Their expressions would be comical if not for the seriousness and morbidity of the situation. This slender blonde girl had just killed one of the most feared warlords with a precision and ruthlessness that could not be ratified by her disposition.
"She's killed Cortese," says Axius, rather dumbly.
Dilawar's reaction is equally as droll when he breaks into a loud bark of laughter. "It seems Xena's whore went and did us a favour," he says, grasping his sword. Gabrielle stoops quickly and withdraws with some effort, the knife from the Butcher of Thessaly's chest. She knows the knife will be of little to no aide in close combat, but it really is not the point anyway. The poet steels herself, holding the knife in front of her in feeble attempt at defence.
"The army's mine," says Dilawar, "at least what's left of it." Axius grunts in affirmation, knowing that his co-lieutenant has the loyalty of the men anyway. "And first order o' business," Dilawar continues, "is to make an example outta this girl. No woman deserves the honour of taking a warrior's life."
Then, without warning, the newly appointed warlord throws his sword in a heavy downward arc meant to slice the bard cleanly in two. But, Gabrielle is quick and trained and she ducks out of the way, rolling from her knee onto her back and then swiftly up onto her feet. Dilawar grunts and slices through the air in the direction of her head. Gabrielle attempts to avoid this blow, but the blade manages to find her upper arm, slicing through the material of her tunic and into her soft skin; the blood begins to pour. She glances at her wound and knows that now is the time. She resolves herself to kill no more, to step cleanly out of this circle of violence. Gabrielle throws her knife into the ground and it sticks upward in the dampened soil. Again, Axius and Dilawar are befuddled by the paradoxical actions of this young woman.
"Foolish girl!" spits Dilawar. A ferocious smile finds its way across his face. "Here, Ax, I give you a gift in honour of our new alliance. Take the life of this coward woman."
"I am not a coward!" yells Gabrielle, her face arranged in a manner which proved her words.
Dilawar laughs and looks back at his comrade. But Axius has a curious look on his face, as if he were trying to unravel this woman, this Gabrielle, who offers herself up like a lamb to wolves.
"Why do you throw down your weapon?" he asks to her.
"Because I have sacrificed enough to War, and I plan to sacrifice all to Love. And you, though you are both murderers and thieves, will act as agents for Love this night. Willingly and unwittingly."
"Kill her!" roars Dilawar, gesturing maniacally to the bard with the sharpened tip of his sword. But Axius does not move. And still with the curious expression on his face, he shakes his head, turns and walks away. I am done with nonsense, thinks the seasoned warrior, I am done with war.
Dilawar forces a faux-nonchalance, but his face deepens to a purplish shade of rage. "Makes sense Cortese would keep a coward cunt as a Second," he says, rounding on Gabrielle.
Gabrielle barely has a fleeting moment to gasp before Dilawar thrusts forward and impales his curved, tulwar sword deep into the cavity of her poet's heart. The bard's last thought before blackness, like the surging waters of the sea, is of Xena: it is of her lover's smile and her eyes; she wishes she could remember exactly that shade of blue.
"No," comes a defeated whisper from the trees. It issues from Leon, who had failed Xena once more in the worst way of failure. He looks on in horror at the limp body of the bard, which lays curled like a child in a pool of her own blood. Well, Leon decided, if his life was forfeit and he had squandered his pride and betrayed his people, he would at least bring his General the body of her loved one. It is the least he can do. And so Leon charges forth from the trees, lumbering on his broken leg, and throws a knife squarely into the skull of Dilawar, who had been cleaning Gabrielle's blood off his blade. Dilawar is the first person Leon has killed and it wracks through him like the shifting of tectonic plates. He would bring back to Xena the body of her lover.
The chakram clangs against the rough metal of a Persian shield, rebounds and spins to decapitate yet another soldier. The Warrior Princess catches it in a preternatural motion, sparing a moment in her thoughts to marvel at her new weapon. She barely had to think and the thing killed on command and returned; it was better than a bolt of Zeus' lightning. Brandishing her chakram in one hand and her sword in the other, Xena slices through each man as he enters her vision. The barrage had been immediate and continual, warriors pouring forth to attack her as the fire blazed around them. But Xena feinted and blocked, cut and hacked with the deadliest of precision. In fact, if she would admit it to herself, she had never fought this well in her entire life. And then a moment came where she felt a blow to her chest as if it had been delivered by the ghost of a giant. No mortal had struck her and yet she felt the beastliest of pain course through her veins. Immediately, Xena felt absence as she had never experienced it. She couldn't make sense of the feeling, but she knew something was wrong, horribly wrong. She felt fear, it seems, for the first time in her short life.
