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DISCLAIMER - This story contains scenes some readers may find violent.
BABYLON FIRE! A XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS STORY
BY ARTHUR CHAPPELL
Lush, verdant, green, oh, so many shades of green. The rustle of leaves, the trees that stretched so high the tops were lost from view; the flowers of many colours; the slightly intoxicating scents and aromas from the sheer overpowering sense of nature all around ... Gabrielle was trying to take it all in at once. She gushed and shrieked in sheer delight at each new wonder before her, like a child on her first trip to the ocean beach. So many kinds of flora and fauna; many new to her. Xena explained that most of it was unique to the region, and that now flower removed from the gardens had been known to survive more than five miles away. Gabrielle's sense of poetry was pole-axed. She went from stunned tearful, joyful periods of silent awe and contemplation, to a torrent of questions and exclamations. "Look, Xena, look at this one!"
The Warrior Princess seemed less moved by the splendours around. Gabrielle found that worrying. Her friend had been able to admire beauty before, even in places visited previously, and Xena was familiar with Babylon's Hanging Gardens. She had told Gabrielle often of her happy childhood visits there, before her life had gone dark and sour when her village had been attacked. Gabrielle wondered if that was why her friend looked so sad and pensive now; melancholy and troubled; and half ready to fight. Gabrielle asked her what was wrong, several times, but Xena remained enigmatic and distracted. Gabrielle was hardly able to concentrate, with so many splendours around. The field of a thousand roses impressed her most of all up to now; every one of them a different species; and Xena assured her that there were exactly one thousand; no more no less. So much beauty after so much recent heartache and death. Gabrielle was choking on her own happiness. Xena had warned her it could be so, in Babylon.
Gabrielle had wondered why there were so few visitors here, seeing as the gardens were so highly regarded. Xena smiled and told her.
"I brought you in through the North entrance. Most people think it best to come from the South. That's their mistake, because to the South, there's a small Hanging Gardens; beautiful in itself, but grossly inferior to this one; the real one. The giant Garden Guardians hate people; they see tourists stealing the flowers, trampling on everything, dropping litter, etc, so they made a fake garden, and most people think that is the real one. They don't know about this, and you must promise me not to tell a living soul."
Gabrielle promised, in all sincerity. She saw the wisdom of keeping this Paradise a secret garden of her own.
A foot long dragonfly buzzed past Gabrielle's head in pursuit of a doomed wasp. Gabrielle squealed with delight at the azure radiance of the dragonfly. "Watch it closely," Xena said, smiling in the certainty of what her friend was about to see.
The dragonfly homed in close to its prey and a short jet of flame roared from its mouth, roasting the wasp instantly; it fell effortlessly into the larger creature's mouth. The dragonfly flew off towards some trees.
"Instant cooked breakfast," Xena said, smiling. "Wouldn't you love to do that of a morning?"
Gabrielle didn't hear her. She was too taken in by the sheer wonder of what had just taken place before her eyes.
A man rushed up from nowhere; a tall, fat man, running with a haste that seemed beyond most people of such size and shape. Gabrielle put her staff forward in battle-mode, but Xena calmed her. "He means us no harm."
The man rushed up; asked if one of them was Xena. Gabrielle was happy that he was unable to guess which of them was which. Xena introduced herself. Delighted to find his mark, he spoke. "He said Fire burn now. Fire burn now. "
"That's it?" Gabrielle asked. "That's all he said?"
"That's all, yes;" said the tall, fat man.
"Did he pay you handsomely?" Xena asked.
"Oh, yes. Very handsomely. Can I go now. My wife will want to know we can move to Athens now. No more pig farming for us. Thank you. Thank you."
He ran off, half skipping, from pleasure at a simple job well done.
Gabrielle wanted to know right away what was going on. Xena calmed her down. "Let's rest. We are at the fourth garden, and the climb up to the fifth tier is very steep."
Gabrielle was shocked. "Steeper again? Xena, my legs were killing me this last time. The gradient has got more severe every level. Any steeper and we'll need ropes and grappling hooks."
Xena shook her head. "It's not quite that bad. Not on the North side where we are anyway. Come on; I'll show you something."
Though it was some years since her last visit, Xena seemed to know exactly where to go, even though the gardens of Babylon had no maps or sign posts. The only clue to your bearings was the up and down aspect. The gardens were gouged into a cliff face in five stepped levels; each higher, and steeper and narrower than the last. The effect was like the tiers of a giant green wedding cake. Each tier was flat and easy to walk around in itself, but the climbs between levels was arduous and gruelling. Even Xena was tiring now.
