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The following story was tailor made for me by my best friend as a birthday gift. I have convinced her to allow me to share it with all of you.
SECTION 1: THE INVITATION
The two women sat alone at the back of the tavern, sharing a meal of stew and hard bread. They made an arresting study in contrasts, one dark and tall, dressed in warrior's garb and for the most part, silent. The other, smaller and younger, kept up a steady chatter and occasionally coaxed a reluctant lop sided smile from her companion. They seemed to be at ease but the warrior's eyes traveled over the tavern's occupants at intervals and she caught snatches of conversation while she listened to her companion. The seat she had chosen, at the rear, her back to the wall, afforded her a clear view of anyone coming in from the street. Nothing had escaped her notice since they had entered an hour before.
The young red-haired woman, on the other hand, was exhilarated and full of nervous energy. Minutes before she had perched on the end of the bar and had held the rapt attention of the tavern's patrons with a tale of adventure. There had been silence as she told the tale of Prometheus' captivity, how his rescue had been the salvation of mankind, and how Xena and Hercules had defied the gods themselves to free him. Even now, after her listeners had tossed their dinars in the basket and returned to their suppers and their games of chance, she sat drunk with the pleasure and the power of it all.
"I hope you don't mind. I know you hate it when I tell stories about you while you're still in the room, but that one is sure fire and we haven't been in town long enough for me to judge the crowd, so I thought..."
Xena's eyes traveled over Gabrielle's shoulder at the dark figure who was approaching their table. Quietly, she lay her spoon on the tabletop and brought her hand to rest on the chakram that hung at her side. No room to throw it in here, if need be. She felt for the familiar presence of the knife in her boot top...
"You're Xena, aren't you?"
Gabrielle stiffened unconsciously Another thug trying to make a name for
himself, another mercenary greedy for the bounty that more than one warlord had placed on Xena's head? Or the gods forbid, another grieving soul who had lost family or friend to Xena's army so long ago? She sighed, half in pity for her friend, half in resignation of yet another meal ruined by circumstance as her hand reached slowly for the staff resting against the table.
"May I sit down?" The two women exchanged glances as Xena nodded and gestured to the seat next to Gabrielle. No threat, just another troubled villager wanting help or advice. He sat gingerly on the chair, suddenly awkward as he realized that he sat next to the hero of the story he had just heard. He looked at Xena without speaking for a moment, taking in her bearing, the weaponry, the intricate designs of her armor, cataloging all the details in his mind so that he too could regale friends back home with a tale of his own.
"Well," began Xena. "What can we do for you?"
"For me? Oh nothing. I mean, I just want to deliver a message. I was
selling goods in the centaur village about a week ago. Their leader, Kaleipus, asked me to keep my ears and eyes open. He said if I ran into Xena or got word of her whereabouts, he wanted me to deliver a message..."
"And...?" Xena sat back in her chair, her arms folded across her chest.
"Is he all right?"
"Yeah. Actually it's about his son...ward...whatever. A blond kid, not a centaur ..."
Gabrielle sensed rather than saw the change in Xena's face in the flickering lamplight. Her chin raised a half inch higher, her jaw tightened ever so slightly and the ice blue of her eyes became more distant and unreadable. "What about his son?"
"He's thirteen and they're planning a virilis ceremony. The kid..."
"Yeah, Solan. He's real anxious for you to be there. It's supposed to be
at the next full moon and the kid, I mean Solan, has done everything but send carrier pigeons out to find you. He wants to invite you to the ceremony. Said you were his friend. Anyhow, I guess it means a lot to him."
Xena rose from her chair, pushing their unfinished wineskin across the table with the side of her hand until it rested before the tradesman and gestured to the barman to bring him a cup. "Thanks for the message, " she murmured as she started for the door. Gabrielle followed a few feet behind, shaking her head at the suddenness of their departure.
SECTION 2: DECISIONS, DECISIONS
Gabrielle studied the angular planes of her friend's face in the dim
firelight and tried to read something in her manner or in her eyes. They'd
left the town, returned to camp and settled Argo in for the night and still
Xena had made no reference to the message. She watched as Xena removed
their bedrolls from Argo's saddlebags and spread them out on opposite sides
of the fire. "Do you want to talk about it?"
""Talk about what?"
"Are we going to the ceremony? We could make it easily if we start out
tomorrow and take the northern route." She waited for a response and got
none. That was something she'd never get used to. Was Xena formulating an answer or just avoiding the question? Better just wait a minute.
The minute turned to two ..three...four, and still no reply. Gabrielle shrugged and rolled over, her back to the fire and to her friend. Keep out of it, she told herself. After all these years, Solan is the one thing we never talk about. The baby left in the care of the centaurs, the child Xena had hidden from the world and from Gabrielle herself was on the verge of manhood and even now she would turn away. It wasn't indifference. Had Solan been hurt or in trouble they would have been halfway to the centaur village by now. She'd made her peace with Kaleipus and was respected and honored by the centaurs so it wasn't that either. Maybe it was looking into those blue eyes, the mirror of her own. Maybe that was something even Xena couldn't do.
Maybe she was just overdramatizing again.
After a few minutes more silence there was the faint scraping of honing
stone on metal. End of discussion. For four years their travels had taken them to the north of the centaur village, to the east of the village, to the south and to the west. It was the one and only point upon which Gabrielle did not voice any opinion. On their last and only visit Xena had hurried them away as soon as the Ixion stone had been replaced on its altar and for a time afterward had been even more distant and silent than before.
The scraping continued, the stone rasping across the sword edge in a rhythmic pattern that lulled Gabrielle deeper and deeper into sleep. Xena's hand glided up and down, again and again, forcing the stone against the blade. The jagged edges gave way bit by bit to the blunt and unyielding stone until there was a sharpness and smoothness, the strength in her fingers pressing stone against metal, making it smooth, making it right. Almost every night of her life, she had performed this ritual, drawing a sense of satisfaction from the gleaming metal and its razor sharp edge, knowing full well that it was one small part of her existence that could be controlled and kept secure by her own effort and will, while so much else was governed by what had been or whom they should meet. Neither fatigue nor pain had ever deterred her. Caring for Argo, sharpening her weapons - some things had to be done, some things one was responsible for...
"Gabrielle? You awake?" Xena heard the rustling of a bedroll. "You're right. We'll take the northern route." Xena pulled the blanket up over her body and stared up at the stars, a frown on her features as she lay in the darkness. Gabrielle shifted position, glanced quickly at her companion and then upwards at the stars, a small smile playing at her lips. Maybe she was finally mastering the hardest skill of all for a bard- knowing when to shut up.
"So Xena, what goes on at a centaur virilis ceremony?"
"Much the same as any virilis ceremony. Weren't there any teenage boys in Poteidaia?"
Gabrielle smiled at the memory of her childhood home. "Yeah, but I didn't have any brothers so I guess I never paid much attention to it. The men took the boys off somewhere and when they got back, everybody celebrated and there was music and dancing. That's pretty much all I remember about it. I know that it was always fun."
Xena rubbed Argo's nose and studied the road up ahead. "Well, like I said, not much different. Before a boy can take his place among the men of the village, the elders make sure he's ready. He has to know the history of the village, the legends, the heroes."
