Ares's eyes transversed her body from her golden hair to her slender ankles and started up again. A smile of approval crossed his lips. The bard looked damn good. Her body was hard and tanned, even if it was a little tense. A new dragon tattoo graced her back; he wondered how she had reacted to the pleasure, or the pain, of its inking.
"Glad to see you Gabrielle, but where is your friend?" When she didn't answer, he continued. "Going it alone now, I see. "
Her eyes had the hint of tears and she was biting her lip. It was obvious that she was trying to maintain her composure, and just a clear that she was not going to make it.
"Where are you going? Are you going to tell me where Xena is or not?"
"Dead," she mumbled in a voice so soft that he could barely hear the response. He hoped he had heard it wrong.
"What did you say? Where is Xena?"
She stopped and looked at him. Her blue-green eyes were buried in tears. "I said she was dead. I'm taking her ashes to bury with her brother and mother in Amphipolis."
"No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!" he roared and vanished. She couldn't be dead now, just when he thought there might be a chance for them to be together. He had to think about what he was going to say to Gabrielle next. He knew she would realize that he was following her invisibly, as she walked alone down the road; but he didn't want her to see his face as he sorted out his emotions. The God of War had his dignity to maintain.
The last few times he had been with Xena he had felt that things were beginning to thaw. What an ironic word to use to describe their relationship! They had had a long and checkered history, but it really was beginning to look as if he might have a chance. After all, Xena had gone to great lengths to restore his immortality and that of his sister. She said it was for the good of mankind, but he knew that there had to be a spark there. He had to have had a chance, no matter how small.
He had listened to his sister who had told him that if you loved someone, you should let her go, and if it were truly love, she would come back. That was so not like the Dite he had always known; Xena must have changed her, too. In the past Aphrodite would have just cast a love spell, probably with less than the desired result. He didn't want Xena's love to come from a spell; he wanted it from her heart. So he tried his sister's advice. Let Gabrielle and Xena go on one more trip, never doubting that they would return.
Now Gabrielle was back, saying Xena was dead. It just couldn't be. He had followed her to the family gravesite and watched as she removed a small pot and Xena's chakram from her pack.
"That's her? That's all that is left of Xena?" he asked as he materialized again.
Gabrielle tried to ignore him. The last person she wanted to talk to about Xena's death was Ares. She began digging the hard ground with the chakram.
"What happened? I have a right to know. Here, let me open that grave for you. You're not supposed to use a chakram like that."
"I can do it myself, Ares. I think Xena would have thought this was a good use for her chakram. I do not need your help, now or ever."
"Some thanks I get bringing you back from the dead, Gabrielle. Xena thought implanting the chakram in your head was a good use for it, too. I gave up my immortality for you after that, remember."
"I thanked you for that. I am grateful, but that is over. Now it is just me, no Xena, and I don't want to be obligated to you for anything."
"Please, tell me what happened, I deserve to know."
She reached in her pack and pulled out a scroll. "Here, it's all here. Read it. I don't want to go through it again. If there are any big words you don't understand, let me know."
She had made him feel small, but his desire to know the story overcame his hostility. He sat on the ground and read her scroll as she continued to dig. He noticed tear tracks in the dust on her face. Gabrielle was reliving what she had written as he read it. He walked over and put his large hand on her shoulder. "I am sorry. I am truly sorry. " There was something about the way he touched her, with a gentleness she could never have imagined, that told her that he was telling the truth.
She stood and looked up at him. "I'm sorry I was rude to you. It's just tough to face. I wanted so much to restore her at the fountain, even when she said 'no' and explained why -- honestly Ares I still think I made a mistake."
"I might be able to bring her back to life. Do you want me to try?" He had a look of feigned confidence on his face.
"My heart says 'yes' but my soul says that I have to respect her wishes."
"My soul says 'Go for it!'" He said with his usual bravado.
"Your soul, if you even have a soul -- which I seriously doubt -- has nothing to do with her. Keep your powers to yourself."
"Please then, just give me some of her ashes. So I can carry them with me. I loved her you know."
"Can't do that, she wants to be buried with her family."