Xena lead the way along a narrow, but well kept trail to a small lake, that was turquoise and exquisite in colour. Fish of various sixes could be seen deep below the surface. On the top, floated several large water lilies. Without pausing for a moment, Xena stepped on to one. Gabrielle half expected her friend was going to jump into the water itself. It was certainly warm enough for swimming, but the lily pad bore Xena's weight with ease, as the Warrior Princess sat down in its middle with her legs crossed. A bullfrog; not particularly old, or big, leapt from the lily into the water, in disgust at the invasion of its perch. The water it splashed around in jumping landed in a trickle on Xena's leg. She didn't seem to notice or care.
Gabrielle spotted another lily floating serenely close to Xena, and tried to step onto it. She realised she had to land in the middle so it wouldn't tip over, but her smugness and pride in thinking she had mastered the craft disintegrated as the lily broke under her and she found herself knee deep in the chill water. She dropped her staff too, and had to paddle in a bit deeper to retrieve it. The frog, realising that its new home was now also in possession of an opponent he couldn't hope to scare away, jumped back into the water again, and swam off. Gabriella swore, and freed herself from the mush that had been the lily, and waded to the shore. The hem of her dress was wet. Xena giggled.
"What have we got now?" Gabrielle asked, shouting to her, as Xena sat down serenely and wrote the new words down on her growing list. Xena read it out.
"G & X. Fire burn soon. Garden. Sun And Sky. Fame through flame. Five from Seven leaves Two. Hanging. Fire Burn Now."
"Eight people. Eight message. One sentence or one word each, Xena said.
"I get the first bit;" Gabrielle said. "That's obviously our initials. "
Xena nodded. "That's the bit Salmoneus worked out when he got the message. Luckily he brought it straight to us. "
"His greed got the better of him for once, Gabrielle said, laughing."
"He got paid; he had no reason not to do the errand. Pity he gambled his fortune away, but that's Salmoneus for you. Still, at least he told us what the messenger looked like. Small, bald, shifty, moves like a slithering snake. Eyes like those of a fanatical religious zealot..."
"Salmoneus seemed to think the man was a bit mad," Gabrielle said.
"I think he's right. Why would someone give people enough gold to buy themselves a house, just to deliver a silly cryptic message? Why doesn't this man come and see us himself?" He clearly intends to do something wrong. "
"Do you think it's a trap?"
"Yes, more than likely. And I think it's coming any time today, here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes; the messages we got add up to some meaning if you look at them. It's just jumbled up a bit. The last bit says 'fire burn now. ' Before, it was 'fire burn soon."
Gabrielle agreed. "Today's the day, alright. Worked anything else out?"
Xena said she wasn't sure. "Garden and hanging go together to suggest here, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon."
Gabrielle agreed again. "Seems logical enough, but why not just tell one messenger to have us come here at a certain time; why eight people? Why waste so much money?
"Good question. Clearly our friend wants to play games. And look at all the references to fire and burning, and the Sun. Is that some kind of threat?"
"Fire maybe, but the Sun might just be a clue to us coming out here in day time, not at night."
"Possible, Gabrielle, but I think maybe it means more than that. Possibly .."
Xena was up on her feet. Gabrielle wanted her to finish her line of reasoning about Sun and Sky, but Xena's action told Gabrielle they were under attack. They didn't even need to exchange words now.
With a somersault leap and her battle yell, Xena was off the lily and back on solid ground beside Gabrielle. She held her sword before her and her eye carried the glare of enthusiasm for battle.
Gabrielle held out her staff. It was difficult to grip while still wet. She decided to rub the water from it against the leaves of a nearby tall tendril strewn plant. Xena called to her not to. "It's dangerous. Don't go near it."
Gabrielle assumed the plant must be poisonous, and moved back from it.
