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"Goddess of War" is based upon the events in the X:WP episode "Ten Little Warlords." The author shamelessly takes creative liberties with the end of the episode, and this story takes place thereafter.
DISCLAIMER: This story contains mild violence and bad poetry. If either offends you, please read a different story.
XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
She ducked into a crouch, unfamiliar hands reaching for the sword. He was on her in an instant, one of the last warlords, pressing what he saw as an advantage.
Her hands, the hands of a stranger, were on the sword. She jumped up and spun, sword whirling in a pattern sheíd spun hundreds, maybe even thousands of time before.
Sheíd lost count.
The sword slashed deep into his midsection, and he froze, furious, knowing his life flew as swiftly as that sword. In his last moments, he looked up; his eyes meeting hers, staring into the face of the woman he thought was his killer. She stood back, eyes locked with his, as he fell.
A pattern sheíd spun hundreds, maybe thousands of times before.
Sheíd lost count.
I tear up the hallway, anger spurring me on faster than, in a rational moment, I would have thought possible. I almost pass the doorway, but I hear Joxer (again!) and I throw myself through that door. Heís there ahead of me--how did he get there ahead of me?
No matter. I have the sword.
Whatís that heís babbling about? I wish I could hear.
Again, no matter. Thereís Xena, who isnít Xena, or is she? I donít care. I have the sword pointed at her, Callisto, whoever, I canít tell. Iím saying something to her; I want to . . .But there goes Joxer again. I have him by the collar, sword at his throat, and itís about time I . . .
The haze starts to fade; Iím confused. Itís almost a relief, such letting go. I pull the sword away from Joxerís neck. I very carefully donít think about what I almost did.
And then I look to where Xena stands, on the table, Aresí bloody sword in her hand. Sheís holding it up, and I see flames licking up the length of the sword. I have to think about what sheís doing; I canít avoid this, and I look to meet those strange brown eyes. They donít see me at all, I realize. They see something totally different. I start to feel fear now, licking at me much like those flames . . .Blue light fills the room; I want to close my eyes, to look away, but the bard in me knows I wonít see a deity born every day.
In an instant, Sisyphus is gone, consumed by those flames of Tartarus he thought to escape. The last . . .living . . .warlord crawls into a corner to die. And the former god of war, blood on his hands too, shrouded in mortality, watches the same thing I do. What does he see? The fear his face wears is a different sort than I imagine mine to be. Heís a mortal seeing a god for the first time. Iím a mortal seeing . . .I donít know what Iím seeing.
And then Xena stands before us. Well, not really Xena, I correct myself. She looks much like the Xena I knew--tall, dark, proud. But I know itís not my Xena. I am awestruck by this stranger. Sheís beautiful, wild, and fierce. I havenít often seen this Xena; my Xena buries her quickly when I do. I imagine the warlord must have looked like this, all those years ago.
I wonder if all those people thought it worth the dying, to see this.
I still try to hold those eyes, familiar blue now, yet anything but familiar at the same time. Cold, so very cold; whatever part of my Xena might have been in them is gone now, in a silent instant. And then Xena, Goddess of War, is gone. I stand in an empty room, kept company only by Joxer, Ares, and the cooling corpses of warlords on their last journey to meet Hades.
We walk into town, boots kicking up the dust. Itís a big enough town that Argo doesnít draw too much attention, and small enough that people stare at Joxer as he rattles along. Nobody takes note of us otherwise; these people havenít had much reason to see the former god of war. And I figure nobody has much reason to recognize me, not without . . .
Weíve come for the Festival of the Sun; a weeklong celebration dedicated to Apollo. Every year, the townspeople leave an open invitation for all bards to come and tell their best stories, to get Apolloís attention and break the summer sunís spell. Itís also a great excuse for a big party. This year, I think, it comes not a moment too soon. The people of this arid town have learned to live with the annual droughts, but this year itís been pretty bad and getting even worse. And I could use a party anyway.
I step in time with my staff in one hand, and hold Argoís reins in the other. The rest of my new little family follows me. Argo, Ares, Joxer. I find Argo the easiest to get along with.
