Author's note: This is a Xena "folk tale", not a
chronicle of the actual history as presented on the show. I took considerable
liberties with the "Xena lore" here, although I tried to preserve the
essentials. Many characters are either not here at all, or have had their parts
changed for the sake of brevity and clarity.
Hope you enjoy!
Once upon a time, when the ancient Olympian gods ruled supreme on Mount Olympus and kings and warlords ruled unchallenged on Earth, there was a small farming village in Thrace called Amphipolis. In Amphipolis there lived a man by the name of Atrius and a woman by the name of Cyrene. Cyrene and Atrius had been married many a year, but still they had no children.
"Never fear, my husband," Cyrene would say to Atrius, "we shall have a child in due time, when the gods see fit to send us a blessing."
But Atrius was not placated. A true Thracian, he was a warrior at heart, despite having settled in his wife's farming village, and he longed for a son to teach the art of war, a son who would follow in his footsteps and make him proud.
Thrace, in this time, was a restless land, too often torn by war, rarely at peace. Atrius, like all other fighting men, was gone many weeks in each year, fighting, fighting, fighting, while Cyrene stayed at home to run their inn and long anxiously for her husband's safe return.
At long last, Cyrene told Atrius that she was with child. How they rejoiced! Atrius set out as once to buy child-sized weapons and armour, while his wife could only shake her head. Cyrene had no wish to see her child taken by war, but she would not deny her husband his dreams.
In due time, Cyrene was brought to bed of a child. A beautiful, healthy baby - but it was a daughter, not a son. Cyrene cradled the tiny girl in her arms, marvelling at her soft skin, her black hair and curious blue eyes, so very different to the pale brown eyes and hair of most Thracians.
"Truly, you are a blessing from the gods!" she whispered to the baby, "I know not what the Fates have in store for you, but it is bound to be as extraordinary as your looks! I shall name you Xena."
When Atrius saw his child, he fell into a blind rage.
"What is this black trick you have pulled on me, woman?" he thundered at his wife. "Do you dare look me in the face and tell me this is my child? A girl, a black-haired, blue-eyed weakling! No child of mine could look like that! You have dishonoured me, unfaithful wretch!"
Poor Cyrene could do nothing to assuage her husband's fury. He put on his battle dress and armed himself, while she watched in horror, and pulled the child from his wife's arms.
"Where are you taking our daughter, Atrius?" Cyrene cried, terrified, but Atrius was already outside and saddling his horse. Still weak from the birth, Cyrene tried to run after him, but collapsed on the doorstep.
"Hear my plea, oh gods," she sobbed, "keep my daughter safe!"
Atrius took the baby to the nearby temple of Ares, the God of War, and placed the bundle on the altar. Little Xena did not cry, but only stared up at her father with eyes made extraordinary not only by their colour, but also by the alert little mind behind them.
Atrius drew his sword. "Accept this sacrifice, God of War, I beg of you - and may her blood wash away the dishonour my wife brought upon me! Let my sword be true, if my wife could not be!"
With that the sword came down - but perhaps Ares had not been listening, or perhaps Atrius' fury had indeed blinded him - only the weapon slipped in his grip and the blade sliced back, rather than forward. Impaled, the man fell by the altar, blood spraying the baby's face. Sensing something amiss, she began to wail.
"What is that?" a passer-by asked his companion. The two men looked towards the temple.
"Sounds like it came from inside."
The men walked into the temple and drew back in dismay. Atrius' body lay draped around the altar, while on it lay a tiny baby, ruby blood drops on her forehead.
"Baptism by blood!" said one of the men reverently, but also a little fearfully - for it was a terrifying sight, this macabre sacrifice of Atruis'.
The two men took the child to Cyrene.
"Your husband fell on his sword," they told her as gently as they could, "he died without dishonour." And that was that.
Atrius' funeral pyre did not burn overlong, nor were too many tears shed for him, for he was not an extraordinary man. His wife dried her tears and got on with her work, too busy with a new baby and an inn to run to grieve for a husband she had once, a long time ago, loved very much.
The years passed. Little Xena was soon joined by a younger foster-brother, Lyceus. Cyrene had adopted the boy when his own mother had fallen ill with a fever one winter and passed away. Lyceus' father had been killed long ago in some minor tribal squabble - Lyceus had been too young to remember the man.
The family continued to live in the inn. While Cyrene worked tirelessly to make sure they never fell into debt, the children spent most of their time playing on the streets. Little Xena had carved wooden swords for herself and her brother and they would stage mock-battles against each other or, more often, as a team, against other children. They were inseparable. And they always won.
"One day, Xena, I want to be a great warrior," Lyceus would say. "I will have my own army. I'll conquer all of Thrace and then all of Greece."
His sister would laugh: "No, _I_'m going to be the warrior! But if you're good enough, I might make you second in command!"
This usually brought on a friendly duel between the children, which Xena always won. But then, as Lyceus never failed to point out, she _was_ almost two years older.
Cyrene looked on all this war-playing with dismay. Her own dreams for her children were not of war, but of peace. She wanted nothing more than to see them grow up and have their own families. She saw no glory in war - especially when every year saw more and more tribal disputes, minor squabbles and raids by warlords with neither the ability nor the patience to hold together a large army.
One day, the inevitable happened. The unrest in Thrace came to Amphipolis, in the guise of Cortese - a warlord of precisely this sort. Too stupid to command a decent-sized army, too pig-headed to be a rank soldier under another's command, he contented himself with ransacking defenceless villages. His band of malcontents spilled into the fields surrounding Amphipolis, trampled the plowed fields and set up camp.
The villagers convened in the town hall. Most were women and old men. The years had not been kind to Amphipolis' men, for all that most of them had been simple farmers. Many had perished in wars, many others were away at yet more wars. Still others were sick, injured, maimed - what war did not take, it crushed underfoot.
