Violence: Similar to the TV show.
Subtext: The ladies here care for each other deeply.
Thanks: To Hubby - your laughter and kindness fills my heart. To the brilliant writers in the Xenaverse - for sharing their talents and imagination. I've had many hours of enjoyment from reading your creations. I hope I can offer the same. To the readers who sent me comments and encouraging words on my first story "Mask of Courage".
This story picks up where "Mask of Courage" left off. It is recommended that you read that story first before proceeding with this tale since there are references to events from it.
In this Xenaverse, Gabrielle is the Queen of the Amazons, Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin are alive and well, and Xena is the former Conqueror. So what category does this story fit in? Classic Uber I guess.
This story is about friendship, forgiveness, and redemption.
For comments (or even just to let me know that you read it) please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
"That little sneak."
"What was that?" the warrior asks her traveling companion.
"Ephiny," the Amazon replies. "This." She tugs at her brand new green top.
A smile forms on Xena's lips. By Gabrielle's short answers, she knows the normally cheerful and talkative Amazon queen is still annoyed with her Regeant's little prank. The dark haired woman tries to hide her amusement and changes her expression to a serious one. "Are you sure it was Ephiny? It could have been Eponin or Solari."
Gabrielle sees the amusement in her eyes and lets out a sigh. "I guess it could be worse."
The green top was a gift from an Aunt of Dana and Megan's. In appreciation of what Gabrielle did to save Megan, the woman made it for her. She had told Gabrielle, "It brings out the color in your eyes." Not wanting to hurt the woman, she graciously accepted it. Ephiny had given Gabrielle a hard time and had dared her to wear the top thinking she won't do it. The day Xena and Gabrielle left the village, the Amazon queen had worn the present.
Xena gives the blonde a smile. They continue to ride silently each thinking about the day they left the village.
After traveling most of the morning, they stop to rest and to eat their midday meal. Gabrielle rummages through her saddlebag looking for the extra top she brought to change into. Suddenly she stops. Her eyebrows are drawn together and she is deep in thought. One hand is grasping her chin and the other is on her hip.
Xena sees the confused expression on Gabrielle's face "What's the matter?" she asks.
Gabrielle shakes her head. "I could have sworn I put my extra clothes in this bag."
Xena takes a moment to think. She pulls a piece of parchment from one of her bags and hands it to Gabrielle. "It's from Ephiny. I didn't read it but she said I would know when to give it to you. She said something about your clothes ?" She shrugs when Gabrielle gives her a stern look. Gabrielle hesitantly takes it and unfolds the paper. Xena watches as the youthful face softens. The blonde head shakes. "Well? What does it say?" Without a word Gabrielle hands the paper to Xena. The taller woman glances down and begins to read.
A gift given with love is a gift worth more than all the treasures of the land.
I should have never questioned the sweet disposition of my Queen.
You strive to do what is in your heart.
The love and appreciation you have for your people
stand tall for all to see.
Keep safe until your return home.
A Humble Sister
Xena smiles at the thoughtfulness of the note. Flipping it over she continues reading.
I agree. The top does bring out the color in your eyes.
Your other clothes will be here waiting for you.
Gabrielle chuckles to herself as the women continue their leisurely ride. It has been several days since they left the Amazon village and they are making their way to Amphipolis, Xena's home.
"It actually is quite comfortable," the Amazon comments.
"We can stop by one of the merchant stores to pick up a new top for you," Xena offers.
"No. That's okay. No sense in wasting good dinars."
"All right." Pause. "You know I had nothing to do with this."
Gabrielle smiles. "I know." A comfortable silence follows. "Xena. Did you and your brother play pranks on one another?" Immediately Gabrielle sees the change in the raven-haired woman and regrets asking the question.
Xena turns a little in her saddle to face Gabrielle. "Yes. Lyceus was the youngest. So he got most of the abuse. But he was good-natured about it. Just like you are."
Gabrielle shifts slightly in her saddle embarrassed by the comment. "Was it just you and Lyceus?"
"No. I have an older brother Toris but he and I weren't as close. My mother runs a tavern and my father? I don't know much about my father. He died when I was a young girl. So a lot of my father's responsibilities fell on Toris."
"Are you two on good terms?"
Xena stops her horse. Her companion does the same. "I don't know. A lot has happened between the time I left home until now. I don't know how any of my family feels about me. They see me as The Mighty Conqueror. Powerful, dark and heartless." Xena speaks the last words in a whisper as she drops her eyes to the ground.
"But you are no longer the Conqueror."
"No. But those things are a part of me, part of my reputation." Xena raises her eyes to look at the blonde. "I can't change over night."
"No one is expecting you to." The words are spoken with gentleness and encouragement.
The lack of judgement in Gabrielle's voice stirs a bit of guilt in Xena. She brings up a dark secret she no longer wants to hide. "Do you remember much about the night I captured you - when you were in my tent?"
The Amazon thinks for a moment and shakes her head. "No not much."
"Then your only knowledge of that evening is from the trial."
The blonde head nods. "Xena, what is it?"
"In the tent, when you were tied up. I was going to ?" Xena looks away. "I kept this to myself. I didn't want you to be disgusted with the fact that I almost ?"
"Almost what?" Gabrielle quietly asks. Then she realizes the what. "Why are you telling me this now?"
"I want you to see what I was capable of-"
"Don't you think I know bout your darkness? But Xena, your desire for control and power no longer drives you. If it did, I wouldn't be here with you." Pause. "Thank you for telling me."