Two men, armed with sabres lunged down from a nearby tree, one behind each of he women, but both turned and immediately took the advantage off the assailants. Gabrielle was feeling confident of victory. Xena had often said that an enemy who uses stealth and ambush fares badly after losing the element of surprise. This proved so true now. In truth, the men were hopeless, but desperate for victory. Xena quickly disarmed her attacker, but he surprised her, pushed her off balance enough to recapture his weapon, and returned to the fray. Xena had seen this before, so often. The men were ignoring her promises that surrender would grant them their lives. They had been told they would die if they failed to kill her. They were desperate enough to fight to the last. Even Gabrielle knew that this was not a struggle that could end with the men captured and talking to their victorious enemies. Gabrielle winded her attacker with the tip of her stick and kicked him hard in the stomach. He fell back, half doubled over. His sword fell from his grip. He was reaching for it, just beating Gabrielle to the weapon, as she tried to get to it and throw it out of his reach, when he collided with his friend, who had just been thrown over Xena's shoulder. The men tumbled and crashed together into the plant tendrils Xena had warned Gabrielle not to touch. Gabrielle gasped, and had barely started to wonder how long the poison might start to take effect on them when the tendrils fanned out around the men, forming a large jaw of serrated teeth, that closed quickly in on them, apparently swallowing them. One man was too unconscious to realise his doom, but the other man screamed in terror for help. Gabrielle stepped forward towards them, but Xena pulled her back, telling her it was already too late. "It's like a Giant Venus Fly Trap. It usually eats horses. That's why I left ours down at the lower level garden. There's nothing we can do here."
"Was that it? " Gabrielle asked. "Was that our trap?"
"No; neither of them fitted the description Salamonius gave us. It was just a test, and a warning to us that our friend knows we are here. "
"What should we do? Wait here?"
"No. We'll go up to the top tier. If he isn't up there already we'll be able to see him coming, and we'll have the advantage over him."
They followed a path to what looked like a cliff wall. It was literally as steep as you could walk up without actually starting to climb on hands and knees. In fact, Gabrielle quickly discovered that it was easier to climb anyway; not on the path, but on the vines and climbing ivy that covered the cliff just to the side of the path itself. Xena was about to tell her off for it, but seeing her progress so well, and feeling tired herself still, she decided to follow suit.
There was a rumbling sensation, as if some leviathan had approached. A shadow eclipsed the daylight and a voice boomed out in echoing anger. "Keep off the grass."
The girls looked up and round to see the Giant Park guardian standing over them. He reached down intent to pull them from the slope they clung too; possibly with intent to eject them from the gardens altogether. Xena started to protest, and warn him of the possible danger afoot. He was on the brink of starting to listen when a large boulder shoved from high above swept him to the ground, with a resounding crash that nearly shook Gabrielle from the wall. The giant lay dead; killed instantly.
"Come on," Xena shouted; pitching with fury for battle and revenge on the innocent giant's life. Gabrielle followed without a word. Her adrenaline pumped so fiercely through her veins that she didn't notice how high or fast she was climbing.
The garden on the highest plateau surpassed the beauty of all that had gone before, but Gabrielle had no time to really take in its countless splendours. She took out her staff, and steeled herself for what could come at any minute.
Xena saw the large branch lying near the edge of the cliff. It had obviously been used to lever the boulder down towards the giant.
Manic laughter gave them the direction they needed to head. The trees here were thin, and high, reaching up to dizzying heights beyond human vision's limitations. Xena and Gabrielle moved through the increasingly darkening, narrowing corridor of woodland which wound and twisted in itself like a Minataur's maze. "Stay close," she instructed Gabrielle. "Don't get separated, or we'll never find each other."
Suddenly, there he was. A little man fitting Salmoneus's description of him to a tee, stood laughing. His features were tense, twisted in grimaces of bitterness and hate; his head swung from side to side, serpent like, trying to take in anything that could be used to his advantage. He held a blazing fire-brand torch in his hand. Xena knew a true madman when she saw one. She put herself quickly between him and Gabrielle, and stepped slowly towards him.
"Drop the weapons," he snarled, "Or I drop the torch."
Gabrielle could see the immediate effect his action could have on the closed woodland and she dropped her staff immediately. Xena did the same with her sword.
"And the chakram," the man growled. "I'm not totally stupid."
Xena shrugged her shoulders and mumbled "Can't blame a girl for trying," as she dropped her chakram down to the ground.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle shouted.
She wasn't really expecting an answer. It was more of an accusation than a question, but he told her anyway.
"I want a name for myself. I want a reputation; my place in the legend assured; I will be a man of destiny and history. I won't be a nobody, not like your pet fool, Joxer. I will achieve fame; infamy if necessary. One day, in the forward depths of time, the story tellers will narrate the deeds of the great and mighty; Zeus, Aphrodite, Icarus, Caesar, Hercules, Xena, Gabrielle, Heliostratus. My status is assured now."
"Is that your name? Heliostratus?" Xena asked.