Iíd like to say we came to town just for the party, but that would be a lie. Itís been lean times, and the revelers tend to reward good stories. Besides, I could stand to spend some time with others like me, the bards who are sure to come. Maybe one of them will spin a good enough tale that Iíll quit thinking about the ones Iíve been in myself.
The festival wonít begin until sundown, which always struck me as kind of contradictory; but I guess Apolloís not too busy, then. And it does keep the revelers from passing out in the heat of the day. They can save it for the wine; I know Ares will.
Now, though, weíre just interested in water, and we head for the public well. I see some older men sitting there, faces seamed from the sun. I donít pay too much attention to them as Ares and Joxer reach for dippers, and I lead Argo to the neighboring trough. A few words drift over to me.
They speak of Xena. I listen.
"Wasnít that something?"
"Yeah, itís the damnedest thing."
"That army--Tantusí, I think--hits that village very time they come through."
"Not no more, they donít."
"No, guess not. But I donít get why."
"Well, would you? I wouldnít cross that."
Frowns. "No, me neither. But I still donít get why sheíd do that. Sheís supposed to be Goddess of War?"
Shrugs. "Beats me."
They move on, the sun or maybe my curiosity being too much for them. I didnít know anything about it, but it sounds like Xenaís been busy . . .I feel a little bit of hope. But I donít know what Iím hoping for, really. Itís been weeks, and I still donít understand.
I move to take my own drink, and I look at Ares. They were talking about his successor, or maybe his usurper; I donít really know what he thinks about it. He wants to talk about it, or fight about it, I know he does, and soon he wonít let me put him off like I have so many times before. He looks at my face and I show him that now still isnít the time. I almost feel sorry for him; his eyes look so hollow, so empty. The look on Joxerís face says the same of mine. I shake myself and take a drink; I refuse to feel so . . .so . . . I refuse to feel. The part of me that I wonít listen to, that I wonít allow to speak knows thereíll be time enough for that soon enough. It murmurs now, and I firmly crush it underfoot.
The sun finally sets, and night works its magic as we again walk into the weather-beaten town. The night isnít cool, but darkness brings relief from the dayís heat.
We pick our way toward the square and the center of the festival. I hear the drums begin to beat, and some musicians pick up a tune. Itís a lively tune, simple and happy. Joxer smiles, even stiff Ares smiles; clapping, they pick up the beat and look at me. I do not feel simple, or happy; but I smile anyway, tuck my staff under my arm and join them.
Soon enough, the music dies down, and the bards get ready. I see some young ones; right now I think theyíre all younger than me, theyíre all nerves, rehearsing their lines, eyes shut tightly in concentration. I figure I donít have too much to worry about from them, and when they get up on stage, Iím right. Some of the older ones, some whoíve been around, they know the ropes. They know which stories to tell, which stories the people want to hear.
Iíve heard of Xena, Goddess of War, for weeks.
It sounds like Iíll hear it again tonight.
Some stories are new, some are not. They are not the stories of my Xena; they are the stories of a stranger. I hear some of my own stories retold, stories from before, and they are the stories of a stranger, too.
And then another bard takes the stage. Heís neither young nor old, and none would recognize him if they saw him again . . .but he says he will tell us of Xenaís claim of the sword. And so we all lean forward to listen.
From battles bloody
To innocences lost
The warrior princess
Cheats Fates at all cost.
In promises broken
And damnation made
The warrior princess
Quests for Warís blade.
Uncalled as guest
Nor rival in truth
The warrior princess
Steals passage by death of two.
Once-pawn of Sisyphus
Hiding in anotherís name
The warrior princess
Turns the game.
By death of nine warlords
And death to the beast
The warrior princess
Finds her defeat.
Life stolen forever
And power from afar
The warrior princess
Betrays her charge.
Sword in hand
Mortal no more
The warrior princess
Claims title to Goddess of War.
It didnít happen that way, I want to say, itís all twisted truths and straight lies; and I feel myself getting just a little bit angry. It wasnít that way at all. He looks directly at me, eyes gleaming, challenging me . . .I mean, really . . .what does this big-mouthed no-talent would-be bard think he knows of Xena? Of my Xena?
I want to say that . . .but I donít. I donít have the words to say what these people will hear.
You do, says a voice in my ear.
I donít think itís mine, so I turn and look. Nobodyís there, but when I turn away I hear it again.
Speak of what you know.
I step up on the stage and take my place.
I will speak of Xena.
I think of all the things that have happened. I think of all our adventures, our fantastic encounters and improbable victories despite impossible odds.
I think of all this.
But I speak of Xena.
We leave the festival early. The next day, we walk out of town; my purse is full but I am still empty. Iím on the road again, to . . .I still donít know where to. Apollo must not have been pleased; the sun still beats down mercilessly, and we never leave the dust of our journeys behind.
Iím still thinking of that bard, I donít know why; it didnít mean anything, it didnít happen that way.
So I canít figure out why some of his words sound true.
Another night; some other time, later on. Nobodyís much in the mood to talk tonight, which is just fine with me.
Iím in the mood to talk, but not with them.
But I wonít pray.
I shrug a bit, inside my head, and decide thatís a pretty stupid idea anyway. I suppose the Goddess of War wouldnít be much interested in the musings of a scruffy, down-on-her-luck bard. Wrong domain, Iíd guess.
I go to my blankets early, and lay back looking at the stars. Thereís no getting away from it; Iím going to have to think about what Iím going to do now. I just havenít thought about it too much. I suppose I should go to Amphipolis and tell her mother . . .tell her what, I donít know. Still, I should go.
Xenaís never going back home, I think, and it saddens me.
Still, maybe Xena can see Lyceus again now, and Marcus, and all the other dead weíve left behind. The thought comforts me a little.
Just a little.
I wonít think about the living sheís left behind.
I donít like nights so well; I think too much. Thatís enough, I decide, and firmly close my eyes against both the night and thought.
I say good night to Xena.
Just in case sheís listening
*Turn it back on itself and let it consume itself. Hate and rage and anger, around and around.*
Days later, we find ourselves in farm country. These gentle hills should be green with late summerís bloom, but the drought has found its way even here, too. The rich soil is turning dry, and again my boots kick up the dust . . .
Joxer is impatient with all this; I donít know why he hasnít left. But I donít think about it too much. I spend my time telling stories, the great myths, heroes from a time gone by . . .but I no longer speak of Xena.
Much like Argo, Ares now simply follows along.
And soon the villages grow few and far between, the people also; these are farm folk, working folk, and they spend their time in the fields. My purse and our supplies grow ever lighter, and at the next village, I find honest work for us.
Later in the day, we walk a narrow path through high hayfields, barking dogs, and chattering children. We come to the farm; itís a proud place, ambitious in building and planting, but itís beginning to show the toll of an absent caretaker. The kids run ahead, still playful despite the hard work of farm living. We meet their parents--an older man, leg wrapped and splinted, his face tight with both pain and anxiety for his family. His young wife, not much older than me, yet worlds away in hard experience; her face, too, shows the strain. Iím glad we have come here, not just for ourselves, but because these people need help. There are battles for ordinary folk, and weíll fight that battle here, not with swords, but with our backs, against time and an indifferent nature.
Farm days are long, and thereís plenty of time to get started. Ares shoulders the yoke and buckets and goes to the river to fetch water. I send Joxer off with an ax (and a quick prayer) to fill the woodpile. I can only hope he doesnít hurt himself; the wood itself may not be in danger.
He opens his mouth to argue, but I tell him to pretend itís a battle-ax, and his eyes light up. The kids want to follow, so he happily heads off.
Well, I can only hope he doesnít hurt them.
I go to help the farmerís wife, and Iím surprised when a young man comes in, dusty and tired. I figure heís my age, just a little small, but when she introduces him as her husbandís son, I realize heís barely out of childhood. And then I look at the shadow of responsibility in his eyes as he tries to fill his fatherís boots, and I realize his childhood is long gone, and not in years. The farm ages people just as much as any battle, I think; just in different ways.
Weíve cut the hay. Today, weíll gather it and put it up, though thereís not much chance of it spoiling in the field, I think, as I look at the cloudless sky. The farmerís son hitches the draft mare to the wagon; they look at Argo, but I will not allow it. This battlemare has been packhorse for weeks now, but I will allow no more than that. I will work in the fields myself; it is where I am from. It is not for Argo, as it never was for her rider.