The villagers did not take long to reach a decision. They would provide Cortese's troops with what provisions they demanded, allow them to take as much loot as they pleased - in return for Amphipolis being spared. They would point Cortese's rabble to bigger, fatter fish upstream - other towns, richer by far than Amphipolis.
"Cowards!" whispered Xena angrily to her brother. They were eavesdropping on the meeting from outside the town hall. "They want to sell out our lives for a promise of peace!"
"But what can we do?" her brother frowned, "if we don't give them what they want, they'll kill us! We have nothing to fight them with except rakes and scythes!"
Xena shook her head. "They'll kill us anyway. Or try to. And we can either make a stand or stand there bleating like so many sheep by the slaughterhouse. At least if we fight, we have a chance!"
That night, Xena, Lyceus and a few other children stole into Cortese's camp. They snooped around the tents, careful not to be detected, until they found what they were looking for - the weapons cache. Quietly, but very, very efficiently, they passed the weapons out of the cache and across into the village - the children forming a human chain, well hidden from all but the sharpest eyes, each crawling on the ground a little way to pass the precious sword, bow or arrows to the next in line. It took the entire night to empty the cache, but by dawn, the apparently peaceful village was armed to the teeth.
Of course, it had been Xena's idea. At fifteen, she was beginning to show signs of an exceptional gift for tactics and strategy - that military acumen which indicates a born warrior. Her mother saw it, and worried about it incessantly. Her peers saw it - and instinctively made her their leader. Cyrene had named her daughter well. She was, indeed, extraordinary.
Cortese took the spoils the villagers offered, the food and what few precious things could be scraped together. But still his camp was there, in the fields, in the evening. Xena had been correct in her prediction. Cortese planned to attack anyway.
"We move tonight, while they are sleeping," she told the band of young people and children gathered around her and Lyceus. "Our parents are cowards. They will not fight. So it's up to us - we kill them now, or wait for the slaughter in the morning! So which will it be?"
"Kill 'em all!" shouted Lyceus.
"Kill 'em all!" the little crowd took up.
At fifteen years of age, Xena discovered what it was like to lead an army. A small one, true, a mere two dozen youngsters to Cortese's hundred, most of them her own age or younger - but it was an army nevertheless.
They hid themselves throughout Cortese's camp and waited for nightfall. Darkness set in early, for it was late autumn, and the camp was bathed in silvery moonlight. The warlord and his rabble fell asleep, even the guards were snoring at their posts - secure in the knowledge that there was nothing to fear from the villagers. Morning would be soon enough for the massacre.
Xena sat in the corner of Cortese's tent, behind a pile of stinking hides. Her brother was hiding in a barrel on the other side of the tent. At last, the time came.
Without the slightest hesitation, Xena emerged from her hiding-place and approached Cortese's bedroll. The burly man lay swathed in a greasy pelt, snoring, his mouth parted to reveal chipped, yellow teeth. Xena was close enough to smell his breath. She took her dagger, easier to manipulate than the heavy sword, and sliced his exposed dirty neck, a single clean sweep. A small gurgle issued from his mouth - and then he was dead. She was surprised at how easy it was.
At fifteen, Xena discovered what it was like to take a life. She stepped back so as not to be splattered with Cortese's blood and gave an ear-piercing, ululating cry.
At this signal the village youngsters attacked Cortese's disorderly, sleeping soldiers with their own weapons. The soldiers had had no time to recover their wits, let alone mount a defence. Young though the villagers were, they were not completely inexperienced, for it was impossible to grow up in Thrace and not know how to hold a sword. Seemingly everywhere at once, they made up in desperation what they lacked in physical strength and experience. Xena had scattered them throughout the camp to add to the confusion - there was no front to fight, no lines, no ranks - just the sounds of clashing swords and the heavy thuds of falling bodies.
It was all over before dawn. A good half of Cortese's sorry band had been slaughtered. The rest had fled into the surrounding countryside. Exhausted beyond belief, Xena tried to gather her little army together, tried to see whether anyone had been hurt.
"Lyceus?" she called her brother, walking through the wreckage, stepping over corpses, revolted and perversely proud at once, "Has anyone seen Lyceus?"
But none had. A small search party was organised, they trawled through the camp and the surrounding fields, calling his name, looking for any sign of him.
Xena turned over one dead body after another, half-expecting Lyceus to come up from behind her and yell "Gotcha!" in her ear.
Xena stared at the lifeless, broken thing in front of her. It had Lyceus' face. It was smiling. She bent down to it, more from curiosity than realisation, brushed some of the blood-sticky hair off its face. Thracian brown, nothing like her black. The smile looked so alive that she had to return it. Lyceus' smile had always been like that - infectious in its sincerity.
It was thus that they found her. Smiling down at the corpse of her brother, a gash in his gut. There were no other villagers dead.
When they took her home, Cyrene said nothing. Xena walked into the room she and Lyceus had shared and fell asleep on his bunk. She slept for nearly two days. On the third, she was awakened by a group of some ten elderly villagers, as well as her mother. They frowned down at her.
"Is it true," said one, "that you led a group of children to attack Cortese's camp?"
Xena nodded groggily.
"Are you aware, child, that you broke a peace agreement?"
"They would have slaughtered us all in the morning." She could not make herself care.
The adults shook their heads. Her mother, she noticed, stood stock still, as though carved of wood.
"Xena, we don't like doing this, but you must understand that Cortese was not alone. You've brought attention to our little town, made it a challenge for other warlords to try. You broke a peace agreement."
Xena shrugged, still looking at her mother. Tears rolled down Cyrene's cheeks but she said nothing. After a moment, Cyrene turned around and walked out.
That would be the last time Xena would see her mother in many, many years.
She raised her eyes to the elders. "I'm leaving."
The man who had spoken nodded. "Very well."
They watched as she got up off the bunk with difficulty, trying not to disturb the minor wounds she had not even noticed before. And yet the pain in her body was nothing compared to what she felt when the villagers walked past her and out of the room.
At fifteen, Xena had found out what it was like to be completely, utterly alone.