"It's not mutually exclusive, you realize. You can bury most of the ashes here, but I can take just a little." She had a strange look on her face. "I know you saved some out for yourself, didn't you? Just a bit of Xena to carry with you the rest of your life."
"What if I did? All I can do with the ashes is talk to them. I don't trust you with her ashes. You might try something."
"I won't; I promise."
"Boy, that is reassuring, you promising me something. There is always a loophole in your promises, Ares. Your word is worth nothing to me."
"You know me too well, Gabrielle. I would try anything on heaven or earth -- even hell -- to restore Xena. You also know as well as I do that if you bury her here, I will just dig the ashes up and take them. So now you can't fulfill her last wish. Now we are talking about things that are mutually exclusive. . . but I would rather. . .
"I would rather have a part of Xena with me that you gave me. I would rather not disturb her grave. So I am willing to make a deal with you, Gabrielle. Don't bury her now. Take her ashes with you and think about it. Give me some conditions."
"Conditions?" How could she place conditions on the God of War?
"You know, things that have to happen before I try to bring Xena back. Make them as outrageous as you want. Make it so I will never be tempted to try to restore her. I promise, on my godhood, my immortality that she restored to me, that I will never attempt to bring Xena to life, unless those conditions are met."
"Because I love her, Gabrielle. Now I've said to you what I could never say to her. I need part of her with me forever. I know you understand that because I know that you love her too and that you have kept some of her ashes for yourself."
"Do you think I am stupid? Or just crazy?" She glared at him.
"No," he said, not trying to hide the tears that were running down his face. "I think you believe in love. Meet me tomorrow, here at sunrise, with the conditions, and a small jar of ashes. I promise Gabrielle, I will never touch those ashes, never try any spell, use any of my god powers, unless they are met."
She silently walked away, taking the ashes and leaving an empty hole at the gravesite. At least she was going to think about it.
September 16, 2001
Ari Sadam had always felt strangely comfortable in the al-Qaeda camp. He got to do the things he liked to do best: talk about war, train men to fight, plan battles and strategy -- the usual warrior stuff. It hadn't even bothered him that the man he worked for called himself "God's Warrior", or that the god the man served was not him, or even a god he knew. He had been secure there for a long, long time. He had begun to think of himself as one of them.
He had even enjoyed the excitement of the preparation last Tuesday; things were going well, as planned. What he hadn't thought about was that in a few hours, strangers on the other side of the world would be getting up, getting dressed, boarding airplanes, going to work, and dying. What he hadn't thought about was the utter glee in the shouts of his fellow soldiers when the victory was announced. He was thinking now.
"WHAT KIND OF WAR GOD PLANNED THIS!" He had screamed in a language no one there could understand.
Ari had kept a low profile the last five days, supposedly working on defensive plans using complicated electronic equipment. The orders were that no one was to bother him. He had been thinking. "Thinking" and "God of War" were not phrases that usually went together -- his mind was playing all sorts of tricks on him. An expert of all forms of modern weaponry, he carried only a small dagger; but he knew where he could find a sword.
Access to the leader was easy. Ari was a war chief, a mastermind; he walked into the office in what once was a peasant hut without a second thought from the guards. They knew their leader had been waiting for this man to bring his report. The room was small, but a dagger thrown from eight feet, piercing the breastbone was enough to bring the man down. With a quickness he was unaware he had, he grabbed the sword mounted over the desk, his sword which he had bestowed as a sign of admiration, and swinging it with both hands, severed his former leader's head. He looked in amazement as the turbaned head bounced on the dirt floor several times. Had he expected fireworks? He disappeared.
He found himself in a small cave that he was certain only he knew about. Dry and hot, inhabited only by a few desert rodents, it was the place over the past years he had gone to hide, to be alone with a few personal items he carried with him. Strange, he didn't remember climbing up here, or working his way though the traps he had set to protect the site. It was almost as if he had just materialized here.
He searched through his pockets. His dagger was gone, but his sword sat at his side. What had he done with the dagger? Why did he have his sword again? His memories of the last few days were completely cloudy and his head ached. It was like that time in Crete when he drank a whole barrel of Raki trying to forget HER. He shook his head and pounded on his temples. Why was he thinking about HER? He thought of a woman whose name and face he could not remember.