With her sword, Xena rips through the chest of one man and in the same motion slices with her chakram at the neck of another. She is drenched in Persian blood, can feel her skin wrinkling under its sticky coagulation. Her body aches as it never has before; her knife wound throbs, her ribs are broken, her face bruised. She knows that she cannot hold out for much longer, and she knows that she has made a sizeable dent in Cortese's reinforcements; Xena is confident her army can defend against the remaining force without the guidance of her command. She registers the grey light of dawn and wishes for the quickness of death. Gabrielle, she thinks, stay alive––oh, please be alive.
One man's sword finds its way into the flesh of her thigh, and Xena drops with the searing pain of its path. Now on the ground, the remaining warriors hover around her like droning bees, clamouring for the kill. Xena throws the flat of her blade up to catch a fatal blow and succeeds in doing, but is swiftly kicked in the gut and disarmed of her sword by another. With only her chakram left, she attempts to roll onto her side and slice at the achilles tendon of the closest soldier. But the toe of a boot connects with the Warrior Princess' temple and her coherence is vanquished. She spares her last moment of lucidity to bid farewell to life, to her grand dreams, to the monstrosity of her future, to her family, to her love. And then, there is only the violence and the darkness.
Lyceus stands in the crowded marketplace, crawling with terrified townspeople whimpering their speculations and their fears.
"You're sure she said a candlemark?" Lyceus asks to Mimnos.
"Yessir," answers the messenger, "she said Cortese would be here and she'd fight 'im to the death. Have you got the soldiers in place like Xena wanted?"
"Yes, they're allocated to the southern and northern gates and in the town hall for that surprise attack. We're ready to go, we just need Xena to get the Hades over here," Lyceus seethes, translating his fear and worry into anger. Ganix grunts nearby, crossing his arms over his chest and casting his eyes toward the northern fields in hopes that they may fall upon his commander.
"Lyceus!" calls Cyrene, pushing her way through the throngs of people. His mother is followed closely by his elder brother and both sport serious expressions.
"Have you heard anything from Xena?" Cyrene asks, once she reaches Lyceus. Her son shakes his head. "Gabrielle?" He shakes his head once more, and the family can barely contain the tears that threaten to fall from their identical blue eyes.
"Have faith, my boys," says Cyrene, gathering her sons into a fierce hug, "We have to have faith."
"In what?" asks Toris, casting his broken stare over the wounded and the suffering, those grieving over fallen husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and friends.
"In love," rasps Lyceus. But before Toris or Cyrene can nod or shake their head in disbelief their attention is diverted to a commotion through the northern entrance of the market.
A horse steps precariously through the people, bearing the weight of two. Leon sits atop the beast, a shrouded human-shaped form draped over the saddle in front of him. Finding Cyrene and her family in the crowd, Leon pulls the reins on his mount and stops at their side. All their eyes shift to the petite body he carries.
"Hades," breathes Toris, "It can't be." Lyceus is too stricken to move, he will not allow himself to confirm his fear.
Cyrene's hand flutters up to her mouth and tears flow freely down her cheeks. "Is it...?" she cannot bring herself to finish. The crowd draws silent and they witness the event before them. Lyceus looks up at Leon and meets the wounded messenger's eyes. Reading something in Leon's eyes, he quietly steps to the body and puts two gentle fingers to the edge of the shroud that covers the deceased person's face. Unravelling it slowly, a lock of blonde hair falls from the cloth and Lyceus turns and retches onto the cobbled stone of the marketplace floor.
"Oh no! No– no– no" he moans. Toris and Cyrene steady him by the shoulders and support his weight. Taking a few breaths, Lyceus somewhat violently tears himself from his mother and brother's grasp. He wraps two arms around Gabrielle's body and pulls her off the horse and into his lap as he sinks down to the ground. He rocks her body and sobs and his family kneels and cries with him.