And so it was, that Xena left Amphipolis for the first time, not a hero as she had hoped, but a treaty breaker, her brother not her second-in-command, as she had planned, but a dead thing burning on a pyre, or dead in a coffin. She did not know which and she did not care. Lyceus was not that thing. Lyceus was gone.
Xena walked for a long time, heading north for no good reason other than it had been downhill when she had started out. She followed the course of the river that flowed through Amphipolis, then the larger river that it flowed into, then yet more. She walked for a long time, until autumn became winter and the cold became too biting to ignore. She stole what she needed, having no means to buy food or clothes. She slept outside, then, when it became too cold, in barns and sheds. It was not a good time of year to travel, nor a good time of year to offer to work for a living. The harvest had long since been gathered, the flax soaked, the animals stabled for the winter. When she could, she would milk a cow and drink thirstily, then run for hours to make sure she was not caught.
She did not think of her brother. And she never talked.
When the first snow fell, Xena was not surprised, even though she had never seen snow before. She had long ago stopped feeling surprised. She simply took it as indication that she had come as far north as she could go. The place was a gloomy trading town, sprawling grey around a port at the mouth of a great river. Xena walked along a pier and sat down to watch the waves as they rolled into the sea - foamy wild animals that chased each other across a vast expanse of foggy steel. It stretched further into the distance than anything she had ever seen before, merging with the heavy, grey sky far ahead. The distance held a promise - it was another road, of a different sort. She could keep walking after all.
So, without further contemplation, Xena stole some food from a surly, half-blind storekeeper in the port and folded herself into a box in the pile of cargo being loaded onto a ship. Although she was now sixteen, she had retained the body of a child, small and compact, hardened by the rigours of her travels. Even so, the box was cramped. And dark. Xena settled down to wait and dozed off.
The sensation of flying woke her up, followed by a hard jolt as the box hit the floor of the cargo hold. Alert, Xena listened for the sailors' footsteps to fall away, up the stairs to the deck and out. She lifted the lid and climbed out, stretching her muscles quickly, then concealed herself under the stairs just in time before the new load of boxes was brought down. She hoped some of these contained water and food - starving formed no part of her plans.
Indeed, food had turned out to be plentiful in the hold of the trading ship. Admittedly, it consisted chiefly of salted pork, lime juice and ship's biscuit, but it was much better fare than Xena had grown accustomed to over the last few months and she ate hungrily.
The other boxes were full of trading goods. Weapons, hides, cloth, wool, wheat. Xena found herself a good sword and an exquisite little dagger, as well as a tortoiseshell comb and a water-skin. She took a tanned hide and used her dagger to make herself rough leather armour. That project took nearly a month, but she worked tirelessly, driven by her plans. It was good to have a goal for a change, and Xena threw herself into it, body and mind.
She practiced every day with the sword, drills like she and Lyceus had rehearsed, exercises they had made up. But she never thought of him.
She also listened to the talk of the sailors when they came down to the hold, noted their grumbles and concerns, their longing for adventure and fine-tuned her plans.
When she ship was in port, Xena would hide in one of the empty cabins upstairs. At least they had windows. She could see the sun.
By the time Xena's armour was complete and her body fit and ready for action, it was high spring. She suspected this, but could not be sure - she had had little opportunity to venture out of the hold recently, the ship not having spent more than a day at a time in a variety of small ports, in preparation for a longer journey, a larger trading venture.
At last, her plans could be put into action. Xena waited until she was sure that they were in the open sea and there was little chance of other ships being in their immediate vicinity. When she was satisfied that that was the case, and daylight no longer filtered into the hold from the trapdoor above, Xena put on her home-made armour, took her weapons and made her move.
The deck of the ship was deserted, it was night time and only the helmsman and the ship's boy up in the lookout were awake. The night was fine, the stars cold and forbidding in an ink-black sky.
The captain's quarters had not been difficult to locate. Xena had surmised the cabin's whereabouts from the sailors' talk and her own brief forays out onto the deck.
The door was unlocked. Xena pulled out a little cloth soaked in linseed oil, taken from the hold, and squeezed out a few drops onto the hinges. It opened without so much as a whisper.
Inside, there was a large desk with an inkwell and some quills, maps, ledgers, a compass and some other navigational instruments. The captain slept in a hammock in the corner, his breathing long and even in the dark room.
Xena walked up to the man, careful not to step on a squeaky board. The hammock swayed a little in time with the ship. Xena studied the man's silhouette, barely discernible in the dark. He did not remind her of Cortese, and for that she was grateful. She pushed the curtain off the small window to see better. Shadows criss-crossed the cabin.
The captain woke to the feel of cold steel at his throat. His gaze followed its line to its source - a slender, dirty hand - arm - shoulder. Finally his eyes came to rest on Xena's face, half in shadow. He did not flinch. Xena admired that.
"What are you planning to do?" the man asked. He was older than Xena had originally thought, perhaps fifty-five, but looked fit and alert.
"That depends entrirely on you." She smiled unpleasantly. "What I'd _like_ is for us to be friends. Good friends. The kind that help each other. You do something for me and I'll do something for you."
"Tell your men that there's been a change of plans. You are going to turn pirate," Xena said baldly, "and I'm going to stay on this ship."
The captain tried to move back from the blade, but Xena's hand pressed further in. "Don't."
He swallowed. "And what do you do for me, Friend?"
Xena laughed. "That's better. I spare your life. And I make sure you're _good_ at pirating. As you will be, I guarantee."
"I believe you." The captain measured her with a stare that convinced Xena her coup had been more than successful. In the man's face she saw the anger she had expected, but also grudging admiration and something she had not counted on - a lust for adventure every bit as great as that of his crew.
Xena's youth served her well - for someone older, more experienced, would have seen that it had been nothing but luck that the captain did not do any of a thousand things he could have done to rid himself of this little upstart. Or, perhaps, the gods were paying closer attention than usual to the affairs of mortals that night.
"Then we have a deal." She removed the dagger.