He knew it wasn't a hangover. It had to have been over ten years since he had had a drink. He had allied himself with a group of men whose religion forbade the drinking of alcohol. It wasn't a bad idea to keep your men sober and ready to fight. Should have thought of that one years ago. So if he hadn't been drinking, why did his head hurt so much, and what was he doing here?
In another pocket he found four small batteries; "back-ups for his flashlight" he had always told people. He rolled them together in his hand. They could have other uses, too, and he knew that his use for them was hidden here in the cave. Maybe that was why he came here. Even if they didn't help sort things out, they would make his head feel better. He began to move stones and finally found the hiding place. Tucked in a cleft of the rock he found a small cassette player, with a tape already in it. He removed the back and put in the fresh batteries. He secured the headphones and sat down on a rock and listened as the music took him somewhere else.
It was Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto -- the Emperor -- with huge chords that always reminded him of riding on horseback through mountains.
"Works here," he thought. "Afghanistan certainly has its share of mountains." He pictured Beethoven's Alps, the American Rockies, and Mount Olympus. The music echoed the majesty of the mountains, heroes and military leaders. He knew that Beethoven had been a great fan of Napoleon, feeling that he would help forge a new European civilization, primed for democracy; the composer had even dedicated his "Eroica" Symphony to him. While Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon shortly after he completed that work, he still believed in the abstract ideal of the political hero. You could feel this belief in the Emperor Concerto, too, even though the composer had dedicated it to an Austrian patron.
Ari could identify with Beethoven's disillusion. He had come to this country decades ago with the Soviet forces, but when the war took a turn in favor of the invaded country, he had switched sides. He had done that a lot over history. He allied himself not because of causes but because of fighting styles. "The Art of War" was necessary to win and hold his respect. He gave his assistance to men who did not worship him as a god. He had not been worshipped for years.
It had been a long time since he had listened to the tape. The men with whom he allied himself considered music contrary to their god's will. He had to sneak up here, to the cave, to listen to the music that still spoke to his heart. The tape ended and he flipped it over. Suddenly he heard female voices -- pure, unaccompanied female voices.
He remembered the day he had first heard the music playing as background in a small bookstore in London. It was almost twenty years ago. He had pretended to look through books while he listened intently. He didn't quite understand the words, but he certainly remembered the emotion. He asked the clerk what was playing and was directed to a tape called the "Mystic Voices of Bulgaria." Geography wasn't really his strong suit, but that did seem right -- Ancient Thrace. He had bought the tape and listened to it again and again. When he came here, he hid a few of his favorites on the Beethoven tape. Music performed by women, here, would be the ultimate prohibition.
There was a woman in his thoughts tonight. He knew she was there. Was it the ballerina he had lived with in Moscow during those cold nights made hot with sex and vodka? Was it that poor woman that his colleagues had sent to his tent, face hidden by a veil, unwilling to speak, and unable to feel pleasure? A woman with almost no soul? NO! This memory was much older, almost ancient. She had something to do with those Bulgarian women. It was coming together.
"Xena!" He screamed her name at the top of his lungs. How could he have forgotten about Xena? Suddenly the memories came flooding in as he thought of the dark-haired, blue-eyed woman he had truly loved, who had been taken from him and protected from his godly powers with promised conditions that could never be met.
He remembered the morning, almost two thousand years before, when he had walked to the gravesite to meet with the bard and conduct the final negotiation. The grave had been closed, but sitting next to the stone was a small leather sack and a scroll. He remembered reading the conditions, swearing to himself, and realizing that he had been bested. The conditions she imposed had been complex, strange and mutually exclusive with his godhood. She had him. He chose to remain a god, talk to the ashes, and eventually time had done the rest.
The ashes and the scroll were also hidden here in the cave. He had always carried them with him, but it had been a long time since he had read the conditions. He remembered hiding them here in part to protect them and in part to protect himself. The men with he had allied himself would never understand if he told them the best warrior he had ever met had been a woman. But then these men, who fought hard, died young and worshipped one god, would never have accepted the help he gave if they knew it came from an immortal god of war.
