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Commitment -- Cont'd
Winter. Gabrielle sits alone in her bedroom, looking out a window. She'd imported glass, hand-rolled in Athens, to fill the windows. Looking out at the tree she and Xena had planted, distorted, dim through the glass, it stands alone in the snow-filled courtyard, mulch heaped up against the bitter winter. Behind her, a middle-aged woman, hair gray, dressed in black, brings in a breakfast tray. Two cups of steaming tea, a pot of honey, and fresh bread. Gabrielle looks up at her, smiles. "Thanks, Neaira. Looks like snow all day."
"It hasn't stopped the guests; they're starting to arrive. Better hurry. By the way, that's the last of the Mytilenean honey."
"Then I'd better slow down and enjoy it, instead of hurrying."
Neaira stands in back, puts a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle."
"Don't say it. I just want to savor this, one last time. Will you help me prepare? Thanks. Let me finish, and I'll meet you in the dressing room. Would you get out the long teal dress? And the necklace Mentor gave me? I want to look formal."
Gabrielle sits at the head of a conference table. At her right, Mentor. Very uncomfortably sitting at her left, Stepissos. Around the table, nobles, village headmen, women. Representatives from the budding town of Samothrike. Gabrielle stands, imposing; in back of her, mounted on the wall: Aries' sword. A reminder.
"Then we're agreed." She holds up a parchment covered in thin, complex glyphs. "I expect all of you to abide by this land use agreement. You have set up rules for conflict resolution, and I will enforce them, by my own hand, if I have to. Stepissos?"
"As long as I get first hunting rights, the land use doesn't matter. But it doesn't bind my heirs."
"Agreed. Anyone else? Good. You and your heirs can be proud."
Gabrielle and Mentor talk with the guests as they leave. Then, her arm in his, they stroll to a sitting room.
"I never expected to live to see this. Land reform. Gabrielle, it could never have happened without your gift for persuasion."
"Or yours for planning." She smiles. "You've been a father to me. I wish mine were still alive, to meet you."
Mentor bows. "He'd be as proud of you as I am. Land reform. . . " he shakes his head, as though something beyond comprehension had happened. "Gabrielle, since you've taken tenancy, we've had peace. The villagers are doing better than ever, the town is prosperous, and even the landowners have stopped complaining about you. You were born to this. You must be very happy." He stops, looks at her. "I'm sorry. That was thoughtless. I'm an old man, and sometimes I forget. Forgive me, my lady."
As Mentor tries to cover his mistake with formalities, Gabrielle is drawn again to a window. "I wonder what she's doing." Turning, "Do you still hear from her?"
He coughs, nods. "Same as always. She tells me where she is. 'Don't tell Gabrielle.' What is she doing? I . . . don't want to get involved in this, my dear. You have to make your own choices."
Midday. The formal banquet hall of the palace has been converted to an exercise, training room. There are still symbols of wealth, but the marble floor has been taken up, replaced with dirt, and the frescoes on the walls marred with racks -- swords, sticks, bows. Gabrielle, Ephiny, and a dozen girls and young women are working out with staffs. Ephiny leads the demonstration, and Gabrielle, her mind pleasantly occupied, tries to get the younger women to be aggressive with her. They seem awed, afraid of touching her; Ephiny makes a much easier target, and takes some serious blows.
After the defense training is over, two young townswomen approach Gabrielle. The taller one reminds her of Agape, and she smiles. The young woman smiles back, so very much like Agape.
"Ma'am? I mean, your ladyship." Then, firmly, trying to cover her confusion. "Lady Gabrielle. My name is Iros. This is . . . . my friend Elatos. We were wondering . . . could we talk with you sometime?"
Ephiny comes up behind her, smiles. "I think I'd better check on the tippity-tap of little hooves in the nursery. Excuse me."
Alone, Gabrielle looks at them, remembers her own awkwardness the first time she and Xena had appeared as a couple in public. Xena had seemed so confident . . . . a trace of her old anger surfaces.
"Yes." Too formal; she manages a smile. Love was supposed to be . . . "I'm having a dinner for some friends, tonight. We'd like your company."
"My lady." Iros glances at her partner. "We'd be . . we'd like that a lot."
"Good. I'll tell Neaira. She'll meet you at the door."
When night comes, Gabrielle and Ephiny sit down to dine with Iros and Elatos. A small room, just large enough for the five of them, charcoals on a brazier keeping them warm. Gabrielle finds she had been looking forward all day to the company of the young couple. She wants to tell them . . . what? She remembers what she'd said to Xena: honor the truth in us. Had there ever been any? What could she pass on to them?
After the first course, fresh partridge sent by Stepissos, stuffed with rice and wild cherries, Iros, bold with wine, "We've heard . . . a lot of stories. Myths, about you."
Ephiny almost laughs out loud, then gathers her son, takes the question. "They're all true. Gabrielle has lived more myths than any mortal I know."
"Is it true . . . " Gabrielle catches her breath . . "that you were a bard? And you knew Homer? And you sang before King Agamemnon?"
Gabrielle, relieved, smiles. "Would you like to hear something?"