The captain rubbed his throat, then extended a hand to seal the 'agreement'.
And so, sixteen years of age, clad in homespun and cheap leather, sword and dagger well oiled, Xena became the mate of a pirate ship. One of many that plowed the Aegean and the Mediterarnean, it must be said - but one of the most successful. Her position of mate was in name only. In fact, she was the captain in all but navigation - it was a skill that she had not posessed, and saw no real need to learn. It took too long, it was too tedious - and she was far, far too impatient. For what, she could not say, for she now had money and goods aplenty and the respect of the sailors bordered on adulation. Their initial suspicion of her presence was allayed by their captain's reassurances - Xena could still not believe just how willing the man had been to turn pirate - and Xena had been true to her word. She was, indeed, good. Very, very good. Organisation, strategy and manoeuvres came easily to her. And her pirate ship, in consequence, became well-known and feared.
She had renamed the ship. It was now called "Lyceus".
It was aboard "Lyceus" that Xena went from sixteen to seventeen. Her home-made armour was long-gone, together with the child's skinny body. Well-fed, well-clothed and well-armed, Xena had grown into a strikingly beautiful young woman. Her hair was still jet-black, her eyes as blue as the day she was born, but they contained a new emptiness, a cold ruthlessness that terrified enemies and unnerved her own crew. None of them had ever tried to take advantage of Xena's terrible beauty, for all the pirates, down to the dimmest deckhand, had liked living.
It did not occur to Xena that at seventeen, she had become a warlord, no different to Cortese - but a warlord of the sea.
When the seas were growing choppy and restless once again with the coming winter, Xena's ship captured a Roman vessel. It was not overlarge, but the purple and gold trimmings and the copious amounts of precious metals and gems on board indicated that the ship carried a man of importance. Xena's men, trained and hardened, found the ship easy pickings, the gems and gold were gone in a flash, most of the crew killed without a thought. The passenger, in the uniform of a Roman general, was captured, bound and brought before Xena. The man looked at her with open contempt, seemingly indifferent to his plight. He did not snivel, nor plead, nor writhe in pain from his wounds. Xena was fascinated.
"This man knows something. I will deal with him personally," she declared to her crew, "send him to my cabin."
She was obeyed, of course, and no pirate dared entertain the thought that something other than the prospect of a rich ransom motivated their captain's strange orders. For Xena was now captain of the "Lyceus". Captain Falco had been killed in a skirmish some months ago, leaving Xena in complete command.
Every woman, and also every man, make one mistake in their lives, going against their better judgement, against all instincts, silencing the voice of reason and listening only to the honeyed whisperings of their hearts. Sometimes, this mistake is small and forgettable. Other times, this one mistake can twist the course of a life.
That night, Xena made hers.
The Roman's name was Caesar. He had a way with words - Xena had not thought that it was possible to draw such vivid pictures with speech, scenes of great battles and greater triumphal marches, fantastical palaces and glorious temples. In short, having never seen Rome, Xena fell hopelessly in love with it.
Caesar told her of many things. He told her of his plans to rule Rome and make it greater still. His destiny, he had called it. Xena's impatience had finally found an outlet - it was a lust for power, made all the more overwhelming by its combination with lust for the man who would wield this power, the two feeding off each other. In her fevered mind, lust became inextricably entwined with a great thirst for power, the feeling that she could, and _would_ have it.
She did not emerge from her cabin for three days. When she finally did, every sailor noticed a subtle difference in her. Nothing solid, no - but an unidentifiable change in attitude that, had the pirates been a brighter bunch, or feared their captain less, they would have known to be the sign of a woman who fancied herself in love.
"We are going to take this prisoner to his dogs back in Rome. They are going to pay us a handsome reward for him!"
The pirates cheered wildly, all their previous discomfort gone, trusting their captain completely.
Every day and every night of the journey to Rome only intensified Xena's feelings, until she knew and cared for nothing but the glorious future she had plotted for herself and Caesar, side by side, ruling the world.
Caesar allowed her to plot and at night, he drew her further and further into the web of promises, smiling enigmatically to himself.
At last, the ship arrived in Rome. A messenger was sent to the senate, to the men that Caesar had named, telling them to bring a hundred talents of gold to the docks. It was a ludicrous amount of money - Xena had initially thought to demand a single talent, an exhorbitant enough fee as it was. But Caesar had laughed and told her that he was worth twenty times that. Xena had laughed, too - and changed the ransom amount to a hundred.
The Romans arrived later that day. But they were not alone - all along the port were hundreds of Roman soldiers. Caesar's legions. Startled, Xena ordered her men to lift the anchor and take flight, but the ship was held fast by grapples - she had not noticed them before, intent as she was on her flights of fancy, tangled in Caesar's words and sheets.
It did not take long for her to be captured. And when she was thrown before Caesar, bound and gagged, he merely laughed, running his hand down her cheek.
"And this is how it's done," he noted to his friend. "Divide and conquer. You divide a woman's emotions from her sensibilities and conquer her. Mind and," he smirked, "body."
The cross was raised on a high hill, a public spectacle Caesar had neglected to mention in his stories of Rome. Xena's arms were tied to the crossbar, her ankles bound to the trunk, her body covered with nothing more than a stained under-robe. Around her, snow began to fall.
"Break her legs!" she heard through the fog in her mind, grateful terror engulfing her. The pain, mercifully, tipped her into oblivion.
It was atop that bald hill in Rome, tied to a cross, her mind a black void of pain, that Xena turned eighteen years of age. Occasionally, the void would dissipate into hallucinations - they were always the same. Visions of revenge. A new Xena was born that day, with a new purpose in life. Death.
Xena woke up and fainted many times, before finally gaining enough control of her senses to hold a grip on reality. She was in a hut, she noted - its sides made of deer skins and decorated with beads and horns. The next thing she noted was the absence of pain. Indeed, absence of feeling of any kind in her legs. She forced herself to look down to make sure she still had them. She did.