So the farmerís mare stands in the traces, content with it; it is what she is for. She dozes in the dayís heat, her young colt frolicking about her. Soon he settles down for a nap in the welcome shade thrown by her body. I wish we could do the same, but thatís not what we are for, not today. We turn our pitchforks to the hay, bend our backs, and fill the wagon time and again under the relentless sun.
Itís time for us to move on. Weíve taken in all the vegetables we can, put up all the hay, repaired all the shelters . . .still, I find myself worrying about what will happen to these people if the drought doesnít break, or during harvest time, if it does. Itís a bad break on the farmerís leg, and the farm is hard on people.
In some ways, Xena and I had it easy. We always rode off after the day was won, to new places, new battles. These people must fight, too; they must fight the same battle, day after day, for simple existence.
I decide that we will come back through this place, later on. Just to see. To help as we can.
It is what my Xena taught me.
This last night, we sit outside the farmerís home after a meal of rich vegetable stew, cheese, and bread. Itís simple fare by the standards of some, but to us, seasoned with hard work, itís a feast. We listen to the sounds of the farmlands--hum of cicadas, restive animals in their pens . . . This is still not my place. It isnít, as Potadeia was not. These are not my people, as Perdicus, sadly, was not. My "people" . . .there was really only one, and now sheís gone. I must move on.
A neighborís boy runs up, carrying a pack, his fatherís rusty sword, and a glimmer of starstruck folly in his eyes He tells us of the challenge issued by the Goddess of War, never noticing the strange silence that falls upon me and my companions. The goddess is calling all warriors to the plain by some other nameless village. He wants to be so much more than a farmer, he says, so heís going there, to fight for his place in the goddessís army.
I want to tell him heís going there to die . . .but I remember this farm girl, drawn to Xena and adventure, too, and not so long ago. The farm girl found something more, but this boy will not, not now.
The farmerís son tells the boy much of what I would, and says he will not go on that foolís quest. He knows where his place is in the world, and for a moment, I envy his certainty. But his place, his people, and even his certainty are not to be mine, and I accept it. I say good evening, and head for the hayloft and sleep, which is all the certainty Iíll have this night. But not before Joxer joins in on the foolís quest, as I knew he would. That quickly, my strange little accidental family is smaller by one.
Later on, Ares comes to his corner of the loft; Iím surprised, Iíd half-expected him to leave, too. But he surprises me further by saying he will stay, not only tonight, but permanently, here, at the farm. It seems heís found his place, too, here among the plowshares, and the irony is not lost on me.
Or maybe heís found somewhere to be because he has nowhere to go.
I think about the family I have lost, and tonight, Ares and I talk about it, or fight about it, as much as we ever will. This challenge, this fearsome army . . .I wonder what sheís thinking, but even Ares cannot tell me. Heís forgotten everything about being a god. He tells me Xenaís forgotten everything about being mortal.
*Life, death, victory, loss. Around and around, circular path, endless pattern.*
Itís just Argo and me now, and Iím on foot. I still donít much like riding, but Iíd never part with Argo. Sheís taken care of me more than a few times. And sheís most all I have left of Xena now . . .
Iíve finally decided what Iím going to do. Iím going to see Xenaís mother, and maybe Iíll find Hercules, although I figure I donít really need to. He has connections, you know; and this isnít any big secret, anyway. My time with Xena was short; I wonder if Hercules will have forever . . .or any time at all.
After that, whatever I do, I still donít know. I wonít go back to my village, and I wonít go to the Academy. I donít know about the Amazons . . .I just donít know.
Itís almost funny, if you think about it; warlords, bounty hunters, and even gods hunting after Xena every day, or Xena going after them . . . I never once really thought about what Iíd do if she . . .died. Although she didnít really die, that part of me speaks up. I squash it again.
The one time it was close, I thought she was gone, I didnít have to think about anything past getting her back to Amphipolis. And then Xena came back anyway, and I didnít have to think about it at all.
I thought it would last forever.
And I shouldnít be thinking so much, because Argoís stopped, tense and trembling, head up. And thereís a pack of rough guys, bandits, standing in the road. Theyíve come up on me while my mind is elsewhere. Stupid, stupid bard, I think. Ordinary thugs, with no interest in glory and war . . .just opportunity. As they approach me, daggers and sticks in hand, I think, well Xena, I guess even you couldnít stop them all.
Theyíre on me quickly, too many to count. I swing my staff and remove whatís left of one toughís teeth; I doubt heíll thank me for the favor. I keep swinging--I donít have to be too careful--but I can feel them closing in. I see Argo whirling and kicking, plunging through the bandits, defending me as her rider once did.
Finally, I lose my staff, and one of them has Argoís reins. She tries to pull away, to keep fighting, but he knows horses and turns her head so she canít do much.
I figure this is it. I begin to think of that green, peaceful place . . .
And then this wind comes howling down the road, kicking up sticks and rocks and gods know what else. I crouch down and cover my head, and hope Argo can run. But the wind misses us, and not the bandits. I stand in my own silence while both the wind and bandits howl around me. They scream and run, and Argo and I are left standing alone, but not untouched, in the roadway.
I turn my face to the sky.
*. . .*
The oracles say it will rain, but thereís not a cloud in the sky when Argo and I walk into one more dusty town. This time I ride. No one answered my call on the road that day, so Iíve decided to be more persistent.
This is that nameless place, the place where all the warriors gather before they battle to meet the Goddess of War. We walk through the streets, Argo and I, past both time-scarred veterans and hopeful young boys willing to play at war. I am neither, and although some of them give me a second look, none of them look for too long.
I come to an inn, a place Iíve been before, in the old days with Xena. The owner is--was--a friend of Xenaís, and she will care for Argo when I am gone.
I will care for myself.
The stablegirl takes Argo, her eyes bright with appreciation for the golden horse. Sheíll be well cared for. Turning away, I head to the common room.
I enter and I see Joxerís there, as usual; he hasnít met his fate, whatever that might be, just yet. Heís telling lies of our exploits, and some part of me appreciates the irony; another part would like to set him straight this one last time.
But he is not my quarry today.
I look into his audience. Glory-seekers hungry for a moment of fame, of power. All theyíll get is eternity with Hades. My Xena would tell them to go home. I donít know what this Xena would do . . .will do.
I see what Iím looking for: a hopeful young face, adoring eyes . . . new leather armor, untested weapons. He will not live out the day, I decide.
I settle back into the shadows to wait, and I do not have to wait long; the group breaks up and heads for the door, the plain, and death. I quietly slip behind the young man; heís not much taller than me. We step outside the door, and, like some common thug, I pull him into the alley.
Itís only a few moments before Iím adjusting my . . . borrowed . . . armor. Gauntlets, breastplate, shoulder- and shinguards, a helmet; I tuck my hair inside and pull it low over my eyes. I leave the boyís sword and dagger.
The boy? Of course I didnít kill him. Heíll live to fight another day, if heís a fool; heíll live to do something else, if heís not.
I go to the stable, where the girl has stored our . . . my . . . possessions. I retrieve what I need from the packs, and leave my staff behind. Itís not what I need now.
I touch Argoís muzzle gently, and say good-bye to yet another friend.
I stand on the bluff overlooking the plain. The clouds are gathering in the western sky, fierce and dark, and the warriors gather below, fierce and dark themselves. I wonder what I must look like, in my newly won armor and . . . my . . . weapons. I miss my staff. But I must have an edge for this battle, even though I know an edge is not enough. I wonder why I have come here; this is not my place, either. Maybe the hospital, to care for those who may never leave here, wounded both in body and pride. . .Perhaps, when this is done, it will indeed be my place. One way or another.
I look down at the plain, at all the souls I would wound, and maybe I will, if only I have the power . . .I see them all, battling for their places at the Goddess of Warís side.
Behind me, I hear thunder growl. The storm is about to break.
And so am I.
I come to the battle, and I see Xena on the far side of the field, dark and dispassionate. I imagine I can see the spark of those blue eyes, but I know thatís just my imagination. I know the spark is long gone, weeks gone. Still, I stand and watch for some long moments.
If she sees me, it doesnít show.
I donít know how all this works, and I donít care, really. They fight, they live or they die, and the Goddess chooses those who will stand at her side. What happens after that, I donít know. When is after?