"You make it sound like an exam at the Academy."
"You'd know more about that than I would. Anyway, he decides what role
he'll fulfill and has to be apprenticed to a mentor who'll show him the ropes."
"So you're saying that Solan has to decide what he wants to be when he grows up."
"And then there's the party?"
"Well, first there's a ceremony where his family and friends give him
gifts he'll need . That's when his father places the traditional virilis token around his neck and after that there's the party."
They walked in silence for a while, each lost in her own thoughts. There was nothing Gabrielle loved more than a party - food, drink, stories to swap, crowds to please. Life with Xena was rich and exciting but rarely festive. Even when grateful townsfolk sought to celebrate her defeat of a hated warlord or slaver, Xena would disappear after a short while and escape to the quiet company of Argo, leaving Gabrielle to acknowledge the gratitude and enjoy herself.
"Xena, you're pretty quiet even for you. You're not changing your mind about going, are you? It sounds like Solan really wants you there."
"No, we'll go. It's just ..." Xena paused, and Gabrielle was shocked to see a momentary look of confusion on her friend's face.
"It's been four years since I've seen him. I don't know what he's like or
what he'd need. All I own are weapons, a saddle, and Argo. Solan said he didn't want to be a warrior but I don't have a single thing that would be useful to anyone else."
"Well, I'm sure he didn't invite you just to get a gift. He just wants to see you again." Gabrielle's mind raced as she tried to think of a suitable gift for Xena to present, something a little less lethal than a chakram. "I've got it!"
"Your gift" Gabrielle's smile was smug as she pulled to a halt by the side
of the road. "You could sing for him."
Xena stood motionless for a moment and Gabrielle was unsure that she had heard at all. The confusion had left her face but her expression now was an odd mix of surprise and frustration that Gabrielle could not quite fathom. "Sing for him?"
"Why not?" Gabrielle was becoming more excited as the idea took hold. "You've got a great voice and it wouldn't be just any old song. We'll write one just for him. What do you think? You make up a melody and I'll write the words. That way it'll be a gift from the both of us and you can sing it at the final ceremony when Kaleipus gives him the token."
"I don't know. What do you sing to a thirteen year old boy at his virilis ceremony?"
"You said that the ceremony honors the heroes in the village's past and Solan reveres the memory of his real father, so I figure you can sing about Borias."
"No, Gabrielle. There's got to be something else."
"Why not, Xena? The centaurs tell him legends but he needs to know what
kind of man his father really was and no one knew Borias better than you.
Kaleipus has been great but it's Borias' blood that runs in his veins."
And yours too, she thought.
They walked on in silence, Argo's hooves plodding on the dirt road. Gabrielle was already cataloguing what little she knew of Borias for her song, confident that Xena would tell her the rest. Borias was a hero, the man who had hidden the Ixion stone and saved the centaur nation. He'd been a fierce and brave warrior who had turned from the forces of evil and embraced the good. It was a winner, as storylines go. Gabrielle turned to Xena to argue the point.
But the words, for once, caught in her throat. Xena walked beside her, her face in repose, the sun shining on her armor and the blue of her eyes like a piece of the sky. It was hard to remember that this woman had been that force of evil . The champion of the centaurs had betrayed his army, his leader, his lover. He had gone to the other side in the heat of a deadly siege, giving information about Xena, her men, their weaponry and battle plans to the enemy. He had made her vulnerable and knowingly sought her defeat, perhaps even her death. And all the while she carried his child.
"Xena, maybe you're right. Maybe we can think of something else. I don't want to bring up painful memories."
Xena gave Gabrielle a brief crooked smile. "You mean, it'll be pretty hard to mention Borias' conversion from bloodthirsty warlord without my name coming up. It's no secret I was an enemy of the centaurs a lot longer than I've been their friend. But I think it'll be okay."
"No, Xena. I meant painful for you."
Their eyes met for a moment, then Xena looked away. "It was a long time
ago and he was right to do what he did. Back then I destroyed everything and everyone around me."
"No, not Solan."
SECTION 3: THE BOY AND THE MAN
The wooden staff sliced through the air and connected with the staff in Solan's hands. The boy tightened his grip as he felt the vibrations travel up his arms and shoulders. Caught off balance, he shook his head quickly to brush the sweat from his brow and forced himself to concentrate. His opponent was at least a head taller and his reach exceeded Solan's by a span or more. If it were to be a contest of mere strength, Solan had no chance at all. Solan stood to his full height and assessed his situation. All the while he was a blur of motion, his staff parrying with the other, his body dodging first to the left, then to the right, out of harm's way. Without his even realizing it, a slow smile began to spread across his face As his mind formulated a plan, his delight in the challenge, even with the danger of physical harm, played across his features and the effect on his opponent was palpable.
The next time the staff swung toward Solan's head, he bent down to the ground so that his body was at the same level as the larger man's knees. Solan cracked his staff behind the right knee and as the man fell to the ground, leapt upon his back and from there to a wooden table several feet away. Now it was Solan who looked down upon the man. He swung his staff but encountered only empty air as his opponent ducked under the table and turned it over. Solan somersaulted into the air as the table gave way under him, landing lightly on the balls of his feet, ready to leap again. His grace and agility were remarkable in one so young and his older adversary was beginning to breathe heavily at the exertion.
The staffs of the two combatants hit again as Solan jockeyed into position. As if retreating from the attack, he was forced backward, step by step to a small grove of trees at the edge of the clearing. Still the smile never wavered, even as his opponent advanced. He raised his staff to ward off a particularly powerful blow and quickly planted the end of the staff firmly in the ground. Using the staff for leverage, he launched himself into the air and caught one of the branches. In a moment he had swung himself to a standing position and in one fluid motion hurled himself into the chest of his opponent, feet first. Winded, the man found himself flat on the ground, with a staff, his own staff, poised beneath his jaw.
"I got you this time, Menos," Solan exulted, his face flush with victory. He started to laugh when suddenly Menos slapped the staff aside and grabbing it out of the boy's hand, smacked him in the side and to the ground. Now Menos stood with the staff inches away from Solan's windpipe.
"How many times do I have to tell you, this is not a game. All your speed and acrobatics won't help you if you leave yourself open at the end. A man with a broken jaw will kill you just as thoroughly as anyone else. When a man is ready to kill you, you must be ready to meet him on those terms. Solan, you cannot go into combat without that resolve in your heart. That split second when you're deciding whether to knock him out or break his arm is all the time he needs to end your life. And he won't waste any time debating the matter either." Menos offered his hand to the boy and pulled him up to a standing position. "You're good with a staff and you leap and run like one of Pan's creatures, but it will be of no use to you if in the last second you pull back. Knowing how to kill is not an admirable pursuit in itself but a man may be called upon to protect his family and friends."
"I know, Menos. I'm sorry. I should have put the staff here." Solan pointed to Menos temple. "Or maybe over here." Now Solan pointed to the center of Menos' chest. With a wicked little smile, Solan waved his staff in the air and feinted another blow, this time much lower. "Or maybe here. Then you'd just wish you were dead."