At that moment, the flap that served as a door in the hut was lifted, and an old man walked in. In his arms, he carried a steaming saucepan that smelled delicious, forcing Xena to remember that she was ravenously hungry. Animal-like she reached for the pan, but the man moved it aside, then dipped a spoon into it and raised it to Xena's lips.
Pride told her to keep her mouth shut. Besides, the food may have been poisoned.
Hunger told her that if the man had wanted to kill her, he would have done it long ago, while she was unconscious.
Hunger won out. Xena ate, gripping the spoon in her jaws, unwilling to release it until she had sucked every last grain of the porridge off it. She knew she was eating like a savage, but cared nothing for the humiliation as long as there was food. She could always kill the man later, the sole witness to her weakness. But for now, she needed to survive.
Sated at last, she gripped the man's wrists firmly and looked into his furrowed face, firing off a round of questions.
"Who are you? Why are you helping me? How did I get here? And where, exactly, is 'here'?"
The flap was lifted again - this time to reveal a slender young woman, heavily cloaked, only her dark eyes and brown curls visible. Xena recognised her as M'Lila - a Gallic serving-girl from her ship.
M'Lila whispered something to the old man, and he rose and left the hut, extricating himself from Xena's grip without the least effort. Vexed, Xena tried to get up off the bed, but failed miserably.
M'Lila sat. "The answers to your questions are simple, Captain. The Romans did not crucify the crew. There was no need. I bribed a guard to let me take your body off the cross before he could spear it. He thought you dead enough."
"But..." Xena began, but M'Lila shook her head.
"Please, let me continue. I knew of no healer anywhere whose skill could rival Niklio's - so if you could be saved, Niklio would save you. And so I did what I could to keep you alive - if unconscious - until we arrived in Gaul, Captain."
"We're in Gaul?"
"Why did you do it, M'Lila? I would have betrayed you all to Caesar." Xena asked, genuinely surprised.
M'Lila squared her shoulders. "Because one day, a long time ago, I was a slave on one of the ships you raided. You freed me."
Xena stared. "But I would not have hesitated to leave you - all - to the mercy of the Romans to be by Caesar's side!" She made no effort to disguise the truth.
"I am but repaying my debts," said the girl, and would speak no more of this peculiar loyalty that Xena could not comprehend. And yet, strangely, something deep inside Xena's mangled soul resonated with that - as though M'Lila's insane act had brushed against a string of memory and set it humming.
"My legs?" Xena indicated the dead weight under the covers.
By way of answer, M'Lila jabbed Xena's thigh sharply - one, two - and Xena could not keep from screaming. The flood of pain suffocated her. Another quick jab, and numbness replaced the pain once again.
"Niklio set your legs. But they will take time to heal, so I put the pinch on you. Don't try to walk."
"Teach me to do that!" Xena demanded, breathless from screaming.
And so M'Lila did. Xena had turned out to be a quick learner, but a poor patient. She had learned to use the pinch to block nerves and cut off blood flow, and forced herself to learn to walk with numb legs. No pleas from M'Lila and Niklio could dissuade her from her self-imposed exercise. It was not in Xena's nature to lie still and let her body heal itself.
Neither M'Lila nor Niklio were surprised to find her gone one day, not two months from the day of the crucifixion. Both Gauls grieved for her, but it was a grief tempered by the knowledge of the inevitability of this day.
"Her hatred is too strong," said Niklio and M'Lila nodded assent.
Xena was walking north again, her legs barely healed. She limped heavily and detested it, but held no regrets about leaving. She had to be free again. The day would come when Caesar would pay for his betrayal. But not yet.
And so she walked on, further and further north, until the unmistakable sounds of an army setting up camp reached her ears. Instead of walking away from the sounds, Xena walked towards them, almost without limping. Caesar had talked incessantly of his destiny. She knew, in the moment when she sighted the army, that here was her own.
It did not take long to enlist, a mercenary company such as this was ever short of skilled fighters. After a few of the more amorous soldiers found themselves speaking an octave higher, no-one attempted to make an issue of her beauty. For despite her travails, Xena was perhaps more beautiful at eighteen than she had ever been, her looks having grown shaper, harder - and stranger still.
It was only natural that this beauty would come to the attention of the commander of this mercenary company. Indeed, it played directly into Xena's hands.
His name was Borias. A true warrior, born and bred, barbaric and foreign to the last bead in his hair. Xena had liked him immediately. A more useful commander she could not have hoped for.
Xena bided her time, fighting with the company in minor battles, eventually outshining even the best of them in skill and tactics - although perhaps not Borias himself. The commander watched the recruit with growing fascination. And admiration. Xena knew this, of course - and waited for her moment.
It came after a particularly gruesome battle, a little over a year since Xena had first joined the company. She had shown herself to be a warrior of a rare kind - excelling both on the field and in strategy, naturally assuming command of ever larger groups of soldiers. The mercenary company rarely raided towns. The majority of their engagements were against other armies, some conscripted, some paid, like themselves.
This battle had been against a much larger and better-equipped force. Borias' company had still won - but the victory had been bought with far too much blood. Borias himself was injured, a number of the men had been killed. They had fought hard and were now camped in a sheltered valley, fighting harder still to split the plunder.
A rhythmic clash of sword on shield broke through the general din. Every mercenary looked to the centre of the camp, a clearing surrounding the command tent. Xena stood in front of the tent, fully armed, her face set into a cold smile that sent shivers down the spines of all those watching.
She was issuing a challenge to Borias. A challenge for leadership.
Borias came out of the tent, also armed, the wound in his side bandaged firmly. His eyes took in the woman in front of his tent. Xena raised an eyebrow at his inspection.
"You should be," Borias grinned.
Without a moment's hesitation he lunged forward, sword flashing in the sunlight. Xena responded in kind. They were both every bit as good as each other - the fight swiftly drew a crowd. Men forgot about loot and injuries and stood, slack-jawed, watching this duel. It was a thing of beauty - a perfectly choreographed dance controlled completely by both warriors, like and elaborate ritual. On and on the fight went, until the sun hung, dying, on the horizon and the shadows crept across the campsite. Men lit fires around the fighters - and still the duel went on.
