes protect him from the sun. He bows. "We have arranged an entertainment for you, Principia." He is a fat man. Principia knows how he got that way. He won't be alive when we leave.
Soldiers of Rome lead two Gauls into the circle. Those two wear rags. Their legs are chained. An officer gives one Gaul a sword, the other a net and trident. The soldiers step back. The officer draws his own sword. He pokes one Gaul in the back and shouts at him to attack. The Gauls begin to fight. They draw no blood. The officer draws some. He cuts one Gaul across the cheek. "Fight!" he orders. "Or you'll be crucified. That is your sentence."
"Stop." Principia's voice is low, but everyone hears it. The governor steps forward again. She frowns. He stops where he is. She points at one of the Gauls. The one who is not bleeding. "Come here." He walks toward her. He drops the net. He still holds the trident. I put my hand on my short Roman sword. I wish for my scimitar. The Gaul stops at the bottom step. He doesn't bow his head. His eyes burn.
Principia talks to him. In his own language. She knows every language where we go. He answers. The wood shaft of the trident touches the courtyard stones. The metal end is still pointing at Principia. I keep my hand on my sword hilt. I don't know the words Principia uses. She asks a question. He answers. She looks at me and at the other Gaul. She's giving him a choice. He drops the trident and walks back to the other Gaul. They talk. The Gaul's sword rings as it strikes the stones. They kneel in the center of the circle. Their heads are high.
Principia gives me an order. I follow it.
The soldiers start to drag the bodies away. Principia says, "Carry them. Leave their bodies outside the town. Whole. Do not molest anyone who comes to take them." Principia honors warriors. She is a warrior, too. More straw is brought. It is scattered on the stones to dry them.
"I have had enough entertainment," Principia says. "Bring the Greek before me for judgment."
More soldiers of Rome. These I know. Garrison soldiers. They fight battles in bars. They make war on prisoners in shackles. The prisoner they drag between them has been beaten. It is a woman. A girl. If she has not been raped, it is because she is a Greek. One of Principia's own.
"Help her stand." They do. "Leave her." They walk to the edge of the circle. Stand there as if they protect Principia.
The girl shakes. It is hard for her to stay standing. Her head is down. She is dirty. Most people outside my homeland are dirty. But she is very dirty. Her hair is light. Matted with straw and blood. Other things. She wears rags. They don't cover much of her small body. It is a strong body with muscles that speak of hard work. That is why she is still alive.
"Read the charges," Principia orders.
Janus Polonius speaks. "This barbarian is charged with sedition and treason. Both capital offences."
Principia asks, "What is your evidence?" She asks questions when judging. Other judges don't do this.
Polonius answers her. "Officials and soldiers heard her speaking against your rule. They heard her say you have no right to be in Britannia. That is sedition. She said they should not follow your orders or the orders of your governor. She said they should join those who fight you. That is treason."
"She must be a very stupid girl to say such things. And when officials and soldiers are listening." Principia raises her voice slightly. "Girl, are you that stupid?" The girl's head is still bowed. She doesn't answer. "Look at me when I talk."
One of the guards steps forward. He holds a goad in his hand. Principia waves him back. "Do you understand what is being said?" She says something else. This is in Greek. I know the sounds.
"I understand what is being said." The girl still looks down. "Just send me to the cross. Don't pretend to try me."
"Look at me!" Anger. I touch the hilt of my sword. I just wiped blood off it. I will have to do it again.
The girl looks up. Dirty face. Bloody lip and nose. Bruises. Her eyes are both open though. They are a strange color. Green. They burn even brighter than the Gaul's. Principia stands. The girl pulls up strength. She straightens. Principia walks down the steps. I am right behind. Principia stands in front of the girl. Both stand on the stones, but she still has to look down. Her voice is soft. "Do you know me?"
"You are Principia," the girl says. "You are the one who sends soldiers to steal and murder and rape. You are the one who thinks she rules the world. You are the one who will discover her error in coming to this island."
I think Principia smiles. She turns her back on the girl. Her eyes find Tali standing by the carved chair. "The guards will remove this girl's chains and take her where you say. You clean her up. Then send for my Detreus. He'll have my next orders."
Principia walks past the nobles and soldiers. Up the steps. She enters the building. I, her Detreus, follows.
Tali leads the girl into Principia's room. I walk behind. The way the girl walks, I wonder if I am her jailer or her bodyguard. Principia is again looking out the window. Without the dirt and blood, the girl is pretty. Her hair is Principia's favorite color. Gold. Her cheeks are still full. Like a child's. But her body is lean. Except where a woman's body should not be lean. Tali has dressed her in a short tunic. Green like new leaves. She is still barefoot. Tali backs out the door. She knows when Principia wants her. And when her mistress wants another.
I know I will be dismissed, also. If anyone needs protection in this room, it is not Principia.
The girl waits. I wait.
Principia turns around. Her eyes touch the girl. The face. The body. "If I had known you were here, no one would have hurt you. I thought you were still in Greece. Stirring up trouble there."
"You act as if you've heard of me," the girl says. "I didn't think I was famous enough for the great conqueror to worry about my comings and goings."
Principia answers. "I do try to keep track of you. However, my spies have failed in this case. I thought you were headed toward Thrace. How long have you been in Britannia?"
The girl sets her lips. "I won't answer your questions. No matter what you do to me." Brave child. But I know she will talk. If Principia wants her to.
"I can tell you a lot more than you can tell me. And I intend to." Principia gestures to a chair. "Sit down before you fall down. Didn't anyone feed you?"
The girl looks at the chair. Perhaps she never saw one before. I didn't until I came to Rome. Principia takes her arm. The girl shrugs off the helping hand. She staggers. Sits. "I don't know who told you about me. I believe you when you say you have spies. But I won't betray my friends. You can't trick or torture me into that."
Principia turns her back. Walks to a table near her bed. She's pouring wine the color of blood. Tears off some bread. Cuts a piece of hard cheese and puts the knife aside. I want to take that knife, but I keep my place beside the door. She puts the bread and cheese on a small plate. Silver, like the goblet. From a place called India. Or China. She offers the plate to the girl. Says, "Why would I poison you? If I want you dead, I have many ways. All more entertaining." The girl takes the plate and begins to eat. "Slow down. Here, take some wine." The girl gulps. Then she does choke. But she finishes the cheese and bread. Then drinks the wine. Slowly. Principia takes the plate. "You may have more later."
"Do you think you'll convince me that you're kind?" the girl asks. "Or bribe me to your side with a little food? A little wine?"
"All I want you to do is listen," Principia answers. She smiles. "Nowadays do you only make speeches? Or do you sometimes tell tales about gods and heroes? About your adventures?"
"Nothing that I'll tell you." She finishes the wine and puts the goblet on the floor. I decide it isn't dangerous. But I still watch her movements. And the knife.
Principia lifts a heavy chair. I know that, even now, she doesn't need my help to do this. She places it in front of the girl. Sits to face her. "I guess I'll have to play bard this evening. Good thing I'm in the mood to tell you the story of my life."
"What if I'm not interested?"
"It's a wise person who knows her enemies. And her friends." She takes a breath. Some stories are hard to begin. That's why I never tell mine. I stand very still. Principia glances at me. "Don't worry, my Detreus. You may stay and hear this story, too."
Principia leans forward. Her eyes hold the girl's. "This story starts when you and I died." The girl shakes her head. Principia goes on. "I'm not crazy. You and I traveled together. We were friends." She pauses. She leaves it at that. "We were friends. Then I had a vision. In the vision, you and I died at the hands of a man, an enemy I made long before I met you. He was helped by another enemy, a monster I created. And thought I destroyed."
The girl doesn't believe. I do. My people believe many things. Some of them impossible.
"I tried everything I could think of to keep the vision from coming true." She goes silent. Reliving those times. Her eyes move. Looking for something else she could have tried. I used to do this. So I know. "Every action I took drove you and me farther apart. And brought us closer to the vision. The monster offered me a bargain. If I agreed to serve her master, he would save our lives. But we would give up everything we had ever fought for. If I had gained one speck of your goodness, even that would be lost. I refused the bargain. I thought I finally understood why things were happening the way they were. We were meant to die together. The way we met our deaths, without losing faith with one another, would be a kind of victory. Our enemies could kill us, but they could not separate us. What seemed like death would be a new life. We would be together. Forever. These were strange ideas to have. But that's what I thought when I could no longer be a warrior."
