Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
It seems like so many years since I have seen the sun, but in actuality it has more than likely been a week, perhaps two. Although in truth, it seems to me that all the days have been dark since the morning my fellow soldiers and I crossed the Rhine into Germania some six months ago.
I am a centurion, you see, Marius Valerius by name, a proud infantry soldier with the XXV legion. We are under the command of that great knight of Rome of whom you may have heard; Gaius Cassius. Over the past eight years, we have done the Caesars bidding; enforcing his laws and smiting his enemies from Macedonia to Hispania. I am a good soldier, loyal to Rome although I have never seen it, and now I know I never will.
I did not taste fear when General Cassius told us we were journeying north. I had oftentimes heard tales of the forests so thick and black that they could swallow a legion whole. Of watery swamps that foundered man and beast alike. Of the incessant rain that pounded against a mans sanity and drowned his spirit, so that he found himself crying out in despair for the great deserts of Egypt. Worse than all of these things, however, were the savage tribes of Germania, peopled with blue-eyed, red-haired giants; clothed in ragged cloaks and animal skins. Men of fierce disposition who knew no fear of death, who fought with primitive abandon, and whose battle cries in the night made the bravest of hearts tremble.
But no, that which might have frightened another man held no sway over me. Instead, it gave me strength. Hope. One more time, I would be able to put my skills to the test. I would prevail upon the gods of my father and his father before him, and find within that battle within myself, some sense of certainty that this soldiers path I have trod upon for nigh 16 years now is a just one.
I remember the days when I had no doubt of this, and in truth I have spoken of this to no one, until now. But time grows short. There are two men in my cohort who I consider as brothers: Drusus Varus and Marcellus Silanus. We have soldiered together for four years, now, as men of the XXV. Drusus is a big bull of a man as much as Marcellus is a poet in an infantrymans leathers, but they are friends to me as well as to each other.
By the rain-dampened watch fire this night, we have spoken night of the whispers overheard outside the generals tent; how there can be no doubt that the savages will attack once more at dawn, as they have done for the five preceding morns.
We are trapped here, in this bog of a forest, our cavalry support long since decimated by the Germans cunning assaults. The ranks of our archers have been thinned by two thirds, and it is only we infantrymen that remain of note. We have sent to the south for reinforcement. But who can know if young Sejanus was able to survive the gauntlet of the enemys lines that encircle our battered soldiers like an executioners noose. For the sake of his father, Quintus, whom I was proud to once know, I hope that he did. But what help there may be is too far away to be of any use to us now.
This battle will be the last.
The knowledge of this saddens me, for it means that I shall never again rest my tired eyes upon the face of my beautiful Julia, or grasp the hand of Lucius, my son, as I walk with him to the riverbank to fish. There will be fields of barley I shall never plant, a new barn these hands shall never build, and sweet wines of my home village, Cannae, that will never again pass my lips.
But there are others who weigh heavily on my mind at this late hour: a warrior and her companion.
There is so little time.
I know now what I must do.
I owe the two of them that much.
Therefore, I humbly beg your indulgence, dear friend, so that I may recount to you here a series of events which even now I can scarcely believe I witnessed. For myself, I do not deny the role I played in these affairs, and content myself to know that the torture that has plagued me daily since the right or the wrong of it will soon be at an end.
The particulars, to the best of my remembrance, are as follows.
A centuriae from my cohort of the XXV, about four score men all told, were sent to temporarily staff a prison compound at the foot of Mount Amaro. The bulk of the legion continued to move west, towards Rome, mopping up what little unrest they found along the way. Prisoners from a ship of captured pirates were due to arrive soon; foul men of ill repute that had been plaguing the waters of the Adriatic from Ariminum to Brundisium.
We were to make an example of them.
But I felt sure that once my duty was completed there, we would rejoin the XXV in time for me to see glorious Rome at last. Oh, the stories I had heard of it! And how I so desired to bear witness to it with my own eyes, and in turn tell my son of all the wondrous things I was sure to see.