Sensing an opening, Xena swung her sword in a hook, drawing Borias' weapon away from her mark - and then brought it back and down. Borias was on the ground at last, Xena's sword against his heaving chest, his laboured breathing fogging the steel. Xena moved the blade down across his chest, toying with it.
"I win," Xena declared, struggling to control her own breathing, "this army is now mine, by right of a fair fight."
"Ah, but I am injured," Borias replied, uncowed, "this can hardly be called a fair fight, Xena. Although you are quite fair enough to make up for it."
"You're not so bad yourself," Xena smirked, "however, that makes no difference here."
"And that's where you're mistaken."
Before Xena could respond, she found herself on the ground next to Borias, her feet kicked squarely from underneath her. It was done so neatly that she barely sensed the fall.
"I have a better solution," Borias' face was very close, "to this little dispute."
"What's that?" Xena did not move away.
"We work together."
With that, he leaned over and kissed her. The crowd whooped and cheered, but their voices were inconsequential noise to the two, engaged in a continuation of their duel in a far friendlier manner.
At nineteen years of age, Xena had at last taken up residence in the command tent of an army. Lust burned bright inside her - the sensual forever coupled with lust for power, a legacy of Caesar as much as her limp was. While Borias grew ever fonder of her, more interested in her than in commanding his army, Xena grew ever more restless. While Borias dreamed of family, Xena stayed awake, entertaining dreams of her own and made plans for greater things.
Months passed. Some full of battles, marches, spoils - others slow, tedious, uneventful, months that brought no work, and therefore no pay. No pay, in turn, meant dwindling food supplies and the need to attack small towns and villages to hold starvation at bay. Xena disliked those months with a certain unease in her soul. They were not demanding physically, the villagers were hardly a match for a lean and hungry army of hard men and the odd woman. No, it was not the hardships that caused Xena's discomfort and restless nights. She would toss and turn by Borias' side, unable to shake the unease, unwilling to admit its source. For every town, every raided village, was Amphipolis, no matter how little they actually resembled that distant place in Thrace which still haunted Xena's dreams on occasion, though ever less frequently.
Yet the busy months, when work was plentiful and petty kings and rich upstarts alike found gold enough in their coffers to hire mercenaries, Xena's unease did not abate. Instead, it followed a different route. Her plans of a greater army, conquests, triumphs to rival Caesar's Roman parades - all of these took place solely in her imagination, for there was no opportunity to put them into action.
The months stretched into a year, and then another. Xena's frustration grew and expanded, until it filled her entire being. She no longer felt free with Borias - she knew with a cold certainty that her destiny was greater by far than to die on some muddy field in Germania or freeze to death in the Siberian tundra, a mere nothing in the scheme of things. Just a mercenary captain. No, she was meant for greater things, she knew - if only she could find this path she was meant to walk!
Let it never be said that the Fates do not have a sense of humour. Oh, they do - and there is no man, nor god, but that is a puppet in the hands of the Fates - and woe betide those whose strings are tangled by a laughing Fate!
There was nothing about the first day of Xena's twenty-first year to warn her that the Fates had picked that day for their joke. No, Earth and Olympus were both calm and silent, oblivious to the patterns in the tapestry of life and the tangled threads that wove themselves into these patterns. Only Clotho, the youngest of the Fates, laid her fingers on two entwined threads and smiled thoughtfully.
The day had been lazy. After the last battle, the company was well-fed and clothed, wanted nothing for the present, and Xena and Borias could enjoy a foray into the hilly countryside, ostensibly to personally inspect the surrounding area - though no mercenary, no matter how slow, had believed this.
They spent hours together; Borias - content to have his lover with him, alone - Xena, restless as usual, fidgety and inwardly coiled, perpetually ready for battle, even in lovemaking.
When the sun began to descend, its fall rapid and early this time of year, Borias made ready to return to the camp. Xena hesitated. They had not come right to the top of the hill, staying on the sheltered slopes rather than the exposed plateau above. That had been Borias' decision. But Xena needed to climb to the very top. Every fibre of her character rebelled at the idea of coming only halfway.
"Leave me Argo," she said to Borias, indicating her mare, "I'll join you later. I want to check our bearings."
Taking his own horse, Borias wound his way downhill to the campsite. He knew better than to argue with Xena when she spoke in that tone. "Warrior Princess" their men had called her - and with good reason. No matter how closely she fought with the others, there was still an aura of aloof strangeness about her, incredibly powerful because it was so incomprehensible. It was not superiority, exactly, but it had earned Xena her royal title, equally as it had earned her her birth name. Xena. 'Unusual'.
Xena had no trouble reaching the top of the hill, Argo carrying her willingly through the dense carpet of evergreens and the rarer scribbly trees, some browned and withering, most evergreen as well.
Finally she rounded a rocky hillock and reached the plateau. The view from it was breathtaking. The setting sun painted the landscape with fire - fire that reflected from every piece of steel in the camp in the valley below and broke into a myriad tiny flames. Hills rolled into the distance, carved by a placid, murky river, its water shimmering gold in the fading light.
The world lay around the Warrior Princess - a world made just for her, it seemed - her destiny beckoning her in the sunset.
The light grew stranger still, pink tones joining gold, the countryside blood-red and beautiful.
Xena sat back in the saddle, feeling the strangeness subtly changing her, taking away the tension and impatience, imparting to her a sense of purpose, a renewed belief in her destiny to rule this land. She relaxed into the sensation, letting her thoughts run their course uncurbed.
How long she remained thus, mesmerised, her figure stunning and dark against the sun, she did not know. Eventually twilight thickened to night and the landscape glimmered silver rather than gold.
