The Mountain Ridge
They reached the mountain ridge. Further stood cross next to cross. Each with a human figure, if not touched by death, waiting for her final embrace. At their feet the base of an empty cross lying upon the snow. All was silent but for the wind. The cold may be a blessing, numbing the pain soon to accompany the nails entering their palms and feet. The moment of practical thought distracted Xena. She looked to her hands recalling the stigmata that first appeared to her in battle with Alti. The pain was then sweet. It spoke of a possibility she had forsaken. It promised her Gabrielle still in this life. The promise had a price and the Roman soldiers were now here as collectors.
What came with time? The death of Hope, the revelation that Thalassa still lived though maimed in both body and soul, the battle between Ceasar and Pompy and what in retrospect Xena felt was the beginning to the end of Gabrielle's spiritual journey. Leading men into battle, no matter how justified, was beyond Gabrielle's moral fabric. A fabric that had been tested time and again and as a result had become frail and at risk of unraveling. There were the false prophets, Najara, in her merciless, misguided crusade for good. And then there was Aiden. One who would take the good of the world and consume it for his own selfish purposes. Gabrielle learned from each. Taking the fruit of the grain from the chaff. It wasn't until India. India humbled them both. India was a profound catalyst. It remained unmoved but the same could not be said for either of them. The pride and relief of seeing Gabrielle discard her staff was coupled with a resurgence of fear. The conviction to non-violence placed Gabrielle in a corridor of vulnerability that only her faith and wit would be able to mitigate. She imagined Gabrielle's journey as a narrow path in a valley of great depth. To each side the ancient wisdoms, like rising mountains, stood to protect, but in truth they could not animate and shift in position placing themselves between Gabrielle and the harm standing before her. That had been Xena's purpose.
India reaffirmed Xena. There would be no apology for the word warrior as she lived it in recent years. It is who she is. As they left India, Xena hoped that as a warrior she would be able to continue to protect Gabrielle. At least until this day. This day came too soon. Why must they lose their lives just as the insights broke the darkness?
The soldier took her arm with surprising gentleness. Having her attention he motioned her to lie upon the cross. Maybe he too had seen too many deaths. But he was a soldier and he must face the consequences of his profession. Xena turned to Gabrielle. There were no words. The silence between them; between them and the soldiers, were not to be disturbed. In the silence the mountain ridge had the only voice.
Gabrielle took her place upon the cross. She would not fight. Not even in spirit. To surrender would bring her greater peace. Her arms outstretched she looked up to the gray sky and the swirling snow. She felt a soldier position her legs and torso. He did his work efficiently; methodically. Would he see the crosses in his sleep or could he separate himself from the violence of the crucifixion. It would come soon. Again she would feel the pain. Alti had caused her to live it once before. Ironically, knowing what the impact of metal through flesh would be had lessened her anxiety. There was no unknown. The coming minutes were familiar. Yes, the moment was near. She turned to Xena.
Xena considered her words. She spoke them once before as Gabrielle and she readied to confront Hope. At that time Xena had reconciled herself to her own death. A consequence of ridding the world of Dahak's daughter. A consequence of Gabrielle's bargain with Ares. Choices had been made and Xena needed for Gabrielle to know that even though Gabrielle had erred in judgement, Xena would never regret their life together.
"Gabrielle. You are the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle knew that though there would never be a response that could capture the extent of her emotion there were three words, that in their simplicity would serve her well.
Her voice was calm, assured and gentle, "I love you, Xena."
Xena heard the words. She had heard them again and again as the vision haunted her. Was this a dream, another vision expanded? Would she wake to find herself safe with Gabrielle at her side? It was a brief hope, a trick of the mind. So much, too much had happened.
The wind strengthened and with it its voice. The hammer hit the nail. The nail pierced the flesh and Gabrielle's own voice involuntarily cried the pain. The hammer hit the nail. The nail pieced the flesh and Xena's cry married Gabrielle's. The hammer, hammer, hit the flesh, flesh. Breaths were taken and released with renewed cries.
The soldiers relayed their hammers to those positioned at the base of their respectively assigned cross. Those soldiers took another nail in hand and positioned it with experienced precision. Each raised his hammer completing his stroke with the prerequisite power to break through the skin, sinew, and bone of the women's feet. Their sight was so focused that they barely noticed the jerks of legs in response to the violation. Their focus was so great that they no longer heard the women's cry. If they had they would have recognized the higher pitch. The lingering strength and beauty those two voices embodied. They would have considered the song that could have been sung with those voices were it another place and time and circumstance.