But it was not meant to be.
Julius Caesar is dead now, and whether he was a god or a despot, it is not for me to say. It is rumored that Octavian, his nephew, will succeed him as the next Caesar. For now, this is in doubt while the generals of Rome squabble amongst themselves like old women, attempting to withhold from Octavian the power they secretly desire for themselves.
But that was of no concern to me at Mount Amaro. In just one additional years time I would have completed my sixteenth year as a soldier, my eighth with the XXV. I would receive a bonus for this last term of service, and would happily accept a pension, too. At last, I could return to my wife and son, and have no further cause or need to ever again leave the golden fields of Cannae.
Gaius Cassius was not the commander of the XXV at that time, have I told you this? No, then it was Decimus Brutus. An honorable man, or so we believed, and the Caesars friend, we thought that, too, but a lover of Rome and her people, most of all. Brutus was killed by a phantom, that was the rumor of the day, but I had no knowledge of the how or the why of it, as the legion had been split in two before that time. I was sent north with Cassius to quell unrest in the far provinces, while dark desires drove Brutus to attempt to take from Octavian what he had no right to claim: the seat of Rome.
But that is not the tale of this telling, my friend.
I have made it my business in this soldiers life to forswear the politics of leadership, the caprices of strategy, the intrigues of alliances. And so it was not of my concern when over the heat of a warm fire burning in the cold mountain air, Sulla Gracchus hinted to me that our purpose at Mount Amaro was twofold. To crucify the pirates, that was for certain. The example we made of them would send tremors through the ranks of all others who dared to prey upon the citizens of the empire.
But there was more.
We had heard of the cult of the one true god, and of the conjurer, Eli, who preached its word. Of all the lands that have been touched by the hand of Rome, the gods, the beliefs that are to be found in them, are many. Even the German savages worship their Wodan, and believe that the mighty Hercules passed their way, once. It has been practice to leave these many gods in place, or to introduce our gods in addition to them, populating the heavens with a host of deities both fair and foul.
This cult of the one god, however, vexed Caesar beyond all measure. I cannot think why it did, for how puny their one god of love or such nonsense must be, against Jove and Mars, Minerva and Diana. Some of its followers wanted to kill Caesar, or so Sulla vowed to me. Even at that moment, he told me, Brutus was hunting them down.
The punishment for defying Rome is harsh. There can be no more painful way to die than by crucifixion, and in death we know that the guilty can never again wield a rebellious or criminal sword against Rome. There was a justice in it, of a sort.
Those who dared to break the law knew the risks the ultimate price to be paid. Yet there were always those willing to force our hand. Those who fought for independence, while they clamored for our protection. Those who denied our gods, yet where were their own gods to protect them? They fought against us, yet fought amongst themselves even more. This cult of the one god would be no different, I was sure of it.
And when several days later Brutus marched into the compound with his quarry, I saw no reason to differ with that assessment. They were a sad little rabble, really, young and not so young, poorly clad for the harsh elements. They were captured with no resistance, a marked departure from skirmishes we had had with other cults of the day.
I could see the fear in their eyes as they were paraded past the local thieves we had crucified at dawn, wondering if such a fate would be theirs. But Brutus had directed that they not be harmed, even after the Amazon girl attacked Drusus. Brutus soon left for Rome, however, and Gaius Cassius spoke of a different order, one that carried on it the seal of the Caesar himself.
There was one among the prisoners whose face even now I cannot forget. Gabrielle, I heard Brutus call her. Unlike her brethren, she showed no fear. For one so young, there was a peace and a calm about her that spoke of a wisdom far beyond her years, a wisdom certainly beyond my own soldiers understanding.
They had to know that the time of their deaths was drawing near. They did not plea for mercy; they did not beg for their lives. The silence from their cell led me to believe that like the foolish sheep they were, they had perhaps fallen asleep.
When I looked closer, I could see that they were sitting quietly, with Gabrielle next to their leader, Eli.