What brought Xena back from her dreaming was not the growing chill, nor the darkness. It was a peculiar sensation in every nerve, curiously exhilarating - like a ride downhill at breakneck speed, or the first charge of battle.
The sensation was mirrored by a flash of violet light beside her - it did not seem to bother Argo in the least. Neither, peculiarly, did it bother her rider.
"Who are you?" Xena asked without emotion, her eyes intent on the distance in front of her.
A smooth, deep voice answered. "You know me, Xena. Always have."
"Yes." Xena was not sure how she knew - but there was no denying the resonance in her mind. "Ares. God of War". The answer was as natural as breathing, but still, she did not look at the source of the voice.
She felt a warmth all around her, strange for this windy hill - but perfectly natural all the same. She knew he was right there, behind her, his body close to hers in the saddle - but Argo did not move, completely unaffected.
Xena continued to look straight ahead. "I have a great destiny." There was no doubt in her voice.
"Yes." She sensed his arms around her, hands on her thighs. "A great destiny, Xena. Embrace it."
The touch, whether dream or no, was enough to awaken in Xena both guises of lust - sensual desire and lust for power, ever entwined in her. Where previously only a trickle flowed through the walls she had built to dam her ambitions, Ares' single touch sent every wall crumbling down, and a torrent of ambitions flooded Xena's soul, every one seconded by desires of a different sort.
There, on that hilltop, her black hair sailing in the wind, Xena became more than just a Warrior Princess. She became the Destroyer of Nations. The two elder Fates stopped their work momentarily and looked at their sister, Clotho.
"What have you done, sister?" they asked, not because they did not know, but because they needed Clotho's reply.
Clotho smiled her secretive smile and said nothing, but instead ran her hands across two threads, braided together from the moment they were spun. One was the thread of a mortal. The other belonged to a god.
A moment passed, as the Fates looked at each other. Then the three sisters began to laugh. Harder and harder, until their laughter filled the world, reaching Olympus and Earth, defying them to interfere. Nothing did.
That first meeting with the God of War was soon followed by others. Xena had returned to the camp - and Borias' tent - that night, not quite certain that she had not dreamt the entire episode, but no less convinced for that of the truth of her vision.
Ares was like the fire of a forge - his presence, his attention to her, both as a warrior and as a woman, burnt away what remained of the child in Xena.
Borias was stunned at the transformation in her - but he could not have known its source. Impatience and frustration were supplanted by a cruel determination and a delight in the battle itself - the feel of steel entering an enemy's flesh, the thrill of loosing an arrow, perfect in its trajectory, lethal in its aim.
Before long, there was no mercenary company that could compare with hers, no army that could withstand it. She was Xena, the Destroyer of Nations - her name alone struck terror into hearts of enemies and allies alike - for Xena knew no soft loyalty to her allies, hesitated not to double-cross and betray.
When her army captured prisoners they sold them into slavery. The money bought better and better weapons, in turn bringing bigger and bigger victories.
The makeup of her army - for it was far too great now to be called a mere company - changed over time to ever harder men, more and more ruthless, the kind of warrior who fought not for gold or glory, but for the fierce joy of the fight itself.
The kind of warrior that sacrificed to Ares - and drank to the God of War in victory.
She no longer woke in the nights with visions of Amphipolis - she had no need of the meagre supplies offered by small towns or villages. She simply took them for the rush of power brought on by bloodlust satisfied, and for the exercise it gave her men to keep them motivated and fit for greater battles.
Borias tired everything in his power to divert this course of events, to bring the old Xena back, his Xena - the Warrior Princess. Desperately, he made love to her, begging her to remember, to come to her senses.
Xena laughed. She did not tell Borias that she had long since grown used to the sound of desperate pleas. These came not only from her enemies, not only from the countless slaughtered humans that she had long since stopped noticing, feeling only the rush of joy as her blade ripped through flesh. The pleas came also from a quarter much more satisfying than the cries of mortals - the pleas of a god.
Oh, they were not pleas, exactly - but Xena thought the actions clear enough that no uttered pleas were necessary. For Xena had realised immediately and with infallible instinct, that Ares could give her the keys to her destiny. Equally, however, she had known that she was a mere mortal to a god, a god who would not think twice of her once he obtained what he wanted.
Men and gods were such similar creatures, after all. At twenty-two years of age, Xena was quite knowledgeable enough - and possessed quite enough reckless courage - to tread the fine line between spurning the affections of a god, always a dangerous business - and yielding to his wishes.
She could not have hidden her response to Ares' touch even if she had wanted to, but she had no wish to do that. Instead, she tormented mercilessly, allowing both of them some measure of satisfaction, but never allowing Ares to possess her, never letting herself step on either side of that razor-thin line.
Once again, she had proved her name true. For Xena had no way of knowing that she was the only woman in the history of mankind to tread this line with the most volatile god of all - the God of War - for so very long, and yet live and remain in his favour.
He could have possessed her by force, of course - but like every man who met Xena, mortal or otherwise, Ares could not look into those strange, wild eyes and not be mesmerised by them, be held captive by her, unable to work his will where it contradicted hers. Unable, and unwilling.
Little wonder than, that Xena had laughed at Borias' feeble pleas - although they were feeble only by Xena's measure. He was addressing a woman who had the God of War at her feet, though he thought himself at her side. Of course, Borias failed.
Small wonder also, that Borias failed to return from the next battle. Unlike the Destroyer of Nations, he had not walled in his heart - and mortal hearts, being the frail little things they are, are prone to break.
Xena shrugged off his death, but a little germ of something new - or, rather, very old - was planted in her soul with the sound of his dirge - and was fertilized with the ashes from his funeral pyre, and grew.
Then again, maybe Borias' death had nothing to do with this small change in Xena and it was birth, rather than death, that brought it about. Only the Fates know the answer to that, and only little Clotho knows what enchantments she spun into the new thread of life that grew in Xena.
Borias had died, as every mortal does - and every warrior, surer still. But he had left a parting gift to his lover, the only gift she could not refuse and the only gift he could give.