Menos jumped instinctively and Solan threw back his head and laughed heartily. Then Menos' staff connected with his backside. By the time the two had come within shouting distance of the centaur village, they were laughing and talking of many things but not of death and combat.
"Do you think they'll come, Menos? I mean, it's less than a week until the ceremony and we haven't heard anything yet. They must be pretty busy and you know Xena doesn't stay in one place too long." Solan studied the tip of his boot, feeling the color rise in his cheeks, and hoped Menos wouldn't notice. He hung his head a little lower. " I was pretty mean to her. Maybe I hurt her feelings."
Menos grimaced at the thought. His first battles had been against Xena's army, his first blood shed against the Destroyer of Nations. He had suffered a great deal because of his friendship with the centaurs and had once wished the warrior bitch dead and screaming in Tartarus. True, he had since fought by her side against Dagnin and she had relinquished the Ixion stone willingly enough. But there was still that icy coldness in those blue eyes and her face was as impassive as ever. The idea that her feelings could be hurt by a boy - that she had any feelings at all - was faintly amusing.
"Well Solan, maybe she didn't get your message or maybe she's too far off to get here in time. But one thing's for sure, if she doesn't make it, it won't be because you hurt her feelings."
Gabrielle leaned forward to pull some meat from the spit and watched as Xena did the same. "You know, I really ought to get started on the song before we get there. It takes time to polish it up and you've still got to work on the music."
"Can't do that till I know the words."
"Well then, I know you're not much for girl talk but what can I tell Solan
about his father that the centaurs haven't already told him?" Gabrielle watched Xena's face in the firelight. It all depended on the next few seconds. If Xena's eyes got that frosty look and she became distant and enigmatic, she'd never get a story out of all this.
Xena arched an eyebrow at Gabrielle and leaned back, relaxed, against Argo's saddle. "He was with the centaurs longer than he was with me. Just a few months..." Her voice trailed off and Gabrielle wondered if she were choosing her words or just changing her mind about the whole idea. "Borias was taller than I am, with hair the color of Solan's. He had a beard when I first saw him but I made him cut it off. I wouldn't let any of them have a beard. Too easy for the enemy to grab in a fight..." She took another bite of rabbit. "He was good with a sword and quick. Powerful and sure of himself and he had brains. I needed someone like that for my second in command."
Xena was ticking off facts, impersonal, mechanical. Gabrielle waited. None of this was what she needed, but she knew enough to let Xena go at her own pace.
"He could be like two people. He fought like a demon in battle but it was like a job to him. When we got back to camp, he'd slap the cook on the shoulder and ask what's for supper like some farmer come in from the fields. " Xena threw some twigs on the fire and stared into the flames. "I couldn't understand how he could do that. I'd be keyed up for hours. I figured we'd balance each other out - I had the anger and the plans and he'd be the dispassionate tool who would carry them out. "
"So what happened?" Gabrielle regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. It was obvious what had happened. Xena had wanted him, taken him for a lover and that was that. Gabrielle knew enough about Xena the warlord to know Xena had always got what she wanted - in battle and most likely in bed too.
"He made me laugh." Xena smiled at the memory of it. Gabrielle felt her eyes widen and her brows rise. It wasn't what she had expected to hear. It was unusual enough to hear Xena laugh and she had tried often enough to coax it from her. If Borias had been able to do it, she was beginning to understand the true heroic stature of the man.
"Whenever he'd come to my tent, he'd always have a story or a funny remark. Some of the men were afraid to even look at me but Borias wasn't. In front of the men he was the perfect lieutenant but in private he was my friend."
There was a long pause and Gabrielle thought, that's all she's going to say. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard her talk this much.
But then Xena began again. " Maybe a song is the right gift for Solan. You know, Borias had a beautiful voice. Once a centaur knocked me from my horse -I didn't have Argo then - and dragged me halfway across the battlefield. Borias never said a word, but when he came in to report that night, he brought ointment, rubbed it on my back and hummed an old Thracian song until I fell asleep." She remembered how disgusted she had been at her own weakness, how angry she had been at his sheer colossal nerve and, most of all, how gentle and strong his hands had been.
It was Gabrielle's turn to stare into the fire. "How could he turn around and betray you like he did? I don't understand."
"I wanted the Stone. And I was ready to slaughter them all for it. Stopping the war was something he believed in and he had the courage to defy me. For me, it wasn't us against the centaurs anymore. It became me against Borias. Sooner or later he would have defied my orders and refused to attack. If he hadn't left when he did, I would have had to kill him or he would have had to kill me."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, watched her friend as she tiredly rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. Oh gods, why did I ever bring this all up?
Xena reached for her bedroll and Gabrielle understood that she was finished. "Xena, can I ask you just one thing?"
"When he left..." She was going to say "you" but hesitated. "When Borias
left, did he know that you were going to have his child?"
Xena looked at her, and then turned from the question as if from a blow. Hadn't she said enough, more than was needed for a song, more than she had ever intended to reveal? She turned back to Gabrielle to say as much but the younger woman's eyes held her gaze. There was such compassion in those eyes and Xena felt her anger dissolve just as it had at Borias' touch. There were so few in her life who had ever really cared about her, so few she would ever trust again. She quickly wrapped herself in her bedroll and turned back to her friend, sister, and confidant. "No, I never told him." She lay back and in little more than a whisper added, "I never got the chance."
The fire had died down and the lively flames that had warmed them earlier had diminished until they were little more than glowing embers, threatening to disappear altogether. Gabrielle sat quietly beside the fire, her eyes closed, thinking, almost motionless, until long after Xena had fallen asleep. Feeling the chill of the night air, she quietly rose to toss more wood on the fire and slowly coaxed the embers back to life. Satisfied, she knelt there for a moment and then leaned over to pull the blanket up around Xena's shoulders.
Finally she rose, walked over to the saddle bag and took out her pen and parchment.
SECTION FOUR: THE WELCOMING
They got off to a late start the next morning but since they were within a day's walk of the centaur camp, there was no need to hurry. Xena was silent, almost as if she had used up a month's ration of words the night before. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was alive with the energy of the creative artist. She had written well into the night and had fallen asleep by the fire with her pen in hand. Xena had awakened at dawn and almost automatically, she bent down to place a blanket over her friend in exactly the same motion that Gabrielle had used the night before.
Gabrielle was practicing the story of Gareth the Giant and trying out various voices for each character as they walked. It wasn't just the story, after all. Presentation had a lot to do with it. Xena wasn't a particularly good audience at any time but this morning she was even more preoccupied than usual. Gabrielle tried out a few lines in a register far deeper than her own and looked at her companion for some sort of response. There was none forthcoming and Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?"
Xena stood still and gestured for Gabrielle to be silent. As if by some supernatural understanding, Argo stood as still as Xena for a moment, her ears pointing forward in anticipation. Gabrielle could hear nothing but birdsong and the rustling of the leaves until Xena said "Trouble" and was suddenly astride Argo, speeding down the road ahead. All thoughts of dramaturgy now absent, Gabrielle broke into a run, holding her staff at the ready. She could hear nothing untoward yet, but if Xena said trouble, she would be ready for it.