"It is. Mark it well. I wear it with pride."
"That explains the Sun and Sky reference in his messages to us," Gabrielle said.
Xena nodded acknowledgement and understanding of the point, but continued to address the madman. "Why don't you do good work? Get your reputation that way?"
Heliostratus spat on the ground; Gabrielle winced at such mindless desecration. Such a place appealed to her Amazonian blood. She felt as though he had spat on her personally. "Don't you think I've tried all that?" he snapped. Do you think anyone noticed or cared? "You're useless," my father used to say, useless. You'll amount to nothing. You are a nobody. " I used to hear the stories of the people having such great adventures. I envied them. I wanted to be a part of that. No one like Hercules ever came to our town. Nothing ever happened there. The gods just left me and my people to gather dust. I looked at my family and friends; working their fingers to the bone, dying, crying, amounting to nothing. We are god-forsaken, but not me. I will make my own destiny. I will be remembered. Get a life, you say? Ha! You don't have a life, Xena. Life is the daily grind of working a farm; having babies that keep you up all night long; arguing, growing old, dying in a fit of coughs and chest complaints in your bed. You don't have a life. You have adventure. You have a destiny. I want that. I renounce my life now and here, before all the gods. "
"That's a dangerous oath to make," Gabrielle warned him.
Xena sneered in sheer disgust. "The gods won't be interested in you, you pathetic little worm. Get a life. Get a job. You've killed just to be something you're not. Do you think I like being a warrior? Do you? Do you find this glamorous and exciting? I'd give anything to be a humble farm girl. I found myself dragged into a life I never wanted. I've seen people, good people, killed, often for noble causes; but never for such a worthless, pointless cause as you. You killed people for nothing. Maybe your father was right about you. "
Gabrielle could see how angry he was getting as he took her words in. "Don't provoke him too much," she whispered, cautiously.
"You were trying too hard to impress," Gabrielle said, trying to sound sympathetic. "You just have to lighten up a little. Everyone has to take criticism. You should hear Xena when she tells me off."
"I make mistakes too," Xena said, with total honesty tinged with some regret. "We all do."
"I'm no farm boy," he said, close to tears. "I am a warrior. When I worked on the farm with my brothers and cousins, they would give me ten jobs to do; and if I did nine of them perfectly well, but messed up ever so slightly on the last task, what would they remember, the mistakes, not the achievements. They quibble and criticise. They put me down every which way. I never fitted in there. It was not my place of destiny. I no more belong on a farm than you do, Xena. This is where I belong. Here, holding this torch, with you powerless and weaponless before me; knowing what I am able to do next, and knowing you can't prevent it; now I feel alive. This is my true vocation. I belong here in this moment. To Hades with life; and all its blood, sweat and tears. Do you know what life is, Gabrielle?"
The Amazon Bard was surprised by him suddenly turning his attention on her. She answered him, hoping to take his attention while Xena came up with some way to overpower him. She knew her warrior friend would have to move fast. The torch was burning down. Soon it would burn Heliostratus's hand and he would drop it even if he didn't want to any more. "No; tell me what life is."
"Life is the dash the stone mason makes on your gravestone, between the date of your birth and the date of your death. Life is two chips of a mason's chisel and then you are gone forever. To be something more than that you have to be greater than life; you have to be like me and Xena; you must do great and terrible things."
Xena had got a few paces closer to him, but he saw her creeping closer and ordered her back. She knew he wasn't bluffing about throwing the torch down, so she did as he said.
"You'll only be remembered with revulsion and disgust," Gabrielle said, tearfully, becoming as angry as Xena so visibly felt. "You're just like Narcissus, drowning in love for yourself and self-pity. You've got chips on your shoulder and an over-inflated conviction of your own importance. Why should anyone care to remember you?"
"You hypocrite, you dumb-blonde hypocrite!"
The ferocity of his words hit Gabrielle like a knife. Xena felt it too, and called threateningly to him to leave her friend alone, but Heliostratus continued. "Who the hell are you to put me down like that? You're just a little country girl playing follow-the-leader with the mighty Xena. If not for her coming by, what would you be now? A nothing like me, that's what. You're just like me; trying to better yourself; and be something you're not. It's me who deserves what you have. Not you. I am honest about it. I need to be someone. I don't pretend."
Xena cut in. "Gabrielle is not selfish like you. She cares. She has passion and feelings. You don't give a damn about anything. You are pure self and egotism."