And then Iím in the battle myself, sword in hand, chakram at my side, and I donít know for sure how I got there. The battle is strangely silent; I hear the thunder rumble, and feel the charge in the air. I duck and dodge, moving as if through a dream or deep water. This is not real, I think.
I know I did not come here to kill . . . so I must have come here to die.
Things become suddenly real, and the dream ends abruptly. A warrior, one who did come here to kill, looks into my eyes and sees opportunity. He turns to me, sword raised . . . and stops.
*It all ends here. It all starts here.*
I say I donít understand, but thatís not it at all. I wonít understand . . .Iím afraid to, because once I do, that will make it final. It will be for real, forever, and I canít risk that.
I turn, and thereís Xena, this stranger, this goddess. This creature killed my Xena, more surely than anything as simple and mundane as a sword blow. And she didnít leave me anything to grieve. Nothing to hold, to burn, to say good-bye to.
And then I feel that anger, like I did on the island . . . no, this is worse. And I welcome it. This is what I will feel. Iím still angry over what she did then, but Iím more angry because of now.
Now, gods help me, I understand. I have to.
I know why she did it, and itís partly because of me, and mostly it has nothing at all to do with me.
I donít know which part hurts worse.
By claiming that sword, Xena thought she could make everything right, or at least make up for what she did . . . but she never could. She never can.
I tell her this.
And still, I see nothing in her eyes.
It makes me even angrier.
She thought she could control all the rage and the hate in the world, just as she struggled to do every day in her mortal self. Knowing my Xena, I could see why it was so tempting.
But it didnít work . . . it couldnít. She can never stop the violence for everyone, not so easily. We all have to choose for ourselves. But who wants to take care of themselves anymore, when Xena will do it for them . . . the burden she picked up so willingly. Thatís what Apollo said (yes, now I know that it was Apollo, that night at the festival). And I understand now.
She means more as a mortal.
I canít stop understanding there, although I want to. I try to smother that voice, that other part of me, but, tasting freedom, it (I?) wonít be denied. It rustles, and wrestles with me, and makes itself be heard.
This isnít about the world, that Gabrielle says.
Itís about you.
Xena left you.
She chose the world over you, and you, good little bard that you are, that you should be, you canít allow yourself to believe that you, you and Xena, are worth more than the world.
No, thatís the problem, I tell that other me.
I do believe it.
And it shames me.
That shame pushes me even further, and I go willingly into the anger. Itís scary, this anger, but this truth has released me; I feel as if Iíve been holding my breath, holding it for weeks now, ever since Xena left me on that island. Holding it for far too long, and Iíve just now let it go.
I throw myself into the anger, and Iím free.
I let go.
Our swords clash, Xenaís and Aresí. Same dance, different dancers . . . I will find out if it is indeed worth the dying to see this Xena, wildly free yet still bound at the same time.
Not so different from my Xena after all.
And then things are quiet, but surprise, Iím not dead, on my way from one god to another, and I donít know why. I look up at the Goddess of Warís eyes, and, surprise again, I see something familiar. I feel hope, hope for Xena.
My Xena. And me.
Thatís the hope Iíve been holding onto.
I tell her this.
And then Ares is there, Ares the farmer, covered in the sweat and dirt of his mortal vocation. The air is heavier now, charged with more than the coming storm.
The sword is in Aresí hand, and I see a deity reborn.
I look over at Xena, cast in blue light, no longer the source, and sheís much the same; still beautiful, wild, fierce. She turns to me, and itís my Xena, too. Tall, dark, proud. She doesnít bury that other Xena, not right away.
I revel in it.
It would be worth the dying.
It is worth the living . . .
This, I know, is my place.
I look into her eyes, alive again, lit by an inner blue fire, and then I really understand why, the why of both then and now. I donít have to ask . . . it has nothing to do with me . . . and everything, too.
That day on the island, she saw the hate in my eyes, the rage, and she saw what I would do; she saw it again, today. And she will not let me. But mortal or goddess, she cannot save me, not forever. She never can; this I must do myself.
But she takes it on herself, again and again, as she took my swordblows moments ago.
I see the why, everything she would give me, for me, in her eyes.
I hope she sees the same in mine.
Ares was wrong, that night in the hayloft. Xena, my Xena or the Goddess of War, never could forget.
The storm, as it breaks, is gentle.