Silence but for the mountain wind and the footsteps of soldiers preparing to raise Xena's cross. The motion was mercifully smooth until the cross jerked and fell into place. Xena had closed her eyes. Focusing all her strength with the end of regaining her composure. Gabrielle too had fallen silent. Xena could only hope Gabrielle had lost consciousness. From the cross Xena turned her head and looked down. The soldiers had begun to raise Gabrielle's cross. It was only a few heartbeats before it had been stabilized.
Gabrielle raised her head until she felt the plane of wood. Her pain was localized. She concentrated not on her hands or feet but upon her breath. She focused until the pain became less, until it no longer defined her.
Her passion had never been greater. For Xena the throbbing coming from her wounds made her feel acutely alive. She knew time and exposure would claim her strength. For now her life's purpose was clear. She needed to survive Gabrielle. She would not allow Gabrielle to witness her death. Gabrielle would not die alone.
Time was difficult to measure. The wind and snow denied the sun. Was it minutes or hours that passed? The cold had numbed her body. A different type of physical pain began to over take Gabrielle. She was feeling weak. Her focus began to waiver as she flirted with unconsciousness. Was she ready to die? It seemed as if all she needed to do was to choose to surrender. Her efforts to redirect her thoughts away from the assault upon her body took her to the familiar. She had relived her life. Her childhood with her sister and parents, her love for Perdicus, the people she met, those she helped and in honesty those she inadvertently hurt. She was able to forgive herself for acts of naivete. Her burden was to forgive herself for her conscious choices. After time Gabrielle had gone beyond the killing of Meridian. That Dahak was involved was no excuse but it did place her act in a context that afforded compassion. Gabrielle consoled herself with the fact that Xena had forgiven her and no one was wronged more. Xena had never hurt her until the death of Solan. The warrior's madness in grief could also not be excused. And yet, Xena's depth of rage was no greater than Gabrielle's conviction that Hope was innocence and not evil. They were both wrong but both could find a defender if judged. Finally, there was Hope. The odyssey of her child had never been completely understood. It would always stand as a mystery. Why does life turn as it does? Gabrielle would not have become who she was had it not been for Hope. The questions asked. The few answers found. None of it would have been.
Near death the sorrows and regrets press upon the soul. But what of the joy? There had been so much joy and awe. Joy in a shared life with Xena. Awe in what had been seen from Greece to India. Even this mountain ridge, that was taking her life, had its own majesty.
It was getting difficult to focus. Her breath was shallow. She wanted to sleep; to drift away, but that would mean leaving Xena. A promise of future lives where their souls were destined to reconnect was a source of comfort. In the moment; in this moment, if she surrendered she would leave Xena.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and turned to Xena. Xena was waiting for her. Gabrielle tried to speak but no longer had the strength. Gabrielle felt the sorrow of waiting too long. She searched Xena's eyes. She hoped beyond hope that Xena would intuitively understand.
Xena had kept vigil. She assumed Gabrielle had been in prayer. Gabrielle's body had still the stiff posture of life. She had yet to collapse. There was no reason to disturb Gabrielle. No matter how lonely Xena felt, she would wait. Gabrielle's eyes were now seeking her own and Xena felt there could be no greater reward for her patience. Gabrielle had weakened as she reached for a final peace. Xena could see it was Gabrielle's time.
The silence returned. No wind, no heartbeat, no sensation, only Gabrielle's gaze. Xena's final act of love for Gabrielle was a smile and an affirmative nod of her head. To this Gabrielle closed her eyes and relinquished what remained of her strength. She died as darkness began to fall.
It would be another two days before Hades' chariot appeared to Xena. He looked up to her with admiration. Xena's spirit left her body. She stood at Hades' side.
"Are you ready Xena?" Hades asked with due respect.
She turned and looked back to Gabrielle's figure upon the cross. She had continued during those two days to cradle Gabrielle in with her eyes. Nothing else mattered to Xena. There had been so many times in their life together when Xena had allowed herself to simply observe Gabrielle, be it walking ahead, swimming, cooking or in sleep. With it came stunning warmth. Upon the cross their differences carried no weight. That they had held each in the other's life was testament of a bond beyond any Xena had known or could have imagined prior to meeting the young, energetic and taxing barb. How she had grown to love her and need her. Xena felt cheated in that there would be no means to pay tribute. For it had become in her renewed aloneness a desire to ensure that history would write of the young woman of Poteidaia.
Looking back to Hades Xena stated more than questioned, "I won't be joining the Amazon's".
"You are of my world Xena."
Xena affirmed, "Yes, I am."
With that Hades called to his stallion and drove the chariot forward.
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