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GENERAL DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, Amarice and Eli are the property of USA Studios/Renaissance Pictures. (Olive Oyl, I’m told, is the possession of Pop-Eye and Paramount Studios). Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Brutus pertain to the annals of history, but used here with poetic license. The One God belongs to no other. Several characters are embellishments of living beings. All other characters spring from the imagination of the author.
SEX/VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER: Sex content is nil. There is very little new violence save that which is inherent to life and imagined in death. PG-13 rating.
NOTE: This story is fueled by the "What if . . . " and the "It could happen . . . !" speculation that accompanies the summer rerun doldrums while anticipating story line resolutions brought with the advent of the new season. (I.e., It is set after the fourth season cliffhanger, "Ides of March," and before the fifth season opening episode, whatever that may be). It capitalizes on some of the biblical symbolism running rampant throughout the "X:WP" series and is not intended to offend.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Xena’s spirit called gently to her friend, cupping Gabrielle’s chin in her hands as she floated effortlessly above the ground while facing her. "Let go. Let go, my friend!"
Both women had been crucified side by side, outside a Roman garrison, on a snow-covered mountain. Gabrielle still remained with her body, arms outstretched, hanging limply from the crossbeam; shallow, labored breathing the only sign of physical life. When her last shuddering breath steamed in the frosty air, Gabrielle’s head fell forward. It was then that her spirit started. Looking upward, green eyes gazed into blue. She smiled wordlessly, expectantly. The dinginess of death falling away. The brightness of life enveloping them.
The Roman guards lolled about at the foot of the two women’s crosses, their only thought now that the crucifixions were done, was to stay as warm as possible while they awaited the women’s deaths. Those were their orders. Beyond that they had no interest in the tall warrior woman, or her diminutive friend and bard, hanging beside her. These two had done all the damage they were going to do.
Not only was the mountain cold, it was also desolate. Monochromatic blue-grays colored the landscape. The dullness swallowed the brightness of the fires at which the soldiers warmed themselves. The snow had now stopped falling, but the air still held the storm’s oppression.
The guards were unaware of their prisoners' release. Gabrielle and Xena did not look back. The light engulfed them and they ascended into its expanse, leaving behind broken empty shells to hang from the crosses.
"She was right! How could I have been so blind to Caesar’s intentions?" Brutus stood berating himself apart from the men in the crowded chamber, his uniform and armor in contrast to their robes. Julius Caesar’s body still lay on the floor where it had fallen, his blood stained clothing indicating numerous stab wounds. The council was now in a state of order, sharply contrasting with the bedlam of moments before.
"We must appoint an interim leader . . . for the sake of Rome. We cannot allow our enemies to take advantage of Caesar’s folly! Nor our troops to fall into disarray." Assenting murmurs were heard throughout the chamber as Marc Antony addressed the council from the same step that Caesar had announced his own promotion to emperor moments before. He stood immediately under the statue of Pompey, his austere, solemn manner brooked no opposition.
"I propose you, Marc Antony!" an elderly statesman stabbed the air with an upturned index finger. "You have been a military leader for us. The people know you. Trust you. We trust you. You have been one of us!" A growing cheer arose to number the men present.
Marc Antony motioned for the men to quieten, "Yes, but what of Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, purported to be his heir apparent?"
Swiftly the reply came, "He has no support from us here in the Senate. What of him?"
A voice toasted using his upheld knife, "To Marc Antony." Well wishers joined in the revelry, each proud of the part he had played in foiling Julius Caesar’s attempt to assume undisputed sovereignty; and, in securing the leadership of Rome for Marc Antony.
Brutus returned to his brooding amidst the revelry.
Her gloating cheer from the foot of Xena’s cross ended in a shriek when her transported body fell into the recesses of his chamber: his rancid throne room, nondescript in shape, form or contents. Momentarily she was stunned, but as realization overtook her, her soul terror froze her heart. The screech became urgent and real. She could not stop it. It rose like bile in her throat. The blackness to which she dared raise her head stole all light. She was nose to nose with it. She began tearing off the rags which enshrouded her. They had once been a flowing white gown.
"Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh!" She did not pause for breath. "Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhooohhhhhhh!"
And, just as suddenly as it began, her scream choked on its own fear and deafening silence pierced her senses.
Time may, or may not have passed. Callisto had no perception of it. In that eternal moment her tenuous thread with reality snapped. She succumbed to an incoherent psychosis; a madness that she had no reserves to restrain. She remained naked, kneeling before this sneering, malevolent Darkness. This Demogorgon. The heat was suffocating. Her lips were as parched as her heart. Her sweat sizzled and evaporated before it hit her skin. Waiting. Waiting. Interminable waiting.
"You have failed!" It was a raucous hiss. Then unmeasurable silence.
Callisto reached out to touch the darkness, the innocence of befuddlement spreading across her face. She snickered when her hand could not be seen once it entered the veil of his darkness. She pulled her hand out. Then stabbed it back in. She began rocking back and forth giggling and humming, as she played with the darkness.
"Oh, no! No, you have not earned that respite! You have no ipseity. You have no individuality save what I endow. Nor are you worthy of the gift of insanity!" He spewed it from his mouth. Callisto was pulled straight upward by the hair of her head, a clawed, blackened hand grasping her short locks. Her feet dangled above the floor.
"No, little girl. I have plans for you, I’m sure not to your liking, but it’s not to be your choice." His forked tongue flicked against her cheek scorching her skin. She jerked to a conscious awareness, the distaste of recognition sullying her features.
"Ah, that’s more like it!"
"Marc Antony, I must speak with you!" Marc Antony could see the agitation in Brutus’ manner as he absently used his thumbnail to stroke the hilt of the sheathed knife at his waist. Before they had even stepped out of hearing of the members of the Senate who were still milling about, unwilling to depart their victory celebration, or some of Rome’s finest wine, Brutus began, "I give you my resignation as a military leader in Rome’s army. I was blind and easily duped. Even women could see what I couldn’t; and, I was closest to Caesar! I don’t believe how gullible I was! How stupid . . . !" His booted right foot struck the marble floor sharply, punctuating his self reproach.
"Do you think you were alone?" Marc Antony consoled his friend. "No, your resignation is not accepted. I need your levelheadedness to hold this army together. They are now your men. Their loyalty to Caesar can only be overcome and tempered by your leadership."
Brutus continued bitterly, as though never having been interrupted, "He must have been laughing convulsively over the little, inane man who so meekly and readily gave his neck over to the executioner." He groaned, "he had already planned my assassination!"
"So are you upset because you think you acted in an illegitimate manner, or because Caesar made you look like a fool?" Marc Antony asked bluntly.
"You know I swear fealty to you, my lord, but I have taken innocent blood this day because of my weak-sighted loyalty to Caesar." Brutus circled the floor as he chewed the bent knuckle of his right thumb. "She was only good and decent to me. Gabrielle saved my life! And Xena, well, she refused to take it when she could have. Ah! What have I done? What have I done?!"
"What have you done?"
Quickly, as though the answer left an awful taste in his mouth he couldn’t wait to spit out, Brutus answered, "Followed Caesar’s orders and brought about the crucifixion of good people. I believed him! Right now, two women are dying or dead by my hand, as well as a host of others. He used them as pawns." Brutus looked directly at Marc Antony and confessed, "I put them in that prison. I gave them over to Caesar even as they warned me of his duplicity! I might as well have driven the nails, myself!"
Marc Antony looked into his comrade’s troubled face, without saying a word, he patted Brutus’ elbow, then excused himself. Discreetly, he beckoned a messenger to follow him as he left the room and entered the late Caesar’s study. He hastily scribbled a note on Caesar’s parchment and sealed it with Caesar’s signet ring. "Now go in haste. Spare no method of speedily securing this directive."
Marc Antony rejoined the distressed Brutus. "Brutus, my friend, I feel it would be best for you to visit your troops at the garrison on Mt. Amoro. Rome needs your able leadership right now and an inspection will help to stabilize any unrest among the troops. Make them proud to be Roman soldiers!" Then he added kindly, "Give wings to your feet. Fly, my friend. Fly!"
Brutus understood. His scowl relaxed as he clasped Marc Antony’s arm. He turned at a run, his cape waving behind him, "By the gods, I pray I am not too late!"
Brilliance enveloped them. They basked in the freedom. They walked, but their feet never touched the ground. It was a journey of milliseconds before their arrival at a pure, white archway. Why or how they arrived here, they did not know, only that they were drawn to this destination. Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other, the question registering in both sets of eyes. Wordlessly, the answer was given as Xena took the first step to enter.
"Why do you wish to enter here?" The inquiry was not asked unkindly, but two flaming swords had crossed simultaneously to bar their entrance. It was then that the two women understood that the archway was living. It consisted of two, nine foot beings, wingtip to wingtip--awesome in stature and bearing. They radiated light--a pure, awful brightness. They had the faces of men, but their features were open and guileless. One of the being’s swords had a blood, red ruby set in its hilt. The other had a forest, green emerald. A nameless, dread; a hallowed, reverence invaded the women’s hearts. The soft feathers of the beings’ wings invited touch, but the devastation of the women’s fear threw them face downward at the two beings’ feet.
"Do not be afraid." The women were gently helped to their feet by two sets of strong arms. Again the inquiry was repeated, "Why do you wish to enter here?"
"What . . . ?" Xena stammered.
"Why . . . ?" Gabrielle managed over the reverberations of her heart.
The two beings waited patiently, as if time was suspended and had no bearing on their activities. They were in no hurry, and perceptively allowed the women time to orient themselves.
Gently, ever so gently, "Why do you wish to enter here?"
The two friends’ attention was drawn within and beyond the archway formed by the two beings. As though in explanation to the question that resonated in the air, a scene was unveiled. Framed in contrast to the brilliance of their magnificent bodies, lay a pastoral landscape seemingly devoid of color, having been eclipsed by the crimson splashes and the dull brown of a lone, bloodstained, wooden cross rising vertically, as though planted firmly from eternity past. Within the center of the cross, a hinged door stood open, an invitation for all who would, to enter.
Involuntarily, Gabrielle caught her breath, gasping through whitened lips. Then, slowly and inexplicably, she began to weep.
"I’m so sorry," Gabrielle murmured. "I’m so very, very . . . sorry."
Xena’s voice caught in her throat as she laid her hand on Gabrielle’s arm. "For what are you sorry?" Her voice trembled. She wanted, with the asking, to understand her own sorrow.
In answer, Gabrielle waved her arm to encompass the scene before them. "For the pain. For the loss. For the agony. Somehow . . . , for the . . . cause."
"Please, sirs, if you would, tell us whose cross this is?"
A soft whirring sound was heard as the two beings responded, their wings gently undulating with their emotions. "It is the cross of Him who was slain from the foundation of the world. The Alpha and Omega, the Author of Eternal Salvation, the Anointed One."
They attempted to absorb this information, but had little success. Somehow they knew the truth of it, but could not grasp the substance.
"But, but, . . . why was he killed?" Dread filled Xena’s heart as she barely whispered the question. She felt as though the answer was buried deep within her soul, but she could not access it there.
The silence fairly shouted her guilt. Gabrielle felt the finger of self-recrimination pointed at her own heart.
Moments by time’s measurement passed as each woman searched her soul. Shortly and in unison with the dawn of understanding, both women humbly answered, "It was for me."
They gazed at each other, communicating their contemplation and grief only with brimming eyes. Then they looked to the two beings for confirmation, fearing it, yet knowing it. "Yes, Xena--it was for you. Yes, Gabrielle--it was for you. For your malfeasance, for your transgression, for your disobedience, . . . for your sin!" Xena and Gabrielle nodded slightly, eyes downcast. The first being addressed the women individually by name. There was no judgment nor condemnation in his voice, but in kindness, he did not lessen the import of his answer.
"Sirs, transgression against whom? I didn’t know . . . " Gabrielle appealed tentatively. Then she straightened and inquisitively looked upward, "How did you know my name?"
The being whose blazing sword bore the forest, green emerald answered, "My name is Tseer. My fellow cherubim is called Flox. And, Gabrielle, you are an individual uniquely fashioned by your Creator, special to Him, as are you, Xena. He knows your names. It is He who knows the number of hairs on your heads." Gabrielle unconsciously reached up to stroke her shorn blond hair. "It is He who attends the sparrow’s funeral. It is He who gives you life and movement and being. It is He who adorns the flowers of the fields. It is He who cries at your sorrows. It is He who loves you above His own life."
It was clear from the puzzlement on their faces that neither woman understood.
"Who is ‘He’? What is His name?" Then as an afterthought, "Surely he is not one of the gods of Mount Olympus? If they can even be called ‘gods’!" Xena sneered at her own thought, "Ah,
no! . . . I think not!"
"His name is unfathomable. He is the great ‘I Am.’ He is the Most High. He is the Light. He is Almighty. He is the One God. He is Truth. He is Mercy. He is Love. By His Word He spoke all things into existence. He is the One Who created you in His own Image. And," Flox paused in his attempt to communicate what he knew to be incomprehensible to the two women, to choose a descriptive answer from common ground, "He is the Way."
Once again the two beings drew the women’s attention to the scene within their frame. Xena and Gabrielle now noticed they could look inside, through the hinged door in the cross to what lay beyond its threshold. The colors were so real, so clear, so deep and so brilliant that the women jerked their heads away spasmodically, gasping, blinded. They struggled to breathe. The scene overwhelmed their senses and for moments the words would not form. Their eyes flashed the colors in searing negative images behind closed lids. Gabrielle moaned. Xena shook her head vigorously, whipping her face with her long black hair. She tried to rub the brightness away. The contemplation was ravaging. She lost her balance and fell backward to the ground. Gabrielle dropped to one knee beside her.
After a few moments, quietly Tseer spoke, "It was this way in the beginning. Before the first man’s choice to separate and distance himself from the love of the Everlasting Father. Before he chose to elevate himself to the place of worship, to set his will as the standard of measurement. The created attempting to usurp the Perfect Creator’s throne."
Both cherubim were silent, remembering what they had seen centuries before as though it were fresh and only moments past. Flox continued, unashamed of the tears etching paths down his cheeks, "The clear choice was put before him--life or death. Sadly, he chose death. His disobedience separated him from the Most Holy One. And in his resulting fall from perfection, he brought the curse of decay and imperfection into the world. His garden paradise lost its brilliance, and his sinful state could not bear the perfection it once knew."
Xena sat up part way, supporting the weight of her torso on her elbows. Gabrielle leaned against her.
Tseer sighed, "He tried to work his way back, but what could he give to pay for his transgression? Left unto himself, he would have to bear his own punishment--for the Ancient of Day’s Justice demanded no less. A debt was made and had to be paid. The Creator is not a man that He should lie."
‘What idiot would choose such a foolhardy path?" Xena groaned, eyes still shut, but her head clearing.
"Xena . . . !" Flox called to her tenderly, patiently. Wooing. Waiting. She opened her eyes.
Flox and Tseer assisted the women to their feet once again.
Gabrielle admitted before Xena could reply, self-realization striking cold. She drew her head back and cried to the heavens, "We did . . . ! And, . . . we have!"
"My will was my rule." Xena reflected pensively. "But I never realized . . . ! I never knew . . . !"
"Is there no hope?" Gabrielle pleaded. "Did you not say that this Holy One was also merciful? Did you not say He was Love?"
Tseer actually laughed delightedly. "Come and see." Tseer and Flox each drew a fold of cloth outward from their robes, creating a gossamer curtain through which the women could view the portal, while mitigating the pain. Each woman noted that the splendor became tolerable from this vantage point.
Now people could be seen and sounds heard. Children played with abandon, gymnastically achieving feats even Xena envied, giggling and shouting, a tinkling merriment surrounding them. Adults smiled and chatted, touched and hugged, giving and receiving unashamedly. All were busy within this lush, well-kept garden, the landscape replete with colors beyond earth’s spectrum. Melodies could be heard--rising in a harmonious polyphony of celebration. Xena and Gabrielle could not see the One to whom they directed their praise, but sensed that those they could see were well aware of His presence for they often turned for His affirmation. Many of the faces had known sorrow. Some cheeks still shone wet with tears, but sang joyfully, knowing comfort in the light of His face, knowing contentment in trust.
Gabrielle looked to Tseer for an explanation.
"Tears have not yet been wiped away. That too will come in its time," he acknowledged, his eyes bright as he reveled in the knowledge.
"Do you not long to return to the garden? To the peace? To the tranquility? To the perfect relationship? To the fulfillment of the deep longing of your heart? To the Love of your Creator--the Shepherd of your soul? To His affirmation? Do you not long and yearn for this?" Flox asked. "I can see your heart is aching even now as you see and hear this."
Xena answered truthfully, "I’d never thought about it before. I never knew my soul longed for this ‘Shepherd’. But, yes, my heart aches for this . . . this . . . acceptance; for this place of peace." She clutched her chest, clasping her hands to her heart, over the yearning harbored there.
"But, how have these come to be here, if they were separated from the Holy One by sin for which they could not atone, except they die as punishment--separated from Him?" Gabrielle asked as she stared transfixed by the scene in the doorway of the cross.
"Ah, little one, such an insightful question. Did you not ask about His Mercy?" A glint of excitement showed in Tseer’s eyes. "The selfsame day in which man betrayed the Almighty in the garden, was also the day in which the Almighty revealed Himself to man as Redeemer. Love? Much greater than the fountains of the deep!"
A moan escaped from somewhere deep in Flox’s being as he continued, "He Himself would become sin for man and pay the ultimate price of Atonement. The Father would send His Son, God taking the form of man, to die--to actually die in man’s place--thus fulfilling the Justice of the Most High and Holy One’s own character."
"His hate for the transgression did not change. Nor His hatred for what sin does to the crowning glory of his creation, mankind!" Tseer now spoke more to himself than to the two women. "Only the Innocent can pay for the guilty! Otherwise, the guilty only receive just wages for their work."
"How does that work? I mean, how do we get our debt, . . . uhhh, paid?"
"Forgiven?" Flox supplied.
"Forgiven!?" Xena recoiled at the word, not having realized that the payment of which they spoke was one and the same with forgiveness. Her hope died. Bitterly she noted, "I am beyond forgiveness. You don’t know what I’ve done!"
Tseer nudged Flox. "Sounds a little proud, too--don’t you think?" Gabrielle was amazed at their levity in the midst of her friend’s despair.
Flox responded, "Hmmm, I don’t want to be around when the Almighty calls her into question at proclaiming Him a liar!"
"Yep. Sounds like she thought He was a little daft, too!"
Gabrielle bristled, "Xena never called anyone a ‘liar’!"
Swiftly and firmly, fire tinging his words Flox responded. "When the Holy and Almighty One declares that no one is beyond His redemption and no transgression too large for His forgiveness, to declare otherwise is in essence to say you are wiser, more knowledgeable and greater than He, and, that He is a liar. You defame His Holiness and His Power. You are calling Him a LIAR!"
Xena’s mouth flew open. Gabrielle’s snapped shut.
"Is it more noble to reject forgiveness or to accept it?"
"Is it right that we should applaud your demand to bear your own punishment, than to accept the freedom offered by the One who has already born and satisfied the debt? You have no money from which to buy. Your purse is empty."
Xena hung her head, "Yes, that is true of my purse . . . " She looked up into Tseer’s eyes, "but surely Gabrielle’s contains coins?"
Tseer gazed at her intently. Moments passed. He began, "If you worshiped at the altar of human endeavor, Gabrielle would indeed be rich. However," he paused kindly, though never wavering from his intensity, "when you look to the Perfect Standard, Gabrielle’s pockets are threadbare."
"And the Creator is not a man that He should lie."
No one spoke. Each woman examined her thoughts.
"Oh, how little you know of the Almighty’s unsearchable Love, or of the Heart that longs to cradle you close to His breast, as a mother would her child."
"How did you say one is forgiven?" Meekly now.
"Faith?" Gabrielle knit her brows at the strangeness of such a familiar word. "What is faith?"
"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is a choice, an act of your will."
"It is the knowledge, the conviction, that what you cannot touch or see or hold is real." Tseer lifted one wing and a single gust of wind pushed the friends backward.
"You feel the wind and can see the effect of its power--yet, you cannot see nor stay it."
Xena and Gabrielle faced into the breeze that still gently wafted their hair. They stood savoring it until all was still.
"Faith about what? Faith in what?"
"Faith in the Most High that He will do what He says He will do. That He will extend His mercy and unmerited, undeserved favor toward you, that He will forgive your sin in response to your open, empty, outstretched hand. That He will pay the debt required by your transgression through His own death on the cross through which you now gaze. Faith. Trust."
"That’s it? He doesn’t want anything in return?"
"What do you have to give? What can you bring to the bargaining table in exchange for your soul? For forgiveness? Hmmm . . . your ‘good deeds’?" Tseer began making mental calculations, "How many would that take to reach perfection?"
Xena and Gabrielle bowed their heads.
"Yep, a little short!"
Flox spoke in summation, "It is a free gift, you only have to accept it by faith. What have you lost? Would you not freely give up the load of your guilt and desolation?" he queried, perplexed that anyone would resist the freedom and catharsis of forgiveness.
"Why have we not heard of this before?" Xena asked in a subdued voice.
"Oh, you have! Albeit, you were not ready to accept it at the time."
Xena looked startled, searching her mind for the memory.
"In your wanderings, have you not known a group of people that worshiped the One God?"
Xena strained to remember. "Please, God," she thought, "Don’t let me have raided their village!"
Tseer tilted his head to the side. "No. He says you actually assisted them."
Xena started. He knows my very thoughts!
Again Tseer gave every appearance of listening to an unseen speaker, "Of course, He does." He continued gently, "Does it surprise you that the Almighty knows your thoughts and innermost desires?"
Xena relaxed slightly. "I suppose it shouldn’t, but it did," she admitted respectfully, her eyes darting about watchfully.
Now cognizant of His Presence, she tried to listen to Tseer, but could not prevent the shiver that ran down her spine. Gabrielle sensed, and shared, her uneasiness. She laid her hand on Xena’s forearm, comforted by her physical presence, troubled to know this One God knew her so intimately.
Tseer began again, "You have befriended a group of people in your travels that worshiped the One God." He now stated this as fact. "Gabrielle, do you not remember hearing the ‘Song of the Shepherd’ that began as, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake?’" Tseer closed his eyes in sheer pleasure as he recited the song.
Flox explained, "The Most High called out a people for His Name, to be a mouthpiece for Him to all mankind. He wanted to prove His Love, His redemption, by choosing a people to demonstrate this by their lives and by their words. Often they have failed. Often they have fought and strove to throw off the responsibility that comes with His blessing and calling, but they have remained a remarkable attestation to His Power."
"And He promises that if anyone, anywhere should seek Him with all their heart, He will be found by them. And the Creator is not a man that He should lie."
"Did you not see the covenant written by His own hand that He gave to His people, Xena, with your own eyes? Did you not hear them speak of the coming One, the Dayspring from on High, who would save His people from their sins? Yes, not only His people, but all mankind."
"Yes, but I didn’t know . . . ! I never thought it was more than religious myth fed by their false hopes . . . " Xena faltered.
"It is your choice. It is your decision."
"Why do you wish to enter here?"
"You are the most . . . !" Amarice searched for a word to vent her anger and disgust, red hair blazing as hotly as her temper. Finding nothing suitable to use in front of the few older children in their ragtag group, she spat into the air to effect her contempt. Though she wouldn’t admit it, she was as angry with herself for not having acted. Why hadn’t she stayed to fight beside Xena? It was unthinkable for an Amazon to turn and leave royalty behind in a fight. Why hadn’t she at least insisted that Gabrielle come with her as Xena held the soldiers at bay?
Eli lifted hands skyward as though receiving a blessing. "Every fertile field must know its share of rain," he smiled, as drops of her spittle, born by the wind, landed on his face.
His affable manner only served to further infuriate her. "Even Aphrodite herself, goddess of love would have found a sword more pleasurable for that encounter, lover boy!"
Eli shook his head slightly, "I am not looking for a self-gratifying love, seeking only its own desires. The love I offer is a love that requires nothing in return for its gift. It exists for the sheer pleasure of serving." Eli smiled earnestly, "It does not react to offense, but absorbs it. You must still your heart to understand it."
Amarice waved her hands in dismissal at him and turned back to analyze the continuing drama a quarter mile up the mountain from their hiding place. The little band that had escaped the garrison prison crouched with the young Amazon and Eli, finding refuge behind the few upright boulders that dotted the hillside within the copse of trees surrounding them. Though not adequate for shelter, it did shield them from the biting wind and the soldiers’ view.
"I’m going to climb up to get a better view," she said pointing to the tree towering over them. "If you’re not willing to help--don’t get in my way, either!"
Amarice disappeared into the foliage, absently wondering why the winter blast had not retarded the spring growth more severely. This Ides of March was much different from any other she had known. Winter weather was not uncommon, but for the flora to be in full leaf was. Nor, she stopped to reflect, had she ever attended a crucifixion of one of her own.
"What did you see?" Eli asked as Amarice slid back down the tree and flipped to a perfect landing directly beside him.
"As if you care! Why, what were you planning to do? Immobilize them with your ‘love’?" She sneered down at him. "A little late for that, isn’t it?" Using the rock as a brace for her back, she slid down to a squatting position beside him.
"What did you see?" one of the men in the group interrupted them.
"Oh, another one gets a backbone!" She turned to find all eyes focused upon her. There were about 25 members of this little entourage that had gathered around Eli--men, women and children. She was surprised to note the concern on each face. She had only guessed them for a flock of sheep, for carnival goers waiting to see the monkey climb the pole. She took a few moments to consider before answering much less flippantly.
"There are only two soldiers left to guard Xena and Gabrielle. It’s hard to tell from this distance, of course, but I didn’t see any movement from . . . from . . . the crosses." She swallowed hard, fighting against the constriction in her throat.
The little group was silent. Amarice surveyed them one by one. Abruptly, she balled up her right fist and struck her left palm. "We can take them," she declared. "They won’t be expecting any opposition at this stage. I mean, Xena and Gabrielle have been crucified--it’s done! What’s left except to wait for them to . . . die?" She paused and unconsciously began voicing her doubts as she stood to pace, "but of course, they’ve been on the crosses for a little while. They may already be dead. No, that can’t be true--Roman soldiers don’t continue to guard dead bodies, do they? And the exposure to this cold might really be to their advantage. It may have slowed things down . . . hmmmm. They looked pretty beaten up." She’d forgotten she’d been speaking aloud, until a small hand tapped her shoulder.
"What are you going to do?" a young boy asked, gazing up at her with luminous eyes.
"You can’t get them down by yourself," a woman ventured, the open offer of help implied.
"Okay," Amarice turned to Eli. "If I do all the fighting and you don’t have to hurt
anyone . . . " she paused. It was difficult for her to ask this man for anything, let alone assistance. But what did she have to lose? The gain far outweighed the loss to her dignity. No less was expected of any Amazon. If they were dead, shudder the thought, Gabrielle and Xena deserved the full rights of an Amazon funeral pyre.
Eli did not wait for her question. "Yes, I will," he said simply.
A grateful smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
"See?" he said quietly, "you are learning about love."
She preferred the term "expediency."
"This is not oblivion," Callisto screamed into the darkness. She was once again clothed in rags and imprisoned within a hanging capsule of light, bound by nothingness. She was not falling, she was not rising. No matter how she turned, she went in no direction. She began running, flailing her arms, dancing from first one foot then to the other. She felt the effects of her exertion in the burning heat, but went nowhere.
"Think, Callisto, think!" She smacked one side of her head. "You can do this." Her perpetual frown creased her forehead.
She fought the growing hysteria. Slowly and calmly she willed herself to relax. "Okay, that’s better," she intoned. She sought solace in her memories, hoping to orient herself with
something--anything, familiar. She strangely found no relief in the replay of Xena’s last moments--the broken chakram, the broken spine, the broken body, the broken heart. The sight of Xena’s serenity destroyed her satisfaction.
A slithering blackness suddenly interrupted her thoughts and obliterated all mental images. A band of pressure gripped her temples as unseen hands began encircling her head in a crushing embrace. She felt her eyes begin to bulge from the pressure. The circle of light that held her evanesced.
"Ah, no," his breath hot in her ear, "not for you, my broken-winged sparrow! I suppose your independent spirit should be applauded . . . " he paused, then hissed, "but not here! You belong to me!"
"Now!" his tone brightened, "I know what a burning desire you have to redeem yourself and return to my good graces . . . " His voice suddenly took on a cool indignancy-- "Hup! I heard that! Ooooo, so you don’t think I have any good graces?" He released his unseen hold on her head.
Surprised that he would allow her her own opinion, or could be swayed by such a deliberate appeal for flattery, Callisto tilted her head to one side, considering. If she said "yes," and conceded he had any grace at all, he would know she was lying. If she said "no," his ego would require tit for tat.
The realization also struck her that he had a fatal flaw--his pride. Now there was a useful bit of information, if she could manage to hide from him her acquisition of this knowledge! She also had the distinct impression that the longer she watched him, the more salient his features appeared. The fact that he was darkly handsome unsettled her.
She opted to circumvent his query, "Grace, my lord? Is grace ever a useful commodity? It manipulates one into extending compassion to weak-willed vermin!" She paused, then lightly added, "And is not goodness a relative term?"
Suddenly, he was transfigured before her and the image was more terrifying than his initial form. He became a being of devastating beauty, brilliantly bright, features of fiery bronze, 10 feet tall with symmetrical wings having a wingspan she approximated to be 17 feet. Both goodness and grace clothed him. She became insensible.
His derisive laugh lingered as he faded to blackness. "Relative goodness?" She indistinctly heard him reason, "would dictate that there be an absolute goodness." She regained her perceptions slowly, but could feel his fury growing. "Never!" he spat.
She sensed his eyes boring through her and had the audacity to stare at the space that his crushingly handsome face had just occupied. In it she could see red, glowing orbs returning her gaze, weighing her response.
"Wise answer, Callisto," he purred. "Have I underestimated your usefulness?"
She was out of her league and she knew it, but she had nowhere to hide. "Wise?" she feigned.
"Oh, now you’re going to question the wisdom of darkness, as well? How delightful!" he hissed.
Impetuously she struck, "What is your name?"
Her body chilled in the heat, as he roared in diabolical laughter. "It is as you wish," he acquiesced. "Call me what you will, but I am ‘god’ to you! I was once ill-advisedly called ‘Son of the morning,’" he mused, "but situations have progressed since then! I am now the ‘Prince of Light’ and/or ‘Prince of Darkness,’" and parenthetically he confided, "He can’t seem to make up His mind!" He then added sarcastically, "But I only have to appear as a 'Prince of Light' to your gullible kind. Humans are so stupid!"
He sneered as he continued. "But there are a few juicy ones: ‘Prince of the Power of the Air,’ now doesn’t that just whisk you away? Or more terrestrial: ‘Mephistopheles,’ ‘Diabolus,’ ‘Pluto.’ But in reality, I am merely an ‘imp’ having my fun!"
Yes, she could well see that. "And my name is Olive Oyl," she thought wryly.
She amused him. He intrigued her.
"Forgive me, I mean no disrespect, but we’ve seen and heard a lot of things in our travels that are very compelling. How do I know this is . . . ? What I mean to say is, well, we’ve been told that other ways--uhmmm . . . , well, were true. Not that we are unwilling to examine your system, for it does have the ring of truth to it. But it is hard to dismiss what we’ve already experienced . . . ," Xena began looking first to Tseer, then to Flox. Both beings listened attentively, eager to assist the two women along their quest for understanding.
Tseer nodded knowingly, "Oh, yes. What you’ve seen and heard is compelling and does contain some truth. But in all these other ‘ways’, does it not tap into your ability to provide salvation for yourself? Does not your achievement of redemption have to do with your own competency? Thereby, some unseen power would ‘owe’ you a place of honor at your death?"
"This can be very appealing to a human looking to relieve herself from the awfulness of guilt, to be deserving of favor. Uh-huh, pride again." Then Flox gently added. "But is it reasonable or true?"
"Or if perchance you should fail at your first attempt at gaining perfection, then are you not offered several lifetimes to achieve this feat?" Tseer contemplated, "Hmmm, now why is it you never hear of anyone having ascended to this level of accomplishment?"
"And while personal experience is helpful in ascertaining truth, it is not sufficient. You must look to proper evidence. Many factors can distort your perception of your experiences. Both of you know this, too, from your travels." Flox reminded them alacriously. "You want to know that what you believe is true--not just exciting, affective, or even practical."
"What is the truth?" Gabrielle looked to Flox steadily.
"That the Almighty loves you beyond your wildest dreams. That He made a way--the Way, for you to be reconciled to Him, through the sacrificial death of His Son on your behalf. That there is a coming judgment--for it is appointed unto man once to die and then judgement comes. That if you ask and trust Him to save you He will, for He longs to do so with all His heart. But it must be your choice. The Creator is not a man that He should lie. He is Truth."
"You keep saying that. Why?" Xena asked.
"Hmmm . . . I’m not really sure, but it sounds good!" Tseer teased.
"Stop toying with her, Tseer," Flox reproved, "and answer her question."
"The Creator has no ulterior motive, unlike imperfect man. His character does not allow Him to lie. What He has said, He will do and has done. He proves His trustworthiness over and over again. He has no reason to lie."
"In fact, look at the prophecies written long ago concerning your own country and history."
"Greece?" Xena repeated her question, incredulous at the answer.
"Yes!" Tseer winked and whispered loudly to Gabrielle, "I think her crucifixion has made her hard of hearing!"
Gabrielle looked at Tseer, amused, "You’ve become rather jovial in mood! Why?"
"I love telling the truth, and seeing it understood!" He was beside himself with delight. "It’s so exciting."
Flox continued the thread of their conversation, unswervingly, "The Almighty foretold of the rise of the Persian empire before they became a threat to the known world. And they later overthrew the Babylonia Empire, just as He said they would. He also foretold that the Persian empire would be swallowed up by the Greek Empire, as you know from your history, happened. Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Persia. Sadly for your country, but right in line with the Almighty’s Word, Greece was divided up and now the Roman Empire has the lion’s share of the known world. This He foretold years before it happened."
"This is all written in the scrolls of Daniel, just as the Almighty gave it to him."
"What is yet to come?" Gabrielle asked, as though she longed for her own scrolls so she might write their words in her history.
In answer to her question, the two cherubim pointed to the open door in the middle of the cross beyond them, once again shielding the two women’s eyes. "All comes to pass within His time, but this is now, at this moment, on the earth."
They could see a young woman diligently working at her mother’s side sewing a pastel garment. "Who is she?" Xena asked.
"She is the grandmother of the One Who is to come; the Almighty Incarnate; Emmanuel, meaning, ‘God with us.’"
"What is it that she’s sewing?"
"Her wedding dress. Her time of betrothal has come to an end and the wedding celebration will begin shortly."
"Wait, she is the grandmother of the One Who is to Come? You mean the One who will die on the cross?"
"Yes," Tseer was quite sober.
"That means He hasn’t been crucified, yet?!"
"By earth’s time, no, He has not been crucified. By heaven’s time, He is the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the earth."
"Then we can stop it before it happens!" Xena automatically reached over her shoulder for her sword, only to realize she no longer had it.
"Many have tried to stop the Most High’s purpose. None can thwart what He says He will do and has done." The two cherubim bowed their heads in worship.
"But He will die!" Gabrielle cried.
"Yes, He will die! It is the only way that the Almighty can save mankind, though His heart breaks with love for His Son."
"Then . . . why?!"
"Because His heart also breaks with love for you!" Flox cried freely, a bittersweet mixture of joy and anguish on his face.
"What can we do?"
"Accept His Love and let it be efficacious for you! Accept Him."
Tseer reiterated the first question spoken to the two women. "Why do you wish to enter here?"
The two women were beginning to understand.
"Okay! We must be ready to move, and move quickly. We won't have much time before the rest of the garrison becomes aware of our movements. So, hurry!" Amarice whispered her order to the little band around her. Eli brought up the rear. They had been steadily angling up the mountain, attempting, one by one, to remain concealed by whatever cover the landscape afforded. They all were now crouching behind a large boulder, as yet, undetected. It was the last protection available before the 50-yard charge over bare ground to the foot of Xena and Gabrielle's crosses.
Two soldiers were all that remained between them and the crosses. The soldiers stood huddled over the dying embers of what had been a small fire. It had been a routine day for them and their work was almost complete. They were as weary of their armor as they were of the day. Amarice felt that it was an omen from Artemis that the soldiers' backs were to them.
They were unaware that a lone runner had entered the garrison by the main gate.
"What was that?" Gabrielle's eyes were wide in a mixture of fear and anticipation. Anything was possible in this enchanted place.
An almost imperceptible flash of light, the wind from an arcing sword blade whistled overhead, the clash of steel against steel; and, a being of sorts fell and lay disintegrating at Xena and Gabrielle's feet. The light seeped from it, leaving behind a darkened, shriveled mass. The two women stared down at it, uncertain as to how they should feel or react.
Flox looked upward and saluted a vanishing companion. "Nice work, Anemos!"
"What did we just almost see?" Xena inquired, adrenaline pumping, but she stayed rooted to the spot where she had been standing.
Tseer supplied, "The demise of one of the Ancient Foe's emissaries."
"I never even saw it coming!" Xena gazed upward straining to see what she could not. "In fact, I never even saw the fight as it was happening . . . , in fact, . . . what did just happen?"
Tseer waved his arm toward the sky overhead, "if you could see what is here . . . , well, if you were aware that you are right now in the midst of a raging battle, you'd be unable to concentrate, out of sheer terror, on anything we said. Please, believe me. It is in your best interest that you have not been granted that awareness."
Xena subconsciously dropped into a fighting position, senses alert awaiting an encounter, not realizing the absurdity of her stance.
"Don't worry," Flox said kindly. "Our fellows are holding them off nicely for now. And besides that, you are not equipped for this fight." Then he added with no concern, "That demon just got a little too close!"
"Too close?!" Gabrielle asked. "What was he trying to do?"
"Kill you." Flox said evenly, "Or to at least divert you from the Truth."
"Kill us? But we're already dead!" Xena stated what she thought was axiomatic.
"Dead? No, if you were, we would not be here having this conversation. But come, let's walk--it makes it harder for the enemy to get a sword on us."
"But we were crucified!" Gabrielle remained confused. Tseer and Flox flanked the women on either side, wings spread in protection, as they moved in the direction Tseer indicated with his arm. Two of their comrades quietly appeared to take their places at the entrance to this garden paradise. Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, momentarily stunned by the awesomeness of these magnificent creatures, but continued her reasoning uninterrupted, "We're dead!"
"Yes, you were crucified, and still are. You are not dead. Not yet, anyway!"
"Remember, after death comes the reckoning of your life? You would not now have the choice set before you--that of life or death, if you had already died."
"If we are not dead, what are we?"
"Unprepared. And, well . . . unfinished."
"Yes! Didn't you know? Look at your feet!"
The two women looked down. Their robes were pure white from the knees upward, but below that they were sodden with dirt and caked mud. Their unshod feet, filthy.
"What . . . ?"
"Your work is unfinished on earth. And I'm not sure you would be pleased with your current selection of destination, either--for you cannot enter here with dirty feet."
"But I am a warrior! What unfinished work would a warrior have along this way of love?"
Tseer looked down at the sword gripped in his hand then his eyes questioned Flox, who also looked down at the sword held in his. He glanced back up to Tseer, and shrugged his shoulders. Both were perplexed by her question. Finally Flox asked, "Is being a warrior necessarily unloving?"
"Did you not know that the Almighty is called the 'Commander of the Hosts?'" Tseer emphasized His military title.
Xena's eyebrows shot upward.
"Whenever evil would strive to overcome, love must fight! There is no choice."
Tseer continued with a twinkle in his eyes. "One of the greatest warriors who ever lived--in fact, a warrior king--the Almighty called 'a man after my own heart.'"
Flox began falteringly reciting the song the two women had already heard, as though his memory had suddenly become faulty, "Ummm, let’s see, I believe he wrote a song that began . . . ummm . . . 'The Lord is my' . . . uhhhhh, . . . 'Shepherd!' Yes, that’s right 'Shepherd.' 'The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.'"
"Him?!" Gabrielle laughed delightedly.
"Yes, King David."
"You see, the Way is coming to the Almighty through His cross. He is the Way. The path and vocation you choose along this Way may be quite varied depending on the disposition, abilities, personalities and talents of individuals involved. To everything there is a time and season."
"Once again, it is your choice to decide why you wish to enter here."
"Now my little bird, about your current dilemma . . . " The Darkness had grown bored of bantering with Callisto and turned his attention to higher pursuits. He rolled a piece of braided leather between his thumb and forefinger as he sat on his throne contemplating. "Hmmm, but I wonder why He has allowed me this dispensation? Usually He makes me send my own emissaries to pose as the dead of your pathetic kind. Even in death, He’s interested in you parasites. Eternally fascinating and revolting!"
"Ah, well, where were we?" He cracked his whip, flicking the tip of it to kiss the end of Callisto’s nose, its bite stinging her back to her present. "Did you think I wouldn’t notice you’d wandered off?"
He smirked malevolently, "It is time for you to repent of your evil ways, my dear. Time for you to repay my loss. Time for you to make up for your former deviances." His arm brought the whip slashing down, slicing the stale air as a knife, cutting through the soft skin of Callisto’s calves and slamming her prostrate on the smooth rocks of his cave-like throne chamber. "Bow to receive your ‘blessing.’"
She hated the obeisance to this . . . this . . . demon, it rankled to her very soul. It pierced her more than the burning pain in her legs. She shuddered. It took all her strength to keep from reaching down to assess the damage, but she refused to give him that pleasure. She also knew it would be unwise to verbally protest with this Ponos threatening a more severe judgment should she object. Somehow, she had the distinct impression that he would welcome her opposition, he seemed to invite any excuse to torment her, as though he needed to justify his cruelty. But to whom? And for what reason? Was he unwittingly giving credence to an absolute standard? In spite of her circumstances, a hint of a smile touched her lips.
"Yes, you may well call me ‘Ponos,’" he whispered ominously, "for you will well know my ‘pain’ should you fail. This time there will be no deviation from my instructions. If you even hint at self-willfulness, I assure you, you will live to regret it." He yanked on the whip circumscribing her legs, digging more deeply into her muscles. "Immediately!"
She had no doubt he was utterly capable and sincere.
"Live? You call this living?" The sneer hung in the air before she realized it had actually escaped her lips.
"What? You don’t like the grandeur of your accommodations?!" He sarcastically enjoined. He swept his arm over the room and, suddenly, Callisto could see the splendor of the palatial room and the marble floor upon which she now lay.
"You don’t like the baubles?" She looked around and gold ornamentation adorned every crevice. Her hands bore diamond rings on each finger. She wore a gold braid at her throat. Her pure white gown boasted a crimson sash sequined with precious gems. She rose to her knees, awed.
"You don’t like the solitude, and . . . self-rule?"
Callisto looked upward, momentarily sidetracked, "Self-rule?"
"Of course--do you see anyone telling us what to do? No boundaries! No commitments! No. . . . God! All mine for my pleasure! I am the standard! Ruler of my own realm!" He sighed in bliss.
Although his bravado rang hollow, Callisto felt she could enjoy this place--if she could wrest dominion from its current tyrant. And, if she could find the rest of the Damned. After all, what is a kingdom without citizens? How can one rule without serfs?
"Don’t even entertain the thought," he snarled. He disengaged the whip from her legs with a flick of his wrist.
"It can’t hurt for a girl to have dreams!" she smiled sweetly in return.
And just as suddenly as it all had materialized, it vanished. "When you have the power to make darkness appear as light--then we can bargain." Once again, she sat in rags on the bare ground.
A burning coldness seared her soul. The emptiness, the barrenness, the vacuum, the confusion, the futility all rose to crush her spirit. She could not breathe for the weight dancing on her chest.
"You’re a liar!" she whispered in despair.
"Aren’t you the clever girl?" He roared in delight at her compliment. "Tsk! Tsk! Such a spoil sport. Hmmm, oh well--now on with our plan!" he gloated.
Callisto physically shook her self to throw off the despondency that wrapped her in its tentacles. She would not give in. She would not be defeated by this second class, two-bit "god." She would bide her time. Surely there was a way for her to wrench control from him--some day, some way.
"By the way, our friend Caesar has arrived--all thanks to your vanity. I’ve promised him he can have you should you fail me in your next assignment."
"Why should he have preeminence? I’m every bit as ruthless and cunning as he--the dim-witted boy wonder . . . !" Callisto’s last sentence was cut off as her head was jerked backwards by her hair.
He squatted beside her, his hot breath belched into her ear, "Cause that’s the way I like it! Besides, it’s not for you to know the reasons. Don’t think that you have the power here." He didn’t attempt to hide his contempt.
"My lord, I will not fail you. What is your wish?" her lip curled in disgust.
"Oh, so glad you asked," he purred. After a pause he continued steely, "You will return and see to it that your two ‘dear’ crucified friends do not die."
"Yes, your precious Xena and her sidekick." He snickered in glee at the horror on Callisto’s face.
"They’re not dead?" she screamed. "No! No! No! No! Nooooooooooooo!"
"No, avis. And according to my minions in battle, they may be very close to joining the enemy, if they haven’t already. Now, the only hope I have to retain them, is to keep them alive until I can find out and dissuade them! I won’t be beaten!" his voice crescendoed to thunder.
Funny what thoughts come to a person in the heat of emotion. Callisto coolly catalogued the knowledge that this Prince of Darkness was not omniscient, but she did grant him that he had a marvelous network of favor-grubbing spies.
"I won’t do it!" she howled. "I WON’T . . . ! Damn! Damn! Damn! You can’t ask me to undue the culmination of my life’s goal, of its purpose!" She screamed again, "No! No! Nooo! No matter the reward. I won’t! I can’t!" She continued to shriek her refusal, laced with obscenities.
"Oh, yes! You can and you will! Reward?!" He hissed. The deadliness in his voice stopped Callisto’s ranting, cold. He did not have to touch her, but the sensation of his palpable evil seared her soul. Her body began to shiver uncontrollably. She gagged as her inspissated tongue and lips began to swell. The soles of her feet began to burn afresh with an impassioned vigor. The blaze crept up her legs as though she were being dipped in boiling oil. She writhed and convulsed in pain. The scream emanating from her swollen vocal cords only produced a thin wisp of air. The wild terror in her eyes bespoke her agony.
He continued insouciantly, "I like the challenge of the intelligent. The only reason I ever seek morons is because He loves them and it grieves Him for me to have them!" He paused as his callous stare bore through her suffering, "So, are you intelligent, or an imbecile?"
Her lips could not form the words conceding her defeat.
"Eh? What’s that? A little louder. I seem to be having trouble with my hearing!" His mirthless smile mirrored the emptiness of her heart. He released her.
"I’ll do it . . . " she sobbed. Was this what time in perpetuity would be? An eternity devoid of being? Devoid of satisfaction? Of peace? Of some semblance of . . . of joy? Was it to be only . . . death?
"Send me! I’ll do it!"
"I don’t know, sir! I was only given the message to deliver to you with dispatch." The young, panting soldier stood at attention before the centurion in command of the garrison at Mt. Amoro. He had just run from the garrison dovecote located at the foot of the mountain. He wore the uniform, minus the heavy armor of the Roman legion.
"And you received this through official channels?" The centurion stroked his chin and rested it on his hand as he read the message spread before him on the table.
"Yes, sir! The pigeoneer here said that the bird bore the band of the military dovecote in Rome. He said the original message bore the seal of Caesar. He declares it to be authentic."
"Thank you for your diligence. Please find and send Paulus to me, immediately."
"I just saw Xena gasp for breath. They are still alive! NOW!" Amarice led the charge of the little band across the remaining ground to the two crosses raised just outside the garrison wall. Her flying kick caught the first soldier in the back of the neck. He fell without a sound. The second soldier responded by whirling about to face her while pulling his sword, but the weariness of the day left him a little slower than Amarice. She kicked him in the pit of his stomach. He doubled over with a grunt. She left them as they fell.
Callisto viewed the little skirmish below her from the vantage point of Xena’s cross. "You know how to pick them, don’t you Xena?" She addressed Xena’s body approvingly, while lending her strength of spirit to keep it alive. She, by turns, did the same for Gabrielle. No, not through any form of selflessness, she informed Gabrielle, lest she think she bore some affection for her or Xena; nor, for that matter, out of any remorse for past sins committed. Nope! Nope!
"This is all his idea. And don’t ask me how it works, I just do as I’m told!" She addressed the two friends pertly. "But just between you and me, I don’t think he actually has power over
death--he’s just into the sickness, disease, famine, injuries and all such causes type of thing. Sometimes a bit over the top, but delicious--don’t you think?" She rotated her head and grinned, once again sporting a white gown.
"Hey, go easy down there!" She yelled with her trademark frown to the little group of people clustered around Amarice as they began the chore of raising the heavy crosses, with the addition of each woman’s weight, up and out of the holes into which their bases had been dropped. They didn’t realize that the dead weight of Callisto’s spirit also fell upon their shoulders. Of course, the people could neither see nor hear her admonition, although at one point, Eli tilted his right ear upward with a troubled expression as though listening for some strange and foreign sound.
"Easy! I said, ‘EASY!’"
They laid the crosses on the ground gently.
"No, Paulus," the centurion addressed his friend and fellow soldier as they trotted to the storage room for the appropriate tools, "the directive only said that Caesar was dead and that Marc Antony is acting on behalf of Rome in that leadership capacity until all can be investigated. It seems Caesar was misinformed as to the two women’s and their friends’ guilt and that innocent persons have been crucified! We are ordered to take them down immediately. If they are still alive, we are to get them to a healer. If they are dead, we are to wait until Brutus arrives for further instructions. He is already on his way. That’s all the message said."
"Innocent?! Did you see that she-bruin fight when her friend went down? She murdered half my men!" Paulus glared angrily at his friend and superior officer at the seeming disregard for the death of his soldiers, but he would not cross the line of insubordination out of respect for their friendship and for the centurion’s position. "They were only buried yesterday," he lamented.
"Murdered?! She was being held illegally by armed, uniformed guards! ‘Killed,’ don’t you mean? Our men are professional fighting men, even though we do not like it, those risks come with the territory. It was a fair fight and they were armed. But, to be just, if you knew you and your friends were innocent, and the local reigning authorities were coming to crucify them, and you were cornered, what would you do?"
Paulus refused to answer.
Rhabdus supplied for him, "Fight! And you know it! The law dictates a fair trial for any Roman citizen. They were never afforded that." He paused, "You know, I thought that was a little odd when they were first brought in."
They had reached the storage room in short order and began collecting the tools they would need. Paulus picked up an iron pry bar. "Rhabdus, who is to say they are Roman citizens? Some of them did not look Roman."
"Brutus intervened on behalf of the small one when he was here. Why else would he afford her that protection if she wasn’t Roman?" They retrieved the tools they needed and locked the storage room door. Once again they were on a run, this time to the gate leading outside the west wall.
"I got the feeling that something had passed between them on a previous occasion from what the girl said and from how Brutus responded." Paulus answered between measured breaths. They passed several men sitting, diligently sharpening their swords and cleaning armor in the barracks.
"Fall in," Paulus called. "To the crosses!" The men began wrestling their armor on as they ran to join their commanders.
The sentries at the gate removed the security bar to let the small contingency party pass to perform their onerous task outside the wall. As the gates swung inward, the sight before them halted the soldiers in mid-stride. The descending sun silhouetted a small group of villagers lined along the crest of the mountain, gently lowering the crosses of two beloved friends to the ground.
They caught their breath as they watched. Rarely were hardened soldiers moved by anything so tender. They didn’t understand why, but they waited respectfully, allowing the small group to settle the crosses on the ground before slowly and quietly advancing to join Eli’s small group in their task.
When they were within 30 feet, Amarice faced them, sword in her right hand, her left resting on her hip. She would fight them, if it came to it.
Eli touched her shoulder, "They’re here to help."
"Is that true? Do you come as friend or foe?" she asked as she squared off to take on the whole squadron.
Rhabdus admired her courage. "Friends," he answered evenly.
Rhabdus answered succinctly, "Orders."
Paulus pointed accusingly at the two prone soldiers.
"Oh, they’re not dead. I only slowed them down a bit," Amarice defended her actions to Rhabdus when he turned for an explanation. Several soldiers went to the aid of their downed comrades. The rest began assisting Xena and Gabrielle’s friends already working to free the two women from the crosses.
"Here, those stakes will never come out unless you use these," Paulus held up the pry bar for Eli’s inspection before he stepped past him to bend over the women to expertly remove the spikes driven through their hands and feet with one smooth pull each, never touching either woman’s flesh directly. Xena only groaned when the nails in her hands were removed. She never felt the pain of their removal from her feet. Gabrielle responded to both.
Callisto lay there smiling. This was going quite well, if she must say so herself.
"The fighting has broken off. The enemy is retreating," Flox observed gazing skyward watching the departing demons.
Anemos appeared before them once again. He smiled kindly at the two women before addressing his comrades. "The Ancient Foe has called a retreat. It seems he wants our two young friends to live as well." He turned to the two women, "Xena, Gabrielle, please be careful. And . . . choose well!" He saluted them with his sword and was gone.
"Does everyone know that we have a choice to make?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Well, you see," Tseer grinned sheepishly, "we throw a big party here when someone chooses to join the ranks of the redeemed. It is fantastic! In fact, downright glorious! We all look so forward to celebrating such a victory!"
Tseer motioned for the women to turn back toward the way they had come. They had been moving away from the garden ever since the first attack. Not that it had been an unpleasant amble for they had been constantly surprised by the freshness of this world around them. The brooks actually sang. The lakes reflected the blue brilliance of the sky so perfectly, that it was indistinguishable where one started and the other ended. The grass ran the gamut of hues, tints and shades of almost every color of this unknown spectrum. The flowers, likewise, with every shape imaginable. They now had an inkling of what was meant by the expression, "the trees of the field shall clap their hands!" They understood that this microcosm only contained the veiled expression of what lay beyond the door within the Cross that granted entrance into the garden. But it was resplendent!
They traversed the remaining distance to the imposing cherubimic archway in companionable silence. Each woman soaking in the beauty, lost in her own thoughts and examinations, unknowingly protected by the unseen Defender and these, His willing messengers.
Flox mused before continuing the earlier thread of their conversation, "But often humans pass into eternity without choosing life, thus giving the Enemy a success that he flaunts in the face of the Everlasting Father."
The Enemy’s victories pierce the Father heart of God. We weep at His anguish and tears, for we love Him above all else. His sadness is ours. But His joy, also we share!" Tseer brightened as his wings beat a joyful shiver at the contemplation.
Flox warned, "You can be sure, though, that the Evil One has a reason for breaking off his attack on you. He doesn’t know if you have chosen to accept forgiveness, or not. He’s hoping that by backing off now, he will get another shot at you later. He will pursue you again, if you choose not to pursue death!"
"Pursue death? Who in their right mind would pursue dea . . . ?" Gabrielle stopped mid-sentence and giggled self-consciously, "oh, yeah, right! Hmmm, well . . . ahem!" She cleared her throat surreptitiously, before continuing, "Ah! You mean we have a choice?"
"Yes, in your cases you do, and have had all along. Remember how we told you that God will make Himself known to all who fervently seek Him? You have been on a spiritual quest, have you not? You have been in search of the Way, and the Truth? My dear, young friends, He has given you that knowledge."
"Why is it we have not seen Him?" Xena asked wistfully.
"Aye, remember the colors when you saw them unblemished and in their full glory of original perfection and creation but for a brief moment?" Tseer asked softly.
Both women winced at the memory.
"You would not be able to bear the vision and live! His Love, His Grace would not have it so. Imperfect humans cannot even see His celestial ambassadors without becoming babbling--as you call them--‘idiots,’ much less to contemplate the glory of the Perfect and Almighty God." Flox became silent in reverent worship. With closed eyes, he raised his face to receive the warmth of His Light.
"Holy, holy, holy!" Tseer whispered skyward. "Is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come!" He spread his wings and arms upward simultaneously, flashing brilliant abandonment to His Creator. The archway and the entire, living wall that surrounded this garden paradise erupted with undulating wings, flashing swords and an army of voices raised in perfect cadence.
The two women were overwhelmed by the magnitude and ravaging splendor of these creatures and were rendered mute, falling to their knees in awful terror of the One to Whom these beings shouted their praise.
"Why do you wish to enter here?"
"Alright!" Callisto yelled nasally. "All abooaaarrrddd!"
Xena and Gabrielle’s broken bodies were being gently lifted from their crosses and lowered onto makeshift stretchers hastily formed by offered staffs, tunics and garments. The Roman soldiers picked up their human burdens and began walking carefully toward the infirmary.
Eli strode to stand directly in front of Gabrielle’s body, blocking further passage. "No, please! Let me!" He pleaded, his palms outstretched. Amarice was surprised at his fervor. He was finally acting!
Rhabdus looked to Paulus, then motioned for his men to lay the two women back down. They stepped away as Amarice and the little band of the faithful stepped in closer.
Eli looked skyward and begged, "Abba, help me!"
Callisto drew her mouth wide in an exaggerated yawn. "Okay, ladies--I’ve done my part. Time to wakey, wakey!"
"‘Abba’ means ‘father!’" Gabrielle grinned with the sudden realization.
"Does Eli know what he is saying? Whom he is asking for help?" Xena inquired of Flox, who had along with Tseer orchestrated their current view of the scene on Mt. Amoro, once again through the open doorway within the cross.
"Right now, he has an incomplete understanding. He only knows that there is power in his dependence. He is not yet sure on Whom or what, or even why. Perhaps, one day, you will be able to tell him?" Flox encouraged, one eyebrow raised in an eternal expression of hope.
"May we return, now? I mean, go back?" Gabrielle asked plaintively.
"That is your choice. You are not dead, yet. Although time is not on your side if you linger much longer!"
"Will . . . , will . . . well, will I be able to walk when I return to my body?" Xena choked.
"Ah, that has not been revealed to me. Only the Good Shepherd knows what is best for little lambs with broken legs . . . and backs," Tseer added tenderly. "But rest assured, if you so choose, He will never leave you, nor forsake you. He will not betray your trust. Whatever He calls you to, He will give you the grace to do! And He will travel that road with you. It is your choice."
"Even as a warrior?"
"If it is in His army!" Tseer grinned brandishing his sword high overhead. It flashed brightly as a beacon. Tseer and Flox resumed their positions as the archway of this garden paradise, while their replacements shifted to blend in with the rest of the cherubim that formed the wall. They turned with their backs outward, wings flattened, thus forming a smooth imperceptible pure white hedge. No wonder the women did not notice them at first.
They stood gazing for one last, long moment, then turned back earthward. The last sound Gabrielle heard was the haunting melody sung by the silky voice of her companion.
Brutus had just arrived. The human sea parted to let him maneuver close to where Eli knelt. He still sat upon his heaving and lathered horse, but bent as far down as possible without falling out of the saddle, looking upon the two women’s still forms, buried under mounds of coats and odd pieces of clothing. "Are . . . , are they . . . dead?"
Rhabdus ventured tentatively, "I . . . I don’t think so, sir."
Amarice recognized the rider and lunged at Brutus, her accusing finger poking him squarely in the chest with such force that he almost toppled from his horse. "It’s your fault that they’re in this shape!" she hurled at him through clenched teeth.
The Roman soldiers sprang to control her and roughly secured her arms. She continued unabated, "What? Come back to gloat over your handiwork?"
Brutus was silent, his eyes dark and uncommunicative.
Amarice strained against the soldiers restraint. "Was this some sort of a political game for you? Get your jollies by seeing who would die first?" She was up on her toes trying to reach him.
Brutus fought to remain stoic.
"So you did this to win friends and influence enemies? Are you pleased with yourself, you Roman puppet? Is this how you treat kindness? " She paused for breath. "Answer me, man!" Amarice’s demanding voice had become strident.
Brutus flinched. He cleared his throat, attempting to circumvent the lump there, "No." He paused, searching for an explanation. Finding none, he said simply, "Caesar is dead."
Amarice had nothing to say. Her mouth hung open. She stopped fighting against the soldiers’ grip, and actually leaned back against them. Finally, trying to maintain a modicum of pride she gave Brutus a weak, parting shot, "Is that supposed to impress me?" The soldiers realized they no longer needed to pinion her and released her arms.
Brutus just shook his head. He slowly dismounted, handed the reins to Paulus and moved to stand behind Eli, placing his hand on Eli’s shoulder momentarily in a gesture of support.
There was total silence from the people gathered around. They held their breaths, waiting, reacting almost as a collective whole. Their attention was on Eli and the two women laying before him on the ground.
Eli held Gabrielle’s hand and looked downward, first from one face then to the other of the two women, hoping for some sign, for some response. A flicker of an eyelid, or a twitch of a finger, even another groan would have been welcomed uproariously.
Again Eli looked skyward--raising his hands in supplication, "Abba, help me!"
"Getting a little crowded around here, don’t you think?" Callisto snickered. "Come on, Xena! Don’t you want to come back to check on your little friend here? There’s no telling what evil danger I’ve put her in!" Callisto mocked in a singsong voice. "Oops! There goes a hand! Oops, and, why, yes, . . . it’s a head!" She began entwining her fingers in Gabrielle’s short hair. "Better wake up, Xena! Oh, Xeeennaaa!"
Suddenly a hand appeared from nothingness and clamped Callisto’s mouth shut, while dragging her backward through a veiled opening into the spiritual dimension. "Do you know the meaning of the phrase ‘poor impulse control?’" An angry voice hissed. She was instantly swallowed up by the Darkness.
One of the women of Eli’s group reached out and placed single red rose buds, the first one on Gabrielle’s breast, the second, on Xena’s. She had found a trampled rose bush with these two flowers, bruised but still intact, near where the two women had been first laid to be nailed to their crosses. She began a chant, which the other followers picked up and moaned in unison.
"Hmmm!" the fragrance was sweeter and more pungent than anything Gabrielle ever remembered having experienced before. She opened both eyes and gingerly raised herself on one elbow--checking for soreness and pain in her movements. Although she was stiff and cold, she was relatively pain-free. She inspected her hands, one at a time. There were only scars where the spikes had been driven. The wounds were healed. She turned on her side to look down at her friend laying beside her. She gently lifted the rose that had shifted with her movement where it had lodged in a fold of one of the coats covering her. She sniffed deeply and satisfyingly. Her green eyes were shining.
Brutus hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath until that moment. He released it with a sigh of relief.
Eli’s band drew around him in awe, interspersing laughter and clapping with patting and touching Eli affirmingly, congratulating his partial success.
Xena still had not stirred. The elation waned. They grew sober . . . and waited.
Eli looked troubled and looked heavenward a third time. "Abba?"
"Xena!" Gabrielle called to her friend, never for a moment believing that Xena would have stayed behind, for this was their quest. She reached over and drew the rose laying on Xena’s chest up to where it lay slightly beneath the tall warrior’s nose, its petals touching her lips. She then leaned over to whisper in Xena’s ear, "Xena, what was it that you were just singing on the way?"
Xena inhaled the rose’s aroma, savoring its fervency. She thought that perhaps she appreciated it more for being aware of its Artisan Designer. She began to hum the same haunting melody Gabrielle had heard her singing.
A cheer broke out. Some danced. Then the people stopped to listen, soldier and disciple alike.
"That’s a new song, isn’t it?! I’ve never heard you sing it before!" Gabrielle snuggled closer to Xena, oblivious of questioning stares. "What is it?"
Xena sang softly in the gathering twilight, never opening her eyes, the rose rising and falling with her lips, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul! And He leads me in the path of righteousness, for His Name’s sake!"
All fell quiet with her song. This small, diverse group of people on the side of the mountain did not understand her words or their message, but listened hushed and expectant--from the smallest to the largest, from the least to the greatest.
Tseer’s reminder came wafting over the chasm now separating them from the garden. "It is your choice. Why do you wish to enter here?"
"Why?" they asked themselves. Very simple. It lay beyond the Cross!
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