There were soft words I could not hear, knowing glances that I found angered me, in some part. What mystical force was this that imparted such peace, such serenity? In the cult of the god of love, was there no place for fighting the good fight? What god was this, who would ask his people that they die in his name? That rather than fighting such a fate, they must joyously welcome it?
I had never witnessed such a thing, and I must tell you now that at that moment, I began to wonder. Were these people waiting for their god to save them? Did it even matter to them if he did not? And for how long were they willing to endure?
As it turned out, they did not have to wait long, nor did we.
I heard it, we all did, Drusus, Marcellus and I; a shrill cry of battle that I had not ever forgotten since the day I left the shores of Macedonia, some years before. It was the warrior princess, come to claim her own, just as Sulla had told me she would.
We scrambled to amass a counter-attack, but already, I could see we were in for quite a fight. The warrior set the rabble free, and with the strength of ten men, cut down all who came near.
I am a soldier.
And despite the fearsome powers of the warrior princess, I knew my duty. I perceived a weakness in her defense, and I took it.
She whirled on me, her eyes slicing into me as sharply and as surely as the weapon she wielded.
I am not ashamed to admit it, I knew fear, then. I cursed myself at my weakness. I fumbled with my sword, stumbling, trying to parry an offensive I had no hope of surviving. At the last moment she must have detected folly of wasting her time on so unworthy an opponent, for instead it was the flat of her deadly blade that crashed against my useless helmet. The breath whistled from my body as I presently found myself tumbling through the air, striking myself bodily against the timbers we were readying for the crosses.
I remember how rough and cold the wood felt against my skin, how I struggled to rise but soon thought the better of it. I do not remember the events transpiring thereafter, senseless as I was.
Some hours later, I learned from Drusus how the mighty warrior was felled at last, though no living man was able to lay claim to that feat. And Marcellus, who I believe had taken notice of Gabrielle as well, grieved to tell me how the golden-haired peace lover had turned into a maddened killer, striking out at all who attempted to approach the wounded warrior princess. I would not have believed such a horrific thing myself, were it not for the absence of Sulla Gracchus that night at the watchtower; the last to fall under her knife.
A storm was coming, I could feel it in my bones, and I welcomed it as an old friend. The cold winds blew down from Mount Amaro, soothing the ache in my head I had received courtesy of the warrior princess. I breathed in deeply of the crisp air; it carried on it the scent of new snow, and I allowed myself to revel of the sweetness of the memory of that first winter I spent at home with Julia and Lucius.
There is still work to be done on a farm while the fields lie fallow, but I admit to you now that I took extra pleasure in passing gentle times with my Julia, with no particular purpose in mind other than the joy of her companionship. And how proud I was as I watched Lucius take his first steps, or when I heard him call out to his mother and me by name; his young childs voice a tune to my ear that I still hold so dear.
It has been over seven years since I saw him last; he was seven years of age when I left him with his mother. He will have assumed the dress of manhood now, and I wonder what manner of face he has. Does he remember me, and will he look after his mother when I am no more? I swallow my fears as I remind myself that he is Lucius Valerius, son of Marius Valerius. Of course, he will do what is right.
Word spread through the compound quickly.
The order had been officially announced by Cassius. The warrior princess and Gabrielle were to be crucified at dawn, as soon as their crosses could be finished.
Telling myself I was going inside only to seek warmth against the chill, I found myself outside their cell, some moments just before dawn.
"It wont be long now," I heard Drusus say, and I could see the anger plainly on his face; he mourned the death of Sulla and the others at the hands of these two.
Marcellus had told me theyd barely moved all night, and spoken even less, and as I looked in upon them, I was not surprised, knowing that with such a grievous injury, the warrior princess had to be near death. It saddened me, to see her reduced thus. I could see Gabrielle quietly holding her near, still tenderly protecting the warrior against an enemy that had already won.
They were dressed in tattered rags. I knew Drusus and the others had passed the time earlier rolling dice for their belongings, however I declined to participate in that sport. Their clothes were of some little value, but the sword of the warrior would fetch a fine piece of coin indeed, particularly if it were returned to the capital.
How at peace the both of them appeared to my soldiers eye! And once more I found myself wondering about these two, about a faith so strong and a love so enduring yes, love is the name I would put to what I saw pass between them that I began to feel the shame of what I was about to do. What I was bound to do, by my oath to my gods and to my Caesar.
I looked out through the barred window; the crosses were ready, and dawn was upon us. Though there would be no light of the sun on this dark, stormy day.
Drusus and the others pushed past me into the cell and I followed, dreading that which I knew was to come.
"On your feet."
Drusus harshly pulled at the warrior princess, hauling her to her knees, and that moment was the first and the last time I heard her cry out. I fell in next to Drusus, taking hold of her, while other hands reached for Gabrielle.
I cannot pretend to know the agony of the warrior princess as we dragged her like a crippled dog across the hardened ground to the place of death. But once, as I tightened the grip I had on her arm, she looked up at me, and in her tortured eyes I would swear to you that I saw a glimmer of recognition there. She knew that my poor life was one she had earlier spared.
And this was how I repaid her.
We lowered them upon the crosses, not unkindly, for I believe that for my brother soldiers as well as for myself, it pained us to see two women put to death in such a manner. For even in these troubled times such a thing is rare enough.
I found myself charged with tying Gabrielles feet to the cross, and I gasped in spite of myself when I felt the coldness of death already upon her skin. I wondered where was their one god now to save them? I told myself that she was just another criminal whose death would matter little would be welcomed, in fact, in the halls of justice. But as I gazed upon the placid face of this woman, a woman who loved peace but who also had killed, I began to doubt.
I know the dying warrior called to Gabrielle, though the words that followed next were carried away on the cold winds, eluding me. To my astonishment, however, I saw them both smile. And then I at last detected that which I knew had to have been there all along the fear, but my satisfaction was quickly dashed when I realized the fear was not for themselves, but each, for the other.
A mallet was thrust in my hand. I was a soldier. I had my duty to perform.
"I forgive you."
Gods, had I imagined it?
I raised my mallet high, and spared a glance upwards, to the head of the cross.
No, it was not the product of my feverish mind, it was Gabrielle. And damn me to the underworld for eternity, for when I lifted my eyes to hers, I could see it. Right before she closed those eyes tightly against the force of my strike, I could see it. The love. The forgiveness.
Damn me, and damn her for doing this to me!
I struck my blow as hard as I could, shattering her delicate bones as surely as her final act had destroyed the last of my resistance; the pain I was inflicting upon her was no less than the torture she had flayed upon my conscience.
And with every strike of my mallet, my soul cried unto itself: I dont want to believe. I dont.
It was done.
Justice had been served.
I volunteered to keep watch in that place, even though with my standing in the cohort I could easily have left such a task to my juniors. But I wanted to be there for them now, in death as I had failed to be in life. They would hang here for days, fodder for the vultures, Cassius had proclaimed. It was a command from the Caesar himself to serve as a lesson to all who would consider following in such ill-fated footsteps. I resolved that for the length of this final, ignoble sentence, I would bear witness to it all and see them properly laid to rest.
I cannot say for certain what happened next.
A sharp pain.
The feel of the winter air rushing by my face, and the coldness of the snow against my cheek.
Their bodies were gone.
Boldly stolen by their fellow cultists, or so Cassius guessed. Soon after, we heard that the Caesar had been killed, and we were ordered to leave the compound and move south, to Brundisium. We were to rejoin Brutus and the legion there, and depart for Egypt.
It was later, long after we had arrived in the land of the Pharaohs, that we heard the rumor that Gabrielle and the warrior princess had been raised from the dead.
None of my brother soldiers believe it to be true. Drusus, Marcellus and I, we all had watched the two of them die. It was a fairy-tale concocted by the followers of Eli, they said, designed to lend credence to his peculiar teachings.
But as for myself I had to wonder.
Marcellus wordlessly extinguishes our smoldering watch fire, and my old friend sadly smiles at me. The time is near. A feeble excuse for a dawn begins to show itself in the eastern sky, verily cloaked by the heavy rain clouds that sit low and fat on the horizon. Drusus tightens the bloodied dressing on his leg. He will not let the bite of a Germans knife keep him from the battle this day. And I I no longer have the use of my sword arm, and I too, have a German to thank for that, but I plan to carry on. A true infantryman of the XXV legion would do no less.
The Savages will be upon us soon, and they are sure to show us no mercy. And why should they, knowing how precious little of that we have shown to them. They will overwhelm us this day, and by the morrow I shall be no more.
It is strange, really, when I consider what has brought my brothers of the sword and I to this place. A sense of loyalty, perhaps, to a Rome that bears us no such obligation in return. I have been a good soldier, followed wherever my commanders led, without question or thought. And now, Rome has abandoned us in this place, used our resources for its own corrupt amusement, and crushed our spirit. In this cold, desolate land, it would seem that even the gods themselves have deserted us now.
In this soldiers life I have chosen - and I do not regret that this was my choice - I have seen many things. Some of what I have witnessed has been so horrific that I am convinced that there is no such thing as eternal damnation, save for the wretchedness we unleash by our own hand, on this earth.
I am not without blame in these events. And I vow to you now that the consequence of my actions have filled me with such revulsion, such remorse, that I have begged the gods in my haunted dreams to blind my memory to it all.
And yet, in this life of death and misery that has become the sum of my existence, I have found some measure of nobility, of honor, and even of beauty, too, of such a depth that it astounds me.
I cannot forget them, the warrior princess and her companion, Gabrielle. The peace they found in their belief, in their certainty. I envy them that. Over the long months since, I have felt so deeply the anguish of what I have done! And a part of me yearns for a faith like theirs, so pure and unfettered, so that I would have no doubt that what I was doing was right that my life had a purpose of some worth.
The ground begins to tremble beneath my feet, and in the blackened forest before me I can hear them; the blood curdling cries of the savages. We sound the alarm and take up our positions, for the little good it will do us. The ghostly early morning mist hugs the base of the trees, shielding our enemy from us until the last possible moment.
I hear the warning horns echo up and down our lines. Marcellus and Drusus are with me now, eyes bulging wide with the knowledge of what is to come. And they will come, as they have before. From the front, from behind, from our flanks. Gods, even from above.
I want to believe, I do.
The sound of them is something to behold. The harsh notes of their battle cries. I have been told by one who knows better than I, that when the Germans sound the cry, they place their shields into their mouths so that it reverberates into a fuller, deeper sound.
On this sunless morn, I am convinced beyond all doubt that the whole of Germania has been unleashed upon us, shrieking for our blood.
I hear the screams of my brothers as they fall. Marcellus first, dear poet, and then the mighty Drusus. There are simply too many of this savage horde, and our formation begins to break down, as we knew it finally would. There can be no retreat from our fatal destiny, we are surrounded, doomed from that day so long ago now, when we first decided it was safe to underestimate the primitive tribes of Germania.
And now that the time is near for me give up my spirit, I take some small comfort in that hope that somewhere, somehow, the warrior princess and Gabrielle do live. I want to believe it. Oh, how I want to believe.
Goodbye, my dearest Julia, my precious Lucius. We will be together again one day, I promise you.
I stumble, and fall to my knees. I am confused, unable to move. But then I lift my eyes and see it, and I want to weep for the joy, the hope that it brings to my weary heart.
It is the sun.
Surely, it must be. Such a miraculous thing to behold, after all these weeks years, of darkness.
Closer closer it comes to me. Warming me. Lifting me up.
I am filled with such awe, such wonder, such peace.
I want to believe. I want to
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