Who knew Principia had so many words? In all her languages.
She leans back. Closes her eyes. "I was wrong. What seemed like death was . . . death."
"You say we died together," the girl says. "How did we die? In this other life?" I think she may believe the story. Some of it. Or she may just want this life to last a little longer.
Principia's eyes open. "We were crucified."
The girl laughs. "History repeats itself. Is that it? We were both crucified in this dream of yours. Other life. Whatever it was. But now it's your turn to nail me to a cross. Are you sure you don't want to join me? For old time's sake?"
"No. You'll be safe. That's the whole point." Principia goes on with her story. "After we died, I thought we would be together. But we weren't. I can't explain where I was. It was not anywhere. It was nothing. I could have understood it if I had been thrown into Tartarus. If I had been tortured for eternity. But to be nowhere. To see and hear nothing. Not to even know if I had a body or was a spirit."
I can see this place. I know where she was. We are taught these things in my religion. What does their religion teach these people? These Romans? These Greeks? How to put up statues of each other? I could tell Principia why she was in that place. But she would not believe me.
"And where was I? Since I was so good. In the Elysian Fields?" the girl asks.
"No." Principia's tone says, no more. Not about that. "I decided it was time to make a deal."
"With your creature...monster? Or her master?"
Principia shakes her head. "I called on my own gods. Our gods. At first, they didn't answer. But times were bad for them. They needed me."
"The gods needed you," the girl repeats.
Principia's gods give her power. I've never known why. She kills no goats for them. Doesn't sacrifice the hearts of her enemies. Doesn't throw herself on the ground before them. But her gods favor her. They answer when she asks. Or demands.
The girl says, "Have a high opinion of yourself, don't you? Maybe one of the gods is your father. Zeus maybe. Or Ares."
"It has nothing to do with family relationships." Principia laughs. A little. "At least I don't think so. It has to do with fate."
"With destiny. But, yes, with the Fates, too. They had to cooperate for the bargain to work." Principia wants to get this story done. She leans so that she is almost touching the girl. The girl doesn't move back. "I didn't know where I was. Didn't even know what I was. But I could think. And so that's all I did. To keep myself from going crazy. I came up with a plan, and I kept thinking it over and over. Words and pictures. And I realized that some of the words and pictures might be true. Like where you were. And what happened in this world after we died. Even what was happening to the gods. Our gods. The ones like us. Everything that held them to the world of men and women was being destroyed. Their statues, their temples, even their names. All being wiped out by a new evil. Our gods were never good, you know. Sometimes they play with us humans like we're their toys. To be loved. To be broken. To be tossed aside. But the power that was replacing them would kill every person in the world. Because it could."
Her words are coming fast now. I try to remember them. All I remember is what she meant.
"One day a light appeared in my mind." She touches the top of her head. "Right here. It got bigger and bigger. I thought this might be the end of me. And I was glad. But it wasn't. It was just one of the gods. The one that I knew the best."
"Have you ever fallen on your head?" the girl asks. "Maybe your mother dropped you?"
Principia laughs again. Low. If we don't have to kill this girl, we can keep her around. So I can hear that sound more often. "I've been hit in the head too many times to count. Maybe this life and the last one, too, were just concussion. Do you want some more cheese or bread? More wine?"
The girl doesn't answer. Principia brings her more wine anyway, and the girl sips it.
"May I tell the rest of the story then? If you aren't too tired?"
"I want to hear the rest. You have quite an imagination."
"Next life I'll be the bard," Principia says. It sounds like a promise. "Where did I leave off? Oh, I know. The light. It was a god, not my favorite. If I had a favorite. Anyway, he said the gods wanted me to stop all that thinking at them. Only he called it praying. Not likely. He said I was irritating them, and things were bad enough without that. I asked if I could help. You have to understand that this was all thinking. It was inside my mind. But I saw the god and myself talking, just as we used to. I was even in my black battle dress, and my sword was on my back. And we were standing on a mountain where we spoke once before. If I could have felt the cut of the wind and smelled the fir, it would have been real."