The young women smile, look at each other, hold hands. Gabrielle's voice catches in her throat; she takes a sip of wine to cover it.
"This isn't mine. It's from a young woman . . . in Mytilenia, I think. Her name is Sappho.
Dawn: Xena crawls out from under her robe. Sitting up, the brutal memory of Gabrielle's abandonment: anxiety hits her like a blow to the stomach, doubling her over, unable to move. Gasping for air, she grabs the robe, holds it between her knees and body, moaning.
The attack passes, and Xena takes her bags and robe to Argo. Exhausted, she doesn't even attempt their morning ritual together, mounting as soon as the bags are secure. Once mounted, she has enough energy to lean forward and hold on to Argo's neck. Thinking one thought: tomorrow would be easier. All she had to do was make it to tomorrow.
Saturday morning: Gabrielle, Iros and Ephiny have all drawn kitchen duty. Gabrielle, on her knees in a faded blue skirt, pushes a wooden bucket before her, scrubbing the flagstone floor. Iros stands at a small table, fashioning lumps of dough into flatbread, while Ephiny tends the oven. Phantes Junior, meanwhile, has just discovered that by lifting his hind legs and kicking, he can make the water in the bucket go slosh.
"Yes, that's right. Isn't that fun? But I think we'll let Gabrielle finish before we do that again." Ephiny kneels next to Gabrielle, holds her baby.
"I don't mind. Argo used to . . ." Gabrielle's face suddenly goes blank, and Ephiny, thinking quickly, continues,
"Iros. I thought this was Elatos' turn."
"She's . . . anyway, I let her sleep. Now she owes me." A big silly grin: young love.
"I swear I don't know how you two can do it. I grew up with Amazons; I've had enough living with women."
Gabrielle stops, looks at her. "So you moved in with twenty."
"Where else can I get free baby-sitting?"
"Another batch. Those last ones done?"
"I'll check." Ephiny sets Phantes down, and he immediately goes to a large copper pan sitting next to the oven, tries out his hind legs. Crash. Gabrielle smiles: "Free? You must mean besides being our Amazon protectress."
"You could do that. I just fill in."
"Yeah, well I learned a lot in a hurry."
Iros, stepping forward, looks at Gabrielle. "I'm glad you're both here. When you and Xena moved in I thought . . well it was like a dream to us. We told our parents. If it hadn't been for you . . . ."
"Well, sorry we never made much of a role model." She bends down, slops water on the floor. Phantes steps back against the wave of water, as Ephiny picks him up.
"You know, Gabrielle, I've seen a lot of changes in you. Some of them I don't much like."
Gabrielle says nothing, only looks angrily at the bucket and scrubs harder. Ephiny refuses to drop it. "Gabrielle. You've shut everyone out of your life. You're bitter all the time. It's like you died instead of Xena."
Instead of apologizing, Gabrielle sits back on her knees, looks at Iros. Her voice deep with tears that will not come, "Sometimes I hate you for what you have. You think Xena and I were such a great couple. Well I'll tell you something: it was all a lie. Xena never even loved me."
Ephiny sets Phantes down, stands. "Gabrielle. Stop that. I'd like to see you apologize to Iros."
Gabrielle does stop to wipe her hands, look at the two women standing over her. Iros steps back quickly, "Oh, no. I mean, I didn't take it personally."
Her face expressionless, Gabrielle rises; facing Ephiny, she looks at her with a trace of . . . biting her lip, she moves forward, hugs her. Ephiny looks annoyed at first, then puts an arm around her. Gabrielle half-turns, gathers Iros in. "I'm sorry. I promise I'll do better." They stand together for a moment, when Ephiny's eyes widen, and she shrieks.
Phantes Junior has found the flour bin.
Late afternoon in the market square of a small village; ankle-deep snow covers the cobblestones. In the dim winter light, the only people to be seen are two well-muscled men, with backpacks and swords. Mercenaries or warriors . . . an old man pops up from a bundle of rags. "Dinars for the poor, good sirs. I was a soldier like yourselves, once. Had to sell my sword to feed my family. Then the hard times came. It . . ." Before he can go much further, the shorter of the pair swings out a small leather pouch, makes a show of unwrapping a leather cord cinching it, and picks out a small coin. "May the gods in Olympus bless you. And what brings you to our town, noble sirs? If it's work, you won't be finding hire . . . "
The taller turns to his companion, hesitates, "Actually, . . we're just looking for a tavern. Maybe a place to stay the night."
"That'd be on the way out of town. It's a clean place . . . not much entertainment for you gentlemen. But a good place to rest."
"Thanks. We . . usually get too much entertainment." As they turn away, the old man bites his coin, then magically dissolves again into a heap of cloth.
"Herc. I could use some entertainment. Also. When we get to the tavern. . . you go in first. I'm sore from the last one."
"What are you afraid of? We won."
"Remember the one in Athens?"
"Oh, that one. We usually win."
By the time they finish talking, they've come to the tavern. Two stories, clean, shuttered against the cold. Smoke rising from a chimney promises warmth, and on the scent of the wood there is a trace of roasted meat.