Then, a brilliant flash of light blinds the surrounding villagers and there appears before them the God of War himself. Cradled in his strong arms is the limp body of his Chosen. There is only darkness and sadness on those immortal features; Ares looks as though he would set fire to the world in a single thought. A scream cuts through the haze of his mourning and he finds Xena's mother rushing toward him like a wayward cannonball, he feels his love's body wretched from his arms. Cyrene wails again, and runs her hands over her daughter's face, finding her skin still with a trace of warmth.
"She's still alive," says Ares, his deep voice quavering, "but her wounds are bad, beyond my healing."
"You!" Lyceus screams, as Toris kneels by his mother's side and as Cyrene groans. "This is your fault! I hate you! I detest you!" He labours to his feet and heaves Gabrielle up into his arms and staggers to his sister's side. He settles Gabrielle next to Xena and stands up to look the God of War in the eye. "I spit on every Olympian," Lyceus spits on Are's boots, "I defy every star in the heavens."
Ares merely lowers his stare to the black-haired warrior at his feet and disappears into the brilliancy of the dawn.
The bystanders cannot believe what their eyes had beheld and it seems every heart and every breath drops with Lyceus to the ground. They watch him as he touches his forehead against Xena's chest. He feels the quiver of her shallow breath.
"Xena, can you hear me?" he whispers, as Cyrene cradles her head in her lap, "they took her. They killed her."
And as if those words were capable of stirring the dead from the very depths of the Underworld, Xena's eyes flutter open to reveal their startling colour to the living world one last time. With some mined strength, she manages to turn her head and look at the body of Gabrielle laid out next to her, whose bloodied shroud had become loosed from her face. Nothing is right in this world, Xena thinks and then her eyes cloud over and mimic the grey morning sky.
"Please don't die," says Lyceus, holding firmly onto his sister's pale, cool hand.
Xena attempts to form words in her mouth, but a trickle of blood replaces them and she seems to choke on her own tears.
"Oh no no," moans Cyrene, bending to try to return her daughter back into the safety of her own body. Toris shakes and holds fast on to Xena's other hand.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," says Toris, repeating the words like a mantra, as if her death is his fault.
"Please don't die," says Lyceus, taking up his own incantation.
But, Xena merely stares up at the people she loves most in all the world and mouths the words: Let me. And with that, the mighty Warrior Princess gives up her life, and her spirit rides fast out into the slipstream of the wind that carries over Amphipolis, over the battlements, through the killing fields and up over the trees and the distant mountains. A cracking thunder echoes her spirit's warpath into the heavens. The skies turn deep into themselves, draining of colour, and then the gods seem to be prying open the clouds with their hands and dropping through in the most overwhelming of rains.
The marketplace begins to sing with terror and confusion. Already the waters are pooling into the trenches on the ground and flooding in up to the wheels of the carts.
"She's dead!" comes a yell. "Xena's dead!" A murmur breaks through the people as the rain comes down.
"The general's dead!" says a man. Panic breaks loose between them like the fire had the Persians in the northern wood: children scream; wives lay steadying hands on the fearful shoulders of their husbands; the soldiers are wildly aggressive in their fatigue.
Lyceus picks his head up from his sister's silent chest. He looks wearily down at his brother and mother, who still bend over Xena and Gabrielle unable to right themselves under the weight of their grief. The young man looks around at the chaos that threatens to consume them in this storm. He looks down once more to the lifeless hand still clutched in his own: the poet in him notes the dirt under her fingernails––Xena could never keep her hands clean––and the blood that found all the crevices in her skin and dried in a pattern. He looks to his own hand and realises his too is covered in blood, his sister's blood from the fatal sword wound to her chest that he had fruitlessly tried to treat. So much blood, thinks Lyceus, blood binds us and blood breaks us apart. He suddenly understands the duty that Xena had passed on to him through the spilling of it. Xena would want him to fight, and she would want him to win.
Lyceus stands abruptly. "Listen up!" he yells, but his people do not hear quickly and irrationally, Lyceus stoops to his sister's lifeless body and withdraws her sword from its sheath at her hip. He turns quickly, with the sword in his hand, and swings it with a surprising force at the wooden post of a market vendor cart. With one stroke, he breaks through the thick pillar and the awning comes crashing down. Now he has their attention.
