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By Dan A. Payne
DISCLAIMER: Hi. First, I want to say that this is a quirky little story that's, unabashedly, a morality play... what I like to call a "Xena Parable"... good triumphs over evil, all that kind of stuff. If such is not of interest to you, that's okay. There is no overt violence, no sex, not even a "subtext", unless you want there to be. There are a few scenes of suffering and Man's Inhumanity to Man, at least two of which come from real life. If these disturb you, I apologize, and you may want to read something else. Thanks.
Author's further note: This story takes place after the events in my story entitled "Sacrifice".
Our story begins in the Year of our Age 1989... Yes, I know that's a strange date to start a Xena tale, but this was a year - if you remember - in which the World was to change for yet another time. The place where our story starts is a small provincial city in the People's Republic of Romania. In this city there was a church, and the church was built, the oldest folk say, exactly on the site of a great and mysterious temple, dedicated to the service of a timeless and all-powerful goddess... Romania, for those who are unfamiliar, is the modern name for the ancient Kingdom of Dacia. In 1989, a Great Revolution occurred in Romania...
General Aronescu was the Party's District Commander for the region. Aronescu was a grossly fat and ruthless man, and he had spent his life in the service of his master, the far more ruthless and unspeakably evil Romanian People's Socialist Party Chairman, Nicole Ceaucescu. But... the times were changing. All throughout the Socialist lands, Party Chairmen, and all their cronies, were falling like ten-pins. It was Aronescu's fervent vow that he, and Ceaucescu, would not go the way of the pathetic weaklings that were even now betraying the cause.
In the provincial town, which, in ancient times was called Bucca, there was a man who was a great proponent of democracy and the dignity of the people. He was the pastor of the aforesaid mentioned church, and, in defiance of the edits of the Party, he rallied his flock for prayer. They met in the great square facing their church, and, throughout the night, in candle-lit ceremony, they prayed for freedom. General Aronescu, to say the least, did not appreciate this one bit. He called his soldiers... members of the infamous Securiate... to deal with the problem. They arrived in their Russian-made Zil trucks, and uncrated their heavy machine guns. The crowd of worshipers were told, one time and one time only, to disperse. They did not. The soldiers opened fire...
But the pastor... and his people... would not be deterred. The next day, the survivors - and others, too - were back in the square with their candles and their prayers. Again, the soldiers came... and, again, the machine guns did their deadly work. The dead lay in scattered, bloody clumps throughout the square... men, women, children, and the elderly. In their hands were clutched the cheap plastic beads and crosses of their beliefs and faiths.
Now it was the third day. Despite the hundreds - some would say thousands - of dead, still more people came. They were holding hands and singing when the soldiers came yet again...
General Aronescu was on his field-telephone, and was in a terrible rage. The news he was hearing was impossible... he could not believe it. It was his sub-commander on the phone, and his report was quite incredible. The man had said that the soldiers were refusing to fire on the worshipers. The sub-commander had fearfully and reluctantly mumbled some ridiculous and incredible tale... the Securiate troops had been confronted by women, in ancient and fantastic dress, and that after the confrontation his men had laid down their arms. Many were even now changing sides. The sub-commander... and the soldiers... must be both drunkards and fools. But Aronescu felt an icy tendril of fear. The rebellion was already spreading...
... And it is said, by some... and only in whispers... that in the early days of August, 1991, outside the Russian "White House" or parliament, where democratic forces lay besieged by Soviet tanks, that tall Slavic women, dressed in bizarre costumes, talked with the soldiers, and the boys turned their tanks around, and drove them away...
... The scene changes to modern-day San Francisco... Outside a hotel, just north of Union Square, a tall and strong young woman got out of the back seat of a taxicab. She was fiercely beautiful, with eyes of cobalt blue and long, straight black hair... these features perhaps being the bequest of some long-ago ancestor. This well-dressed young woman was carrying a very large suitcase. She lifted the suitcase with accustomed ease.
Something, however, caught the woman's eye. Standing behind her on the sidewalk was another young woman, but one whose circumstances were far different from her own. The other woman was barely five feet tall, dressed in tattered clothing, and was suffering from the advanced stages of a harsh and terrible disease. Her face was covered with hideous bruises and cancerous lesions, and because of such she could scarcely speak. This poor woman had been reduced to begging for spare change, and was being totally ignored by the smartly business-suited and self-important men and women passing her by.
The tall woman went over to the street-woman, and opened her purse. She pulled out her wallet, and took out a bill. Then she took out another, larger bill. Finally, she took out a third bill, far larger than the second. She gave the money to the other woman, and then placed her hands on the woman's upper arms, looking into her eyes. A few seconds later, she let go... and, in the eyes of the beggar-woman, where once there had once been only hopelessness and despair, there was now a fierce and unquenchable blaze that could only be described as Everlasting Glory.
The tall woman then went into her hotel, got her key, and went up to her room. She opened her suitcase, and took out of it a short, golden-colored dress and a long, golden cloak. These she hung up with great care. She also took out of the suitcase a long, linen-covered object. She unwrapped the linen, and lifted up... an unsharpened sword...
... And next, eastern Zaire. A large mob of men was hurrying down a trail, carrying torches and machetes. They were led by a large man, carrying an AK-47 sub-machine gun. Their destination, not far away, was a squalid refugee camp. The purpose of these men was robbery, murder, and mayhem.
Suddenly, as they rounded a bend in the trail, the way was blocked. In front of them were three tall figures. The men stopped and stared in amazement. These were women, but dressed unlike any women they had ever before seen. The threesome had on short, golden-colored dresses, with long cloaks of the same color. But, most amazingly, they wore silver armor and helmets, and carried swords and shields. They were Africans, but neither Hutus or Tutsis...
The leader of the brigands lifted his AK-47 and pointed it at the belly of the woman in the center. She looked into his eyes and, inexplicably, the weapon would not fire. Try as he might, he could not make his finger pull the trigger... The woman walked up to him and, with one hand, snatched the gun out of his grasp. Looking at the weapon with the utmost disdain, she began to speak.
"What is your name?"
"I... I am... Mo'batu..." the brigand leader stammered.
Mo'batu," said the large warrior woman, "this... thing... It is not the possession of a man." And she flung the weapon far away into the bush, with contemptuous ease.
The woman then looked Mo'batu in the eyes. "Are you a man, Mo'batu?" she asked.
Mo'batu's sight became cloudy. And then before his eyes, he began to see a vision. In this vision he saw his mother and father, both long dead. He saw both of his grandsires and his grandmothers, and every one of the ancient elders of his tribe. In all their eyes, and on all their lips, there was the same question - 'Mo'batu... are you a man?'
Mo'batu fell to his knees. He covered his face with his hands, and began to sob.
The woman put her hand on his head... "It will be well, Mo'batu," she said.
The warrior woman turned to the other men. She addressed them...
"Your machetes are for harvesting crops. You will not defile them this way. Go... return to your village. And bring food and water for the refugees in the camp."
The men turned and ran back the way they came. There was no way that they were going to disobey this great and mighty spirit warrior.
... For the Warrior-Priestesses had returned...
* * *
Xena was sitting on a rock, whet-stone in hand, admiring the edge she'd put on her sword. It was Xena's practice to oil and sharpen her sword every day. Gabrielle, too, sat on a rock, but it was a separate rock from that of Xena. Gabrielle sat with her knees bent and her hands clasped in front of her knees. She was looking off into the distance, with a wistful expression on her face.
"Okay," said Xena, "what is it?"
"That bad, huh?" said Gabrielle.
"I was just thinking about Mithres. It all now seems... so unreal. I miss him so much," Gabrielle said.
"He died doing what he believed in," spoke Xena, "... and he died like a warrior."
"Mithres was never a warrior."
"No, you're wrong, Gabrielle, he was always a warrior, every day of his life."
"Just like you."
"Just like me."
"Xena... do you remember either of your grandfathers?"
"I scarcely remember my father, much less my grandfathers."
"It's the same with me. I'd never thought much of it, until... Mithres. It was like losing both a father and a grandfather."
Xena moved over to Gabrielle's rock and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder...
... Suddenly, there was the slightest whisper of a sound. In less than a second, Xena was on her feet, her great broad-sword in her hand. Gabrielle jumped up to, her battlestaff held out at waist height. The two young women stood back to back, ready to face any foe... Then, as if by some magic, there stood a third woman. She was tall - almost as tall as Xena - and wore both silver armor and golden garments. Her features seemed odd to both Xena and Gabrielle, as she had the high cheekbones and brown, almond-shaped eyes of the Steppe Peoples. But the raiment was unmistakable. For she was a Warrior-Priestess of the Order of Gaia.
Xena lowered her sword, but did not sheath it. Both she and Gabrielle were familiar with the Warrior-Priestesses, and had visited their Temple on the banks of the Great River, just outside the city-state of Bucca. This visit preceded their going far to the East, where Xena, with the help of two Great Souls... the stone-cutter Mithres and the holy man Siddhartha... had defeated a Great Evil loosed by the gods. Xena and Gabrielle had not long ago returned from that distant journey.
Xena, however, had a more intimate knowledge of the Warrior-Priestesses. She knew of their fighting techniques, which were designed to neither maim nor kill. She knew that, in ages past, the Order of Gaia arose in the ancient, northern land of Dacia, where the Warrior-Priestesses had originally banded together to resist the constant war and enslavement that plagued the peoples of that rugged land. From this desperate beginning, the Warrior-Priestesses had developed and refined the philosophy of Gaia, which emphasizes the Sacredness and Oneness of all things within the Universe. In addition, they had refined and molded their fighting abilities to reflect this philosophy. The Gaian Warrior-Priestesses had also learned the art of projecting visions, and used this skill to touch the souls of those whom they both opposed and helped. The Order eventually recruited novitiates from far beyond the borders of Dacia, and Warrior-Priestesses were set on missions of enforcing peace in the many corners of the World.
"Speak," said Xena.
"My name is Marte," said the woman... Xena noticed that the Warrior-Priestess, while in exemplary condition, was not young. She was middle-aged, and had streaks of white in her otherwise ebony-black hair.