Xena was with child.
At first, the pregnancy was hardly noticeable. Fit and unwilling to submit to physical need, Xena continued to lead the army to ever greater conquests. Cities lay in ruins, others were paying crippling tribute. Whole towns were sold into slavery.
And Xena's baby grew.
Small villages on the way to larger cities were obliterated, fields trampled by heavy soldier boots. The God of War fought beside Xena at each battle, they shared the fierce delight in the kill.
But both harboured a grain of uncertainty now.
Xena felt a conflict in her - her child, and her bloodlust.
Ares, driven almost outside his reality by the magnetism of this mortal, the enigma that was his - and yet not his, also had his doubts. There was a joy in battle, certainly. But he had the uncomfortable suspicion that his Destroyer of Nations surpassed even him in ruthlessness. Was it at all possible that he had grown so used to this mortal that the possibility of her death - or madness, or both - caused him such discomfort? He did not know. Ares was not used to 'not knowing'. More and more it seemed to him that mortality was contagious. And he very much feared that he had caught it.
Finally, inevitably, the day came when Xena's pregnancy could no longer be ignored. No longer could she ride into the fray, commanding troops from horseback, surrounded by her warriors. She did issue orders from the command tent - but it was no replacement for a general in the field, as far an army was concerned. As the weeks of inactivity grew into months, the warriors began to lose focus and patience. Grumbles spread through the camp - not enough to threaten the army significantly, but enough to loosen the tight discipline. Enough to worry Xena.
Yet she had greater worries still. The pregnancy was difficult. These later months saw her in perpetual pain, unable to get up unaided, hating the weakness of her body, hating Borias for causing it. For some reason, she could not bring herself to focus on this hate.
It may have had something to do with the unusual actions of Ares - she had fully expected him to disappear at the first signs of her pregnancy affecting the morale of the troops, to grow bored with inaction and leave.
It was puzzling indeed that he had not.
Instead, Ares continued to appear by her side. He did what he could to keep her army together, staging minor skirmishes and fights to give them common enemies to fight, to prevent unrest and turmoil among the troops.
Once, he brought Xena a gift. A beautiful weapon, the likes of which she had never seen before - anywhere in her travels. A circular blade, decorated with gold inlays and true sapphires. Wickedly sharp, incredibly powerful. It had a name - the Chakram. Xena accepted it, but for the first time in her life, she could see no reason behind the actions of another. Ares was not following her expectations - and that fact only eroded her grip on the situation further. She felt everything unravel.
The most peculiar change of all, however, was that Xena felt something in her soul. Ever since those long-gone days in Amphipolis, she had felt nothing but numbness inside. Now, as the date of her confinement loomed ever closer, she knew there was a connection between herself and the tiny life inside her. She had hated it, tried to break its hold on her body for months, rode Argo hard enough to collapse, bleeding, and claw the ground in frustration. And still the baby held fast.
Eventually, the new soul won over Xena's older, harder one. And in winning, it opened the darkest recesses of Xena's mind.
She dreamt. Dreams of her mother. Of Lyceus. Wooden swords and daisy chains and stealing apples.
In death, Borias had given her what no-one else ever could. He had given his life to ransom Xena's soul. He had killed Caesar's legacy.
It was not the Destroyer of Nations who screamed, white-faced, in the throes of labour, neither was it Borias' Warrior Princess.
The years fell away, one by one, with the hours of labour, the pain rewinding, re-viewing, healing. When at last, the sun came up and the baby lay sleeping peacefully at Xena's breast, she cared nothing for the remains of her army, its majority having abandoned her; she cared nothing for these hard men who were too deep in blood to be led by a mere woman, weakened from childbirth.
Xena cared only for the tiny boy cradled in her arms, so perfect, so beautiful, that she knew there must have been light in her after all, light enough to produce such perfection. Light enough to live.
It was like waking up from a long, vivid nightmare. Xena knew this peace would not last long - she had no right to be the mother of this child. He deserved better, and she was determined that he would have better.
But she knew that she would never stop trying to earn that right.
She named him Solan, for his birth had come with the sunrise. An omen.
Ares appeared by her side, saying nothing, merely observing, hands folded on his chest. Xena looked deep into the soul of this being - so strange to her not so long ago, when she thought him weak to care for her.
He was strange no longer. Having unravelled completely, her world was weaving itself again - into a new tapestry.
If there could be beauty in the soul of the Destroyer, Xena no longer found it strange to see that beauty in the soul of a god. Perhaps one day, he would see it, too.
Ares came up to her and she passed him the child, unafraid. He took the boy and bent to kiss Xena on the lips. It was a gesture of promise, neither chaste, nor demanding.
"When you're well again, I'll give you another army."
Xena shook her head slowly. She wondered that the God of War never learned that armies could neither be given, nor received. Like all things in this mortal world, they had to be created. And what was once created could be destroyed, paving the way for a new creation.
"I'm leaving all this, Ares." For perhaps the first time in the years she had known Ares, she spoke plainly.
A brief ray of sunlight illuminated the god's face. It may have just been a trick of the light, but Xena thought that for an instant, the immortal perfection of his features softened to an almost human vulnerability. Almost. The moment was gone.
Ares returned Xena's son to her side, shrugging slightly, his voice utterly confident. "You're wrong, you know. You will come back to this. To me."
"Don't count on it."
He ran a hand down her face and neck, lifted her head to his, parting her lips with his own. There was nothing chaste about this kiss, nothing undemanding - it set Xena's soul ablaze along with her body. She deepened the kiss, wanting to remember this, to burn it into her memory, to make it last through all the years to come so that he would not wield the power to break her resolve.
It took her only a moment to realise that that would be impossible. She moved away and held up her chakram to slice the distance between them.
"This is the end, Ares."
Ares traced the wicked edge of the blade, so sharp that it hummed. Then he grinned up at Xena. "Oh no," he said completing the steel circle and resting his hand on hers, "it's not. It's just the beginning again."
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