"I said listen!" he roars, breathing heavily. "We must keep calm! We must take the necessary precautions in the event of another attack!" Lyceus strides over to the nearest warrior and takes him by the collar, leading him a few steps in the direction of the hall.
"I want all able to fight in their positions! You've had your orders!" he says. "I want the sick and the wounded taken back into the hall; and if there is no room for them all, then take them into your homes and care for them to the best of your ability."
The people start to move, as if in a trance, following Lyceus' orders. They are grateful to have something to follow. War has made them void.
But then a voice calls out, "Rider approaching!". Lyceus takes off toward the northern gate with Xena's sword in his hand. He doesn't have to walk far however, as a grey warhorse breaks through the throngs of people at a fast trot. From the warrior's armour, Lyceus knows that he is a man of high-rank in Cortese's army.
"You there!" booms the rider. He gestures toward Lyceus and rides closer to where he stands. "Why do you carry that sword?"
"Because you ripped it from her!" he shouts, his voice full of venom.
"The Warrior Princess is dead?" queries the gruff stranger.
Lyceus merely glares, red tears threatening in his eyes.
"My name is Axius, formerly brigadier to the warlord Cortese."
"Formerly?" asks Lyceus.
"Cortese is dead," answers Axius, "killed by that woman." A gasp rises among those gathered near to the exchange and murmurs travel through the people as they re-tell the news to others too far to hear.
"Xean killed him?" says Lyceus.
"No, the other one, the blonde."
"Gabrielle?" intones Lyceus, shocked at the news.
"Yes, it was a quick one fer sure," says Axius, "short and sweet, nice and fine kill with no need for glory. She didn't seem ter enjoy it neither."
"Who killed her?" demands Lyceus.
"Dilawar, but he's a gone to the underworld too now, thanks to yer sister's messenger."
Lyceus takes a moment to process all this information. "Who killed Xena?" he continues.
"Which brings me to purpose," says Axius, shifting in his saddle, "it seems a half legion of Dilawar's Persian reinforcements killed the Warrior Princess."
"Gods!" gasps Lyceus; that explains the shape his sister was in; he feels bile rise in his stomach.
"You know something, kid?" Axius suddenly leans down in his saddle and speaks right into Lyceus' clouded blue eyes. "There were two of them legions of Persians up in 'em hills. You know what that means, don't ya? Means Xena took out a legion of seasoned warriors all on herself. She was like a demon had swept through that forest, fire and all. In all my years, I swear upon Ares feet, I never saw a fighter like her. Never gonna again. Xena had herself a true warrior's death and your family should do well to take pride on that."
Lyceus merely stares brokenly at this old warlord. He realises suddenly that this man is trying to show him kindness, in his own way. He is honouring his enemy by paying respects to her family.
"Thank you," he replies, almost sincerely.
"And that woman, the bard. I'm sorry fer that too. I coulda done something. I just walked away. My good deed was walking away from a lady, leaving her to get killed. Ain't too heroic. I done a lot worse. But, she threw down her knife and something pierced me right in the chest like she'd thrown the knife straight into my heart. First time I'd felt my heart in so long. She died brave, a warrior of the spirit, if not of the sword. I want her family to know it."
"I will tell them," chokes Lyceus, more moved by this than anything else.
"In honour of 'em," says Axius, "and because Xena the Warrior Princess and her bard, Gabrielle, managed to kick our arses into the chicken coop, I hereby call a forfeit of arms."
It takes Lyceus a moment to figure out what Axius was saying, but then it clicked. "You will call off your general's army?"
"My army, both Cortese and Dilawar are dead. Command falls to me."
"So you do have the authority."
"Yeah, so forget this war. Forget all war; I'm old and tired and done with it. I oath to withdraw the remaining men and disband them soon after."
Lyceus feels a light filling his chest. "Thank you," he says, then feels the need to add, "Go in peace."
"Aye," Axius salutes the young man and without further word, he turns his horse and takes off in the direction from which he rode in on.
He is stunned for a moment and then he feels the stares of the people around him and hears the valley of quiet that settles over them all.