"I didn't want to betray your trust in me."
Gabrielle nods her understanding. She glances around to view their surroundings. "Why don't we take a break. There's a river nearby."
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle calls out to Xena. The blonde shakes her head at this odd looking scene before her. The warrior is standing almost waist deep in the river bent over as if listening to the waters.
"I'm trying to catch us lunch," Xena whispers. She puts a finger to her lips to stop her friend from speaking out. Gabrielle gives Xena a bemused look but quietly complies. The dark haired woman cocks her head and for a moment listens intently. A smile of triumph flashes across her face.
Before Gabrielle can blink, a fish is sailing her way. It lands at her feet. She watches in awe as Xena pulls out another fish. Getting her senses back she quickly ducks to avoid this second fish. "Your aim is a little off," she teases.
A smiling Xena, with a third fish in hand, approaches Gabrielle. Looking down at the seated Amazon she wags the fish at her. "These things are a bit slippery." She holds the specimen out. "Here. I kept my end of the bargain."
"Yes you did and I always keep mine." Gabrielle takes the fish from Xena. After picking up the other two, she sets about cleaning and gutting the fish. Xena makes a move to give her some help but the petite blonde waves her off. "No. I've got it."
"Are you sure? I don't mind-"
"No. It's all right. Why don't you relax. Get some rest. I'll let you know when the meal is ready."
When Xena gives Gabrielle an "okay whatever you say" look Gabrielle lets out a chuckle.
"What's so funny?"
Still laughing and shaking her head the Amazon answers. "You. You look so adorable. It's so-"
"Unlike me," Xena finishes for her.
"That's not what I was going to say."
Xena becomes very somber. Gabrielle sees the change and softly inquires, "What's wrong?"
Going against her nature, Gabrielle decides not to question Xena about her change in mood. "I'm sorry if I said anything to upset you."
Xena shakes her head. "No. You don't need to apologize." She purposely stretches a bit. "I think I will take you up on your suggestion to relax." She approaches Argo and grabs her bedroll.
Gabrielle watches Xena for a moment before returning to the task at hand. While cleaning the fish, her thoughts turn to the former Conqueror and the past life that weighs heavily on her friend's conscious. She's makes a silent promise to find a way to help lighten the load.
"That was excellent," a very satisfied Xena proclaims. The two women are lounging along the river. "You are quite the cook. Is that one of the qualifications of becoming an Amazon queen?"
"Very funny. And no. I learned this from my mother. It's something all the girls learned at my village. You know for when they have families."
After a long pause Xena turns to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry about your husband."
Gabrielle is touched by the sincerity she hears in Xena's statement. "Thank you." After a pause Gabrielle tells Xena about her and Perdicus. "We were childhood friends. His warmth and gentleness drew me closer to him. There were times when we were," she pauses and makes a face, "curious but he was always the gentleman. He believed just as I did that the first time should be with the one you married for life. He was a little bit of a dreamer. I think that's what I loved most about him. Besides his boyish good looks." Gabrielle stops and smiles in her remembrance of her husband.
"And your family ?" Xena asks as she observes a hint of emotion in Gabrielle's face.
"I don't see them much anymore." She pauses. With the stick in her hand she draws some lines in the dirt. "I have a younger sister ? Lila."
"And your parents are still alive." It was more of a comment than a question.
"Yes." More silence follows. Xena is about to ask Gabrielle more about them but the blonde changes the subject.
"I've been thinking. Do you think it was wise for you to give up control of your empire?"
"It's the right thing to do. I returned the power back to the people. Gabrielle, I never want to go back to who I was. The things that I have done? If it wasn't for you I would still be in the darkness."
"Xena you are the one who made the choice to try to change."
"I might have made it, but I would have never considered it before I met you."
"Sometimes the choices before us are obvious. Following through with your decision is the hardest part. There were many opportunities for you to change your mind and go back to the power and the position you had. But you didn't. I haven't told you but I have a great admiration and respect for you because of that."
Very softly Xena answers back, "It's easy to do when you have a friend who supports you." A little uncomfortable with this deep conversation, Xena casually changes the topic. "Look why don't we go ahead and camp here for the night. It's a nice spot. You can catch up on your writing?"
"Sounds like a good plan to me. What are you going to do?"
"I can scout out the area, maybe do a little hunting, a little drilling with my sword."
"Maybe we can spar later."
"All right. When I get back." Xena gathers a few things from Argo's saddle bag and heads out.
Gabrielle pulls out the journal she has been keeping of their time together. Turning back a page she rereads the entry she had written the day before.
Xena is always on alert. Her awareness of her surroundings is truly remarkable. Today we encountered a group of travelers on their way home. Before I even saw them coming over the hill Xena had already 'sensed' them.
But whenever we make camp, she lets her guard down a bit and is a little more relaxed. I feel Xena is warming up to me. I get glimpses of a sensitive and fun-loving woman. Our conversations aren't the same as when Ephiny or Solari and I talk. But in our interaction with one another, there is a feeling of comfort. It's like we have known each other for a long time. I'm sure in our journey to Xena's home I'll get to learn more about her.
Gabrielle settles down and begins to think about her observations today. It is some time before she writes down her thoughts.
As the Conqueror Xena had closed her heart to everything. I suppose it was part of the image, to be in control and not to show any weaknesses. It is a defense mechanism that I thankfully see less and less of.
I see the sadness that envelops Xena the few times we have talked about her past. I hear the guilt in her voice. She said this trip to Amphipolis is for her to make things right between her and her family. She does not dare hope for too much. It's almost as if she expects rejection. I don't know what happened between her and her family but I have hope that she will accomplish her goal and much more.
She won't take any credit for the changes that she has made in her life. But going home is a small part of a continuing journey that started when she took care of me after I was injured by Callisto's arrow. It probably started before that. I don't know where it will take her but I know I want to be there with her when this journey of redemption ends.
Gabrielle to look up from the parchment when she hears the sounds of Xena returning to their camp. She carefully puts away her journal after blowing at the ink of the last sentence.
"Everything looks all right. I managed to snare us some dinner while I was out scouting." Xena holds up a rabbit to show her companion.
"Great. Do you still want to get some practice in before we eat?"
"Sure." Xena drops the rabbit near the fire and moves to the clearing nearby. She pulls out her sword and takes a few practice swings. Then she begins to twirl her sword in fluid figure eight's. She stops and watches Gabrielle approach with her staff. "Do you know how to use other weapons?"
"Yes. It was part of my training. I was taught how to use a sword, chobos, and a bow and arrow. But I'm most comfortable with a staff."
Xena nods at this information. While she was at the Amazon village, she did not see Gabrielle do many drills because the Amazon was still recovering from her injuries and because queenly duties occupied most of her time.
Xena observes Gabrielle as she goes through a practice drill to warm up.
"Xena. I know we are just practicing but I don't want you to hold back too much. Okay?"
The warrior nods. "All right."
Most of Gabrielle's fighting experiences have come on the practice fields. With hard work and diligence, Gabrielle became quite skilled in defending herself. Her staff work was considered one of the best among her sisters. And because of her small stature she worked hard in building her strength and the lean and muscular body was the result. Her battle with Xena in 'The Pit' showed her what a formidable warrior Xena is and she vowed to improve. She knew she was lucky to have taken Xena down and knew with certainty that Artemis was looking out for her that day.
"I'm ready," the Amazon tells Xena.
Xena nods as both women take up their fighting stances. Gabrielle makes the first move and swings her staff at Xena's right side. After a series of strikes and jabs, she tries to sweep Xena off of her feet. Xena easily avoids the staff and somersaults over her opponent.
"Good try," Xena tells her. "My turn."
Gabrielle barely sees the blade as she blocks the first blow with an overhead thrust. She rolls away before Xena can kick her in the abdomen. She quickly stands and blocks Xena's next attempt. The women continue their practice exchanging blows. Finally after a length of time, Xena swings down hard towards Gabrielle left shoulder. The Amazon thrusts her staff out to block it. She feels the vibrations of her staff as the blade makes contact against the smooth wood. She is amazed by the power behind it as she is brought down to one knee.
Xena extends a hand to Gabrielle and easily pulls her up. "Not bad. You mixed things up, used your strengths to your advantage."
"Our last fight taught me that. And I have had a good teacher."
Xena nods her agreement. "I'll have to compliment Eponin the next time I see her."
"So what do I need to improve on?"
"I think you need to consider is your mindset. If you ever go up against someone say like-"
Xena gives Gabrielle a thoughtful glance before continuing. "Okay. If you ever go against someone like me you need every advantage. Right now you hold back on striking any potentially deadly blows. You had opportunities to strike me here or here." Xena points to her neck and to her head. "But you choose to strike me at the legs or at my midsection. Don't let those opportunities slip away. You might not get another chance. I respect your ideals of not wanting to take a life but I don't want to see you get hurt or worse."
Gabrielle grimly nods. "I'll consider it. Anything else?"
"Not really. Your staff work is remarkable. How are you without your staff?"
"Hmm. I'm not sure. Okay I guess."
"I'll have to talk to Eponin about adding some hand to hand to your drills."
"All right. I think our session worked up my appetite. I'm glad you caught a big rabbit."
"Hey. Make sure you leave some for me." Xena shakes her head and smiles. 'Ephiny did warn me.'
After a satisfying dinner, the women settle down into their evening routine. Xena usually sharpens her sword or tends to Argo. Gabrielle writes in her journal. Other times they just sit around the fire and talk.
"Xena." Gabrielle calls from her bedroll.
"Hmm." Xena is on hers and has her eyes closed.
"What figure do you see up there?"
"Up in the sky ? over there." She points to the sky.
"Hmmm. Looks like a dipper."
Gabrielle frowns slightly. "That's what Solari said."
"What do you see?"
"I see a bear."
In the dark Xena smiles at her friend's comment and thinks to herself, 'There's an innocence in everything she sees.' They continue to chat and map out the rest of the stars above.
Wanting to get an early start, Xena had tried to awaken Gabrielle but her efforts proved to be unsuccessful. Finally after a bribery of the senses, the olfactory to be specific, she was able to entice the blonde to leave her bedroll. After breakfast, they picked up camp and then set off on their horses.
Gabrielle is riding on a beautiful caramel colored horse. Comparing it to Xena's horse Argo, Gabrielle's is slightly smaller in size. Gentle in nature, Amber had reminded Gabrielle of a horse that she once owned in her youth. She had insisted to Ephiny and Eponin that this was the horse for her. Whenever she had the chance, Gabrielle would brush her down and talk to the horse. It took a while but a bond was finally formed between the two. But this morning Amber is acting up.
Xena notices the horse's uneasiness and makes a suggestion. "Why don't we give the horses a break and walk."
Both ladies dismount. Gabrielle gives Amber a pat and talks to her. "Hey girl. Everything all right?" The horse nods her head in response. "Just not ready for a morning ride, huh? Yeah, me neither."
Xena gives her companion a mocked pained expression and then grins. "Eponin warned me that you weren't at your best in the early hours."
"It just takes me a little longer to wake up, that's all. Once I am, I'm fine."
"It's like you're a whole different person," Xena laughs.
"That bad, huh?" Gabrielle sheepishly asks.
"No. I'm just use to getting up and going."
"Well having me around will encourage you to slow down and enjoy the things around us." Gabrielle takes a deep breath. "Look and listen. I'm so amazed by what is around us." It is a cool and crisp morning. A few clouds dot the blue sky. The blonde continues to chat as the ladies walk. Suddenly Xena stops.
"Xena, what is it?"
Gabrielle cautiously scans the area and sees riders ahead. She estimates their number to be about twenty. 'She's right. Too many men together spells trouble.' She makes a quick suggestion. "Xena. It's not too late to avoid these guys."
"No. They've already seen us. It's better if stand our ground. Let me handle this."
The riders soon are upon the women and stop a short distance away. The leader dismounts from his horse and approaches them. "Xena, so good to see you again."
"I heard about your foolish decision. You should have consulted with me first before relinquishing control of your empire. There are other options? partnerships? alliances. We can make a great team ?. on and off the battle field."
"You always had a thing for powerful women."
Draco gives Xena a broad smile. "Don't forget beautiful ones too." He glances over to Gabrielle and his face lights up. "Where are my manners?" He hears Xena mutter something under her breath but ignores her. "I am Draco. And you are?" he asks as he lets his eyes linger on the blonde.
"A friend of mine," Xena answers in a low growl.
Not intimidated Draco continues to gaze at Gabrielle. The short and sleeveless top shows off her flat stomach and toned arms. Draco smiles in appreciation. He spots the Amazon staff. "Xena, since when did you become friends with the Amazons."
"I met Gabrielle in a character building program," Xena tells him. "I'll sign you up."
Gabrielle makes her observations during Xena's and Draco's exchange. The warlord is dressed in black leathers. An opened vest shows off his muscular arms and broad chest. A scar on his cheek adds to the aura of the dangerous power that radiates from him. One would definitely say that he was tall, dark and handsome.
Draco interrupts Gabrielle's musings. "Do you usually have beautiful and dangerous women speaking for you?"
An amused smile appears on the blonde's face but she doesn't answer. Neither Draco nor Gabrielle break eye contact with one another. When Xena sees the look in his eyes, she immediately becomes protective of her friend. "Back off," she commands in a low growl.
Draco holds up a hand. "No harm done. I would love to continue admiring this view," he smiles, "but I have to be some place." Bowing slightly to Gabrielle he states, "Pleasure to meet you Gabrielle." He then turns to the dark warrior. "Xena. Think about what I said."
With those parting words Xena watches Draco and his men gallop away. Her face is tense.
"Xena. What's wrong?"
"Draco is up to no good. No?" Xena whispers in a worried voice. "Amphipolis. Come on."
They arrive in Amphipolis. Fortunately things look normal but they feel a tension in the air. People walk by and suddenly stop and stare at the pair but their focus is mostly on at Xena. Gabrielle reads the fear in their faces. On the outside Xena looks as if she is unfazed by their hateful glares but her companion recognizes the defense mechanism. An older man steps into their path causing them come to an abrupt stop. Gabrielle makes an assumption that he is one of the elders.
"I never thought you would show your face here ever again. One of your friends came by?" The man relates Draco's visit and words to them.
"Since Xena is no longer?" Draco pause as a pensive look crosses his face, "the Conqueror you can no longer rely on her 'protection'. I can spread the good word that Amphipolis should be left alone. But services like these must be compensated. My men and I will be returning shortly?"
"The people are afraid. Even though you are not welcomed here, the very least you can do is to help us with this Draco." The elder is gruff with Xena. His words are full of anger and blame.
Xena doesn't speak for a long time. "I'll take care of it." No other words are spoken and the elder turns around and leaves. "This way," Xena tells Gabrielle. They continue walking.
Xena points ahead. "My mother's tavern."
They enter. Still early in evening, the room is filled with a few people. An older woman is giving instructions to a young girl with a rag and tray in her hand. The girl nods and then walks toward some tables near them. She glances at Xena before clearing off a table. When the woman spots the two travelers, her lips draw tightly together and her eyes darken. She watches as they approach.
The older woman wearily eyes Xena and says nothing. She is a petite woman with brown hair that fall past her shoulders. The brown eyes show their coldness.
Uncomfortable with the silence, Xena makes an introduction. "This is my friend Gabrielle." Turning to the blonde Xena continues, "and this is my mother Cyrene."
"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle cordially states.
Cyrene does not immediately acknowledge Gabrielle but examines her with a critical eye. 'What a contrast. This girl has a face of an angel compared to ?' Cyrene doesn't finish her thought. She had rid herself of any feelings she had for her daughter a long time ago. Seeing Xena brings back the old wounds and the memories she had tried so hard to forget. She quickly tries to bury that pain. "What's a nice girl like you doing with my daughter." The last word is said with venom. "Unless you're just like her-"
Xena immediately lashes out. "You will not judge Gabrielle based on my friendship with her. I thought you would be above that."
"Anything I do will be far better than what you have done," Cyrene angrily replies. "Oh I've heard the stories. Stories of things that you do to your prisoners. Of the lives that you have turned upside down. The people that you take to your bed." The last sentence is said in a harsh whisper. Cyrene starts to walk away but she stops and decides to continue her tirade. "And now this warlord comes demanding protection money from us! Have you ever thought about the consequences to your actions!" Cyrene's anger keeps her rolling and all of her emotions pour out. "Not a word. Not a single word from you in all these years. Now you come back out of the blue when I had finally healed from ? Seeing you brings back the pain. Something you obviously know nothing about."
"I know about pain," Xena replies in a low, controlled voice. "Don't you think I blamed myself for his death!? Each and every day I wake up knowing my brother died because of me."
"Whether or not you carry the guilt of Lyceus' death is none of my concern. All I know is the day The Conqueror was born, was the day I lost my daughter. You're a stranger to me."
"We'll be leaving then," Xena says in a tension filled voice. "Come on Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's heart breaks for this broken relationship and especially for Xena. Determined not to let Xena give up she tries to stall. "Xena, we've been traveling all day just to get here before dark. Can't we have a nice, quiet meal before we leave? I don't think Cyrene is the kind of woman who would turn anyone away who is hungry."
"As long as you're paying customers you can stay," she states in a very abrupt manner.
"Are my dinars good enough for you?" Xena replies with disdain.
"Your words not mine. I have other customers waiting." With those last words Cyrene walks away.
Xena feels a slight tug from Gabrielle. The blonde gestures for Xena to go ahead of her. Giving in to her friend, Xena leads them to a table in the back of the room next to the kitchen's entrance. The same girl they saw earlier comes to take their order. In no time their meal is served.
"I've never seen such quick service," Xena states with a bit of suspicion.
"Well, we are right next to the kitchen," Gabrielle offers. "And it isn't very busy."
"I don't think that has anything to do with it."
"Let's not dwell on it and enjoy this hot meal," Gabrielle suggests. "Xena?"
"Can I ask you about Draco."
"What do you want to know."
"I take it he was one of your associates."
"And you two were involved." When Xena does not answer, Gabrielle senses she has over step her bounds and backs down. "Okay, no more questions tonight."
"Gabrielle. I'll tell you more about my past. Just not now. Okay?"
Throughout the rest of their meal, Gabrielle tries her best to brighten Xena's mood by chattering away. Her cheerfulness is infectious and soon she has Xena smiling at one of her stories.
Their table in the back allows Xena to watch the comings and goings of the inn's dining room. The monthly tradition of the families gathering together for an evening meal soon fills the modest room. But the mood in the tavern contains nervous energy most likely caused by Draco's visit and Xena's appearance.
A young girl of sandy brown hair enters with her father. The father's features become harsh upon seeing Xena. But it turns to disgust when he sees Gabrielle. Xena notices his reaction to Gabrielle and makes a mental note to keep an eye on him.
The man immediately turns around to exit pulling his daughter with him. But she escapes his grasp. "But father, Samona and Galynn will be here tonight. And you promised that we would eat here if I did all of my chores."
"I've changed my mind. We can go home and I will fix us something."
"Father. It's late and you're tired. Please. Let's stay."
"All right Tara," he reluctantly tells her taking a last glance toward the back. He guides them to the far side of the room, away from Xena and Gabrielle.
Because of the additional patrons, the noise level in the room has increased. "So much for a quiet meal," Xena tells Gabrielle. She scans the room and sees the stares and gestures. The only person seemingly not interested in them is a figure bent over his meal with his back to them. 'Probably a traveler on his way to the next village.'
"I don't know. I kind of like it. You can learn a lot about a village through the interactions of the people."
"What do you want to know? I know most of them."
"The best way for me to learn about someone is in observing him or her myself. It's the bard in me."
"So what are your observation of my mother and me?" Xena quietly asks.
Gabrielle's face turns pensive. She takes a moment before sharing her thoughts. "Well you were very rigid in your stance as if you were uncomfortable. Your arms were crossed as if you were protecting yourself. Your mother is torn in her feelings. She kept her distance yet she would lean towards you and then move back."
"Quite an observation," Xena states as she watches three girls nearby. One of them is the girl that had entered with the man with the attitude. They come closer to Xena and Gabrielle but stop a table away. They are whispering and pointing at them. Finally the smallest of the trio is pushed forward.
"Excuse me Miss," Galynn asks Gabrielle. "We were wondering if you are an Amazon."
Gabrielle smiles at the youngster. Probably five or six in age, she has long black hair and delicate features. The blonde takes a quick glance at the other little girls and sees their curious but serious faces.
"Do you think I'm an Amazon?"
"Why is that?"
"Because of the clothes you are wearing. No one else dresses like that," Galynn honestly answers.
Gabrielle sees the smirk forming on Xena's face but ignores her. "What do your friends think?"
"My sister Samona," Galynn pauses and points back to one of the two girls, "said that Amazons are over six feet tall. And that you couldn't be one because you look kind of short."
Xena tries to hide the smile on her face by wiping her mouth with her napkin.
"So what about my friend," Gabrielle gestures to Xena. "Do they think she is an Amazon?"
"We know who she is. Our parents say-"
The other girls quickly jump in and interrupt. "Galynn!" Samona calls out. Giving Xena and Gabrielle her brightest smile she introduces herself. "I'm Samona, this is Tara and of course you've meet my little sister Galynn".
Xena glances at the talking girl. She looks like a bigger version of Galynn.
"I'm Gabrielle and this as you already know is Xena. To answer your question I am an Amazon."
"I was right!" Tara triumphantly exclaims. But in an instant she becomes very somber and backs away a little. She looks nervously behind her. "My father doesn't like Amazons. He is always telling me 'You don't want to be like those Amazons.'"
"Why would he say that?" Xena asks.
"He says that Amazons are bad. That they don't want to get married because they don't want any responsibilities."
"He only says that because of Sara ," Samona tells them.
"Who is Sara?" Gabrielle asks.
"My older sister. She ran away from home. I heard Auntie say she joined up with some women warriors," she replies. "After she left, father always seems to be in a bad mood. He always gives me a hard time."
Gabrielle looks at the father and then back at Tara and the other girls. An idea forms in her mind. "Would you like to hear a story?"
The girls shyly nod their heads. Gabrielle scans the room for Cyrene and then excuses herself from the table. First she goes over to talk to Cyrene. Cyrene seems hesitant at first but finally nods her head. Gabrielle walks to a small raised platform that is near the kitchen. The children gather around and the Amazon queen becomes a storyteller.
"There once was a girl who married her childhood sweetheart. Her family was very happy. One fateful day the couple was on the road to visit relatives and were attacked by robbers. Courageous women warriors called Amazons came to their aid."
"Were they six feet tall?" Samona interrupts.
"Not all of them."
"Then they aren't Amazons."
"You don't have to be tall or big to be an Amazon. Amazons are also known for their amazing fighting abilities and their courageous hearts."
"See I told you. Anyway she's an Amazon and she's not tall," Galynn tells her.
"Would you two stop it," Tara hushes them. "I want to hear the rest of the story."
Gabrielle smiles as she waits for the girls to settle down. Other children have gathered and sit waiting for her to continue. "The robbers fought back and one of the Amazon warriors went down. The girl attempted to protect the woman by covering the fallen warrior's body with her own. Finally the robbers were over taken and the fighting had ended. Unfortunately the girl's husband had died as did the Amazon warrior the girl had tried to protect. The girl was filled with grief over the death of her husband. The Amazons touched by her predicament took her back to their village where she stayed for few days. The girl was fascinated with these women and decided she wanted to spend time with them to learn their ways. She traveled back to her home and told the family of her decision. Her family was less than pleased but had allowed her to choose her life's path. She often sent word back about her life but never heard anything from her family. Worried about them she made a trip home. Her mother and sister greeted and warmly welcomed her. But her father was a different story. You see, family was the most important thing to the father. And when the girl left he felt she chose the women warriors over her family. This broke the father's heart and he vowed never to let her hurt him again.
The mother tried to reason with him. 'Why won't you welcome your eldest daughter back?' she inquired.
'She is not my daughter!' the father roared back.
'Why are you acting like this? She is your own flesh and blood?' the mother continued to plead.
'She was my daughter once. She abandoned her family when she left with those women. Just like sailors who are lost at sea, never to return home again. She is lost to me now,' he replied back.
The mother stood silent, stunned by her husband's unyielding heart. She makes one last attempt to sway him. 'Do you remember her entrance into this world? She was so small. We thought she was at Death's doorstep and it seemed as if Hades himself was pulling her through. But she stubbornly held on. And her strong will gave her victory over death. It was a miracle. And this little miracle grew up. In your eyes she is the little girl who waited eagerly for her father to come home from a hard day's work. And when she was older, the two of you worked side by side. You said working together made the day's task more enjoyable and less like the hard labor it really was. You were closer than most fathers and daughters. She grew up to be a fine young lady. Any father would be proud to call her daughter. I know you were. I will never forget the look in your eyes when you stood besides her to give her away at her wedding. I saw the sadness in your face when you realized she would be starting a new life with the childhood friend she fell in love with. But I also knew how especially proud you were of her on that day. And she in turn adored you, admired you. She never wanted to do anything you would disapprove of. But when she told us of her desire to live with those women warriors, it was the first time she saw the disappointment in your eyes. And that hurt her very deeply. But still she followed her heart and left this place. She physically left this place, but she never left here.' The mother points to her heart. 'It took a lot of courage for her to come home and face you. But now you say she is not your daughter, that she is lost to you. Well husband, she can be found. She is here now so finding her should be easy enough.'
The father mulls over his wife's words. His daughter's beaming face appears in his mind and he smiles at the memory. She had brought her small wooden toy horse to him. One of the boys had broken it and she looked to her father to make it all right. He had reassured her that he could fix little 'Timpani' and had sent her off to play with her baby sister. He spent the rest of the evening fixing his daughter's cherished toy. He presented Timpani to her and was rewarded with a squeal of joy. Little arms wrapped around his neck and a soft kiss was placed on his check. And because of this memory his heart began to soften. He went to look for her at a favorite place of theirs - a hill where they shared many sunsets together. And that is where he found her. After a moment's hesitation, he approaches her.
Looking out at the setting sun he addresses her. 'Daughter.'
Turning slightly, she acknowledges him in a soft voice. 'Father.'
An awkward silence surrounds them. Clearing his throat the father speaks. 'Beautiful isn't it?' Turning to face her he sees the sadness in her face. He is answered with a nod. 'I think your mother is making your favorite dessert this evening. Nutbread isn't it?' Again he is answered with only a nod. In an uncomfortable and gruff voice he commands, 'Come if you want to join your family for the evening meal.' The daughter nods again and slowly begins to make her way back to the house. The father closes his eyes and shakes his head at his attempt to reach out to her. Finally he blurts out in a shaky voice. 'I've missed you.'
The daughter stops and turns around to find tears in her father's eyes. She swallows the lump in her throat before responding. 'I've missed you too.'
The father opens his arms and the daughter steps into his embrace. He kisses the top of her head and murmurs these words. 'I have found you little one. And I have found myself again.' "
As Gabrielle ends her story, the room fills with applause. The children thank her for the story and many begin to head back to their families. A few of the women are drying their eyes. Some of the men have risen from their chairs and are hugging their children. Only Tara remains. Gabrielle moves off the stage and stands with the girl.
"Tara. Is that you father?" Gabrielle inquires as she gestures to the man across the room.
Gabrielle sees him shift uncomfortably when their gazes meet but he makes no move to approach them. The once harden features have softened a bit. "He's handsome." Tara smiles shyly at the compliment. "He doesn't look like such a bad man." Gabrielle stoops to lower herself to Tara's height so they can see eye to eye. "I think he gives you a hard time because he is afraid that maybe like your sister, you'll leave too and he would miss you very much." Tara draws her eyebrows together as she considers Gabrielle's words. "Go on. I think he's waiting for you."
Tara nods and then heads toward her father. He ruffles her hair and then pulls her into an embrace. Tara returns his gesture. Looking at Gabrielle the man gives her a slight nod.
Both Xena and her mother had listened to Gabrielle's story and the conversation between Gabrielle and Tara. They had watched the girl hurry off to her father and had seen them embrace. Xena from her table. Cyrene at the doorway of the kitchen.
Once again one of Gabrielle's story touches Xena's heart. "Uh ? beautiful evening, isn't it?" Xena says out loud to no one in particular.
Cyrene turns to look at Xena and has a look of bewilderment on her face. Not understanding she pauses but then realizes the meaning behind her statement. She can't stop the emotions from stirring within her. "If you want to, come later and join your mother for dessert," Cyrene tells her softly. "And please extend my invitation to your friend."
Cyrene nervously wipes off the table again as she waits for her daughter and her daughter's blonde friend. After the tavern closed she had baked some nutbread loaves. They sit on the table waiting to be consumed over a good drink and hopefully good conversation. She begins to fidget with her apron.
'What was I thinking,' Cyrene questions herself as her mind and heart debates with one another. She closes her eyes against the pain that dwells deep within her heart.
Xena and Gabrielle enter the tavern once again. The warrior stops and watches the inner struggle her mother is waging against herself. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all."
"Xena. You knew this wasn't going to be easy. But you know you have to try," Gabrielle gently encourages her.
Xena lowers her head and tries to bring up the courage to face her mother and her past. She feels Gabrielle's hand as it gently rubs her lower back. Drawing on this support, Xena moves toward her mother.
Cyrene looks up at the approaching women. She gives them a weak smile and gestures for them to have a seat. "Xena. Gabrielle. What would you like to drink?"
"Hot tea." Gabrielle answers politely.
Xena quietly answers, "I'll have the same."
Cyrene nods her head and then disappears into the kitchen. Gabrielle glances over at her friend and sees her agitation from the other side of the table. She sees uncertain blue eyes calling to her for help. Reaching over Gabrielle gives Xena a reassuring touch on her forearm. "Xena. I wish I could say the magic words and make everything right for you and your mother. But I can't." Gabrielle pauses before continuing. "I believe in my heart that you both want this."
"Yes. A reconciliation. A new start."
No other words pass between the two. Many thoughts run through Xena's head. She wants so much for things to be like it was years before she became the Conqueror. But too much has happened. 'How can I expect Cyrene to reconcile with me?' Her shoulders drop a little in defeat. "A clean slate huh? I don't think I deserve that. The wounds run too deep." Xena clenches her jaw and averts her eyes from Gabrielle. "I think I was only fooling myself into believing that I can ever come home again."
Gabrielle mentally shakes her head at Xena's words. 'She carries so much guilt in her heart.' But she refuses to let this opportunity slip away from Xena. "Why do you think Cyrene has invited us over? I'm sure it's as uncomfortable for her as it is for you but she's trying."
Before Xena can respond, Cyrene appears with a tray holding the steaming mugs of tea. "I'm sorry it took me so long. I was trying to find some honey. Apparently Rachael had moved it. Anyway I found it but then I also wanted to get some sugar and some spices and ?" Cyrene stops when she realizes she is babbling.
Gabrielle gives the older woman a warm smile. "Thank you Cyrene. I hope you didn't go through too much trouble baking these delicious smelling loaves."
"No. It was no trouble at all. I hope you like nutbread." Cyrene casually asks as she sets the mugs down on the table.
"Yes I do. In fact it is my favorite."
"When I heard your story, I took a guess that you might like it and it is one of Xena's ?" Cyrene clears her throat.
The conversation suddenly stops. Finally Xena speaks up. "Do you have a knife?"
"Excuse me?" Cyrene asks, a little startled by the question.
"A knife. To cut the nutbread." Xena gestures to the loaves.
"Oh of course." She sheepishly replies. "I forgot." She leaves and shortly returns with a knife and some plates. She hands the knife over to Xena and places the plates in on the table.
Gabrielle watches as Xena slices into the bread. "It smells wonderful Cyrene." She makes a gesture for Cyrene to join them. 'Come on Xena. Say something. Say something.'
"It's the best nutbread in Amphipolis," Xena tells Gabrielle in a quiet voice.
Cyrene glances at Xena after hearing the compliment. "I'm glad you still think so," she whispers. Both mother and daughter look at one another. The desire to reach out can be seen clearly in their eyes.
"Cyrene. Xena was telling me a little bit about her childhood. About some of the trouble she got into?" Gabrielle hopes this will open the door for the conversation to continue.
"Yes. She was always getting into trouble. Her and Lyceus." Cyrene eases into the topic of conversation. "You see my oldest son Toris is a little more reserved. Being the man of the house I guess he was forced into that role." Cyrene's thoughts momentarily linger on her husband. She continues. "Lyceus was different from his brother. He was mischievous, full of laughter? he was Xena's shadow," she states as if that one sentence would explain everything. "I remember the time they tried to sneak back into the house when ?" After the story, Gabrielle quietly excuses herself.
"Why did you come back?" Cyrene says in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Gabrielle," Xena answers her. A slight smile appear as Xena thinks about her golden haired companion. She looks up an sees her mother's waiting brown eyes. "Gabrielle showed me what I was missing in my life. Happiness, trust. I've come to realize how much I missed my home. My family. That's why I'm here. To see if it is at all possible for?" Xena stops. Expressing her feelings was never a strength and she struggles with the words. "But I've done so many things ? I won't blame you if hate me."
"Oh Xena, " Cyrene replies and slowly shakes her head. "When I first saw you I was angry. And maybe at one time I did hate what you had become." She sees a hint of emotion in the guarded blue eyes. Cyrene fiddles with her apron. "In all those years that have passed, my anger grew. I tried not to become bitter by not dwelling on it. But I did dwell on it. The more I thought about it the more upset I became. And then I began to blame everything on you. It was easier that way." She wipes the crumbles on the table onto her plate. "I had made up my mind a long time ago to never let you back into my life. I was ready to walk away."
"Why didn't you?"
"Your friend's story." Again she shakes her head. "I was so angry for so long. I was angry at the world and all its unfairness. I didn't know at the time but now I realize I was angry at myself for failing to protect you and Lyceus from the evil of this world."
"We were adults then. There was nothing that you could have done."
"Maybe. The day you told me Lyceus died was the day I saw the grief and guilt consume your soul. And you changed from the daughter I knew to a complete stranger. And over the years you became the Conqueror I despised." Still Cyrene sees no emotion on her daughter's face. "You weren't the only one hurting, torn by grief. I wanted to console you and to be consoled. But you became this monster without any feelings. And because of that I thought I had failed as a mother. I tried to push the memories of the daughter I once knew out of my life. Remembering what I had lost hurt too much."
Xena contemplates her mother's words not knowing what to say. Her thoughts lead her to Gabrielle, the Amazon queen who had shown her forgiveness and given her friendship. Not sure that Cyrene would do the same Xena offers these words in a voice full of regret and sadness. "I'm sorry to have caused you so much pain over the years."
Cyrene looks up a little startled. She had never expected an apology from the Conqueror. She recalls the memories of the little girl that had filled her heart and her life before. "I'm sorry too." Cyrene voice cracks as a tear slips down her cheek. "I'm sorry that I didn't try harder to reach out to you after your brother died. I wish I had done things differently."
Xena nods her head in agreement and speaks with much difficulty. "The past is the past. You can't change it ? no matter how much we wish we could?"
Cyrene reaches over to place her hand over her daughter's hand. "Yes, but tomorrow is a new day."
Xena and her mother had talked long into the night. Once they were able to get over the uneasiness of the situation, they began talking about the memories of Xena's youth. It was safe topic to begin with. They still had a long way to go, but both felt sure that they could rebuild their relationship.
Entering her old room Xena had expected Gabrielle to be sound asleep. Instead she finds her at the window looking up at the stars obviously in deep thought. Not wanting to interrupt she begins to turn around to leave.
"You and Cyrene have made a step in the right direction," Gabrielle states still staring out into the night.
"Yes." A pause. "It was because of your story. Thank you." Xena says these words in a quiet voice.
"You're welcome," Gabrielle replies.
"It's your story."
Gabrielle doesn't answer her right away. "Mostly."
Xena gives her a puzzled look. "You left out the fact that you became an Amazon princess but ?. is there something else missing?"
"Not missing, just made up." Gabrielle turns to face Xena. The normally bright green eyes do not sparkle back. "The ending. I made up the ending." She turns slowly back to look out the window.
Xena walks up to the window and stands behind Gabrielle. She had seen the slight tremor in the blonde's lower lip. At first she hesitates, as if she is uncertain. But finally she places both hands on the muscular shoulders and then begins to draw the palms of her hands softly up and down the Amazon's arms trying to bring some comfort to the heart that is still hurting.
A small hand covers Xena's larger left one and gives her a squeeze. "Thank you," the smaller woman whispers.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
The blonde head shakes. "No. Maybe another time."
"Okay." After another squeeze, Xena releases Gabrielle. Not knowing what else to do she sits down to sharpen her sword.
As the smooth rhythmic sounds of the whetting stone fill the room, Gabrielle stares out the window and thinks about her father and their parting.
Continued in Part 2.