"I have come from the Temple to find you and bring you back."
"For what purpose? I have already taken care of that for which you summoned Mithres."
"We know. And we are most grateful. But there is now another purpose."
"And what might that be?" asked Xena.
"Cirice, the High Priestess, is dying."
Xena stared at Marte. This was unbelievable news.
"Cirice... dying? How?" Gabrielle asked.
Marte gazed at both Xena and Gabrielle with sad, deep-brown eyes. There was even the slightest hint of a tear, which seemed so strange and unexpected from a great and mighty Gaian Warrior-Priestess.
"It is the will... or perhaps the punishment... of the gods," Marte said, "and, despite the power of the Warrior-Priestesses, we cannot, in any way, hope to match the power of the gods. As you know, the Great Evil released by Hera and Ares scattered the gods. With their return, the gods took their revenge on us. It was Cirice with whom they determined their judgment. She is now dying."
Gabrielle, who had been greatly impressed by the High Priestess Cirice, thought, 'What an incredible waste...'
Xena said, "I thought the Warrior-Priestesses were above such petty interference from the gods. I suppose I was wrong."
Marte replied, "Xena, you still have much to learn about the Warrior-Priestesses. We are but women... human... such as Gabrielle and yourself. That is why we solicit your help."
"Our help?" said Xena, "What can we possibly do for the Warrior-Priestesses?"
Marte looked at Xena with her soul-deep, brown eyes... "You can lead us," she said.
Xena was astonished by this answer. But she replied.
"I... and Gabrielle... will accompany you back to the Temple of Gaia. After that... the gods only know."
"Truly," said Marte, "the gods only know."
* * *
The threesome, Xena, Gabrielle, and Marte, were returning to the Temple of Gaia...
Gabrielle, ever the inquiring bard, had taken a keen interest in Marte.
"Marte," Gabrielle asked, "what brought you to the Warrior-Priestesses? I had, until not long ago, thought that they were all, or almost all, Dacians, who had banded together to insure the safety of their lands from the barbarian tribes of the North and West. You are unlike any Dacian I've ever seen."
Marte looked at Gabrielle, who was both a bard and an Amazon Queen. "Gabrielle," she said, "Gabrielle... you are truly blessed among all people. You have no husband, yet you stand first among both men and women. Your compassion, like the strength and sacrifice of Xena, will change the World."
This was clearly not the answer Gabrielle expected to her question. Gabrielle, however, did not know how to respond. She did not feel that there was anything special about herself. She had been the companion of Xena for these last two years, and for that, in her way, she felt honored, but... what was this great and mighty Warrior-Priestess trying to say?
Gabrielle at last replied. "I appreciate your confidence, but I only follow Xena."
Marte, the brown and wrinkled skin around her eyes crinkling, smiled broadly at Gabrielle... She said, "That, of course, is sufficient."
Gabrielle asked no more questions for a time. She knew that the answers, whatever they may be, were still to come...
...Later, Gabrielle was again talking with Marte. Gabrielle was somewhat reluctant to inconvenience the older woman with more of her questions, but Gabrielle was first and foremost a bard, and a bard always increases her knowledge by inquiring of the ways and wisdom of others...
"Marte," asked Gabrielle, "how did you become a Warrior-Priestess?"
Marte again smiled, and put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder... "Little one," she said, "don't forget that I'm old enough to be your mother. What do you remember about your mother?"
Gabrielle was once more surprised at the strange response of Marte, and was surprised as well at this new direction of the questioning.
"My mother," answered Gabrielle, "still lives, as far as I know, in Poteidia. Along with my sister."
"As far as you know?" said Marte, "Your own mother?"
Gabrielle lowered her head. She suddenly felt an unexpected sense of... shame... "I have not seen my mother in nearly two years," she said.
"And your father?" asked Marte.
"Don't question me about my father," said Gabrielle, hotly.
Marte, a tall and totally impervious woman, grasped Gabrielle by her upper arms... "And why not?" she retorted.
Gabrielle looked up into the eyes of the great Warrior-Priestess. Not even Xena seemed as overwhelming as this majestic, gold and silver-clad woman.
"My father..." said Gabrielle, "It's been a long, long time. He... left us. But, I don't blame him, I suppose. Times were so hard. I think maybe... we expected too much of him. He was a farmer, and he worked hard. Incredibly hard... He tried... But, in the end, he was just a man." Gabrielle had a look of infinite sadness.
Marte, however, maintained her look of undeniable... maybe, even unbelievable... confidence. She put her arm back around Gabrielle's shoulder.
"My father," Marte began, "was a herdsman of horses and sheep. We were the servants of the Great Khan. The Khan, of course, expected all of his men to be warriors, to worship battle and slaughter, and to drink their mead from cups made of the skulls of their foes. My father loved only his family, his horses, and his sheep. The Great Khan did not appreciate my father's wayward pacifism. The Khan drove stakes through his hands and feet, and left him to die on the grass-covered steppe with his belly slit open. My mother and sisters were sold into concubinage. I alone escaped. For months, I journeyed West, living only off the charity of strangers. Finally, a woman in gold battledress and silver armor took notice of me. She took me by the hand and led me to the Temple of Gaia... I was but ten years old. The Warrior-Priestesses raised me and taught me their Wisdom. That was more than forty years ago. Now, I am one of the Twelve, who serve at the pleasure of the High Priestess."
Gabrielle looked at Marte. At first, she had been certain that Marte was as big and tall as Xena herself. Now, Gabrielle finally saw Marte with her real eyes. Marte, in fact, was no larger than Gabrielle herself... This totally astonished Gabrielle.
"I had thought," said Gabrielle, "that you were at least as mighty as Xena."
"I am," replied Marte, "... as, I'm sure, are you. But the Warrior-Priestesses are not limited only to those who are great and mighty. Strength... physical strength... is such as ephemeral and transitory thing. Real strength can be expressed in an infinite number of ways."
"Gabrielle," continued Marte, "remember always that which is your destiny. You have been called to accompany Xena. That is a great and singular honor. Perhaps greater than all other honors. But... in the end... thou art Gabrielle, first and always."
... And Gabrielle pondered the wisdom of Marte...
* * *
Xena, Gabrielle, and Marte arrived at the Temple of Gaia. It seemed so very long ago since Xena and Gabrielle had been here before... but, it really had only been a matter of months. This time, they walked up the Entrance Way to the Great Hall of the Temple alone and without escort. The Warrior-Priestesses were abroad in the World, facing the restless and eternal forces of Evil. The loneliness of the Temple both impressed and worried Gabrielle. Everything seemed so different from the last time, not so very long ago...
... Cirice lay on a simple, narrow canvas cot, as no more than this was expected of a Warrior-Priestess. Her breathing was labored and heavy, and the lids of her eyes were closed. Around about her stood eleven of the Great Priestesses of the Temple of Gaia. With the arrival of Marte, their number was now Twelve. Accompanying Marte were Gabrielle and the Warrior Princess.
Xena approached the High Priestess. The others made way, and, taking a knee beside the cot, Xena reached over and placed her hand on the top of the hand of Cirice.
"Cirice," said Xena, "it truly saddens me to see you this way... But, I have a question for you which must be answered. Did you know all that I'd undergo, facing down the Yy'Goth?"
Cirice opened her eyes and looked up at the Warrior-Princess. She seemed more than pleased, in her weak and dying way, to see Xena once again.. "I knew more than I told you," she said, "but I did not know, and could not know, the ultimate outcome."
Xena, so fierce and beautiful, looked down at Cirice. In a gesture which might possibly have covered a moment of hesitation, Xena shook back her long, raven-black hair.
"Cirice," she said, "I am but a Warrior-Princess, and even that title means so little to me. I am no priestess... or prophet. Why am I here?"
Cirice clasped the hand of Xena. It was the grip of a great and powerful woman, not just of one dying.
"Xena," she said, "the Evil of the Yy'Goth... which you faced so courageously... is only the beginning. Evil will never be defeated all at once. The ways of men - and women - require that evil be faced again and again, and to never lose hope.
"It is," Cirice continued, "so very, very hard... Do you understand, Xena?"
Xena thought of all the events of her life. Growing up in Amphypilis. Being forced to defend her people, then raising armed bands, and eventually, whole armies. Forever slaying her enemies. Finally, one day... tiring of the endless slaughter, and devoting herself and the rest of her life, short or long, to the redemption of her past transgressions. She also thought of Gabrielle, and how unusual the happenstance of such a young woman becoming part of her life.
"I understand..." said Xena.
Cirice, from her deathbed, riveted her gaze on the Warrior-Princess... "Never forget that evil cannot be defeated only once. I wish it were so. But... the struggle... is eternal. The outcome, however, will not be in doubt."
Xena, despite her great respect for the High Priestess, was skeptical of Cirice's fine words. Xena had seen so much evil, and been the part of so much evil... How could good possibly always triumph over evil?
... Xena did, however, honor Cirice. It was the least a Warrior-Princess could do. Bowing her head before the great High Priestess, Xena said, "What do you wish for me to do?"
Cirice coughed once, proving that she was, indeed, human. "Xena," she said, tightening her grasp on the hand of the Warrior Princess, "It is you that must follow me. You must lead the Warrior-Priestesses."
This was as Marte had hinted at... but Xena was still astounded that such a request could be made of her... to lead the Warrior-Priestesses. What on Earth - or in Hades - for?
The Warrior-Princess looked down at Cirice. She could feel the woman's fingers tightly - even painfully - intertwined with her own. She gently squeezed Cirice's hand.
"What for... High Priestess?"
"As I have said... there is still more evil. You alone have proved yourself worthy of Gaia's complete trust and confidence. None has done as you have. You must lead us."
But Xena wanted neither the responsibility... or the honor.
"Surely there are others... the Twelve."
"In normal times, one of them would follow me. But, these are far from normal times. What is done now - will decide all that follows. You... Xena... promise me. If just for a little while."
"Do you anticipate battle?" asked the Warrior Princess.