"It's over!" he calls, "The war is over."
And yet it seems this war has stolen all meaning to language, as no one in the gathered many understand the young poet's words. Then, in a moment, peace begins to reach them in the slowing of the rain and with it a restored sense of meaning and beauty.
"The war is over!" someone shouts.
"We've won!" yells another.
"Peace has won!" echoes Lyceus, finding a place on the toppled cart to stand above his kinfolk and neighbour. His people cheer with him and kiss each other's cheeks and let their tears of sadness turn to joy and mourning. Somewhere a chant starts up and it spreads as if on the crest of a wave to Lyceus' ears. The word he recognises brings a fresh tide of tears.
Xe-na––Xe-na––Xe-na , they chant. His sister's name rises up among them and it becomes a synonym for victory, for honour, for sacrifice, for perseverance, for love and respect between them.
From the periphery of his clouded vision, Lyceus sees his mother stand up from Xena and Gabrielle, who lie divinely still beside one another in the rain; Cyrene takes Toris' arm and moves to stand next to her youngest child. The three of them stand together and listen to the people call out Xena's name. Then, in a voice nearly strangled with emotion, Cyrene begins to sing. She sings the song of Amphipolis and in a moment, the women take up the chorus and the men continue their chant.
Gledai ma, gledai, pilence lale, nagledai misa
Dneska sum tuka, pilence lale, utre ma niama.
As she sings, she thinks of her daughter. When Xena was a small child, she used to make her mother sing the song of their homeland every night before falling asleep.
"Why do you love this song so much?" Cyrene remembers asking her young daughter, no more than five summers old. Hades, Atreus had still been alive then. Xena's long dark hair spilled over the woolen sheets of her bedspread; startlingly blue eyes peered up at her with an innocence that had vanished soon after.
"Do you love me?" she asked oddly, causing her mother to frown.
"What? Of course I do," Cyrene replied, gently she hoped.
"Say it," said Xena.
"Say what? I love you?"
"Yes, but say it again and not in a question," commanded the little girl, then added almost sheepishly, "––if you want to."
Cyrene looked deep into her daughter's blue eyes, and said, "I love you."
Xena's eyes light up like lightning in the dusk of a storm. "That's why I like it," she says.
"The song," she hums a few bars of the Homeland, "I like it because it makes me feel the same thing as you saying 'I love you' to me."
Cyrene giggled almost shamefully, drunk on the love she felt for this creature, and pulled Xena into a fierce hug. "I understand, my child," she whispers into her hair, "our song is all about that very thing. It's a song about love."
"Our song," repeats Xena, close to sleep.
Cyrene sings that song as she remembers. And suddenly, it is all too much to bear and she finds it difficult to breathe. She's gone. My daughter is dead. Cyrene cannot fathom living another moment of this heartache.
She breaks her song and screams in the music's stead, "My child!"and drops to her knees beside her sons. A terrible crack of thunder wracks through the heavens as Zeus tries to break open the very foundation of the earth. And, as if lighting had struck the marketplace, there appears before them first the Goddess of the Hunt, then the God of War, and finally with a triumphant burst of colour, the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare.
Those gathered are too stunned to move or speak. Here, in a village square, among a petty war between peasants and warlords, here appears half the Sacred Caste of the Olympians.
"Stop!" booms Athena, her eyes turning into a terrible translucence. She aims her wrath at her immortal siblings.
"You're too late Athena," answers Artemis. The rain suddenly halts and a fierce wind blows through the annals of the town and sweeps them up in a wild gyre.
"Give it up. You made the rules, and you lost at your own game," says Ares, forming a glowing orb of light between his palms. "You were out-strategised by––" but the God is cut off by another flash of light.
"By Love," finishes Aphrodite, her garishly pink and ethereal accoutrements severely misplaced amongst the bloodied and dirtied villagers. She glances around at them nervously, as if willing them not to touch her.
"You?" screams Athena. "You did this?"
"Well, yeah," replies Aphrodite, in a matter-of-fact tone.
"You convinced them to sacrifice themselves?" asked Aretemis.