She heard the sound of swords clashing before she actually saw the combat. A half dozen bandits had stopped a farmer on his way to market. He lay on the ground beside his cart, his head bloodied, his goods scattered around him. Gabrielle came over the rise to see Xena wheel into the bandits, her sword slashing as her war cry rang out. One man fell, his sword arm gashed at the elbow. A second tried to grab Argo's reins and felt the heavy hoof of Xena's mount before darkness enveloped him.
The other four fell into a hasty formation around the mounted rider and the one behind Xena's back pulled a knife from his boot and raised his arm to cast it into the body of the warrior. But a split second before it could leave his fingers in its fatal trajectory, he felt the force of a heavy oak staff between his shoulders. Startled by Gabrielle's attack, he spun around to find no one there. Gabrielle had circled around and maneuvered her staff between his ankles and with his very first step, he fell cursing to the ground. With a swift and deadly accuracy, she brought the staff down at the base of his skull, hard enough to immobilize him but yet skillfully enough to spare his life.
While Gabrielle advanced to the next man, Xena leaped from Argo's back, sending the horse a safe distance away from the swords of the two men left. Xena began to dodge and weave, avoiding the sharpened blades and lunging forward to strike with her own. One man yelped as her sword sliced a crimson path across his thigh and he fell to his knees, clutching his wound. The second seemed less sure of himself as he saw his comrades fall and felt his skin crawl as he realized that this madwoman was smiling and chuckling to herself as she approached him, as if to kill him would afford her some brief but satisfying amusement. He gave one last slash with his sword and then turned and ran down the road.
With no opponents left, Xena turned to look for Gabrielle, her hand poised above her chakram. The bard was putting the final touches on the remaining bandit, whose eyes were beginning to spin upwards in their sockets after the last blow. With a grunt, he pitched face forward on the grass. Gabrielle looked for her friend, her staff ready, but Xena was already at the side of the injured farmer. Her fingers felt for a pulse at the side of his throat and in seconds she had torn a strip of cloth from his tunic and wrapped it around his head.
"Is he all right?" Gabrielle asked, as she watched Xena raise the man's eyelids to examine him. Her hands were already stained with his blood or perhaps it was the blood of one of his assailants.
"I think so but he'll have a headache tomorrow." Xena knotted the bandage and lifted the man as if he were a child. She placed him in the back of his cart and watched as he began to regain consciousness. His eyelids fluttered and then opened. As his vision cleared, he gradually focused upon the bluest eyes he had ever seen looking down at him.
"Lie still. You're safe now. Were you headed for the centaur village?"
"Yes. I was bringing food for the ceremony." The man moved his head
experimentally, as if to assure himself it would not fall off with any sudden motion. "Thank you. You saved my life."
Xena nodded. Gabrielle began to salvage as many of the provisions as she could and put them beside the man in the back of the cart as Xena began to pull the cart with the injured man down the road. "How long have these raids been going on?"
"A few weeks. It used to be pretty quiet until these thugs moved in " "Do you know their leader's name?"
"Daemon . He hates centaurs. " The tradesman lay back and winced at the
clouds above him.
"You're not a centaur."
"I'm friendly with them. That's enough."
Gabrielle held Argo's reins and fell into step beside Xena. "You know
"A common thief, not any kind of leader. Mean bastard."
"I hope he doesn't ruin the ceremony for Solan."
Xena shrugged her shoulders as the village appeared ahead of them. "We'll
just have to remind him that you shouldn't go where you're not invited.'
She cocked her head toward the injured man. "Try to keep him awake."
When they were less than a mile from the village, a centaur appeared, his welcoming smile dissolving as he saw the injured tradesman. "What happened?" "Bandits. Maybe your healer should take a look at him."
The centaur shook his head. "I'll have to take him home to his wife."
Xena quickly gave the centaur a few brief instructions for the man's care
and then she and Gabrielle continued toward the village. Word of their arrival was beginning to spread and centaurs and villagers alike began to assemble at the end of the road. By the time they reached the first of the buildings, shouts of welcome heralded their way. Gabrielle smiled broadly and waved to those she remembered from their past visit, drinking in the warmth of their reception. In contrast, Xena hardly seemed to notice the growing crowd and walked directly to the center of the village and the home of Kaleipus.
The leader of the Centaurs and his son stood waiting for her. Kaleipus seemed even more regal than Gabrielle remembered. He smiled at the two of them and although one eye was covered with a leather patch, the other seemed to sparkle with pleasure. He reached out for Xena in the traditional warrior's greeting and as they gripped each other's forearms, he said," Welcome home."
Xena stepped back from his grasp and turned to look at the young man beside him. He had grown taller, almost to her shoulder, since they'd last met. He was all arms and legs, but there was no adolescent awkwardness to him. Standing next to Kaleipus he seemed to have the bearing and poise of a young prince. But the blue eyes that held her own were eager and filled with excitement. She stood before him, all at once hesitant, her features a mask.
Solan could barely contain himself. She had come, just as he had hoped. His eyes drank in every detail and it was just as he remembered. Her breastplate and leathers gleamed, her eyes were as blue as the sea. His first impulse was to throw his arms around her just as she had so briefly embraced him when she'd gone away. But he suddenly felt awkward and unsure. He couldn't do that - he wasn't a kid anymore. He was the son of Borias and nearly a man. And maybe she hadn't come for him so much as out of respect for the centaur chief. She had saved his life once, but from the stories he heard from travelers, there were many who owed their lives to the Warrior Princess. As she stood motionless before him, he felt the color rising in his face and wondered what he should do.
And then Xena smiled. "Hello Solan." She reached out and gripped his arm just as she had held Kaleipus'. It was the greeting shared by comrades, never with children and he beamed with pride at her touch. She raised her other hand and for a moment he thought she was going to touch his cheek as she had years ago by the lake. But instead she paused and rested it on his shoulder. "It's good to see you again."
"I'm glad you're here. I was afraid you wouldn't get my message..." Whatever he was going to say next was muffled as Gabrielle shouted his name and hugged him like a long lost brother. As the crowd began to gather around Xena and Kaleipus, Solan surrendered to her enthusiasm as she spun him around.
"By the gods, you're a handsome one. I've worn out my boots walking halfway across Greece to get here but it's worth every mile . " He basked in her admiration and grinned as he felt her strong arms around his shoulders. The tightness in his chest that had been there as he stood before Xena melted away in the warmth of her greeting and the four years that had passed were as nothing as he stood beside her. She was someone he could always talk to and Solan suddenly realized how much he needed to talk.
Dinner was over and Kaleipus' honored guests had been wined and dined with the best that the centaur village had to offer. Solan and Gabrielle had settled in a corner of the room and Gabrielle was entertaining the boy with tales of Xena's recent adventures. At intervals Solan would interrupt with an aside or a comment and it was clear from Gabrielle's laughter that she was enjoying his remarks as much as he was enjoying her stories. The two bent their heads together like co-conspirators and reveled in each other's company.
Xena sat at the far end of the room, seemingly in a conversation with Kaleipus but all the while watching the two of them. She knew all of Gabrielle's stories, had heard them countless times but she wondered what comments Solan was making that could send Gabrielle into such fits of laughter.