"Battle?" Cirice managed a small, still smile. "The battle to come will be greater than all others. I... was not worthy. You... proved yourself. The Abyss... remember the Abyss."
Xena did not know what to think of this. But... she was, first, last, and always, a Warrior. And if the great Cirice called for a Warrior, Xena would answer the call.
"I agree," said Xena, "but just for one battle. Whatever it is you fear, I'll lead the Warrior-Priestesses against it."
Again, Cirice smiled. "Thank you. You alone will know your destiny."
Xena stroked the steel-gray hair of the older woman... "I truly know not what I promise," she said.
"What you promise," Cirice whispered, "is to face all the gods. Their power, their evil... perhaps even their compassion."
These were strange words. Xena continued to look down at the High Priestess. Cirice was, by now, breathing irregularly.
Again, Xena asked, "Of what are you dying?"
Cirice, with a final ounce of strength, looked at Xena... "The gods determined I was not worthy," was all she said.
"But... Gaia," replied Xena.
"Perhaps I was not worthy of her as well."
"Then what chance have I?" said Xena.
"That, too, remains to be seen."
The older woman... indomitable, courageous, and bold... had faced all of life's evils, and, somehow, having triumphed, slowly closed her eyes. Then, her last breath passed...
Xena bent over and kissed Cirice on the forehead. Using her right hand, she shut Cirice's eyes, saying only, "Sleep well, Great Warrior."
Xena then arose and turned to the Twelve. "Convene the Warrior-Priestesses," she said.
* * *
The Twelve had sent forth the word, and the Warrior-Priestesses were recalled. They were all standing in the Great Hall of the Temple of Gaia, over two hundred strong. They all seemed so tall and magnificent, in their golden battledresses and cloaks, and silver helmets and armor. They all faced forward...
Xena came forth from the shadows, and stood before the Warrior-Priestesses. She still, as always, wore her short leather battledress and metalled breastplates. On her back was her most prized possession, a great battle-sword. Beside her was Gabrielle... so beautiful in her short-skirted Amazon garb... and holding her only weapon, a wooden battlestaff. Behind Xena and Gabrielle stood the Twelve, expressionless... but not at all questioning the will of their strange, new leader.
"Warrior-Priestesses!" exclaimed Xena, and her new charges, the Gaian Warrior-Priestesses, snapped to attention, slamming their great battle-spears down on the stone flags that made up the floor of the Great Hall.
"Cirice has called me," continued Xena, "and I have agreed to lead you... I know not why I've been called, and Cirice did not tell. But, she did say that it was a mission involving the gods... and I am not afraid of the gods. I assume you, as Warrior-Priestesses, are not afraid of the gods as well. We will do what is required of us, and nothing less. Remember, always... that wherever you came from, whenever you arrived here, you are Warrior-Priestesses! I... am not. I will never be. But, the Warrior-Priestesses, at the cost of their lives, guarantee the peace of the World. That is your call. Mine is to be here - now - and I will fight for you..."
The Warrior-Priestesses... trained to be both merciful and mighty... stood tall. Never in the past history of the World, and perhaps not since, have their been such heroes. They knew exactly their place in this World, and would never betray it.
"We'll fight for you, Xena!" was the immediate response of the two hundred Warrior-Priestesses. They, however, unlike Xena's past armies, mentioned nothing at all about dying for Xena. Xena understood... there were things much, much greater than Xena for which these warrior-women would die...
Xena. so uncharacteristic of her, had the hint of a tear in her eye. She had led the ten thousand, and felt the will and power of many, many more. But never, in all her life, had she been so incredibly proud of a band of warriors. She lifted her mighty sword in the air, and screamed a great and undying battle cry. The Warrior-Priestesses also had bright tears glistening their eyes. They all unsheathed their great, unsharpened swords, and lifting them high over their heads, repeated, over and over, "We'll fight for you, Xena! We'll fight for you Xena!"
* * *
The scene of our story shifts to the strange and mysterious Realm of Mount Olympus. There, a quorum of the gods had convened. These gods, as they are so-called, were led by the All-Powerful and Irresistible Hera, Queen of the Gods. On her right stood Ares, Great and Bloody God of War. Zeus stood behind Hera. This was not unexpected, as Hera was, unquestionably, the most powerful of the gods. Zeus, in fact, had always deferred to Hera... And now Hera, in all her Might and Power, rose before the massed assembly of the gods.
"Gods!" she exclaimed, "All who are assembled before me! We have ruled over mankind for many centuries, and, for the most part, the helpless creatures have, rightly, cowered before our feet. This... is less than the case now. Men... and women... rise up. They oppose the gods and seek other Paths! This we cannot allow. Already they grow in power. We must unleash on the sons and daughters of Man such Power that they will be conquered forever, and the realm of this World will be only for the pleasure of the gods!!
... It was hopeless to oppose Hera. Many of the gods were extremely uneasy. Athena had proved Mankind with wisdom, and Apollo, reason. Other gods, such as Artemis, and even Aphrodite, had favored Man. But, in the end, they lacked the courage to oppose Hera. Courage, after all, is a trait of women and men, and not the gods. Reluctantly, but inevitably, the gods, one after another, sided with the Great Hera... So, when all was done, it was the gods against Xena, Gabrielle, and, of course, all the rest of mankind.
* * *
Gabrielle sat next to Xena on the elevated dais in the Great Hall of the Temple of Gaia. They were alone. Xena had dismissed the Warrior-Priestesses, and they had dispersed, going back to their tasks of maintaining peace and thwarting infamy.
"Nice speech," said Gabrielle.
"Bards aren't the only ones who know of the power of words," replied Xena.
"I can see why you became such a great warlord... you were able to move the Warrior-Priestesses. I didn't think that was possible."
"It did seem too easy," was Xena's reply, and she mulled over her own insight.
"Why is that?" asked Gabrielle.
"The Warrior-Priestesses are as above common warriors as the gods are above man. Yet they were shouting their allegiance to me like a horde of drunken hoplites. I am no High Priestess, and they know that. I just don't know what's going on..."
Gabrielle thought about this... "None of this really makes any sense. This is all so weird... but, I guess everything we do is weird," she said.
... Whereupon, Xena heard a faint rustling behind her. Although it was barely perceptible, she knew it was deliberate. A Warrior-Priestess would not make herself so obvious unless she wanted to be noticed. Xena whirled around, and there was Marte.
"Hail, Marte," said Xena.
"Hail, Xena," replied Marte, "and hail, Gabrielle."
"Uh... hail," said Gabrielle.
"Xena," said Marte, "the Twelve awaits. It is time that you knew us as Priestesses, and not just mere Warriors."
Xena didn't have the slightest idea what Marte was talking about, but she assumed that being the de facto High Priestess had its own peculiar responsibilities... She would play this out to the end...
... Xena and Gabrielle followed Marte down several long corridors and staircases. The only break from the gloom of the stone flags of ceilings, walls, and floor were the lowly guttering torches, placed at wide intervals in iron holders along the walls. Finally, the trio came to a large wooden door. Marte turned to Gabrielle...
"From here, only the Warrior-Princess may proceed," she said.
Gabrielle seemed to be a bit miffed at this, but her respect for Marte prevented her from making a comment. She nodded, and backed away. Xena glanced at her friend, and then looked back at Marte.
"That's fine with me," Xena said.
Marte pulled on the great iron handle of the door. The door slowly creaked open, but just enough to allow Xena and Marte to enter. Then the door closed, as if of its own volition...
... And before Xena and Marte were the rest of the Twelve. They stood around a giant caldron. Although there were no coals in this great, steel pot, there blazed from it low, twisting fires of every imaginable color. Xena had never seen such a thing, and, even now, it defied her credulity. She began to think that she'd definitely underestimated the Warrior-Priestesses...
"What is this?" she asked.
"Nothing of significance," said Janith, another one of the Twelve, "unless, of course, you want it to be."
Xena did not appreciate such an answer. For her, the Warrior's Creed required absolutes, and an answer that was no more than an enigma was totally insufficient. Reacting solely from instinct, Xena quickly drew forth her great sword, and brought it down, violently, on the rim of the caldron. The distinctive clang of metal on metal filled the chamber with a harsh, unavoidable noise.
"I do not appreciate riddles," Xena snarled, "I agreed to be your leader, and if you follow me, you will answer my questions. I ask again, what is this?"
The Twelve stood back. Xena stared into the caldron, as if without volition. The fires, clearly not of this world, continued to twist and flame, and Xena felt herself irresistibly drawn into their substance. The colors were so bright, yet so subtle... a sense of unreality washed over Xena, and it was if she were no longer with the Twelve, nor in the Temple, nor any place she'd ever been before...
... then Xena saw a face. It was the face of a woman, neither old nor young. She had long white hair, the color of Northland snow, and it was streaked with brown and tan. The face seemed to smile... a smile of infinite knowledge. Xena drew back her sword, and thrust it into its scabbard.
"Who," asked Xena, "are you?"
The face grew into the shape of a woman. She was a tall, handsome woman, wearing an ivory-white dress that covered her ankles. She also wore battle-armor, blazing with the fires of a thousand suns, and on her back was a sword and shield. She stood before Xena and looked her straight in the eyes...
"Why, Xena," the woman said, "we've met before. Don't you remember me?"
"Gaia?" said Xena...
"You shouldn't be surprised," said the woman.
"It's hard to remember... what you put me through," replied Xena.
"In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing," replied the woman.
"Facing the ultimate Evil... was nothing?!" answered Xena.
"Far less than nothing... for you, Xena, there is much more..."
"Then I submit," said Xena, "whatever you require, I shall do..."
"How incredibly noble," replied the vision of the woman whom Xena now thought of as Gaia... but, it was not an unkind reply... "Xena," she continued, " you do not have to pretend that you are noble. Simply being Xena will suffice."
"Then," said Xena, "I require an answer. What is expected of me?"
"You and your companion... Gabrielle... will leave the Temple. You will return to the highways and byways of Man. Only there will you receive your answer."
"Will I hear from you again?" Xena asked.
"Of course," was the reply...