"I had to," intones the Goddess of Love, "it was the only way to make you all realise the truth. Xena and Gabrielle sacrificed themselves for Love, for their love of each other, of their families and their friends and their neighbours. They did it for the love of a cause, which is peace, and peace is always a part of love. Athena, you tampered with the Fates in hope of self-preservation, and now another universe is in shambles."
"The future world is collapsing in on itself," says Artemis, looking piercingly at Athena, "because they both died and a thread disappeared entirely from the Loom of the Fates. One stitch unravelled, Athena, one stitch––" the brunette Goddess turns to the blonde, "Aphrodite, you are the one who told the older Xena about the splitting of the life-threads?"
Aphrodite tosses her hair, and smirks. She pretends to examine a fingernail for while, but then looks up. "Let me tell you all something," she says, her voice taking on a more serious quality than her divine siblings had ever heard her speak, "I always win."
Athena disappears sharply; Artemis and Ares look to each other, then vanish as well.
And with that, Aphrodite strides over to where Xena and Gabrielle lay. Stooping, so that the hem of her silken skirts brush into the mud and rainwater, the Goddess places two hands on either of their chests and whispers a few words.
"You both are my creations, and you both are perfect," she says, "Live lives together in the manner of your natures."
Aphrodite stands from the warrior and the bard and walks to stand in front of Cyrene and her sons. The Goddess reaches out a hand and presses it to the matriarch's cheek in a gesture of blessing and shared sorrow.
"The Fates have been cruel to you," says Aphrodite, "in this life and the other."
Leaving Cyrene baffled, she turns to Lyceus and a look of profound sadness enters her eyes.
"Lyceus," says the Goddess, "my wonderful boy, my Chosen." She puts two hands to the sides of his face and an ethereal mist seems to engulf them for a moment. He looks at Aphrodite and keeps her eyes locked to his and something seems to transmit between the two of them. Lyceus hears a clear voice in his head and he feels a lightness and loftiness take hold of his senses:
You have so many incarnations, and all are champions of Love. In this one, you must fall to Love and by your fall will the world return to order.
In Lyceus' eyes is understanding, an absolute and total knowledge of the nature and the truth of things. He understands his purpose. The mist disappears and Aphrodite releases him from his trance. Lyceus turns first to his brother and puts a hand on his shoulder, bringing him into a hug.
"I forgive you and I love you, brother," says Lyceus.
"What's going on?" says Toris.
"Lyceus!" his mother's voice is ragged. But her son merely releases his brother and grabs hold of his mother.
"I love you, Ma. Be as strong as you always are."
With that, he turns back to Aphrodite. The young man's lips tremble, his eyes water and he gazes around at the ravaged world one last time. Lyceus meets Aphrodite's eye and gives a brief, curt nod.
The Goddess furrows her brow, determined to make this passage as painless as possible for her Chosen.
Lyceus closes his eyes.
Aphrodite calls upon the Fates and the rite bestowed upon her by her Olympian blood and releases Lyceus' spirit from the earth.
And then, their world is emptiness.
Their world is nothing.
Xena awakes early in the morning, when the rays of Helios' chariot are still pinpricks on the horizon over Brittainia. Her mind feels clear and sharp. She remembers everything, like she had lived two lives in her sleep. Horrified, she glances to her side and finds Gabrielle fast asleep, the lines of her sadness still faint on her face. Had it all been a dream?
The Warrior Princess doubts that Morpheus had taken such intricate trouble in crafting that nightmare, even for her.
It's over now, she thinks. We've won. Even in this world, with its hardship and its suffering, we have won–– for I can still wake here, at her side.
Rising, Xena begins to stoke the fire back into life and starts to work on a light breakfast of fish and toast for the both of them.
Gabrielle wakes to the sound of Xena humming. As if from some far-off dreamland, she wakes as if nothing but the pain of last night's thoughts of Dahak and Hope were worrying her mind. She remembers nothing of the life she lived during the night. She pretends to be asleep, so that she may listen to Xena sing. Gabrielle recognises the song. She recognises it from her first journey to Amphipolis; the women in the fields were singing that song as they reaped the hay.
Gabrielle opens her eyes and finds Xena looking at her. A smile inexplicably finds itself like a sunrise over the bard's face. Xena smiles in return, prodding at the fish in the frying pan with the end of her hunting knife.
"Good morning, Gabrielle," she says.