Iolaus, cold, tired and hungry, reaches for the door, but Hercules blocks him. "You better let me check. It could be dangerous." A small struggle follows, and they wind up stumbling inside together.
True enough, the inn is clean and well lit, a half dozen short tables lining up before a large arched fireplace. Whitewashed walls, a long high table with cups and flasks, loaves of bread and a few hams hanging from the ceiling complete the picture of a prosperous, well-kept house. There doesn't seem to be many customers; in a corner next to the fireplace, near a doorway, two old men sit across from each other, playing some sort of board game, sipping from small cups.
"Do we serve ourselves? I could eat a ham."
"Maybe we should wait. Take a seat by the fireplace?"
Setting their bags down, Iolaus and Hercules sit with their backs to the old men, drying their feet before the fire. A minute hasn't gone by before they hear a barmaid enter, "Can I get you boys a drink?" Hercules turns to look, slowly rises . . . "Xena?"
Her pure black hair flowing softly over her shoulders, wearing a simple blue dress with a scoop neck and a silver necklace, the warrior princess somehow looks comfortable in the role of village girl-next-door, a girl that any young man might hope to marry.
Iolaus turns, almost falls over himself standing. "Xena! You look great without a sword. I mean . . . in a dress." Embarrassed, awkward, he looks at her. Xena runs her tongue over her teeth, thinking of a reply, when Iolaus speaks again.
"Ah. . . I think I need to go outside for a minute. Maybe . . . I wonder if Gabrielle is around?" Hercules hits him lightly on the back, "Yeah. Why don't you do that." As Iolaus leaves, Xena breathes an audible sigh of relief.
"Xena. It's good to see you again."
"You too, Hercules." She takes a hug, but turns her body, and Hercules releases her quickly. Not the reaction he'd expected, he covers his surprise with "What are you doing here?"
Xena surprises him again by taking his hand, leading him to a table away from the old men. She sets him down, lightly draws a hand over his shoulder, and fixes a quick meal. She sets out slices of ham, bread, pickles of some sort and a wedge of stuffed omelet. "Helping out my mother."
"Why is it that somehow, I don't believe you?"
"Why is it you always see through me?" She pours an amber-brown ale, thick and heady, into a ceramic cup, hands it to him and sits on the edge of the table. "Hercules. It really is good to see you." She smiles warmly at him.
"I can't see through you, Xena. I know you're changing the subject. Where even fools fear to tread . . . ."
"That's where to find Hercules." She completes the aphorism. "Fair enough. I'm on my way to Mount Olympus. I'm here earning enough money to go."
"Why don't you just hire yourself out? Not as a mercenary" he adds hastily. "Even as a guard."
"No-one is hiring. Looks like the cold is bad for business."
"Iolaus and I are headed up that way. Don't get me wrong. I mean . . ."
She stands again, touching his shoulder. "You're just as sweet as I remembered. Thanks. But I travel alone."
Xena, now without her smile, returns to the sideboard and begins preparing another plate.
"Why do I have this feeling you're not telling me everything?"
Cold air: Iolaus walks in. Hercules looks at the second plate . . . "How'd you do that?"
Instead of giving an answer, she sets down the plate. "Here you go. There's more if you're hungry." Xena smiles again, but now the smile of a hostess, as she puts her hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "You boys staying the night?"
"Are you kidding? Do you know how cold it is out there?" Iolaus takes a bite of the omelet, looks up at her. "Hey! This is great. Where'd you learn to cook? Ow!" As Hercules kicks him under the table.
"It's my mother's cooking. And yes, it is very good. Most of the year she runs this inn by herself. She depends on word of mouth." Then, with a smile, "And I'm sure we can depend on Iolaus for that. I'm going upstairs to get your room ready."
When Xena is safely gone: "My big mouth. She still makes me nervous." Iolaus takes a huge bite out of a slice of ham he's put on some bread. "So. How's old times?"
"I think you're doing just about as well with her as I am." He pauses, sips his ale. "Iolaus. Is it . . . something with me?"
Iolaus belches, almost discretely, takes his own drink. "Herc. Last time I dated her? She tried to kill me afterward."
"So. . . you're saying, I'm doing good."
In the early evening, the tavern is deserted, and Xena revels in the simple chores of sweeping, straightening benches and gathering cups. Peace. More than any she'd felt . . . since that spring, when she and Gabrielle had started living together.
Now it returns, the gnawing in her stomach, a memory of her other life. In the kitchen, scraping down plates into the hog's buckets, she hears a door open.
"Xena? Thanks for taking over for me tonight. I haven't had a chance to visit like this in ages." Her mother unwraps her head, takes off a cloak. "Oh, you're wearing the silver necklace. It looks so pretty with your eyes. Why don't you take it? I'm sure I'll never have another chance to wear it."
"You could wear it to my wedding." She breathes deeply.
"Now you're teasing me. You always were such a tease."
"Mother, two guests came. They're old friends."
"I saw the light upstairs. You know what Kritius next door told me? That they have a new ruler in Samothrace. And it's a woman! Can you imagine?"
Xena drops a plate into the slops bucket. