"Ares' Daughter Trilogy"
Disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictional. No infringment was intended.
Summary: Xena discovers she is pregnant; by whom?
A grey sky flashed with lightning; a dark night lit up momentarily, plunged into storm, rocked by booms of thunder. A harsh wind swept through the great trees of the wood, extinguishing the flickering campfire and heralding the coming rain.
Gabrielle woke at the weird shriekings of the wind, and looked with quiet awe at the raging world around her. With the warmth of her sleeping blanket around her, she was as happy within the wilds of a storm as in a palace. And she knew Xena was happier.
Xena . . . with a start, Gabrielle realised the warrior was still sleeping. Gabrielle could barely remember a time when Xena had slept longer than she. But then, Gabrielle had never known a time when Xena was carrying a child.
Gabrielle sat up and began to poke at the doused fire. A baby whose father was unknown; it brought tragic memories to her, and yet Xena felt this baby was good. Once Gabrielle believed every child was a blessing.
Rocking back onto her heels, Gabrielle bit her lip. Her slight gift of prophecy - which gave her only the feelings, not the happenings of the future - told her that Xena was right.
And then she grinned. No father? Well, Xena always said Gabrielle was her family. This babe would be for both of them. This child would be theirs.
A moaning started Gabrielle from her musings. She looked up at the sky, wondering; and then turned to Xena as the sighs turned to mutters.
“No . . . no . . . no!”
It was Xena - dreaming? Gabrielle moved quickly to her friend’s side, and laid a quiet hand on Xena’s arm, giving her a brisk shake. Xena’s eyes snapped open just as her hand clamped around Gabrielle’s wrist.
Xena’s left eyebrow rose in her characteristic expression of mild surprise, and then she relaxed.
The rain began to fall, and Xena and Gabrielle got up, moving their camp under the shelter of trees.
“I woke you from a nightmare, Xena,” Gabrielle said finally, as they huddled together by Argo for warmth.
“You can say that again,” Xena muttered. She busied herself with the lacings on her leather bodice, averting her gaze.
“I had nightmares too, when I was pregnant . . . “
Xena turned to her friend at that.
“Oh, Gabrielle, I know how hard this situation must be for you . . .”
“No, no, I can feel that this is different,” Gabrielle reassured her. With some surprise, she saw Xena turn to her with hope in her eyes.
“You can? You can feel that it’s different, can’t you?”
A particularly loud clap of thunder caused the pair to jump. Lightning illuminated the scrub ahead of them, and Xena stood and stared out.
“Come out!” she demanded, her voice surly. “I can smell you!”
With his distinctive laugh, Ares appeared just as another jagged flash of light divided the sky.
“Ever wondered why?” he drawled, strolling over to the pair.
“My flesh always crawls in the presence of rats,” Xena replied, her lip curling.
“Listen!” Ares’ voice changed subtly, and the storm paused as though to hear his pronouncement.
“Your dreams of me are true, Xena - your dreams are true!”
Xena moved a hand towards her sword, and then paused. She smiled wryly.
“Ah, that’s what I wanted to hear, Ares.”
Ares took a step back. His expression suddenly altered - and Gabrielle could read only a vulnerable hope upon his face. He searched Xena’s eyes eagerly.
“Oh, yes, Ares,” Xena went on. “You see, I know something of you. Nothing you’ve ever said about me has ever been true - or ever will be. So hear this. My dreams - sent by you - can never, ever be true.”
And she turned at that, and disappeared into the woods.
Ares remained where he was, his expression indecipherable, his movements still.
“Nothing?” he repeated quietly.
Then he moved as though to follow Xena, but paused. His eyes lit upon Gabrielle.
“Ah, I forgot you, little follower.”
Gabrielle felt a surge of indignation at that - after all, had he not earlier praised her fighting skill, and had near offered her the place by his side that he’d always reserved for Xena? Though it had been nothing but subterfuge.
“Little girl, know this - every child has a father. Forget your dreams of motherhood. Every child is born of a father.”
And in a blink he was gone. Gabrielle paused, and then headed into the woods after Xena.
“Every night now, for weeks,” Gabrielle told Xena firmly. “Every night! That can’t be good for you -”
“In my condition?” Xena retorted. She turned away from her friend and sat impatiently on the inn bed, banging at the musty pillows.
“That’s right,” Gabrielle went on, undeterred. “What do you fear will happen in the telling of your nightmares? Do you think speaking them will make them happen? Is that what you are afraid of?”
“No - just of what you might say!” Xena turned and faced her friend. “What you might say!”
Gabrielle bit her lip, hurt.
“After everything - after living and dying with you - you still believe I would judge you? On a dream?”
Xena shook her head swiftly, and stared at Gabrielle.
“Not judge. Condemn me, with the truth.”
“Eli used to say that truth brings freedom,” Gabrielle said quietly, and laid an arm on her friend’s. “Tell me.”
The wind roared outside the tavern, but the pair stood by the open window, watching the moonrise, and feeling the strange restlessness that enclosed walls gave them.
“I dream of him every night,” Xena admitted. “I dream of Ares. And every night the same thing.”
Gabrielle’s brow wrinkled with puzzlement. “I see how that could be a nightmare, but -”
“Every night he tells me that the child is his! This child is his!” Xena cried.
Gabrielle stepped back. The slight swelling of her friend’s belly was evident now, a bulge under her winter clothes. A child. A child of Ares.
“No,” Gabrielle said finally. “No - you knew, straight away, that it wasn’t - I asked, remember -”
Xena grabbed her friend’s arm.
“And you? Did you know -”
Gabrielle looked up at Xena. “I know this child is good. How can good come from War? And how could he have given you this child without your knowledge?”
“Well, someone did,” Xena answered wryly, and sighed. “Ah, let’s sleep now. I’m a fool if I ever believe Ares - even his truth is mixed with lies - he can’t help himself. War is a deceiver.”
Xena managed to fall asleep quickly on the lumpy Inn bed, but Gabrielle stayed awake a little longer, delving into her own thoughts and feelings, seeking the truth from her heart.
A child of Ares? Could the chunk of affection which dwelt within Ares for Xena really transform itself into something so powerful as to create a child?
Xena grumbled as Gabrielle shook her, and turned, yawning.
“I’m pregnant, all right? Will you let me get a bit of extra sleep?”
“No offence, Xena,” Gabrielle replied equably, “but I thought you might want to get rid of these guys in a vertical position.”
She indicated the bunch of grubby strangers approaching the camp with a murderous look in their eyes.
“Why do they have to attack now, of all times?” Xena grumbled, getting up awkwardly and stretching. “They had plenty of time last night - all yesterday, in fact. Actually, I was in far better condition last week. Why on earth do they have to creep up before the sun rises?” She reached out for her chakram and, measuring the distance between herself, the strangers, and the oak between them, launched the circlet of light and darkness at a convenient overhanging branch.
Buried under the log, with its accompanying leaves, the bandits remained as silent as they had creeping up. Xena yawned again, and apologised.
“Would you mind tying them up, Gabrielle?” she sighed, sinking back into her thick sleeping blankets. “I just need a bit more rest.”
“Well no wonder, considering last night,” Gabrielle replied, moving over to the branch.
“Mmm,” Xena answered, snuggling back into the warmth. Then she sat up.
“Last night?” she repeated suspiciously.
Gabrielle was already out of earshot. She quickly and securely tied the three to the branch and to each other, after ensuring that they would suffer nothing more than a headache.
“We’ll warn the nearest town - what is it, Ao? - once we’re u,.” she said walking back to Xena. “Hey, I thought you were going to sleep in.”
“What did you mean, `after last night’, Gabrielle?” Xena asked her, biting her lip.
Gabrielle looked a bit embarrassed.
“Well, you had some pretty - vivid - dreams, I meant. Obviously, I couldn’t tell who it was - that is -”
Now Xena was looking embarrassed.
“They were obviously as loud as they were vivid,” she said sheepishly. Then she coughed. “Oh, well, they were hardly my fault.”
“Don’t tell me he’s started sending you dreams again!” Gabrielle exclaimed.
“I thought you said you couldn’t tell who -“ Xena stopped. Gabrielle looked pleased with herself.
“I thought so. After all, the word `god’ did come up a bit - I thought it might have been a superlative, but not necessarily -”
“Come off it, Gabrielle,” Xena growled. “I can’t help it if Ares is tormenting me.”
“Oh, so that’s what you call it?” Gabrielle teased. “It didn’t sound like torture from where I was sitting.”
By this time they had packed up, and had begun to head towards Ao in order to report the bandits.
“Just leave it, Gabrielle. It’s just what he wants to hea,.” Xena assured her. “Next time I start saying his name in my sleep, wake me up.”
Then she stopped, a horrified look on her face.
“They were just dreams, weren’t they?”
“Come on, Xena! Don’t you know a fantasy from the real thing?”
“I was just worried - you know that Zeus came to Danae in a shower of gold - perhaps Ares came to me in a dream . . . . .”
“And gave you the child?” Gabrielle finished. “Did you dream about him six months ago?”
Xena reminded Gabrielle that they’d been dead six months ago.
“I’ve never dreamt of him - not like that, anyway,” she finished ruefully. “And I’m certain this isn’t his child. But this isn’t the time to have disturbed nights!” And she yawned again.
“Just think of him as some kind of insect - like a spider,” Gabrielle suggested helpfully. “The sense of disgust should wake you.”
“But I like spiders,” Xena replied plaintively.
The two women looked at each other and laughed, then arm in arm walked towards Ao.
The winter of Xena’s pregnancy was harsher than any they’d experienced before, and in consequence they spent most of it indoors. Xena fretted at the forced imprisonment, but accepted it as part of the change that would happen to her - being a mother -
Sometimes it terrified her. Not giving birth - she’d had that with Solon, and the pain of dying could not be worse - but of being a mother itself. All the ordinary tasks which she’d never shared with her son, sharing the first words and first step, showing another human how to live.
That was when she felt so glad she had Gabrielle by her side - if anyone could teach a child, could know how to care for a child, it was her friend. Xena even felt awkward with babies - she’d had Solon for such a short time . . .
Breaking the news to her mother had been easier that she’d thought, though with amusing consequences. It still made her grin to think that her mother had tried to find a man suitable for her - suitable for the warrior princess! It humbled Xena, to see her mother slowly forgetting her role as destroyer of nations, and relearning what it meant to have a daughter.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, peacefully snoozing in front of Aphrodite’s statue. The goddess of love was always pretty good about them sheltering in her temples. She seemed to find Gabrielle good value - and Xena didn’t blame her. Who else could distract you from your dark shadows with a funny story? Who else took on your problems as if they were her own? Who else really believed in sacrificing convenience for integrity?
A sudden prickling of electricity alerted Xena moments before he appeared, and she laid a hand on her chakram.
“You don’t need weapons with me,” Ares assured her.
“I need nothing else,” Xena hissed. “Let me be.”
“I love to see you like this - blossoming with our child -“ The blade of a sword was at his throat.
“Believe your own lies, if you will. But my child will know the truth - and will never honour you as her father.”
Ares’ eyes narrowed. He took a step back, ignoring the blade slicing through his neck.
“You’re so sure the child’s a girl?”
Xena was pretty sure Ares could find out either way, but he’d never contradicted her before. And - yes, she was sure.
“My baby is none of your business. I do not want to discuss her with you.”
Ares inclined his head, but then was by Xena’s side in an instant. His arm draped around her, his lips whispering in her ear -
“She’ll know her father, Xena. I swear it.”
Xena turned as Gabrielle’s glad cry rang out. In an instant she was in his strong arms, resting her head on his shoulder. He was the epitome of goodness, to her - he had saved her from her darkness, and she could never repay him for that.
“It must be nearly time for you,” Hercules commented, chewing on bread by their morning fire.
“Yes - I think she’s more than ready to see the world,” Xena agreed, recalling the twinges she’d had that morning. “We’re only a hour from Loatia - there’s someone I trust there to help me, when the time comes.”
Now Hercules was teasing Gabrielle over her short hairstyle, and updating her about Iolaus. But Xena was pretty sure Hercules hadn’t tracked the pair down in order to exchange pleasantries. After the babe had been born, perhaps. Xena knew what kind of father Hercules had been. But there was some ulterior motive, and she had an awful feeling she knew what it was.
“Gabrielle,” Xena stood up. “Load up Argo, will you? We’d better head towards Loatia - no, don’t panic - I haven’t started anything yet.” She laid a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder, and raised an eyebrow, indicating Hercules. Gabrielle was pretty quick to catch on. Xena smiled, remembering Gabrielle’s dream of that morning - that she could share her labour. Well, she would, once the child was born.
Xena nodded to Hercules and they headed towards the cover of trees.
“My brother has been speaking to me,” Hercules began uneasily.
“Do you believe him?” Xena asked him directly.
Hercules paused. Xena smiled. Unlike Ares, Hercules could not help but be honest.
“I don’t know. There is -
there always has been - a bond between you. If that has led to this babe . . .” “The truth is, Hercules, I don’t know how I became pregnant. I do know that I woke up - from the sleep of death - with this babe inside me. So if anyone gave my daughter to me, it would be a greater God than Ares.” Xena paused. “But I don’t know. All I can say is - this child is good.” She looked up at him. “You are the child of Zeus, and yet you refused power and deceit. If, somehow, my daughter is Ares - but no, I won’t believe it -”
She was breathing heavily now, and Hercules looked at her sharply.
“It’s starting, isn’t it?”
Xena relaxed, then nodded. “Yes. Let’s get back to Gabrielle.”
“A hour’s journey -“ Hercules muttered under his breath. Then he looked at her. “Do you know her name?”
Xena thought about that as she made the journey to the village of Loatia, where the old woman who had brought her forth would bring forth her own baby.
Many evenings had occupied Gabrielle and herself - choosing names upon names, names to honour those she had loved and were now lost, names that meant great things, names that sounded pretty. None of them sounded right - not to either of them. Oddly enough, it had been because of Ares that the right name had been found.
The dreams that had been plaguing her stopped about the sixth month - but during the eighth month Ares had appeared to her, warning her Solon was in danger - that somehow, he’d been taken from Elysium, and placed in Tartarus.
Somehow. Even now, Xena couldn’t be sure whether Ares had done it himself, or whether another old enemy from down that way had taken her son from his rightful place. She’d known she would have to go down there and rescue him - just as she knew that if she went into early labour, the child would be stillborn, coming into the world of the dead.
Would Ares have tried such a thing - to take the child even before it was born?
Xena still couldn’t say. Solon had whispered the name he had chosen for his sister into Xena’s ears - and moments after she had returned him to the Elysian Fields, Ares had appeared and had tried to say -
To say that he loved her? But what did a god know of love?
“Very funny, Gabrielle.”
They were trudging through knee deep snow, trying to make it to the city of Messina before night fell. Xena knew she should be grateful for Gabrielle’s distraction, but the thought of any child of hers bearing such names nauseated her.
It was either that, or the babe registering its protest. . .
“I wasn’t joking!” Gabrielle protested, moving aside a branch. “It’s a lovely little flower. Well, what about Rose - or Hydrangea?”
Xena led Argo over a fallen tree, and just gave Gabrielle a look.
“All right, all right. No daughter of yours will be a decorative flower. If she’s anything like you, she’ll have the beauty of a - a storm, or a fire or something wild like that.”
“And you’re supposed to be a poet!” Xena jeered, secretly pleased. “Can’t you do better than that?”
“Often people name their children after relatives,” Gabrielle went on thoughtfully. “To honour them. You could call her after your mother . . .”
Xena snorted derisively.
“Or Hercula, or something,” Even Gabrielle laughed at that. Then she said more soberly; “Well - what about Ephiny? She named her son after you.”
Xena nodded, and thought about what Gabrielle suggested. She would always admire and love Ephiny, and naming her child after the Amazon Queen would be the ultimate token of honour and respect. But . . . .
“My child will be herself. I don’t want her to bear the name of someone before her. She’ll be someone - someone so special and unique, that that wouldn’t be right,” she tried to explain.
Then she said something surprising. “Or else I would name her after you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle stopped at that, her mouth open with astonishment.
Xena drew the bard to her in a quick embrace. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me - and you’ll be our daughter’s best role model. But I want her to know she needs to find her own path.”
Gabrielle nodded, pink with surprised pride. It didn’t give her pause for long, though.
“A unique name, huh? Like your own, I guess. I’ve met Zena’s, and Xenia’s, but not anyone called Xena. Never met a Phena, either. Or a Jena. Though I’ve met a Lena, and a Nina - and long ago, a dinar -”
“Sorry, sorry.” Gabrielle was giggling over her own joke. “Well, we have to think about it, you know. You haven’t got that long.”
“Maybe when I see her, the right name will come to me,” Xena said doubtfully. “Though, to be honest, you are the one who is good with words. What’s a name with a nice meaning?”
That occupied Gabrielle for the rest of the journey, and distracted her too. She discoursed on words, their origin, spelling variations, and differences in meanings for a good hour - as long as it took them to get to Messina, stable Argo, and find a decent Inn for the night.
“Get a good rest,” Gabrielle said kindly. “Things are always better if you sleep on them.”
That didn’t include a pregnant belly, however, and Xena tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position. Gabrielle had slipped into a deep slumber quickly. Finally Xena fell into sleep, dreaming of lobelias in the snow. In her dream, her daughter had the perfect name - the name of someone with a new beginning.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as the village of Loatia appeared around the curve of the road.
“Run ahead, and ask for the old woman, Hannah,” Xena instructed her. She then turned to Hercules.
“You came for a reason, Hercules. While I’m labouring, you must keep Ares distracted. If he comes while I’m still weak, and takes the child -”
Hercules gave her his assurances. “I’ll keep him busy,” he replied grimly. “Never fear - do your work, and I’ll do mine.”
A crone hobbled towards them, upturning her wrinkled face.
“Ah! I birthed your mother before you, Xena, and I’ll help you - come, come, I knew today would be your day -”
Gabrielle watched as Xena stripped in readiness for the labour. She found herself trembling. Oh, she’d seen babies being born before - who hadn’t? - and she’d given birth herself - but to see Xena crying out in pain . . . the thought terrified her.
Soon enough, she had no thought for any such thing. It was well-named labour, she realised, because it was hard, long work. Sweat streamed down both their faces, as Xena clung onto her friend during the contractions, and collapsed, exhausted, onto the straw matting when the waves of pain abated. It felt almost as though she was sharing the labour with Xena . . .
And the sound of the clash of swords between Xena’s deep groans was imagination.
Hercules was growing exhausted, fending off Ares as he tried to enter the hut.
“I need to be with her - I need to see my child!” Ares roared. Hercules refused to answer, but blocked and parried every attempt at entry.
“Let me by, brother, or you will live to regret -“ His curse was broken by the sound of a wail. The brothers turned and stared at the hut, and the cries not only of a baby, but of three women, girl, mother, crone, crooning over the perfection of a daughter.
It was the secret times - the quiet, secret times, when Xena felt love the most.
The soft burbles of her daughter at moonrise, as she fed, filled her with deepest and loveliest contentment. She would look over at Gabrielle’s peaceful rest, and the babe’s trailing hand on her breast, and would believe that everything must be perfect. There could be no greater happiness - there could be no greater joy.
Travelling at slow pace from her hometown, Amphipolis after sharing her daughter with her mother - alternately singing lullabies to her daughter, and mocking Gabrielle’s enthusiastic cooing - feeling absurd pride at Joxer’s awe of the child. He’d even had the sense to leave the three of them to travel peacefully and slowly together, though he’d pretended it was because a warrior such as himself would just bring them danger.
Though he had brought danger, of a sort; a message from Cleopatra. A shiver went over Xena as she recalled that time. She had had to leave her daughter in Amphipolis, whilst Gabrielle and herself had gone to avenge a friend, save a nation - and break a heart. Xena bit her lip. That time - that man - had reminded her of her weakness; men with a dark side. Men who knew darkness.
Men like Ares.
He had come, in that first night after the baby was born, when everyone was asleep but herself and her daughter. He had looked, at first, only at Xena - had looked at her with such an odd expression of pride and tenderness that her breath had caught. Then he had looked at the baby.
“You knew she’d be a girl.”
And then; “What are you naming her?”
“Solon named her,” Xena had answered brusquely. “Her name is Eve.”
He had said nothing else, just looked - and then disappeared. Xena still felt uneasy, but there had been no dreams; there had been no more visits. Perhaps he had seen the child and realised the truth. Eve was not his daughter.
Eve murmured, and Xena tickled her joyfully. At nine months, she was a delight, clinging to her mother or Gabrielle when faced with a stranger, crying out with strange happy sounds when jogged upon Argo.
Gabrielle awoke at the sound, and grinned at the pair. This was why she had felt those bodings only of good. The good had been the change that was happening in Xena. She was forgetting her past, because children are about the future. Her ties to darkness were fading with every new step Eve took.
The night shattered, suddenly, with light and thunder and a roaring of the wind. Eve howled with fright, and Gabrielle jumped up, running over to the pair.
“It’s a clear night, Xena!” she cried out against the clamor. “This storm is unnatural. . .”
“There’s a cave, there, past the clearing,” Xena indicated with a shout. “Let’s get to shelter, and then I’ll deal with Ares!”
Gabrielle grabbed Argo’s halter and walked against the howl and pull of the wind towards the rocky cliff. She heard Eve crying and Xena calling out, but when she turned she saw nothing - there was nothing - and then there was silence.
The storm had disappeared as quickly as it had arisen.
Behind Gabrielle was the remains of a campfire, and, as she ran towards it, Xena lying insensible beside it.
With no sign of Eve.
Gabrielle shook Xena, shouting at her, hysterical in the utter stillness.
“The storm brought her and the storm took her! The storm brought her and the storm took her!”
She cradled Xena in her arms, sobbing, knowing that Ares had taken their daughter, not knowing if they would ever see her again.
“Where is she, Hades!”
Xena brought her sword again to halt Hades’ slow walk through the battlefield.
“When will you learn, Xena, that I’m not here to help you!” the god said, exasperated, indicating Gabrielle beside her. “You found her without me, I see.”
“Do you have my daughter?” Xena persisted. “Where has he hid her?”
Hades paused. “Your daughter - if she was dead - would be playing with your son, now, in Elysium.” He held up a hand at Xena’s distraught face. “She is not. As to where in the Universe Ares has secreted her, I cannot say. You have obviously seen him more recently than I.”
Xena hit him for that. Gabrielle grabbed her arm, and dragged her away from the King of Death.
“Forget Hades!” she urged. “Call on someone closer - closer to us, closer to him!”
“Hercules?” Xena questioned, wiping away a stray tear. “Why -”
“No - Aphrodite,” Gabrielle answered quickly. “Her temple is not far off. She can help us - and she will, I’m sure of it!”
Xena leapt up on Argo, pulling Gabrielle behind her. She dug her heels into her horse’s side, and jumping over the sprawled bodies of Hades’ dead, they galloped towards Aphrodite’s temple.
Gabrielle clung on, her heart thudding. It was her last idea; her last hope. If they had to lose another child. . . .
Xena strode into the temple, bringing statues tumbling to the ground, scattering offerings across the floor.
“Aphrodite! Where are you? Aphrodite!” she bellowed, while Gabrielle lingered in the doorway.
“You’ve all the subtlety of a battlehorse, Xena.” Aphrodite grumbled, appearing in a pretty cloud of pink light and perfume.
Gabrielle cast a warning look at her friend, and stepped forward to the goddess of love.
“You’ve helped us in many ways before, Aphrodite - you’ve become a friend to us,” she stated quietly. “We have to ask you for something more.”
“Oh, I know,” Aphrodite rushed in, beaming. “I mean - I don’t know, but I’m guessing - well, you need a godsmother, don’t you, for Eve? Thanks, guys. I’d be honoured. Now, where is the little . . .”
She looked around.
She turned to Xena. “If Hades has her, I can’t. . .”
Xena gave a swift shake of her head, and Aphrodite stepped back.
“You mean - Ares? Ares really is her father - I thought he was just boasting -”
“He’s not her father! Never!” Xena shouted. “He’s using Eve as some kind of hostage; to have some little warrior to train up for himself - “
Gabrielle stepped forward and grabbed Aphrodite’s arm. “Where would he have taken her?”
But Aphrodite had frozen at Xena’s words.
“What did you say?”
“Ares has taken her - he’s not her father -“ Gabrielle recapped impatiently. “Now -”
But Aphrodite shook off her hand. “He’s training her -”
Xena swung her head around and stared at the goddess. “Oh - oh, no.”
“What!” Gabrielle cried, exasperated. “Where is she?”
“I wondered why he would have taken her so young - but a day there is like a year - I’ll lose her, even before I get her back..” Xena cried, running for the door. “Let’s go, Gabrielle!”
As Xena trudged through the secret pass to Ares’ training ground in the Ulyrian Mountains, she mentally counted the days.
Thirteen days. No, fourteen.
Fourteen days since her daughter had been stolen. In the Ulyrian mountains that was fourteen years. Ares had already stolen fourteen years of her child’s life, in order to train her as a warrior. Her baby was gone, just as though Ares had slain her.
Instead a teenager awaited her - if she hurried - a teenager who would remember no mother, only a father devoted to violence and death. A teenager dedicated, perhaps, to all that Xena believed in long before love and goodness had changed her.
Xena hissed as a stray rock fell from the cliff top and cut into her forehead. She wiped off a trickle of blood, and moved up determinedly.
“Are you all right?”
Oh, Xena had begged Gabrielle to stay behind, but after all, Eve was her daughter too. She didn’t really believe Gabrielle would obey her. She turned to offer her friend a helping hand.
“Almost there. Whatever you do, leave the valley before sunset - or else you might lose your years too. And with that, your sense of time. You won’t realise that time has sped up - or slowed down - or whatever it is.”
“You’ve been there?” Gabrielle questioned. ”Yet you haven’t lost a year -”
“I knew the score,” Xena replied briefly. “Oh, Ares can train you up pretty fast in a day there - if you’re prepared to sacrifice time and integrity to learn how to kill -”
It rained, the night Xena left Amphipolis.
She shrugged off the water dripping down her face, soaking her dark hair. The rain felt appropriate - at least the earth could weep for Lyceus, even if she couldn’t.
A particularly loud clash of thunder made her jump, and she adjusted her pack on her shoulders. For about the hundredth time, she reproached herself.
If she’d trained harder, longer, Lyceus need not have died - if she’d known how to fight, if she’d known . . .
And for the hundredth time she reminded herself it was too late. Lyceus was dead - she couldn’t save him. But she could make sure no one dared to attack Amphipolis again. Plans filled her head, ideas of an army who’d make sure nothing like that happened again. And plans for gaining the funds for such an army -
`But I need to learn how to fight . . .’
`Oh, you weren’t so bad.’
Xena swirled around, her sword at the ready. No figure was distinguishable in the darkness - but she could feel a Presence. She turned again, swinging her sword.
She’d just sliced right through a man. He stood face to face with her, a sardonic smile on his lips.
“How did you do that?” he asked with real curiosity. “Sense where I was, I mean . . .”
“You’re not dead,” Xena breathed, holding her sword in front of her.
“No - no, I’m not,” the man agreed, looking down at his body, whole. Xena followed his eyes, and for the first time felt an attraction for a man - not a boy.
“You’re a god,” Xena went on quietly. “Where were you yesterday?”
And then she swung her sword so suddenly and viciously into the man ahead of her, that he would have been dismembered at her feet - if such a thing had been possible. The man stepped back, surprised.
“How did you do that?” he repeated. “I didn’t even see it coming.” He looked over at her, with growing interest apparent on his face. “And you wanted to learn how to fight!”
“Ah, you’re no good to me now,” Xena muttered, sheathing her sword, and turning away.
But he was there ahead of her.
“I’m the god of war. You don’t turn your back on me.”
Xena replied with a lift of her eyebrow. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“Where was I, the god of war, when a girl of sixteen managed to fight off a troop of warlords?” he chuckled. “You didn’t need me.”
“You let him die!” Xena shouted hoarsely. “You were there, watching like it was a kind of play-acting, an entertainment!”
“You were the one with the sword, Xena.” His deep voice made Xena shiver, but she stilled herself. “You knew people would die.”
Xena recoiled. Had she? Or had she, too, thought of it like some kind of play-acting?
Suddenly the god’s sword was at her throat.
“And you still want to fight.”
Xena felt the opposing emotions of shame and excitement fill her. Yes, she was racked with guilt for what her violent actions had caused - her brother’s death. But the battle had excited her - somewhat like the presence of this dark stranger.
He was behind her now, a whisper in her ear.
“I can teach you . . . .”
But when Xena turned, he was gone.
Skulls littered the floor of the god of war’s temple. It was a dark, forbidding place, with a floor encrusted with filth, and the sickly metallic scent of blood permeating everything. Strangely shaped altars were piled with rusted weapons, or more sinister offerings. Frescos along the walls spoke of death, spoke of a dark stranger who lurked among battles, who laughed at the sight of them.
It had taken Xena about a week to reach the place of his worship. She’d never been there, never even known about it. He wasn’t a god that those of Amphipolis chose to honour. She didn’t even know his name.
“I’m here!” she shouted in desperation, laying down her own sword, still bloody, on his altar. “Teach me to fight!”
But there was no sense of his presence within the dank building, and Xena wondered, briefly if the god of war disliked the dull quiet of the place as much as she. War was about noise, movement, action - not darkness and discontent.
Sighing, Xena shrugged off her pack onto the blood-encrusted floor and moved over to the frescos, the only thing in the temple hinting of life. They moved from battle to battle, from time to time, with historical and fictional wars blended, with tragedies and victories merged. There the god of war spurred on troops to battle, or took the first kill of all. There he destroyed a city, or drew together an army.
And there - Xena stopped. There he trained a hero.
It was Achilles, she thought. The greatest and most doomed of all warriors - who was led and cursed by the god of war. It was a strange story, for in one moment he was a babe, being washed in the Styx by his mother - and in the next, he was a man, fighting for Troy.
Xena traced the pictures and frowned. It had never made sense, before. But here the same man she had seen took a babe from his mother’s arms, just days before the Spartans landed on Illium’s shores - and gave to them a grown warrior man.
And the picture in between showed the sun rising and moving overhead, while the god of war drilled a boy who so quickly became a man. Xena spelt out the inscription awkwardly. “The Ulyrian Mountains.” So that was where she had asked to go.
Xena shivered at what she had asked of the stranger. He would train her - but in return he would take away her years.
Suddenly she turned, her hand on the dagger by her side.
“You see me before I am there,” the man commented, with an approving nod. “Oh, I thought you’d want me before long.”
Xena’s heart pounded. There was no way she could back out, now, and in a way, she didn’t want to. But to attempt to outwit a god . . .
“Train me, teach me. I need to know how to fight. I need to make sure nothing like that ever happens again, not to my hometown, not ever.”
The god broke into a laugh, long and loud. “You want to fight so as to end all fights! I’ve never heard that before. Come, now, Xena, admit it - you love that sound of sword on sword!”
And within her grasp appeared a sword larger and more beautiful than any that she had seen. She swung it tentatively, astonished at how it became part of her own movements.
“Come with me.” The god of war stepped closer. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know . . .”
“Wait.” Xena held up a hand. “You have to promise me something first.”
A look of absolute astonishment crossed the god’s face. “You are giving me conditions?”
Xena inclined her head, and waited. He’d trained Achilles, used him, and disposed of him shortly after. It wasn’t going to happen to her.
“Well, what are they?” the god asked impatiently.
“You are not to touch me,” Xena said clearly. “Not to harm me, not to lay a finger upon me. And the moment you do so, I’m returned here - that moment.”
The god of war broke into laughter once again. “So my reputation precedes me, child! You don’t have to fear . . .”
“Promise me,” Xena repeated steadfastly. “By the dagger of Helios.”
The dark-haired god shifted impatiently, knowing that once he swore on the dagger, as all the legends said, he had to keep his promise, or risk being impaled by the one thing that could kill a god.
“I said, you need not fear . . .”
“All right!” The god burst out. “While I’m training you, I promise not to touch you, not to harm you, and if I do I must return you here immediately, no questions asked . . . but that is void once I do return you,” he finished, moving closer. “One day you’ll ask for me -”
“You swear by the dagger of Helios.”
“By the dagger of Helios,” the god muttered sulkily, then looked at her. “Then let’s go!”
Xena drew her hand across her brow, wiping the beads of sweat gathered there. She took a look at the movement of the sun through the sky overhead, then focused again on the god of war’s instructions.
Oh, he was a fine teacher. A mesmerising teacher. Xena couldn’t help but watch his body, moving with the lunge of his sword, with its weavings and sudden thrusts. He showed total concentration, and that was inspiring to see. He showed her moves and leaps, and made her practise again and again until she’d mastered them.
Her body was aching so much that she’d almost forgot another kind of life, another existence. Almost. She knew that before the sun set on a day in the god of war’s strange land, she had to get him to touch her, and return her - or she’d grow old in his presence. And then he’d discard her.
And watching him, she was nearly ready for him to touch her. But she shook her head, emptying her mind of such thoughts, and readied herself to fight back with everything she had within her. It was a prouder way to win.
She ran at the god of war, leaping over his head, confusing him. Then she turned and kicked out his legs from under him.
and lunged “What?” The god of war picked himself up incredulously, but Xena moved again, too quickly for him, her sword through him from behind, so that the blade protruded through his chest. He moved but she leapt around, again, and then again, so that he was forced into chasing her, seeking her. She hit at him again again, moving and swiftly, confusing him, all the time watching the changes in the sky.
“Give me your name!” She shouted suddenly, realising that it was that she wanted more than anything. Something to identify him. Something to remember him with. He was given a thousand titles within the stories, but she wanted his name. She leapt and thrust, and even pushed him, again and again, so that he was spinning around, wanted to grab her, stop her, his patience wearing, his fury growing.
“Your name!” Xena shouted again, and this time she laughed, her sword swinging effortlessly within her grasp. She stepped back, watching him -
And then he was behind her, grasping her sword arm, his dagger at her throat.
“What are you doing?” He growled.
There was a silence. Xena tensed, knowing he could kill her. The god of war sighed - then laughed.
“Oh, Xena. I’ll never forget the day I met you - the day of your first battle - I’ll never forget that battle . . . .”
Either will I. Xena thought to herself, as she was returned to the dull filth of the temple.
Now she faced him, a smile still playing about his lips.
“My name is Ares. Never forget it. I’ll be watching you, and I’ll come for you when I need you . . .”
He disappeared, and Xena sank to her knees, lowering her head. She was more exhausted than she’d ever thought possible, but after a moment she looked up.
Her pack was still there, right where she’d left it.
Running to the door, she saw that it was the same season as she’d left, with the leaves in the midst of their colour-changing. A statue she’d accidentally dislodged was still lying on its side.
Xena stood in the middle of Ares’ temple and laughed and laughed.
“Oh, I won’t forget you, Ares.” She whispered. “The first god I ever met - and managed to outwit -”
She lifted her pack to her shoulders.
“We’ll meet again.”
Ahead a light was glowing. Xena stopped, and searched Gabrielle’s face urgently.
“Please, I beg you, Gabrielle - wait here. Don’t risk his deception -”
Gabrielle shook her head, a fierce negation. “I can’t leave you to him.”
Xena sighed, then nodded. She drew Gabrielle to her in a quick embrace, and then leapt out towards the light.
A man and a girl were fighting.
The girl looked about fifteen summers, with dark hair pulled back from her face and eyes of brilliant blue glaring out at her adversary.
Her swordplay was beautiful to watch, her movements lithe and easy, and she threw back her head and laughed as she knocked the sword out of her opponent’s hand.
“You don’t try me hard enough, papa!” She complained, dropping her own sword. ”This time, don’t let me win -”
Xena leapt down ahead of Ares, holding her sword to his throat.
“Thief!” She screamed at him. “You even steal time!”
“Took you long enough, Xena.” Ares drawled. He stepped back, nodding at the young girl.
“Oh, Eve? This is your mother. I’ve had you for fourteen years - I suppose she feels it’s her turn, now.”
Then he grabbed Xena’s chin and pulled her to his face.
“I would have my daughter. I told you so, and you denied me at your own peril. She is ours - whether you believe it, or not -”
He placed a light kiss upon her lips, and disappeared.
Xena looked about, dazed. What was true, now? What was right? And who was the beautiful young girl standing before her, with a sword at her feet and a look of vulnerability in her eyes?
“Xena! The light is fading!”
“Bless you, Gabrielle.” Xena murmured, and turned to her daughter “I’ll lead you to safety, Eve. Follow me.”
Continue On - Part 2