"You two made quite an impression on him, you know." Kaleipus' words cut through her reverie and she turned to face the centaur. " When it came time to choose a weapon, he insisted that he wanted to master the quarterstaff instead of the bow or the sword. He'd had a talk with Gabrielle and was convinced that nothing else would do. And as for you, he talks about you constantly. As far as Solan is concerned, the importance of the whole virilis ceremony lies in the opportunity to see you again. You didn't have to stay away so long, you know."
"I promised I would."
"That was when you were our enemy. Those debts have been paid. There's
always a place for you here, Xena. You and Borias have given so much to the Centaurs."
Xena's gaze returned to Solan and Kaleipus regretted his choice of words. There was an awkward silence. Then he continued, "He'll be a man soon. He has a right to know the truth."
"No!" Xena turned to Kaleipus with a look that had turned weaker men to trembling. "I still have enemies who would hurt anyone to get to me, let alone my son. Boy or man, he'd be dead inside a year and I won't have his blood on my hands." She tried to quell the anger and frustration that were building up inside. "You promised to keep him as your own - I believed you then and I have to trust you now."
Kaleipus nodded. "All right, Xena. But someday it may be beyond our control. Solan is no fool. And a secret is like the sheath of a knife. Bear down on it long enough, depend on it day after day and sooner or later the covering wears thin and it no longer serves its purpose. Sometimes a cut from your own knife is as hard to bear as that from an enemy."
Xena thought of Perdicas, whose only crime it was to love her friend, and she heard again the anguished cries of Gabrielle as she knelt beside her dying husband. "Kaleipus, you don't know my enemies. Let that secret protect him as long as it can."
SECTION FIVE: THE PATH NOT TAKEN
Gabrielle held her staff at arm's length and twirled it before her. "See if you can block this one." She feinted at Solan's head with the end of the staff and chuckled with satisfaction when he dodged the move and repositioned himself out of arm's reach. For over an hour the two had sparred with one another, trying out different moves, learning each other's patterns and rhythms. Solan was an apt pupil and whenever Gabrielle showed him a move she had learned from Xena or the Amazons, he copied it and seemed to commit it to memory almost instantaneously. He was agile and full of surprises, tumbling and leaping until even a seasoned fighter like herself was unsure where he would be next. He had Xena's habit of laughing to himself when he approached and Gabrielle had never fully appreciated how unnerving that was to an opponent until now.
"I could use a break. Let's rest a while." Gabrielle settled down under a shade tree and Solan flopped down on the grass beside her. His face had lost most of the roundness of childhood and was more angular than at their last meeting. His hair was tousled and fell over his brow and Gabrielle thought what a handsome man he would become. "Are you nervous about the ceremony? It's only four days off."
"I was more nervous that you and Xena wouldn't make it in time."
" Xena heard about it from a merchant and the next morning we started off.
She thinks the world of you, Solan, and Xena doesn't call very many people "friend.'"
"You know Gabrielle, I think she'd just incredible and everything but she sure doesn't say much."
"You get to learn how to read things in her face after a while. The way she raises one eyebrow when she's skeptical about something..." Gabrielle exaggerated the expression and Solan smiled. "The way her eyes narrow when she's about to get mad. " Gabrielle squinted and sucked in her cheeks in a fair imitation of the irritated Xena and Solan started to giggle. "And she's got the best sneer in all of Greece." Gabrielle curled her upper lip and Solan threw back his head and roared. Gabrielle waited until he was done and then added, "But you should always remember. She'll always be there for you whenever you need her, Solan, and that's what counts."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes and Gabrielle sensed that there was something else on the boy's mind. "There's more than just Xena's limited conversational skills that's bothering you, isn't there?"
Solan nodded. "I don't want to disappoint anybody but I don't know what to do. I'm not a warrior. I knew that the last time you and Xena were here. I'm pretty good with a staff but my teacher says I don't have the right instincts. I just don't want to kill anybody."
"Believe me, Solan, that isn't going to disappoint anyone, least of all Xena. I feel exactly like you do. She'd understand and so would Kaleipus."
"But I'm supposed to be apprenticed to a mentor at the ceremony "
"Well, let's be logical here. What do you like to do? What are you good
"I'm pretty good with my hands but I really don't want to be a craftsman or a stonemason. I'm not very good with accounts so I wouldn't be a very good tradesman. How did you decide to be a bard?"
"I never decided. I just never wanted to be anything else." She rested her chin on her knees and let the sun shine on her face for a moment. "Kaleipus says you're good at your studies and you knew all the history and legends for the ceremony before all the others. Maybe you could be a teacher or a scholar."
Solan shrugged and Gabrielle knew that this was an option he had considered and dismissed. "Ariane says I shouldn't waste a mentor's time if I'm not sure. She says I should learn as much as I can about a lot of things until I really know."
"She sounds like a wise woman."
"She's not a woman. Not yet anyway. She my friend, my best friend." He
sat up, suddenly animated. "She lives in the valley on a farm with her mother. I want you and Xena to meet her. You'll like her. She's smart and pretty and funny. She helps me practice with my staff and you know, don't tell her I told you, but I think she's even better than me. There's a lot of things she can do."
Gabrielle smiled to herself, thinking, I suppose a woman who has many skills has to start out as a girl who can do a lot of things. A plan began to form in her mind. "Solan, I heard Xena say she wanted to take Argo out for a run this morning. Why don't the two of you ride out to meet Ariane? It would give you a chance to spend some time with the both of them. And it would give you two something to talk about . They sound like they could be friends too."
"You think Xena would want to go with me?"
"You won't know until you ask, but you'd better hurry before Xena mounts
up. Sometimes Argo's disposition is even worse than Xena's and I wouldn't want to keep either one of them waiting."
But Solan was halfway to the stables before she was done speaking.
Less than a half hour later, he was seated happily behind Xena on Argo as they trotted down the road from the centaur village. He clasped an arm around Xena's waist and rested his cheek against her back remembering how she had comforted him when his arm had been broken in the Ixion caves. He had never told anyone about that, not even Kaleipus, but he treasured that moment. He'd felt warm and safe in her arms, even with the pain of the broken arm.
The ride had started out in silence. Xena was used to Gabrielle's normal flow of chatter and was surprised to find Solan clinging to her wordlessly. They paused after a few miles and Xena had lowered Solan to the ground with a quick grin. "Wait here. We'll be right back" Then she had patted Argo's neck, leaned forward to whisper something to the horse and had suddenly taken off at a gallop. Solan watched as the two of them raced over the countryside, horse and rider seeming almost as one. Solan saw a look of pure pleasure on Xena's face and could have sworn that he saw the same on Argo's. He sat beneath a tree and waited as they disappeared from sight.
When they returned Xena seemed more relaxed and at ease, her face flushed, her dark hair tossed by the wind. She smiled at Solan, "I don't know which one of us enjoys that more." She reached over to pull him back in the saddle and they continued on their way. "So who's this friend we're going to meet?"
It was all the encouragement Solan needed. He began to talk about Ariane almost hesitantly, then more animatedly and Xena sensed how important it was to him that the two should like one another. But then his chatter was broken by an exclamation. "Hey Xena. There she is!" and he pointed to a figure in the distance. Xena signaled Argo to pick up speed.
She was a little taller than Solan, and her brown eyes lit up when she spotted him. She raised her staff in a greeting and looked at Xena frankly and appraisingly. She'd heard Solan's story often enough to need no introduction and was delighted to meet the legend herself. She grinned, undaunted by the armor, the weapons, the presence of Xena Warrior Princess. "You must be Xena. I've...."
Suddenly Xena turned from the two and pulled her sword from its scabbard. She waved them back and behind her as her eyes scanned the path ahead. One by one a number of men emerged from a clump of trees along the path and advanced towards them. One raised a bandaged arm to point at Xena as he addressed another who seemed to be their leader. "That's the bitch from yesterday."
Xena hissed "Get out of here" over her shoulder at Solan and Ariane and raised her sword before her. "Well Daemon, you've come a long way since I saw you last. You weren't giving orders then. You were taking them. And anything else you could lay your hands on."
"I'm not taking your orders now Xena . You've come a long way too. You used to command an army, Is this the best you can do now, a couple of miserable children?"
"I don't need an army to take down a petty thief like you." Xena kicked out suddenly and the man to her right went down. She glanced quickly and cursed as she saw that neither Solan nor Ariane had heeded her warning. Instead both of them stood a few paces away from the men and held their staffs at the ready. She whirled and slashed at the man to her left. He cried out and went down as quickly as the first.
Meanwhile Solan and the girl had exchanged a glance and a nod. One of the bandits raced toward them with a laugh and was surprised to find the two of them fighting in tandem. Solan attacked his legs and brought him to his knees while Ariane whacked him behind the ear with all her might. Then they turned to the next man.
It had seemed like an impossibility at first but slowly the combined forces of one warrior and two adolescents struck down the odds. Xena leaped and dodged Daemon's sword, all the while leading the bandit away from the two teens. She caught the blur of a body in motion, then another, and realized that the two were almost as adept in avoiding the bandits' swords as she.
She and Daemon were squared away now, most of the bandits either felled by Xena's sword or the staffs of Solan and Ariane. She was ready to finish him off with a quick sword thrust when she heard a cry. For a split second she turned and it was all Daemon needed to regain his momentum. With a shout he knocked her to the ground and brought his boot heel down hard on the hand that had held her sword, grinding it into the path. "Good-bye Xena," he gloated. And then her breast dagger sank into the center of his chest.
Xena leaped to her feet and searched frantically around her. Ariane lay on the ground while Solan struggled with the last bandit standing. "Solan, down!" she yelled as she threw the chakram with her left hand. It flew higher than she intended and it seemed to glide in slow motion through the air. Solan hit the ground and the bandit stood tall and raised his sword for the kill. She held her breath as the metal ring dipped in its trajectory and then ripped across his throat.
Almost before his body hit the ground, Xena had run to Ariane's side, Solan at her heels. The girl was sitting up now, her face bathed in sweat, her eyes wide with pain and fear. Her left leg was gashed below the knee and she gripped the wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood. She looked up at Xena almost sheepishly and tried a little wavering smile that turned into a grimace, " I guess I'm not as good with a staff as I thought I was."
Xena knelt behind the girl and murmured, "You did just fine." She grasped Ariane's leg with her left hand and applied pressure until the bleeding slowed. Turning, she whistled for Argo and as the horse neared them, she said, "Solan, get the leather pouch from my saddlebag." Even as she spoke, Ariane slumped against her shoulder.
"Xena!" Solan cried out as he saw Xena lower Ariane's head to the ground.
"It's all right, Solan. She's passed out from the pain." Xena removed her
arm from the girl's neck and saw Solan's face as he stared at her own right hand. Her fingers were raw and distended and her forearm was covered in blood. She closed her mind off to her own pain and gestured to the saddle, unmindful of the drops that trailed across Ariane's tunic in a crimson arc.
"I can't use my hand, Solan. You're going to have to listen carefully and do just as I say. She's lost a lot of blood and we can't waste time."
"Tell me what to do." He stood by the saddle, waiting.
"Gabrielle keeps clean rags in a bundle. Get them and there's a brandy
flask and a needle and thread in the pouch." He nodded and began to pull the items from the bag. "Pour some of that over the wound and over the needle and thread...."
Solan bent down and his hand trembled as he started to pour. Some of the potent liquor splashed on Xena's hand and he jerked his head up to face her.
"It's going to be all right, Solan. We'll take care of her." His eyes met hers and he nodded, reassured. Step by step, Xena guided him through the procedure. Her voice was low and calm and Solan bent to the task. His face was tight with concentration and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead but his hand was steady and sure as he proceeded. Xena loosened her grip on the girl's leg and where the flow of blood had threatened minutes before, this time his stitches held. A quick exhalation of breath was the only sign of his tension and he turned to Xena for confirmation that his relief was not premature. She gave him a crooked grin and nodded her head. "Let's finish up here and get her home."
"She's going to be all right then?"
"Yeah, she'll be all right. Just get some cloth and bandage her leg.
I've got some powders that'll lessen the pain when she wakes up."
Solan did as she instructed and then without a word sat beside Xena and began to clean the blood from her hand. Her first instinct was to pull away and tend to her own wounds but now he was more in control, more sure of himself, and she let him care for her.
"Are they broken?" His touch was surprisingly gentle as he wiped her forearm and dabbed at the injury.
"I don't think so." He poured the rest of the brandy over her fingers and winced in sympathy as he felt the muscles in her forearm react to the pain. He searched her features and found them as immobile as ever. "We'll make a litter and Argo can get her home."
Solan ripped one of the cloths into strips and began to wrap it around Xena's hand. " It was just like with my arm. You knew exactly what to do."
"It was different this time, Solan. She would have bled to death if you hadn't been here to be my hands. You saved her life."
He bent his head over Xena's hand and felt the blood rushing to his face. Before he could think of a reply or trust his voice to deliver it, he felt Xena's good hand stroke his cheek and then she raised his chin until his eyes met hers. He waited, sure she was going to speak, but instead she bent her head until it rested on his own and then so softly that he later wondered if he imagined it, he thought he felt her lips brush against his forehead.
Then Xena was on her feet, walking away from him and without a word they set to the task of getting Ariane home.
SECTION 6: THE CEREMONY
Gabrielle stretched her arms above her head, luxuriating in the sheer comfort of a feather mattress and soft coverlet. She burrowed her head into the pillow and shut her eyes tightly against the sunlight streaming in through the window. It must be late morning, she thought, for the sun to be so bright but a few more minutes couldn't hurt. One could really get used to this village life.
Besides, she had been up very late the last two nights. When the villagers had learned of Daemon's fate, there had been a steady stream of visitors come to express their thanks and to hear the story in detail. Solan had been only too happy to comply and for once, Gabrielle had been part of the audience instead of the teller of the tale. She had sat beside Xena in the back of the room and could have sworn she heard a chuckle from her friend as the number of bandits seemed to grow with each telling.