She closes her eyes. She is on the mountain. The god is before her. "He laughed at me. He said, 'You're just a mortal. A dead mortal at that. How could you help the gods?' So I told him. It was so simple. He tried to find flaws in my plan. But he couldn't. Then I told him what payment I wanted for my help. He said, 'You'll get out of here. If that's not enough, then go mad. You've done it before!' I started to walk off the mountain. The mountain I had made. The one in my mind. Not his. He stopped me. He said, 'I agree. So will the other gods. Even Zeus. He'll persuade the Fates.' "
I wonder what payment she asked. Gold? Slaves? The deaths of her enemies?
The girl asks my question. "What did you ask for? From the gods?"
"I think they cheated you then," the girl says. "I've been happy sometimes, but I've had a lot of sadness, too. Everyone does."
"That's what the Fates told me," Principia says. Her eyes are open now. Bright. Like they carry the god's light. "So I settled for your safety. As safe as the living can be. I settled for your goodness." She reaches out and grabs the girl's chin. "Don't shake your head. You are good. And you were good in that other life before you followed me that first time. Before you judged another person's life. And found him unworthy to live."
These Greeks worry too much about good. Is my sword sharp? Is there meat? What does Principia need from me? Those are my questions. Not, am I good?
The girl wrenches her face away. She tries to rise. I will kill her if she looks toward the knife. Principia pushes her into the chair. Then she lets go. She holds the girl with her eyes.
"Here is what I did. I told the gods that I would rid them of the new power. The evil. To do this, I had to go back in time. And remember everything that had happened in my other life. I had to be at a temple in Britannia on a certain day. I knew I wouldn't be able to fight the evil any better than before. If all the gods joined with me, we wouldn't be enough to defeat that thing."
She makes a sound, a loud breath. In battle, it means her enemy made a mistake. He will die.
"I sent all my retainers away. Even Detreus here. And went to the temple. When the evil came, I was there, and you, Gabrielle, were not. I killed the priests and priestesses in the temple. Every one. And anyone else who tried to enter. I lay down on the altar. You see, I had figured something out during all that time I was nowhere. When I was no one. The great evil came to that temple on that certain day because he had to. It was his time and his place. Then or never. That other time, he took you. His chosen. This time he took me. Because I was all that was offered." Principia rises from the chair and stretches. She is not used to sitting still. She fills another goblet with red wine and drinks it down. "I could feel his rage. It almost overcame his lust."
"Are you saying this great evil . . . and me . . . the other time." The girl stopped.
"You don't remember it. That's the way it should be. It was part of the bargain that I would remember and you wouldn't." Principia stands over the girl. She touches her hair. The girl doesn't pull away, but Principia stops on her own. She sags in her chair. Like a soldier tired of retelling old battles. "The bargain was that I could go back in time to do this thing. This thing that would save the gods. And you would be returned to your own life. One without me in it. The Fates agreed. They should have known I wouldn't just drop you back into a life where we hadn't met. Leave you to your own devices. I've been down that road before. Knew where it would lead."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't ask. That's another long story." Principia wants to end the tale now. Don't try to stop her when she's like that. "The Fates didn't limit me. Didn't say, you can only go back in your life this far. Far enough to stop the great evil and no farther. I thought I would just go back to when you and I met. Make sure you were safe, you know. But then I decided I might as well do things right. Make sure the man who crucified you never got the chance. I went back to a time when he was my prisoner. The first time, I spared his life. This time, when my soldier raised his arm to cut that bastard's head from his shoulders . . . I didn't stop him. His destiny, be damned. You should have seen that curly mop rolling over and over before it splashed into the harbor."
I remembered my father. He would have fallen down from laughing at such a joke. Would have pulled the head out of the water. Rolled it in again. And again.
"Don't look so horrified. See?" Principia points at me. "Even my Detreus thinks that's funny. He has a good sense of humor. When it comes to death."
"He should have a lot of fun around you then," the girl says.
"Let's finish this. I have things to do. After that, I didn't have to make a lot of the mistakes I made before. I didn't go to China. Not until much later. I made alliances with tribes I had foolishly fought the other time. Put together an army of people the Romans called barbarians. Soon enough, those Romans were paying tribute to us barbarians. Just before I set off to take over Rome itself, I returned to Greece for one task. There was a warlord who was taking slaves to sell for weapons. Since I had been avoiding Greece, leaving it to its gods and heroes, he had decided he would take over. I went to a little village where his men were stealing girls. I fought them. In the battle, I got this wound." Principia pulls her braided hair higher. She turns around to show the girl. "See? It got infected and left this scar." She faces the girl. "Don't worry. It was worth it. I got the wound saving the person I love most. And I got the scar making sure she would never love me."
The girl sits very still. "That was you? You were the warrior who saved me?"
"That was me. This time. And the other time."
It's hard to hear the girl's voice. "You fought the man who was trying to whip me. You defeated him and all the others. Then you got on your horse and rode away. I knew that you were wounded. I called after you, but you didn't stop. That night, I told my sister I wanted to follow you. She said I couldn't. I didn't know who you were or which direction you went. She was right. So I stayed where I was."
"Until you started making speeches about the evil Principia."
She nods. "Even though life was good in my village, it wasn't that good in the rest of Greece. It was worse even everywhere else you ruled."
"People who work have bread," Principia says. "So do the sick and old."
"They do when you're around," the girl answers. "It's a sick joke on the farms and villages. How do you know when Principia is coming? They drag the starving off the road. They give each naked child a rag to wave at her. Then take back the rag when she's gone."
"It was supposed to be better." This is all Principia says. What can she say? The governor is fat. Janus Polonius has purple robes.
"I think you mean that. Maybe even everything you've told me tonight is true." She looks down. "I believe you saved my life. If I believe nothing else. I wish things were going to work out differently."
"You mean when the Celts attack? And all their allies? Don't worry. You didn't give anything away. I know they're already burning my ships. Soon the garrison will be surrounded. Poor fools. Soldiers who forgot how to fight." She shakes her head. "I would have whipped them back into shape if there had been time. Or a reason."
The girl leans forward this time. "You've done terrible things, but I think you've done good, too. Disguise yourself. I'll help you get through the enemy's line. The chieftains know me. I'm a friend of their queen."
"That red-haired harridan will be glad to get her hands on me," Principia answers. "Once she thought she would rule Rome with me. It just wasn't in the cards."
"You say you know the past. Now you act like you know the future." The girl rises and tugs on Principia's arm. With less effect than a mouse pulling a wagon. "Come on. I'll save your life if you give me a chance. I owe you that."
"There was another part to the bargain. My deal with the gods. I don't know the future, but I know this." Principia puts a hand on her own belly. It is not flat. I have seen this. Until now, I did not know whose child it was. Or why it grew so fast. "I must not deliver this child. And I must not kill her myself."
The girl tries to touch that belly. Principia pushes her hand away. "Detreus!"
I stand at her left hand. "There's a ship hidden beyond the point. The point where three trees withstand the wind. And one tree is about to fall on the rocks below."
"I know that place."
"Take this girl, and go there. Signal from the point with a torch waved three times over your head. There won't be an answering signal. But men will meet you with a boat. They can be trusted, Detreus."
"They'll take you and the girl to the ship. And then to Greece. You'll stay with her until she's safe. Then you're to return to your home."
No. But I cannot say that. Not because I am a slave. Not even because I am a warrior. But because she asks this of me. And because this is the last thing I can do for her.
My hands cover the girl's shoulders. They cover most of her arms. She fights, but I hold her.
"Don't do this, Principia," she cries. "You can live. There's good in you. You can change." As I hold the girl, I feel her grow quiet. Limp. More than wine went into her second goblet.
"Change?," Principia asks. "Not this time, Gabrielle."
I lift the girl. Her weight is no burden. Before going through the door, I look back at Principia. She has already turned to the window. The glow above the housetops looks like sunset. But it is in the east. I will not serve my Principia again.
In this life.
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