Heliostratus laughed. "She doesn't care, Xena. Neither do you. Nobody in this world cares. You do what you do because you enjoy it. Your ego is satisfied by the thought of another village saved; another monster slayed; another warlord toppled from power by your intervention and interference. It's all down to ego and pride in the end. You should know that better than anyone, Xena. You did bad things; evil things...."
"I don't take any pride in my past. You think killing the giant was worthwhile. It was just a waste. It served no purpose. We were coming up here anyway."
He seemed to think about that, taking it in for an instant, before his madness overpowered him once more. "Maybe I can do that. Maybe I can go from good deeds to noble self-sacrifice. I am a man of destiny, I can do anything I like."
"I'll stop you." Xena said, commandingly.
Heliostratus ignored her comment. "Now you are little miss goody-two-shoes again, saving lives, and stopping wars. Why do you do it? I'll tell you why; to appease your own ego; to ease your own sense of guilt. It all comes down to selfishness in the end, whatever you do, and whatever reason you give to justify it to others. You are just out to please yourself. Even if you try to be totally altruistic, it's only ever from the selfish desire to achieve such a state. I am better than you now because I no longer delude myself that I am living for others. This is all for me. Me! Me? Me! " He laughed and started doing a dance in his hysteria. The torch brushed dangerously close to a tree.
From below, a whistle blew. Someone had found the body of the giant, and was raising the alarm. Xena wondered if they would come up to investigate the higher tier, but doubted it. The giants were not too brainy, and would probably assume the rock was dislodged accidentally from its perch. She hoped so. Their presence here now would make the situation so much worse and less predictable in its outcome.
"Grow up!" she shouted.
Heliostratus stopped laughing, and Xena knew that instant the awful certainty that he had won. "I have grown up now," he said with great pride. I claim these gardens and your death, and my place in history and legend is assured. I am somebody now. Look, Dad! Look at me. I am a man. Who remembers you?"
Gabrielle screamed and averted her eyes. Xena started to reach down for her chakram but it was too late. Heliostratus threw his torch towards the trees to his left, and he was running away before it struck. He called back to them. "I'll tear down the lighthouse now." It was the last words they heard as the sound of the roaring flames drowned out his laughter.
The speed with which the conflagration took hold was awesome. Xena had barely recovered her chakram and her sword when the forest fire raging through tinder that had dried over centuries wrapped itself around them. The flames towered above them on all sides, walling them in. At the top of the trees the flames seemed to merge, trapping them in the centre of a giant cone of heat, and fire and smoke. Sapling branch and burning leaves fell and rained down all around them, and the very air seemed to burn as they tried to breath. The oxygen around them was being consumed in a firestorm. Gabrielle, Xena could see, was close to panic and collapse. "We can't get out of this." She cried.
"We can," Xena shouted, as she put her sword back in her shoulder sheath, barely making herself heard over the roar of the furnace that encircled them, "but we only have one slim chance. "I'm going to mow down that clump of small saplings." She pointed to where she meant. "The fire has burnt them part of the way through, and the chakram should take care of the rest. It should create a small fire break. The down rushing breeze should fan the flames back for us, but it will only take a few seconds for the fire to close in again, so be ready to jump as soon as it happens alright."
Without giving Gabrielle a chance to say yes, or prepare herself in any way; Xena hurled the chakram, that had been growing almost too hot to hold onto at all, and it chewed with little effort through the saplings, as close to their base as Xena dared to go. Their fall created, as Xena had calculated, a slight rush of air that blew the flames several feet. By the time the fire reclaimed its territory, the women had hurled themselves through the corridor even as it collapsed in on itself. Xena just dived forwards as though plunging into a deep pool of water; while Gabrielle used her staff to vault herself up and over the jagged stumps of the burning saplings. Xena had somehow recovered her chakram on the way, or it had managed to return to her as it did when she had thrown it in the past in more open terrain. Gabrielle's staff was beginning to smoulder. She poured water over it from her hip flask, and it seemed to cool down sufficiently. They picked themselves up and looked back at their cremational bonfire as it disintegrated; the trees just slumped in to the inner core. Gabrielle's stomach churned as she imagined what it would be like to still be in there, but the fall of the bonfire was only the beginning of the tragedy of the gardens. The flames, ever hungry for more wood, followed the light breeze out, and ignited the surrounding woodland.
The sheer epic magnitude of the destruction foretold shocked the girls deeply; and for a moment they stood rooted to the spot, transfixed and mortified. Gabrielle started weeping, and that snapped Xena out of her own daze. "Time to cry later, Gabrielle. We have to get out of here. Run!"
Gabrielle hesitated. "We have to help. We'll get water from the lily lake and help fight the fire."
Xena put a comforting arm round her shoulder. "It's too late for that. Even the gods couldn't put the fire out now. We have to get out. Come on."
Gabrielle realised her friend was telling the truth. They ran, with the flames behind them consuming everything in their path. Trees toppled and sparks flew through the air, igniting other trees, and spreading the inferno wider and wider. In the distance, screams could be heard, as the garden Guardians were trapped, burnt alive in their indecisive shock, torn between trying to save the garden and saving themselves. Their hesitation was their doom.
Xena and Gabrielle didn't hesitate. They scrambled and jumped down from the high tier to the lower level which was already smouldering and flaming away in places, where burning overhanging branches had fallen from the shelf above to carry the destruction down and further afield.
The girls descended on, quickly, level by level, and all around was showing the first symptoms and traces of the apocolyptic destruction to come. but in relative safety now. The flames were sufficiently distant to offer no immediate personal menace. At the base level, giants stood around, looking helpless and confused and distraught. Some foolishly held buckets of water, hoping to defend their favourite flower beds against the fire heading their way. Xena called to them to get themselves away to safety, and a few heeded her advise. Others would not.
Getting to Xena's horse, Gabrielle and Xena left the gardens and rode out to the nearby hills that shielded them from intruding tourists. Pausing, tired from the speed of their escape, they looked back, and saw the whole hillside that was the hanging gardens ablaze; a single huge fireball, molten and volcanic looking. It was growing dark now, as the Sun was going down in the sky; but the hillside made it look like the height of the afternoon. Xena knew it would look like that for a week at least until the garden was reduced to ashes. The girls hugged and gave in to their tears.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked over and over again. "Why?"
"Don't try to make sense of it," Xena said. "There was no reason for this. He did it for nothing. We have to find him; stop him."
Gabrielle nodded, wiping the last of her tears on her arm, and leaning on her staff because she felt weak inside. "Do you know what he meant by the Lighthouse?"
"Yes; the Pharos Lighthouse at Alexandria; The sixth wonder of the world. The gardens were number five on the list."
Gabrielle smiled faintly with realisation. "That's what the clue meant; five from seven."
"Yes; five down and two to go. He wants to destroy the remaining wonders of the world."
"Did he destroy the other four as well?"
"I doubt it; they fell to natural wear and tear and earthquakes. "
"What about the other wonder of the world? What's that?"
"The pyramid. If he gets the lighthouse, he might just go on to attack the Pyramid of Cheops too."
"What's so special about the lighthouse? Surely it can't compare to the Gardens? Is it big?"
Xena smiled, picturing it all in her mind. "Quite big, and probably the first one ever built anywhere on the planet, but that's not what's so special about it."
Gabrielle was curious, and wanted a full description. Xena shook her head and declined to tell her. "You'll see when we get there, if we're in time."
Something in Xena's tone told Gabrielle that the Princess doubted their chances of success. "Can we get there before him?" she asked.
"I doubt it. He has quite a good start on us already."
"But he thinks we are dead," Gabrielle reasoned. "Maybe he'll take his time, and we'll be waiting for him when he gets there."
Xena gave a heavy sigh. "I hope you're right, but Heliostratus is a fanatic. He'll be impatient to get on with the job. He'll move as fast as he would if we were right behind him anyway."
Gabrielle was taken aback by Xena's defeatist realism. "But we have to try. We have to stop him."
Xena patted her friend on the shoulder. "You're right. You're always right." Xena gave her blood curdling battle yell to the sky that Heliostratus claimed his name from, and the adventurers set off in pursuit of their prey. They did not look back at the fire that still raged a few miles behind them.
The journey was over a thousand miles, and would take them two weeks of hard travel, with few breaks. They were attacked frequently by brigands, and bandits, some of whom they new of from former battles; but Xena's fury was such that they were all easily dealt with, most of them surviving their encounter with her. Xena wondered if the attacks were a little too convenient. "He knows we survived," she told her companion. "This was set up for us." Gabrielle wasn't sure if she agreed. The area they travelled was not regarded as particularly safe at the best of times for two young females travelling without a male escort.
They got to Egypt, and bi-passing Cairo, and its pyramids they set off North to the Port of Alexandria, which Gabrielle had never seen before. She had heard of its famous library, but not of the fabulous lighthouse.
The coast wasn't too visible as they arrived. It was getting dark, and a moonless night was descending. There was a chill fog and sea mist in the salty-air.
From the high cliffs, they finally saw the water below; looking choppy and frantic, as though being churned by a storm, even though there was no such weather. In the distance, Gabrielle could see the shadowy outlines of ships and large boats. She could hear bells and horns ringing; and sailors occasionally crying out to colleagues. She couldn't hear their words though.
Xena, sensing her curiosity, explained. "The port is approached through a reef of rocks, riptides and sandbanks. Even with the Lighthouse in full operation itís a treacherous area, and claims many lives every year, but the gods have found it a cruel amusement to make this area one of the richest fishing ground you can imagine. The lighthouse saves many lives."
"How old is the lighthouse?" Gabrielle asked.
"About thirty-years old; before that, the villagers lit huge signal fires and beacons on the cliffs; some are still there, set up for emergencies and traditional celebrations of the old days. "
She would have explained more, but Gabrielle had yelled "Wow!" in exclamation of wonder and awe. Xena knew she would react like that on seeing the lighthouse in operation.
It hadn't been spotted as a faint tower on the horizon. They had just turned round a corner to find it in its full glory and splendour. Big it was, as Xena had said, but also as the Warrior Princess had observed, it was not the size that counted, but the colour of the light. The blazing, piercing silver beam was not just coming from the oil lamp inside the summit of the tower as in lesser lighthouses, but was emanating from the whole upper structure of the four hundred foot monolithic tower. Painted in polished silver; the lighthouse shone like a mirror; its light didn't shine back on land, but was concentrated seaward; as it went, the single, solid beam fragmented into smaller, more intense torch beams, visible for many leagues out to sea; highlighting each hazard and rock independently, and precisely. Gabrielle could see one ship quite clearly as it allowed the welcoming light to guide it through a narrow shallow looking channel. Other boats were lining up patiently to follow its course; the fishing fleet was ready to sail in to Alexandria with its catch.
"We've beat him to it," Gabrielle said, triumphantly. "We can catch him when he arrives."
Xena was about to caution her on making such assumptions when the light from the lighthouse suddenly went out in a muffled explosion, casting the sea and all its perils and the ships heading for them into pitch darkness.
"He's up there," Xena snarled, jumping from her horse, pulling her sword out and running to the Lighthouse.
Gabrielle was following, staff at the ready, but Xena insisted that she didn't.
"We've fought whole armies together," Gabrielle pleaded. "We can cope with this guy. Alright, so he beat us once, but..."
"No buts this time. Space is restricted in any lighthouse. If we fight on the stairs, we'll be in each other's way. I need you to go to the village; tell them the light has gone down; they need to light the beacon fires; quickly. Don't let them come here, whatever you do. They could all be killed."
Gabrielle saw the sense of Xena's cool, calm reasoning, and set off. She looked round to see the shadow of Xena disappear slowly and cautiously in through the open entrance doorway to the lighthouse. Gabrielle heard shouts and screams on the boats on the choppy sea. The bells sounded frantically. The sailors were panicking, and praying to Poseidon to help them. Gabrielle felt sea sick just thinking about it. She had faced maritime disaster on occasion herself since joining up with Xena. She knew what they must be feeling now; unadulterated terror. She took off on Xena's horse as fast as she could to warn the villagers. She arrived to find that they already knew. The fires on the hillsides were starting to burn; mini-replicas of the last hours of Babylon's Garden, but nothing compared to the light given off by the lighthouse itself.
A few men were preparing to travel to the Lighthouse to see if they could make repairs. Gabrielle tried telling them what might be happening there, but unfortunately it made them all the more eager to go; she knew she couldn't stop such determination, not without a fight, and she was not going to harm innocent people. She reluctantly agreed to return with them.
Xena had seen the outside of the lighthouse was surrounded by kindling wood and faggots, set around it as though round a witch's burning stake. More firewood was set up along part of the narrow oak wood spiral staircase, which was barely visible in itself in the gloom. For much of the way, Xena was feeling her way by touch alone. The steps themselves were narrow, and steep. One fall, and she would not stop tumbling until she hit the ground below. There was no rope or banister to hold on to.
She finally reached the top, and slowly inched open the door to the main light house room. What she saw shouldn't really have surprised her, but she was shocked. The elderly lighthouse keeper lay dead in his chair, with a dagger in his back up to the hilt. The oil lamp light itself lay shattered on the floor; torn from its fixture and vandalised beyond repair. It's oil splashed and streamed all over the floor. Xena realised her own feet were covered in it too.