After breakfast Gabrielle went in search of the early rising Xena and Solan, now almost inseparable. In moments she spotted them near a grove of trees behind the house. Xena sat on a bench leaning against a tree while Solan brushed Argo under her watchful eye. He was declaiming and gesturing broadly with the curry comb as he spoke. Gabrielle was too far away to hear any of his narrative but she recognized the expression on Xena's face as he unfolded his tale, identical to the bemused expression she always wore as she listened to Gabrielle rehearse a story. She laughed to herself as she wondered if Xena was really that taciturn or if it were just the fact that her companions were all so voluble that she couldn't get a word in.
She waited until it seemed that Solan had finished his story and then sat on the bench beside her friend. Solan waved a greeting and after returning Argo to the stable joined them. But he was too filled with energy to sit for long and after a moment or two stated with great solemnity, "I think it's time to change those bandages." And he scurried back into the house before anyone could comment.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, waiting for the inevitable refusal of help. She had seen Xena react with impatience and irritation at similar offers of assistance and with far worse wounds. This time the warrior sat patiently awaiting his return. Gabrielle stared wonderingly. After a second, she caught Xena's eye.
"Nothing. It's just that you usually heal faster than any human being
I've ever known. Just how badly was your hand hurt?"
"I'll live." Xena was curt and dismissive. She was about to change the subject when she saw the look of concern appearing on her friend's face. Her tone softened a bit. "My hand will be fine. Besides, he likes tending to it."
"Oh, I see."
"And afterward we'll take Argo out for a run and visit Ariane. Yesterday
he changed her dressings and checked the wound for disease. Today he'll probably have to mix more powders for the pain."
Gabrielle was puzzled. "Now I don't see. If he insists on bandaging your hand, how are you going to help him with Ariane?"
Xena made no response but she turned to Gabrielle and for a brief moment, she smiled, her eyebrow arched in amusement.
Gabrielle began to laugh as she finally understood. "He's that good?"
Xena nodded. "He has a healer's touch."
"Well, I guess we know where he gets that from."
Ariane's leg was healing well, and if she were in pain, she chose not to show it. She and Solan began to banter with one another as soon as he appeared in the doorway, but Xena noted that he was especially gentle as he dressed her injury and that the girl watched his ministrations with a sort of quiet pride. After a few words of greeting and a quick examination of the wound, she had left them alone together and waited for Solan to finish.
After his morning's chatter, Solan was unusually quiet on the way back from Ariane's. Xena was content, feeling his arms around her waist and the warmth of his body against her back as Argo carried them to the centaur village.
"Xena, can we walk a while?" She let him down almost reluctantly and then dismounted so that they were walking side by side. "I haven't talked to Kaleipus yet because I wanted to ask you first. Xena, do you think I could learn to do what you do?" His eyes bore into her own. " I don't mean be a warrior, I mean help people when they're sick or hurt. I'm no good at being a warrior. Menos says I'm too soft hearted." He looked away, embarrassed at the admission. "I never found anything I was really good at until now. What do you think?"
"You know, Solan, in some ways being a healer is even harder than being a warrior. Sometimes you have to decide who lives and who dies and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you lose them anyway."
Solan looked away. "So I guess I'm too soft hearted for that too?"
"I didn't say that. Caring about people is the most important part of
being a healer. And you're already good at that." She hesitated and began again. "Healing is something you have to learn by doing. I have a friend named Hippocrates who runs a healing temple in Thessaly. I can send him a message that you want to study with him and I'm sure he'll take you on as an apprentice. I think you could be a great healer." She turned and opened Argo's saddlebag. "Here. I was going to give this to you tomorrow but .. "
It was a leather pouch, similar to hers, but smaller. Inside were some needles and a length of fine line. There was a small bone handle knife in a leather sheath and beneath that, a half dozen vials of various herbs and powders, culled from Xena's own supply. Last there was Xena's own brandy flask, its surface scratched and dented. Xena watched as Solan took out the flask and held it in his hand. "I'm sorry but I couldn't get a new one in time." She shrugged apologetically, unaware that of all the contents in the pouch, this one he would treasure most. "Oh wait, I almost forgot." She turned back to the saddlebag and handed him a tightly wound parchment.
"You won't even need this after a while."
It was a list of the vials, what each one held, what was its purpose, how it was to be used: for pain, for fever, brewed into a tea, made into a salve - it was all there. And at the bottom was a crude outline of a figure with little circles at various locations - the pressure points. Solan knew Gabrielle's florid penmanship but the style of the lettering on this parchment was small and precise. Xena's hand, he thought, and his throat tightened as he wondered how long it had taken her to scrawl the letters with the bruised and swollen fingers he had rebandaged that morning.
"Thank you, Xena. I..."
But she was already in the saddle, extending her arm to give him a lift.
"Come on. Argo's getting restless." And without another word, they were off.
The visitors had been arriving all morning. A simple virilis ceremony was usually of little import beyond a youth's family and friends but this was the ward of Kaleipus, leader of the centaurs, and the son of Borias himself. Word had also spread of Xena's presence and many a centaur who had fought her in the old days came to do homage to her now. As a result, there seemed to be a rush for the area that lined the ceremonial ground.
Even the prospect of a party could not ease Gabrielle's irritation with Xena that morning as they crossed the village square to get their seats. "One little song, that's all I asked for. One simple melody. You didn't even have to create one, you could have borrowed some old lullaby or love song and adapted it."
"I'm sorry. I've been busy." Xena sounded almost contrite and Gabrielle was somewhat mollified by her tone It was satisfying for her to see how relaxed Xena had become this past week. "I know you worked hard on the words. You could still give him those. Make it sound like a poem or something."
"Well, it was supposed to be from the both of us but you gave him the medicine pouch so I'm going to have to give him half a song or nothing at all." Gabrielle's irritation was fast disappearing at the anticipation of performing her own creation. And this was a special work for a special audience.
In moments they were at the ceremonial grounds. Xena would have been content to stand in the back, away from the crowds so as not to draw attention from Solan but the boy had made sure that she, Gabrielle and Ariane were seated in front so that he could glance over at them while the ceremony proceeded. Xena seemed to resign herself to his wishes and took a seat beside Kaleipus. Soon her features were set as if in stone, a mask deftly dropped over her own responses.
The ceremony began in the traditional manner. A stately centaur from another village took Kaleipus' place as leader and gave a formal introduction that honored Solan's fathers: Borias who had sired him and Kaleipus who had raised him, and acknowledged their importance to the centaur nation. Solan, it seemed, was not just a boy entering manhood but the speeches made clear that he was somewhat of a prince - created and molded by great men so that he too might follow in their footsteps. It seemed a heavy load for a boy, thought Gabrielle.
One by one, Solan's tutors rose to testify to his fitness to take his place in the community. He had been drilled in the lessons of history and legend, had learned to keep accounts, was aware of how the day to day life of the village was carried out, how disputes were resolved. Last was the weapons master, Menos, who attested to Solan's skill with a staff. He was lavish in his praise now that he understood that Solan's skills would be plied elsewhere and he would not be called upon to mentor a boy who would not kill.
Through it all Solan had stood stiffly immobile. He studiously avoided eye contact with his friends and family, fearing that any expression would betray his nervousness. Like Xena, he stood as if cut from stone, his face revealing none of his emotions. He seemed self assured and confident to the casual onlooker and as the speakers droned on, he began to feel that he might perhaps survive this ordeal.
When Menos was finished, the centaur addressed Solan himself and began the formal address that would end the first part of the ceremony. One by one he ticked off the responsibilities that Solan would now begin to assume. After each duty was enumerated the centaur asked Solan if he were willing and able to fulfill each role. Solan answered clearly as the litany continued and within minutes the formal ceremony was finished.
There was a stir among the spectators as the second and more informal part of the day's activities commenced. Now came the bestowal of gifts by the initiate's friends and family and Solan's reserve relaxed a bit as he finally turned to face the row of faces that were all the family he knew. Kaleipus was the very paragon of dignity but a simple nod of his head signaled the boy that he was pleased and proud. Gabrielle and Ariane were grinning widely, whispering to one another and nodding vigorously. Only Xena sat as still as before, her eyes fathoms deep.
Kaleipus was first and with a smooth and fluid motion placed the virilis token around Solan's neck. It was a small, golden disk and in the center was carved the Greek symbol for man. The centaur placed his hands on Solan's shoulders and smiled at him. Then he gripped the boy's forearm with his own as one comrade to another, as equals. Solan didn't speak but he held his grip longer and harder than was called for, hoping that Kaleipus would understand the depth of his feelings.
Ariane's gift was next, a tunic of the finest suede, stitched carefully with a design that was bold and colorful. Solan allowed himself a quick smile. Ariane hated to sew, although she was a passable cook and he wondered how many curses had accompanied this creation to completion. He turned his head to signal his thanks and received a smile and a wink in return.
Xena's turn was next and Solan felt an uneasiness. She had already given him the healer's pouch the day before and he knew how much she detested public displays of any sort. Getting her a seat in front had been pretty daring but somehow he had wanted her to be there, to be a part of it all. He had wanted so desperately to invite her and she had come. That was enough.
But Xena had risen and all eyes watched as she walked towards him, gracefully, purposefully. She clasped his arm as Kaleipus had done but her eyes seemed to look above him and beyond him, not in the straightforward manner he had become accustomed to but almost hesitantly. "Your father..." she paused. "Borias would be proud of you. I'm proud of you." Her face was impassive, her tone almost formal as she uttered the words. Oddly, Solan was relieved. It was as if any break in her reserve would surely end whatever self control he could exercise.
He hardly noticed as Gabrielle rose from her seat. It was almost as if he could feel his body relax, as if the hardest part were over and the party could begin. Gabrielle the Bard was not only his friend but was becoming renowned for her craft. It seemed fitting that her gift would be a song or poem and that it should lead into the music and dance that would immediately follow. It would be a coda to the day's events, the lightness that would end the ritual and restore the informality that had been.
She bent slightly at the waist, acknowledging the murmur of the guests and waited until they quieted down. She stood a few paces from Solan and began...
I sing of a warrior, a legend of old,
Whose sword was reviled and
whose heart had turned cold.
A warrior brave whose way had been lost
And death and destruction the price it had cost.
I sing of a warrior whose heart was in twain
With good deeds perverted by anger and pain,
Who was able to kill with a warrior's might
But who doubted the deed in the still of the night.
I sing of a warrior whose actions were best
When the sword was put down and the battle to rest.
When the power of love could break down the gates
Of the terrible prison that anger creates.
I sing of the warrior's child - how he grew
Free of the torment the warrior knew,
Whose safety would come at the terrible cost
Of death and betrayal, a parent's love lost.
But the heart of that warrior beats in his breast,
That part of the warrior surely the best.
The courage, the fairness, the kindnesses done.
The warrior's gifts live on in the son.
Solan looked up, a riot of emotions struggling for dominance. He had never known Borias, had never thought of him as a true father. He was a legend, a hero. He had never thought of the great Borias loving him that way. His eyes swept up to meet Kaleipus', searching for confirmation. Kaleipus had known Borias - surely he would be able to read in the centaur's face whether or not Gabrielle's poem rang true.
But it wasn't the face of Kaleipus that held him. Xena's eyes were locked onto Gabrielle, her lips parted, the habitual stillness of her features shattered. It was as if she were frozen in time, trying to catch a breath and to break free of the moment. Everyone else was milling about, commenting on the poem, speaking of Borias in hushed, reverential tones. But Xena and Gabrielle were as figures etched forever on a temple urn.
Finally, Xena tore her gaze from the bard's and began walking away from the others. Solan watched her and then followed, past Kaleipus, past Gabrielle, past all the other well wishers as an uneasiness began to fill him and drive him after Xena. He wasn't sure if he wanted to comfort her or be comforted by her. He didn't know what he would say but it seemed like the most important thing in the world was to look into her eyes right away. Borias may never have loved him like that but in his heart he knew that Xena did. He thought of that day at the lake when they had parted and her words rang in his ears, "You've got things that I can only dream of. Things that I would wish for my son." The tightness he had always felt in his chest when he was with Xena vanished.
She had found her way to Argo and rubbed his neck as if to reassure herself that he was real and the universe had not suddenly exploded. She felt the blood pounding in her ears - so many emotions warring at once. She felt anger that Gabrielle had dared sing of the unspeakable, fear that the protective cloak of secrecy had been torn from her son, and most of all, she feared that knowing, he would turn away from her as she had turned her back on him so long ago.
"Xena.." He spoke softly, unsure of his next move. She turned her head slowly, as a prisoner in the dock awaiting the verdict of an unrelenting judge. Solan looked into her eyes, the blue of them the mirror of his own, and saw something there he had not expected. Only those few who had truly loved her would ever see the vulnerability there, only they had the power to hurt her, and Solan realized that was something he could never do.
He smiled, a lop sided smile meant to reassure her, that only tightened the bond between them. Without a word, she took a step towards him and then embraced him. She had held him once before years ago but now there was a fierceness to her grasp and unlike the bewildered little boy he had been, this time Solan responded with the same passion, the same need. They held each other for a moment, then pulled apart. Then Xena smiled, the same crooked smile that had played across Solan's features earlier.
Solan cocked his head toward the sounds of music back at the ceremonial grounds. "We'd better get back. I am the guest of honor, you know." He arched an eyebrow in a deliberate imitation of Xena. "I have to thank everyone. Especially Gabrielle. I always wanted to know more about my..." he paused, "...my past. Do you think she'd write it down for me?"
"Yes, I'm sure she will. " And one for me too, she thought.
Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side on the path from the centaur village. There had been hearty farewells, promises to return, and the presentation of a sack of provisions packed by Solan that now bulged in Argo's saddlebag. Gabrielle pulled an apple from the sack and began to munch contentedly.
"How's your hand?
"You know, for my first virilis ceremony, I thought it went very well."
"I like Ariane too. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if we get invited back for a wedding someday."
"And then who knows? " Gabrielle began to snicker, then laugh, all the while trying to keep from spewing bits of apple before her.
"I'm just trying to picture it. Xena: Warrior Granny."
There was a snort but whether it was from Argo or Xena, Gabrielle couldn't tell. "Where are we heading?"
"One of the guests at the wedding said there were raiders on the coast who were threatening small villages. Just a small group. We can handle them."
"With a side trip to Thessaly? It's been a while since we've seen Hippocrates."
"That's the plan."
"Just one thing."
"This time we take the southern route."
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