"Hello, Xena," he said as he kissed the now dry and brittle bag. "I've been on quite a journey. You'd like the fact that I am hiding now. Not sure what I did, but I am certain I have just changed sides again. Somehow war doesn't seem as sweet as it has in the past. I'm not sure."
He unrolled the small scroll and looked at the words Gabrielle had written so many years ago.
"Slay the chosen and hide in fear! I have no fear. I am a GOD!" He roared. But why was he hiding in this cave. Suddenly he saw it again -- a head bouncing on the dirt floor after he had severed it with his sword. He had killed the leader to whom he had pledged his allegiance, the warrior whose god had stopped the wine and the music and hidden the smiles of women. He remembered the act of total devastation and cowardliness that caused him to change sides this time. THE TIME!
"Maybe it is THE TIME. Maybe the conditions have been met." He had always taken the conditions to mean that he could only attempt a resurrection if he had lost. He could only have lost if he had ceased to be the God of War; in which case he would have had no power to attempt the resurrection. If he tried and was wrong, if he had misinterpreted the conditions, then he would lose his powers anyway. But today, he found himself changing his allegiance because of what Xena used to call "the greater good". He wondered how Gabrielle knew about the tenants of a religion that had not yet been founded and events that would take place in the distant future. The impossible must have happened.
It had been centuries since he had tried to bring someone back from the dead. He wasn't sure he remembered what to do. The bag was difficult to open and he was shocked at the small amount of ashes actually there. He wasn't sure he had enough to be successful. What if he restored a big toe, or an ear, or a pancreas?
He dumped the contents on the stone floor, took part of them, and rubbed them between his large hands. He squeezed and tried to harness a fireball. Nothing happened. He sprinkled a small amount in the air and watched for sparks. Nothing happened. He blew on the remaining ashes on the ground. Perhaps they needed his breath? Nothing happened. All that was left of her now was dust on his hands as he reached up to rub the tears from his eyes. It must not have been the time, and he, therefore, was no longer a god. He sat cross-legged on the cave floor and cried, not for his now lost godhood, but for her.
"Are you all right?" He heard a female voice ask him in Russian. "Would you like some water?"
He looked over his shoulder and couldn't believe it. She sure looked like Xena. Her face bore the same determined expression seen so often when she faced adversity, and her blue eyes sparkled. She was wearing desert camouflage fatigues and carrying a large survival backpack. Her long dark hair was tucked under the steel pot she wore on her head. She was a soldier, wearing insignia he recognized as belonging to the United Nations. "You're safe here. They don't know where you are. Soon as I get a message back to my base there will be a group my allies here to get you out. I can't stay."
"Don't leave me." He answered her in Greek, even though he knew Russian.
"There are people in other caves, got to get them located. Some I have to save; some I have to kill. We've heard what you did. We thank you for it; but our job is just beginning." She was speaking Greek, too. He knew it was Xena.
"You can't leave now. It's been thousands of years. I need you."
"You've needed me for thousands of years, sorry, I'm not that old. You may think you need me, but right now I need to be a soldier. The world needs me; you are just a collateral beneficiary." She smiled. It had been so long since he had seen that smile.
"Let me come with you?"
"Not today. Your skills will be needed other places in this war. We've got to get you up to speed" She stopped, removed her pack and extracted something small from it. "Here, I see you like listening to music. This piece has always been inspirational to me. It can keep you company while you wait. Just remember to bring it back to me next time you are in Moscow. Name's Olga Fedorov, you'll find me. And, if I haven't said it enough, thank you for what you have done."
He looked down; it was a tape of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony in F Minor. "Thanks," he muttered. He knew the work well, with its famous "fate motive" which continued through the entire piece and triumphed at the end with sheer jubilation. He knew it would bring him excitement and pleasure even when she was gone, but not as much as the memory of seeing her alive, fighting and smiling.
"I think it is especially appropriate today," she laughed and began to walk away.
"Wait, do you need a sword? My sword!"
"Too big, too heavy, and already done its job. But that reminds me." She again went to the pack and extracted her chakram and hooked it to her belt. "This might be the right tool for the job. I know I am the right WOMAN!"
"Gods speed, Xena. Until we meet again." As she left the cave he mouthed "And remember, I love you."
Modified March 2002
Columbus, Ohio, USA