In the centre of the lamp's former fitting bracket stood Heliostratus; laughing victoriously and in fits of total insanity. He had tied himself by waist and one arm to the large brass and silver light fitting that dominated the centre of the room. His feet were manacled to the floor of this light-cage by a large iron chain. Heliostratus was a prisoner, and he had imprisoned himself. He was covered in oil and in his one free hand, he held a fire-brand torch, just like that he had used to destroy the Gardens at Babylon.
Xena expected him to demand that she stay still, on threat of dropping the torch, but he gestured to her to take it from him. Sensing a trap, she moved cautiously, but he let her take it without offering any kind of threat. Instead he spoke; "You know what you must do. The light from the village fires won't save everyone at sea on a night like this."
The horror of what was expected of her mortified Xena. "Why?" she asked.
"I have done great evil. I must atone for my crimes, as you do such good now to atone for yours. I made my name by fire. I lived my life by fire. I must die by the flame too."
"Why die senselessly? You could have torched this place and been gone before I even arrived. You know that."
"I knew you had survived the Garden fire, Xena. I stayed to admire my handy work. I heard you cry to release some of the anguish I am so proud to have caused you and your little friend. I had considered taking on Hercules here; but it is so much more fitting to give you a return engagement. Kill me, please, Xena. Kill me. Let my death undo the harm I have caused. Like you, I will feel redemption in death."
"I don't think they'll see it that way in Hades, " Xena said.
"No; I expect not, but what tales they will hear told of my deeds. Are you familiar with the concept of Euthanasia, Xena?"
Xena said yes, but he explained it to her as if she had not known. "Euthanasia; a good life must be rounded off with a good fitting, appropriate death."
Xena interrupted him. "Yours is a pointless life rounded off with a senseless death; for the first time in many years I feel as though I'm killing a man who deserves it. You spat at us in Babylon. I feel like spitting in your face, right now."
Her disintegrating composure and rising venom shook his senses. She moved towards him as though ready to spit at him, or even to kill him; but cries from outside distracted her.
"The villagers," he said, laughing; coming to join our fun. The ships will be in peril now more than ever. Get it over with, Xena; get it over with."
Choking on her guilt and tears, of anger and sorrow; Xena threw the fire-brand towards Heliostratus. He erupted into a fireball as the oil he had doused himself in ignited. His scream echoed through the room. Xena bounded out without hesitation, sword in hand, making sure she was clear of the oil on the floor that was rapidly bursting into flame itself. Xena took the stairs two at a time; her way lit by the glow of the flames above her, and as she went, she used a piece of wood to set fire to the heaps of kindling on the stairs as well.
Rushing outside, she saw Gabrielle there, calling to her that the villagers were catching up. In fact, Xena could still hear them. They could see the flames erupting from the top of the lighthouse. It had stopped them in their tracks. Gabrielle saw it too, and screamed, shocked at the sight of Xena's failure to save the day. She screamed again when she saw Xena setting fire to the bonfires stacked around the base of the lighthouse. Gabrielle tried to stop her friend, and demanded to know what she was doing.
Xena explained quickly. "Heliostratus gave me no choice. The only thing that can burn bright enough to be seen by all the ships now is the lighthouse itself. "
Gabrielle saw the undeniable fact of what Xena was saying. As the flames engulfed the tower; it became a giant beacon. Its reflective light bounced out to sea, and looked just like that of the controlled lamp light it had been built to house.
Xena put her arms round her friend's shoulder. "There was no other way; I had no choice."
Gabrielle nodded to show her understanding. "I would have done the same in the end, I expect. "Where's Heliostratus?"
"Xena pointed to the lighthouse summit. "On top of the volcano."
The villagers rushed up, amazed that Gabrielle had beaten them to their destination. Their leader, a large portly bartender, rushed up in tears and asked who had done such a terrible deed.
Xena sat cross-legged next to Gabrielle. "Nobody," she replied, in a tearful whisper. "Just some nobody."
NOTES - The myth of Heliostratus destroying the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon is obscure, but is referred to in a short story of that name by John Paul Sartre (actually about a modern day murderer.
Heliostratus's definition of Euthanasia is quite correct for the time. Modern usage of the word to denote mercy killing and assisted suicide of willing subjects is much more contemporary to our own age.
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