* * *
So Xena and Gabrielle did leave the Temple of Gaia. In a way, it seemed so much like a dream... she, Xena, leading the Warrior-Priestesses in some great, unfathomable goal. In truth, she did not care for such a thing. She had wearied of leading anyone, much less the Greatest Warriors in the World. It was far preferable to her that she... and Gabrielle... should be back on the roads of Greece, waiting for some new adventure...
...It was an ordinary night, no different, for all the changed circumstances, from those many earlier nights that Xena and Gabrielle spent camping in the woods. The two companions were sitting around a fire. Xena was perched upon a rock, as usual, sharpening her sword. But, she had a fierce scowl on her face. Gabrielle was a little concerned...
Then, the twosome heard someone coming through the darkness. Xena glanced around, her sword, as always, at the ready. Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the glare of the fire, and looked down the trail. Would this be monsters, or merely a simple horde of cutthroats and ruffians? Then, she saw the object of their concerns. Down the path meandered a small and elderly, short-haired, low-to-the-ground hound, with a lolling pink tongue and long, silky ears. She had spots of black and brown on her near-white coat, and a mightily wagging tail. Gabrielle giggled at the presumptuousness of such a creature being a foe... Then, following the dog came a tired-looking, middle-aged man, who looked much the worse for wear. His clothes were ragged and he was not handsome, but for being both weary and footsore, he was managing a brave smile.
"Halloo," said the man, "is anyone by the fire?"
Xena replied, "Xena... and Gabrielle of Poteidia."
The not-at-all young man looked a little puzzled... and embarrassed... "I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to disturb the two of you. We'll be on our way."
The little dog had come up to Gabrielle, and the dog's tail was thumping back and forth ferociously. She had scented the meat skewered on Gabrielle's cooking stick, and was doing her best to ingratiate a treat.
"Hold," said Xena, "We are not disturbed... and you are welcome to share our fire. What's your name?"
"I am Yosh'va," said the man.
"...And," added Gabrielle, "who is your companion?"
The little dog had jumped up, resting her forepaws squarely on Gabrielle's lap. Her mouth was open and she was panting hopefully, looking Gabrielle straight in the eye. She would not be denied her treat. Gabrielle, always tenderhearted, pulled loose a piece of meat and fed it to the hungry little hound.
"Her name is Persephone," said Yosh'va, "She is a great and mighty huntress. I appreciate you sharing your dinner with her."
Gabrielle grinned... "Never a problem," she said... And she pulled off the cooking stick the very last piece of meat, which was also the most tender. Gabrielle gave this choice morsel to the wiggling, happy little dog.
"Why are you traveling alone, and unarmed, in this wilderness?" asked Xena.
"Persephone and I are not afraid of the ways of Man," said Yosh'va, "no matter how desperate."
Xena grunted in skepticism... "I doubt that's wise," she said.
"Wise or not, it's our way," replied Yosh'va.
"Do you have a trade?" asked Gabrielle, looking intently at the ragged, sack-clothed man.
"The nearest to a trade that I have is being a healer," he replied, "some would use the word... empath."
Gabrielle did not recognize the word 'empath'. If Xena did, she kept it to herself. Xena, however, did make a comment.
"I thought most healers commanded a great deal of money," she said.
"Some do," Yosh'va replied. "But... I am different."
"Obviously," retorted Xena. She also grimaced, which astonished Gabrielle.
This did not go unnoticed by Yosh'va... "It is said," Yosh'va answered, "that an empath sometimes has the ability to take away pain. What is your pain, Xena?"
Xena looked at this strange, non-descript man with her blazing blue eyes. "My pain?" she said, "I have no pain."
"I respectfully disagree with you Xena," said Yosh'va, "there is a great pain, in your side. But, you refuse to share it, even with Gabrielle. Maybe I can take away this pain."
Gabrielle looked at Xena with puzzlement and not a little confusion. What had Xena been keeping from her?
"Xena," Gabrielle said, "what's wrong?"
Xena glared at her friend, not backing down... "I have no weaknesses," she said.
Gabrielle wanted so much to take hold of Xena's hand, but held back this one time... "If Yosh'va can help," she said.
"All I need to do is take your hands," Yosh'va said.
Xena looked deeply at this, until recently, stranger. She was unsure what to do, but... for some reason... she trusted this so common-looking man... "I consent," she finally said.
Yosh'va reached out. But... he seemed so small and ordinary. Despite this, he took the Warrior Princess's hands. He then closed his eyes.
"Xena," said Yosh'va, "such pain, such terrible pain. How do you stand it?"... And sweat popped out of the brow of this not young nor handsome man.
Yosh'va grimaced. It was if a fox were gnawing at the center of his entrails. He gasped for air, and, finally, slumped over, his face contorted in agony. Long seconds passed, and then Yosh'va caught his breath, looking up at Xena in astonishment.
"Xena, how do you stand such pain?" he asked.
Xena did not respond. Her eyes were closed, and her features were quite calm and expressionless. Then, she opened her eyes with a look of utmost disbelief... for the pain was entirely gone.
"Thank you," said Xena, " you are more than welcome to share both our fire and our meal."
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "what was the pain?"
"A wound," Xena replied, "where an arrow pierced my side. Usually, it doesn't concern me. But, sometimes, it becomes... became... inflamed."
"Xena!" Gabrielle said, "You could have died. Yet you never mentioned it to me."
"What could you have done?"
Gabrielle didn't answer. She had thought Xena would share all things with her. But, maybe this was simply a matter of pride. It was foolish pride, perhaps, but it was Xena's pride nonetheless. Gabrielle knew she should allow her companion at least that much...
... Persephone had long since finished Gabrielle's portion of the meal. She was now laying curled up, contentedly, at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle was gently stroking the old dog's long, soft, velvety ears.
"You can sleep with us next to the fire," said Gabrielle, "do not be concerned because you're a man."
Yosh'va smiled a small, sad smile... "That would never be my concern," said he.
Gabrielle reached out and squeezed his hand... "Nor mine," she said...
... Gabrielle lay, asleep, on top of the horse-blanket. Next to her, nestled up close, and snoring as only a small hound can do, was the Persephone-dog. Gabrielle had one hand draped over the little dog, and it seemed as if both Gabrielle and Persephone had gentle, contented smiles on their faces. Gabrielle, in her sleep, unconsciously stroked Persephone's back...
But... then there was music. It was the sound of pipes, but not of any piping in this World. The melody was low and strange, and was totally unearthly. It was if the music came from somewhere way beyond the stars.
Gabrielle jerked up into a sitting position. She heard these sounds... even though, it was apparent, that her companions didn't. Persephone also stirred.
"Whoa, girl," said Gabrielle, "it's all right."
Gabrielle, however, sensed that there was something very far from being all right. The music was still there, and it seemed, in some unreasoning way, terrible to behold... Gabrielle unthinkingly kept her hand on Persephone's back.
Persephone, looking around, got up, and then so did Gabrielle... "Let's find out what this is," said Gabrielle. But, she was far less than assured. She, however, did not attempt to awaken Xena. For a moment she felt it strange that she didn't, but the thought passed quickly.
Gabrielle started walking. She was still in a semi-somnolent state, and, perhaps due to the effect of the music, felt a great, unfathomable unreality to all things. But, Persephone trotted on her short legs along side her, and that reassured Gabrielle. If the little dog was with her, then this all must be real...
Finally, after what seemed to be miles and miles of walking, Gabrielle awoke to a sharper reality. Something was very, very wrong. The whole world looked different... and so terribly, awfully strange... "Persephone?" said Gabrielle... and the little dog which was walking behind her caught up, stopped, and gave Gabrielle a quizzical look. Gabrielle sighed, and it was a gesture that was much more than simple relief. She reached down to pet her small friend.
"Thank the gods," said Gabrielle, "I was beginning to feel so... alone."
But... suddenly, inexplicably... there was horror. A scream caught in Gabrielle's throat. There were... things... surrounding her. Strange, terrible things. They were ungodly, unearthly things. Gabrielle's eyes grew large with terror, and then larger still. She sensed a feeling of the finality of total doom. Unconsciously, she dropped to a knee, and put her arm around the little dog.
"Oh, Persephone," said Gabrielle.
Then Gabrielle saw the total sum of all her nightmares... times a thousand. There were shapes - hideous, terrible shapes - gargantuan, shuffling bodies, all of which were emanating a horrible, complete, and irresistible cloud of Evil.
"Xena," breathed Gabrielle... but she knew her friend was far, far away. Xena would not save her this time.
The shapes... both unmerciful and incredibly powerful... very, very powerful... grew closer. They surrounded Gabrielle on all sides, and were reaching out to her with blasphemous, hell-dark tentacles. Sweat dripped from Gabrielle's brow, and she felt - she knew - that these monstrosities were going to torment her, kill her, and even feast on her soul before they were through.
Gabrielle had her battlestaff with her, and she would not be destroyed without a fight. Then, she looked down, and there was Persephone.
"Run, Persephone, run!" cried Gabrielle, "Get out of here. Go. Now!"
But Persephone seemed to wait. Gabrielle was filled with an infinite, total sense of sadness. Not only would she die, but this innocent little creature would die with her as well.
The nearest entity stretched forth an obscene, unclean, grasping pseudopodia. Gabrielle could feel, incredibly, both the unimaginable heat of black fires, and the infinite cold of the wastes of space. Gabrielle now knew, even if she did not, could not, accept, her final fate. She also knew that it would take something far greater than a miracle to save her...
But, then, something incredible - totally unbelievable - did happen. The little Persephone-dog jumped up, and grabbed the thrusting, twisting tentacle in her jaws.
"No, Persephone, no!" cried Gabrielle.
But... Persephone was far from finished. What happened next was unimaginable. Persephone snapped her head to one side, and the giant, devil-spawned monstrosity was tossed into the air. Persephone then began twirling the entity by its tentacle, faster and faster, and then, yet faster still. Soon there was nothing to be seen but a blur...
"Persephone?" queried the astonished Gabrielle.
The little dog released the entity, and it went sailing off, at utmost speed, straight in the direction of the rising sun... disappearing in the distance. Then Persephone growled at the other entities, and they all quickly disappeared, in what seemed a resounding 'pop'.
...Gabrielle then fell to her knees before the little dog... "Oh, Persephone," she said.
Persephone jumped up on Gabrielle, and began licking her face. Gabrielle didn't mind in the slightest. She hugged the little dog tightly.
"Oh, Persephone, Persephone..." she said again.
But, the little dog squirmed free, and backed away. And then... where Persephone stood, there was a flash of light. It was a pure, good light - a light that seemed to contain all the colors of the rainbow. And then, before Gabrielle, stood a tall, gloriously beautiful woman. The woman seemed neither young nor old, but her bearing seemed to command the utmost respect. Her hair was white as new-fallen snow, but with streaks of brown and tan. She wore a long battledress that was also white... so white it hurt Gabrielle's eyes. The woman also wore armor of purest gold, and had a mighty sword and shield slung loosely over shoulder... And, she was grinning enormously...
"Who," asked the now more than astonished Gabrielle, "are you?"
"Why, Persephone, of course," replied the woman.
"The little dog?"
"One of my many incarnations... and one of which I am inordinately proud."
"But," said Gabrielle, "what... who... are you now?"
"Whatever you wish," said the woman, "maybe... I am a protectoress of the whole Universe against all the Forces of the Dark Marches. Maybe I'm your Guardian Angel... and maybe I'm the Good Witch of the North."
"Huh?" said Gabrielle.
"Forget that last part. Just a little joke you couldn't possibly understand."
But Gabrielle really didn't care what the woman called herself. She... Gabrielle... felt the greatest sense of reassurance she had ever felt. It was as if nothing Evil could possibly stand against her ever again. Persephone... her own Guardian Angel. Gabrielle got to her feet and approached the majestic woman, holding out her hands. She just wanted to make contact - to be sure this was all real. Whereupon the woman took her hands, then wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, bending her over backwards, and gave her a quick, healthy kiss.
Straightening Gabrielle up, the woman's great smile turned into a laugh, and she said, "Betcha weren't expecting that. But that's exactly what Persephone would have wanted to do, don't you think?"
...And then Gabrielle's mind seemed to fade away...
Gabrielle opened her eyes. The first real rays of the sun were coloring the clouds a gentle pink. All seemed as it should be... Xena lay on her side of the horse blanket, and Yosh'va was sleeping a discreet distance away. Persephone, however, was not to be seen.
'So,' thought Gabrielle, 'It was a dream after all.'
But, it seemed so real. How great it would be to actually have her own Guardian Angel. Especially one as mighty as... Persephone? That was a strange name for an Angel... but it was not a strange name for a little dog. Gabrielle wished it was more than just a dream.
Something in the morning clouds, directly above where she still lay, caught Gabrielle's eye. It seemed, just for a second, that there was the face of an incredibly handsome woman with hair whiter than the clouds themselves, and a smile that could only be called grand... and the woman in the clouds winked - and then instantly disappeared...
Gabrielle jerked up to a sitting position with a start. This caused Xena to stir and roll over... "What is it, Gabrielle?" she said, albeit sleepily.
"Where's Persephone?" asked Gabrielle.
"Who?" said Xena.
But, just then, the little dog came bounding out of the bushes, and ran straight to Gabrielle, jumping up into her lap and licking her face fiercely. Gabrielle began stroking the happy, squirming hound... "I sing the song of the Great Persephone," chanted Gabrielle, "She that stands alone between us and all of Chaos."
Xena looked incredulously toward her friend Gabrielle. The Great Persephone? Had Gabrielle lost all her senses?
"What in Hades are you talking about?" asked Xena, "The... Great Persephone?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena with a smile of her own. Maybe it had been a dream... But what a marvelous dream. But, then again, Gabrielle knew, in her heart, deep down, that it had not been a dream at all. And the woman. Maybe she was more than even a Guardian Angel. Maybe, she was... Gaia Herself.
* * *
Xena, Gabrielle, Yosh'va, and Persephone continued down the trail. Gabrielle had no more strange dreams, but, nonetheless, she was sure to keep an eye on the little dog, Persephone. She was not troubled by her dream... or vision... or whatever it was, but, still, it was best to look after the small creature...
Surprisingly, Xena and Yosh'va spent a great deal of time in conversation whenever the threesome... or foursome... camped for the night. Gabrielle mainly listened. Xena felt comfortable telling Yosh'va of her life-story, and Yosh'va was non-judgmental. He had known the pain and suffering, both physical and mental, of so many folk, and it had been his life's mission to relieve it, in whatever way he could. He told Xena and Gabrielle that his being an empath... if that was the correct word... was a gift of the gods, but, for some reason, none of them thought of it as a gift from the gods of the Greeks. Gabrielle thought that it was so much... above... what any of the Greek gods would bestow. Maybe... Gaia would bestow it, or maybe even a greater god. But, above all, what Gabrielle knew was that she liked this man, as she had liked Mithres and Siddhartha, and he seemed to relieve even Xena's pain... Not, of course, that Xena would ever admit to any pain to begin with...
Gabrielle had pried Yosh'va away from Xena, and, locked arm in arm in a way of close friendship, she was talking to the middle-aged man. At first he'd seemed a little bit uncomfortable with such unaccustomed intimacy, but it was only a fleeting concern. He and Gabrielle instinctively liked each other.
"It sounds as if things have been rather rough for you, Gabrielle," said Yosh'va. "You've lost at least two men that you've loved, and seen a lot of others die."
"I've lost a lot more than just two men," Gabrielle said, thinking of the faces of all those she had been with... and tried to help... in times of incredible suffering... "Although, I suppose, I've only been in love with two."
"You've loved far more than two," replied Yosh'va, "but 'love' is definitely a strange word for you. Desire and love are two distinct things. You have definitely loved many people... including, of course, Xena."
Gabrielle smiled at her new friend. She felt incredibly lucky to have known such people as Xena, Mithres, and now Yosh'va.... "Sometimes I feel so happy I could burst," Gabrielle said. Yosh'va put his arm around the young Amazon Queen's shoulder, and hugged her tightly. He had a smile of his own, but... almost imperceptibly, there was a knowing tinge of sadness.
"You're so much more than a survivor," said Yosh'va, "You are a light unto this World..."
... But, a day did come when Yosh'va had to leave Xena and Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a little downcast, and she surely regretted the Persephone-dog departing her company, but she had no bad feelings. Both she and Xena wished Yosh'va and Persephone well, and hoped, at some other time, they would meet again...
"Where are you going?" said Xena.
"There is a city to the South," Yosh'va said, "The people there have long lived under the yoke of oppression. Maybe I can relieve a little of the pain."
"Be careful," said Gabrielle...
"My well-being is not a consideration," replied Yosh'va.
"It is to me," answered Gabrielle.
"If that's the case, I will try to be careful," said Yosh'va, and he again hugged his young friend. Persephone jumped up, as to get Gabrielle's attention, and Gabrielle got down on her knees, and hugged and kissed the little dog... "You be careful, too," said Gabrielle, but, deep down, she knew that the little hound was far beyond the cares of this World.
Xena showed no such emotion. She had known many people in her life, and none, other than Gabrielle, had long stood at her side. But, she honored Yosh'va, and, on parting, gave him her hands... "My concern goes with you as well," she said.
Yosh'va looked Xena in the eyes, and said something that could have only been a prophecy... "Xena... I am unimportant. You... a great deal depends on you."
Xena did not answer. But the friends were parted, and, unbeknownst to Xena and Gabrielle, they would not see Yosh'va... free again.
* * *
Hera now ruled unopposed and supreme atop Mount Olympus. Before her quailed the so-called mighty Zeus, and allied to Hera were Ares, Poseidon, Hades, and a host of the lesser, "dark" gods. Artemis and Athena did not like the arrangement one bit, but they did not challenge it. Apollo was too vain to know the difference... and Aphrodite - she was not yet ready to give up on the human race.
But, it was not the gods that concerned Hera. They were insignificant to her. She had devoted herself to an eternal battle with Gaia... the goddess who was not of Olympus. Hera had miscalculated before, but she felt that such was only a most minor setback. She would never again depend on the might and power of other entities... from now on, she would match strength to strength, with Gaia.
First, Hera would destroy Gaia's chosen champion, which was Xena. But, Hera's way would be subtle. She would begin by destroying the friends of the Warrior-Princess. Her first assault against Gabrielle, unleashing Powers of the Netherworld, had not totally succeeded... thanks to the infernal interference of the accursed and damnable Gaia! She would not make the mistake of directly attacking one so close to Xena again. But... Yosh'va... that was a tempting target... and Hera knew just what to do. What better way to destroy the Will of Men than to turn them against one another?
... So Hera sent her Power forth.
Hera materialized before the Great Imperator. She usually appeared before both gods and men as two fantastically mis-colored eyes, for she disdained the shape and form of mere mortals. This time, however, she had a greater purpose, and the Vanity of Man had to be considered. She appeared in the Imperator's bedchamber as a tall and hauntingly beautiful woman, as impervious as the Imperator himself to all the cares and woes of mankind...
The Imperator stirred from his slumbers. He was another large and grossly fat man... a slave as well as an Imperial Overlord... a slave to the basest and most primeval of passions. Insanity ran amok throughout his line, and his sire and grandsires had built the Empire on psychopathic violence and an iron indifference to mercy or compassion. Blood, fire, and iron had given rise to the power of this one man. Hera smiled... there were some among the sons of mankind that even she could be fond of...
As the Imperator awoke, he saw, beside his bed, this woman. He was startled by this sight, and then it was as if the blood in his veins had turned to ice water. It was hardly unusual for a woman to be at his bedside, but this was a woman he'd never seen before... and it was a woman, he was certain, for whom his ultimate power was no more than dust in the gutter. He knew... instinctively... that she was powerful beyond all imagination. The Imperator now felt something that he'd in the past exclusively reserved for those who groveled at his feet - fear.
"Who," stammered the Imperator, "Are you?"
"Dear one," replied Hera, "do you not recognize me? I am the sum of all your wishes... your fondest desires."
The Imperator looked up at this incredibly compelling, if totally sinister, woman. She returned his glance with a gaze, and the Imperator felt his fear melt away. The fear, however, was replaced by another, much more familiar emotion. The Imperator was filled with lust, but it was scarcely a mere lust of the flesh. He licked his thick, toad-like lips... for wasn't passion his due? A mighty Empire bowed before him. His word... one word... could take a thousand lives, or a hundred thousand. But this Woman was Power incarnate... Unbelievable Power...
"Yes, I do," gulped the Imperator, and his voice came in short gasps, as if he wanted something infinitely more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life before.
"Naturally," smiled Hera, but it was a cold and calculating smile, ultimately reflective of the cosmic wastes between the gods and man.
The Imperator had begun to moan, and his eyes rolled up in his head until only the blood-shot whites of his eyeballs were visible. His desire had already conquered him completely.
"I'll do anything," begged the Imperator, "anything... anything at all."
Hera was supremely confident in her arrogance. Everything was going exactly according to plan. The Imperator was the merest clay in her hands. So would be the Khan, who was to be the recipient of her next visit... Hera put a hand on the grease and sweat-streaked forehead of the Imperator, and he came back to his senses.
"Two things," said Hera, "First, a very minor duty. In the Eastern provinces, there are those who challenge your power. These are little men, ordinarily beneath your notice, but I want them crushed. There is one in particular... his name is Yosh'va. He claims to be a healer. Send word to your Procurator that this Yosh'va must be disposed of... and in the cruelest manner possible. Crucify him. But, your Procurator must announce the crucifixion sufficiently in advance so that two of my... friends... can be in attendance."
"And the second thing, my Goddess?" whispered the Imperator.
"Good. You know Who I am..." said Hera, "Secondly, you will amass all your legions and transport them to Dacia. There is a temple there that I want you to destroy..."
* * *
Xena stared up at the crowd of people on the rim of the small, rock-strewn hill. She hoped that they weren't too late. They had heard the word just three days ago... but she feared the worst. She knew that their new friend... hers and Gabrielle's... had been taken by the soldiers, and was even now at the place of crucifixion. Xena herself had once been crucified - but not nailed to a cross. So, she knew, somewhat, of the cruel fate awaiting Yosh'va. Xena saw the soldiers, and then she saw Yosh'va. He had been stripped of his clothing, and he was bound, bloody, with wicked, raw gashes criss-crossing his back where he had been scourged with lead-tipped whips. His face had been savagely beaten, and blood dripped from his head into the dust at his feet... Xena and Gabrielle began to run...
Gabrielle had tears in her wild, blue eyes... "No!" she cried, "I've lost Mithres... and Siddhartha and Perdicus and all the others... and I'll be damned if I'm going to lose Yosh'va too. I'll die first, Xena!"... And Gabrielle held tightly to her battlestaff, thrust out from her body at waist level, ready to fight any and everyone who stood between her and her friend, Yosh'va.
Xena reached over her left shoulder, and with one, quick move, drew forth her great sword... But, calculating the odds, she reckoned that a fight would be an exercise in futility - or worse. The Procurator had assembled an entire cohort, over two hundred men, and they had the hilltop completely surrounded. These men stood at battle-ready, with their great bronze shields interlocked and spears thrust forward. There was no way that Xena and Gabrielle could take on so many tough-bitten, veteran legionnaires...
Xena reached out and grasped Gabrielle's arm to hold her back. "It's hopeless, Gabrielle," Xena said, "we'd only get ourselves killed, too."
Gabrielle stared at Xena with a look of utmost astonishment. "Xena!" she cried, "I have never known you to refuse to face a fight... Well, maybe you can, but I can't just stand by. Not this time... especially not this time. You can stay back, but... this is my destiny. If I have to die, then I'll die."
But, Xena knew it was already too late. The soldiers were already hammering long, iron nails into the hands and feet of Yosh'va and more than two dozen other condemned men, and soon the legionnaires would be lifting and setting the crosses upright. There was nothing else for it - Yosh'va was doomed.
Xena re-sheathed her sword, slamming it into the scabbard with a resounding crash. She was upset and frustrated as well, and usually it would be she, and not Gabrielle, that would be impetuous for a fight... But not this time. Xena turned and faced Gabrielle, planting her legs firm and wide apart... "I don't want you, too, to die," she said.
Gabrielle swung her battlestaff around, threatening her friend. "Don't try to stop me, Xena," she said, "I don't care if you don't care. I don't care if no one cares. But I care! I won't let them kill him."
Xena felt a great, hopeless love for Gabrielle. She knew of Gabrielle's feelings for this gentle and innocent man. How Xena wished things could be different... Xena grabbed Gabrielle's battlestaff, and with one, quick jerk, tore it from Gabrielle's grasp. Xena threw the staff down, and wrapped her arms tightly around her friend... Up on the hill, the crosses, one after the other, crashed down into the holes dug to receive them and hold them upright. There was a low moan from Yosh'va, and screams from the other men. One of the crosses, not planted deep enough in the earth, tilted to one side and fell over, crushing the man who had been nailed to it into the dirt.
"No, Gabrielle," said Xena, "it's too late."
Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's shoulder, and clung tightly to Xena's back with both hands. Gabrielle was openly weeping...
"Oh Xena, Xena, Xena..." she moaned.
"We can't take on a whole cohort - backed up by a whole legion," said Xena.
... And, on the hilltop, where a forest of crosses had been raised to the sky, the kind and gentle Yosh'va hung like dead meat on a hook.
"Where are the Warrior Priestesses?" cried an inconsolable and bitter Gabrielle, "Where are the goddamned Warrior Priestesses? After all we did for them..."
Xena knew the answer, but it was something she would not - or dared not - share with Gabrielle. Xena knew that the Warrior Priestesses could not interfere. It was a bargain with the gods... or maybe with the devil.
"Hush, gentle Gabrielle," said Xena, "Hush, my love."
Gabrielle looked up at her friend... her now lifetime companion. Gabrielle's face reflected an unspeakable misery.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, "let me at least say good-bye."
Xena stroked Gabrielle's long red hair, and gently kissed her forehead. "Just be careful," she said... and Xena released her friend.
Gabrielle reached down into the dust and picked up her battlestaff. She then turned and walked up the hill... Between her and the suffering Yosh'va, surrounded by soldiers, were a crowd of onlookers, townspeople mainly. Gabrielle pushed her way through these folk, rudely shoving aside those who had come to either mock or stare at the dying men. Presently, two huge soldiers, wearing steel armor and red cloaks, barred her path. With a look of total resolution bordering on madness, Gabrielle pushed her way past these two, as well. The other soldiers looked at her uneasily as she approached the crosses. Their orders were to keep away troublemakers at all costs, but even they were loathe to strike down a young woman.
"Yosh'va!" cried out Gabrielle, "It's me, your friend, Gabrielle. I won't leave you. I promise."
Yosh'va, eyes glazed and face twisted in agony, painfully looked down. The blood was flowing freely from his head, hands, and feet... "Child," he gasped, "faithful Gabrielle... water..."
Gabrielle frantically looked around, in all directions. Then she spotted a small, leather bucket sitting next to the Centurion. Gabrielle dashed over to pick up the bucket, and the Centurion slowly drew out his short sword.
"No water for these criminals," the man said.
Gabrielle stood before the Centurion, glowering, battlestaff at the ready... She said, "I have never killed a man. I hope to all the gods I never do. But... one of us will die for that bucket of water."
A squad of soldiers edged forward. The Centurion, with a curt wave of his hand, gestured for them to stand back. Gabrielle could see Xena, not far away. If it came to a fight, Gabrielle knew she would never be alone...
The Centurion, a large man, looked down at the fierce Gabrielle. Maybe he was thinking of a daughter... one that he had not seen in years, ever since he'd left his family to join the legions.
"What is your name, girl?" the Centurion asked.
"I am Gabrielle... of Poteidia."
The man's face went pale as a bleached sheet, and his hands began to shake. It was impossible. There was no way... no way in Hades... that this could be.
"Poteidia... in Greece?" he asked.
"Yes," said Gabrielle.
"How old are you?"
Gabrielle was puzzled by this query... "Twenty six years," she answered.
The Centurion buried his face in his hands, and began to shake noticeably. But he dared not confess his terrible secret. He was... afraid.
The Centurion then turned and picked up the leather bucket. The water within it was tepid, and appeared to be oily. In the water floated a worn, dirty sponge. He handed the bucket to Gabrielle, his large, rough work-worn hand briefly touching Gabrielle's much smaller one... "Here, child," he said... The Centurion's eyes now glistened, and there was one, small tear leaking down the sunburnt furrows of his cheek.
Gabrielle looked at the man again. It was if her eyes had just been opened. It couldn't be... but, in her heart, she knew it to be true.
"Father...?" Gabrielle asked.
Gabrielle dropped her staff, and ran up to the man. She began repeatedly beating his broad chest with her fists... "Father - stop this! Stop this now! Get them down!!"
The Centurion dropped to his knees and cried out. He wrapped his arms around Gabrielle, pinioning her arms to her sides... his head was lowered, and he was crying freely... "Gabrielle. My little Gabrielle," he sobbed.
Gabrielle stared at the man who was her father. She had a look of bewilderment, pity, and, finally, weary numbness and resignation... "You can't save them, can you?" she said.
"No," was all he said.
Gabrielle's emotions were, by now, almost out of control. Then, with a renewed sense of urgency to help her friend Yosh'va, she pushed herself away, as best she could, from her father's bear-like hug... "No!" she cried, repeating her father's word, shouting it back at him, as if a curse. The one word seemed to reflect a lifetime of hurt and turmoil. She had mastered it all for so long... but, now?
"Please forgive me, Gabrielle," the Centurion pleaded.
Gabrielle looked into her father's eyes. They were the same color and texture as her own. Then she thought of her friend Mithres, not long dead, who had sacrificed his life for all humanity. Gabrielle remembered the words Mithres had spoken to her and Xena... 'if repentance is genuine, forgiveness is mandatory'. How very, very hollow such words sounded to her now.
Gabrielle was silent. She wanted to tell her father that she knew why he left, and that it didn't matter. She wanted to say that she'd never forgotten him, not for one moment. and that she'd love him till the day she died. But, right now, she had no words.
The Centurion let her go... "Tend to your friend," he said.
Gabrielle picked up the water bucket. She approached the cross. But, she did not know how to give aid to the dying man. Then... she realized. The battlestaff. She had often used the familiar piece of oaken wood to inflict pain, but never to alleviate it. Well, this would be different. She rammed the water-soaked sponge on the end of her staff, and lifted it up to the cracked and bleeding lips of her too briefly known friend, Yosh'va.
"Not me, child," he gasped, "the others..."
Gabrielle was taken aback. Yosh'va, even in death, was serving the needs of others first... Gabrielle did as Yosh'va wished, holding the sponge up to the lips of the other condemned men, letting them suck out the water until they were too weak to continue. Repeatedly she ran down to a small stream, not far from the bottom of the hill, where she refilled the bucket. No one... not one of the soldiers... interfered. They all knew that the Centurion would strike them down if they did. It took a long time to slake the thirst of two dozen crucified men, but Gabrielle did not stop until all had drank, and could drink no more... Only then did she lift the sponge up to Yosh'va. But... it was too late. For Yosh'va was now dead.
The crowd, and the soldiers, began to disperse. The bodies of Yosh'va and the others would be left on their crosses as a warning to all others who were disposed to question authority or break the law, and they could not be removed under penalty of the law... Gabrielle fell to her knees, and, doubling over, beat the hard, uneven ground violently with her fists. Her sobs came in great, shuttering moans...
There were by now only two others still standing atop the small, rocky knoll. One was the Centurion, and the other was Xena. Both were warriors, and both had seen much more than their share of death and suffering. But, this one time, they, too, had tears in their eyes.
"He... they all... died for nothing... nothing... nothing!!!" wailed Gabrielle.
The Centurion and the Warrior-Princess each put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulders.
"No, little one," said the Centurion, "your friend died for you and me."
Gabrielle looked up at her father. Her emotions were in a state of complete and undeniable turmoil. There was a part of her - a dark part, which she couldn't in any way deny - that wanted to hate forever this man for leaving her and her mother and sister when they needed him. That was, however, only a part... for, above all, she wanted to love her father with all her heart, even if she knew that such a thing was impossible... Above all, she couldn't control what she was now feeling. And it wasn't just her feeling for her father. It was also her feelings for Xena. There was now so much rage... and it was a deadly, white rage. For something inside Gabrielle had snapped.
Xena looked at the grizzled Centurion as well... "So, you are Gabrielle's father?"
"I am Xena, her companion. But she needs you now much more than she needs me."
The Centurion nodded... but he wondered if either he or Xena could be of much help now.
And Xena, law or no law, unafraid of any penalty that could be meted out, began the slow, painstaking task of uprooting and pulling down the crosses, and freeing the bodies of the crucified men.
* * *
Xena continued to labor with her task of removing and burying the dead. The Centurion had joined her, although much to the dismay of his own men. They, however, knew that something had profoundly affected the older man, and none dared question his motives. A few even offer their help, but it was curtly refused by the gruff old soldier. He no longer cared about the consequences to himself, but he did not want to see his young troops decimated for violating an Imperial law. Some did bring and leave shovels, and the Centurion was silently grateful for this gesture. A few of the townspeople also offered help, and Xena and the Centurion allowed them to dig the graves, as such was not strictly proscribed, but they would not allow them to touch the dead men.
...And, in all this time, Gabrielle set apart, staring off into the distance.
* * *
Xena was very, very concerned about her friend. Never before had she seen Gabrielle in such a state of misery. She had thought that the reunion with her father would have helped Gabrielle, but, so far, she had rejected any further contact with the man. After Xena and Gabrielle's father had finished burying the crucified men, they had led Gabrielle far away from the city walls... hoping that distance, as well as the passage of time, might snap her out of her lethargy. But, so far, it was all to no avail...
Xena spoke to her friend, "Gabrielle. What's wrong with you?" ... But Gabrielle still refused to speak.
By now, Xena was getting a little frustrated... not to mention. more than a little bit worried. She had seen Gabrielle in the thrall of moods before, but, never, ever, had she seen her so despondent. Nothing that she could say would relieve the total, complete and unchanging depression of Gabrielle.
Xena spoke to the Centurion, "You are her father. I am only her friend... although I thought I was more... talk to her. Try to reason with her..."
..."Gabrielle," said the older man, "don't do this to us. We are here for you. I know you have faced a great loss. But, we all face such losses. Please talk to us..."
Xena finally came and pulled the older man away. She looked him in the eyes, and slowly shook her head. "What is your name?" she said.
"I," the Centurion replied, "am Nathan. I have not been called that name, either by my wife or daughters, in over fifteen years. I have been no more than a Centurion... a failure before the needs of my daughter... and my family."
Xena would not accept such pessimism. She took the tough, old Centurion by the arms and shook him, hard. "That... is not acceptable," she said, "I have known Gabrielle for two years, and she would not reject her family - much less her beliefs. Try harder..."
Nathan tried to smile, but it was hard. So hard. "I agree, Xena," he said, "I'll try to talk to her one more time..."
... The old man sat before his daughter. "Gabrielle," he said, "who are your friends?"
Gabrielle answered, as if in rote, "Purdicus, my husband, Mithres, Saddhartha... and Yosh'va."
"How about Xena?" said Nathan.
Gabrielle reacted violently, and not at all as was expected by either her father or Xena. "Xena," spat Gabrielle, "why should I be her friend? She's just like you. Killing... all the time killing... even nailing people to crosses. Xena is no better. She has killed, and killed again, all across Attica, and Greece, and Asia Minor, and Persia. Why should Xena be my friend? I reject her! Your killing... and her's... sickens me beyond all endurance. If its your way is life, then just let me die..."
Xena wanted to do anything - anything - to regain the faith of her friend. Visions of her and Gabrielle, two companions, flashed through Xena's mind. But, all of a sudden, Xena felt a fierce anger. She had tired of Gabrielle's lamentations. The girl would have to grow up, and eventually face the harshness of this World. That was just the way things were...
Xena grabbed the shoulder of her young friend. "So what?" said Xena, "...another man down. Yosh'va was a good man, but he had to meet his fate, and he did so without complaining... accept that. Don't soil his memory by your infernal pouting..."
This was definitely the wrong thing to say to Gabrielle. All of a sudden, it was as if a burning light flashed through her mind. She felt... not so much hate, as utter contempt.
"You goddamned, miserable fool! " screamed Gabrielle at Xena, "killing men, women, and children. I hate you... I despise you... I wish I'd never met you. You never change. Still flashing your goddamned sword, killing any mother's children, their crime being nothing more than getting in your way. The World would have been far better off if you'd never been born..."
Xena did not know how to answer Gabrielle. In these last few years she had tried... so hard... to do what was good. She had faced down warlords... and even gods... but, even in her own mind, she wondered if anything... anything at all... would be enough to merit atonement.
"Well, Gabrielle," said Xena, "what do you want? Do you want me to burn in Tartarus forever? Would that regain your love? If so... sentence me to Tartarus..."
Gabrielle stared at Xena. Maybe she wanted Xena to die, to atone, through her own blood sacrifice, for all those she had killed. Maybe, deep down, she really did want Xena to die for her sins.
"Die, Xena," said Gabrielle, finally "...die and rid the world forever of your miserable kind..."
Xena knew that her friend was distraught, perhaps even beyond all reason. But Xena did not know what else to say...
... Then, from the shadows, came a movement. Both Xena and Nathan looked around. From the darkness, low down to the ground, came something that Xena had, quite truthfully, totally forgotten about. It was a little hound, black and tan, but mostly white, and it seemed to be so afraid and alone...
"Persephone?" said Xena.
The little dog looked around, trying to find a friend. Suddenly, she spotted Gabrielle, and rushed up toward the young woman... But there was something in Gabrielle that would not even accept a little, lost dog.
Gabrielle raised her battlestaff... "You bitch! You miserable bitch!" she screamed, and she struck down with her staff. The staff barely missed Persephone, and the dog jumped back with a yelp. Gabrielle, unthinking, raised her staff again... and again she brought it down, trying to hit the little dog. The dog turned and ran, and, surprisingly, at the same time a hand reached out and grabbed the staff...
"Let go, Xena!" screamed Gabrielle, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Then, Gabrielle looked around, and, to her great astonishment, saw that it was not Xena that held her staff at all. It was not Nathan, her father, either. Instead, it was a tall woman, neither young nor old, but incredibly beautiful, with hair the color of new-fallen snow...
"Gabrielle," said this woman, "leave the little dog alone. She does not deserve your anger. She is, and was, nothing but a small dog. I am the one who deserves the force of your wrath..."
"Gaia??" said both Xena and Gabrielle at the same time.
The woman ignored Xena, but she did not ignore Gabrielle. Instead, she looked her straight in the eyes... "Strike me down, Gabrielle," said the woman, "I deserve it. It was I who deserted you... and your mother and sister... and everyone you loved, including Yosh'va. I am the ultimate monster. Use your staff on me. I've deserted everyone in need... everyone who has ever cried out... all who have suffered... Reach out and strike me down. I, among everything in the Universe, deserve it..."
Gabrielle didn't know what to think, much less what to say. She felt... so alone. No family, no friends, no god... no hope. She wanted to raise up her staff and strike this woman, to beat her down as the betrayer of all Mankind that she claimed to be. But... Gabrielle was so incredibly tired. She no longer wanted to judge anyone about anything...
Gabrielle threw her staff to the ground... "I'm sorry I tried to strike Persephone," she said, "and I suppose that makes me no better than a filthy monster as well... But, I really don't understand you, Gaia... if that's who you are... such Power and Glory... and you leave this World in the miserable mess it's in. If it were up to me, no one would cry... and no one would feel this pain... or any pain"
"If that were the way of all things," replied Gaia, "then there would be no Gabrielle. I will accept the guilt for the pain, if only there will be a Gabrielle."
Gabrielle had no response to this. She knew that Gaia was not talking only about her alone. There were thousands... millions... perhaps billions... of souls no less compassionate that Gabrielle. The Glory of the Universe was not the ways of the gods, nor the supposed mighty deeds of kings or warlords or any of the others that held themselves over and above the rest of mankind... but it was instead the deeds and ways of all creatures that sought love and compassion... all creatures and all people no different than... Gabrielle. No matter how hard, no matter how unsuccessful, no matter what disasters came before or befell in the meantime... it only mattered that they tried.
Gabrielle bowed her head before a god... "I... am sorry," she said.
"No" said Gaia, "you are Glorious. I'll always recognize that. I wish I could be half as Glorious... but, in the end, perhaps no matter. Are you feeling better?"
"Yes," said Gabrielle.
"Are you absolutely, for sure, better?" said Gaia.
"By all the gods, by all that is good and holy, I am better!" said Gabrielle.
"No need to go overboard," said Gaia, "but, you and Xena still have a job to do. The forces of this World, and of other Worlds as well, are coming to crush the Sons and Daughters of Man. You'll need to now return to the Temple. We'll all meet our fates there."
"Will you be with us?" asked Xena.
"What a dumb question," said Gaia, "Of course I will." ... And with that, the tall, beautiful, and totally undeniable woman disappeared.
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle stood on the upper rampart of a mighty Temple. At their side stood a man, by the name of Nathan, and a small dog, by the name of Persephone. On a lower rampart there were two hundred women, all dressed in white, gold, and silver. They were all looking out over a mighty plain. On the plain was not one, but two, vast hordes. And calling them "hordes" was an understatement. The Imperator had brought forty legions, and the Khan had brought battalions beyond number. In all, in the great plain before them, was no less than a half a million men.
"Well," said Gabrielle, "I sure do hope that Gaia protects us..."
Xena looked at her friend. From the depths of Xena's soul she was grateful... so grateful... that the Gabrielle she knew had returned. She reached out a hand and stroked the long, red hair of her companion... Despite the great numbers before them, Xena felt an incredible feeling of surprising calm. It was as if she sensed something - something very important.
"Gaia may have her hands full with Hera and the other gods," said Xena.
"Do you really believe that?" asked Gabrielle.
"No," said Xena, and she hoped her answer was correct.
Marte, the Eldest of the Twelve, came forth. She stood directly before Xena... "Well, High Priestess, what now?" she said.
Xena returned Marte's gaze with one of her own, and added with emotion, "Don't call me that," Xena said, "I am not your High Priestess, only your battle leader... and I think that you must know more than I what we have to do."
Marte nodded... "It's quite a challenge, isn't it Xena? We, here, only two hundred, and committed to fight without harming, and, out there, a half a million warriors, all of whom will kill without the slightest hesitation. Sort of the way you were... maybe are... Xena. But... we have pledged to follow you. What is your bidding?"
Xena did not like riddles... especially riddles of life or death. This was a great riddle... or puzzle, and one for which she didn't have the pieces. She had never fought as a Warrior-Priestess, and thus didn't know what to tell them to do. To send them out against a half million men seemed futile... but...
"What are their weaknesses, Xena?" said Marte, "and what are our strengths?"
Xena tried to think as a warrior. But, as a warrior, she knew that it was hopeless. Our strengths? We have mighty walls, and they have half a million men to supply. That was all she could think of...
"I can't answer your question," said Xena.
"Of course you can," said Marte.
Xena wanted to snarl at the Warrior-Priestess. She really didn't appreciate riddles.
"Stop this!" she shouted at Marte, "If I'm a High Priestess... or even just a battle leader... you are my advisor. Speak plainly..."
Marte smiled... "Your strength... is yourself... and, of course, Gabrielle."
"Against half a million?" asked Xena.
"A trifling," said Marte, "but only you can make the call..."
Xena remembered. The Abyss. Why was she chosen, back on that then dark day? Why had the Fate of Mankind rested on her shoulders? Then... the answer was obvious... for she was to lead them all. With the leadership of Xena, and the compassion of Garbrielle, who could oppose them? Her strength was indeed her leadership... and the Glory of Gabrielle was her strength as well... she had only to combine the two. And the weakness of the enemy? These hosts were before the walls of the Temple only out of utmost fear and subjugation of the Imperator and the Khan. Take away their fear... give them something... greater... to believe in, and all would be well.
"We will not stand behind walls," said Xena... "Move out the Warrior-Priestesses. We shall meet them on the plain."
... The Imperator and the Khan, men of such great and high importance, both sat on thrones of gold and silver, anchored in the beds of great, four-wheeled chariots. They were before their troops. They, of course, would not lead these men in battle, but, for appearance sake, and at this time only, they were in front of their men. Hera had joined them together, and they knew their task... to destroy the Great Temple of Gaia, and all the Warrior-Priestesses, and then to divide the Earth, and reduce to lowest bondage and basest servitude all who dwelt thereon. With such armies, how could they not succeed? It was simply only the matter of a short, bloody siege...
Then, the unexpected occurred... The gates of the Great Temple swung open, and out of the Inner Hall walked less than a half a cohort... but, what Warriors! Tall, indomitable women, with armor of silver and clothing of gold... And they were led by a great Warrior-Princess, absolutely magnificent in her short battledress of leather and bronze. Beside her was another beautiful young woman, armed only with a staff... Seeing these, the Imperator and the Khan, inexplicably and irrationally, felt the growing tendrils of fear...
Xena stood before the Warrior-Priestesses. Behind her were two hundred young women, and beside her was one more. Before her, on there thrones, were two men and, standing in attendance behind, were five hundred sycophants for each. All of these were not more than one hundred paces away from Xena. Behind these were the half a million...
Xena unsheathed her sword, and, with one mighty thrust, threw it down into the ground, burying it halfway up to the hilt. She then took her chakram, and placed it on the dirt... after that, she stood back up, and faced the multitude to her front.
"I... am Xena... a Warrior!" Xena shouted, and it was a voice that seemed to reach to the farthest reaches of the plain, "and I expect to die a Warrior! But, today... here... I... we... will not fight. If you want to be led by these... men... who sit on their thrones, before you only until it is time to fight, so be it. But, you know, in your hearts... that they are not your true leaders, and that they will lead you only into damnation. Only a Warrior can truly lead you... only a Warrior such as I... But, I will not fight, because I do not have to fight, as you do not have to fight... You must come through me... through us. That is something I know you cannot and do not want to do. But you can come to me, and to us. I... we... await you as Warriors."
The ranks of the hosts seemed poised to come forth in battle. But... there was something that seemed to stop them. There was a Power, and it seemed to emanate from Xena herself. It also seemed to emanate from Gabrielle, and from all of the two hundred Warrior-Priestesses. The hosts appeared uneasy. They wavered, ready to strike, but were unable to... and then, there was a chant. Where it began, nobody knows. But, it continued, and grew louder and yet louder still. The chant was coming from the soldiers of the hosts themselves. In the end, it was completely unmistakable... "We'll fight for you, Xena! We'll fight for you Xena!" With this, the Imperator, and the Khan, in their chariots, ignobly fled...
Gabrielle seemed to be weeping, but it was tears of great joy and victory. For there would be no fighting this day. Nobody would strike a blow in anger, nobody was going to die in vain... Gabrielle looked into the clouds, and it was if she saw the faces of Mithres, and Saddhartha, and Yosh'va. With her father, Nathan's, arm around her shoulder and Xena at her side she felt like whooping to the heavens... and then she did just that. War, and hate, and suffering, and any and all the evil things of this life had met their match, and been thoroughly... completely... defeated. This would be one battle that would not be written up on any scroll, nor studied by any warlords or others of their kind. But it was the greatest battle... and victory... of them all.
... The scene changes to the glories of Mount Olympus. There, standing in disbelief and rage, is Hera. Viewing the happenings of the Earth, she can't believe that her armies will not fight... and that Peace is the stronger. Then... there was a great light on the plains of Olympus... and there was a tall woman, incredibly beautiful, though neither young nor old, with hair of white streaked with brown and tan. With a grin... an indomitable grin... she points one finger at Hera, and says...
* * *
Finally, and lastly, the scene returns to the present day.
It was a little after dawn in the Land of the Morning Calm. The sun was just rising above the low, scrub-covered mountains. But, it was nothing more than another morning for the guards... both the Americans and Koreans... at Panmunjon. Across the bridge were the North Koreans. They did not look particularly ill-fed, although it was common knowledge that many millions of their compatriots - men, women, children, and the elderly - were slowly starving to death. So far, little or nothing had been done to alleviate their suffering. Or, at best, little more than the usual political promises.
Then, there was a sight that astonished the guards. Coming up to the checkpoint, right before the bridge over the river which separates the Koreas, was a convoy. It was a long convoy of giant, ten-ton trucks, eighteen-wheelers, all with their lights on. In the beds of the trailers hauled by these trucks were thousands and thousands of hundred-weight sacks of rice. Each truck was loaded far beyond their ordinary capacity, and the trailers groaned beneath their heavy cargoes of food.
The lead truck stopped at the barrier, and a tall woman alighted from the cab. She was wearing ordinary military battledress, but, inexplicably, around her waist was a golden belt, and attached to the belt was a large sword... an unsharpened sword.
"What the hell is going on?" said the American MP. A South Korean guard stood beside him.
The woman, every inch a Warrior, looked the military policemen in the eyes. She said, first in English, then Hongol, "We are the Warrior-Priestesses... and we are going to feed the hungry."
The MPs had an overwhelming vision of all the hungry children that ever were...
They stood back, and the woman got back into her truck. Without even waiting for the barrier to be lifted, she drove the truck onto and across the bridge. There she stopped, and talked to the North Korean guards. They stood back as well...
And the convoy roared over the bridge...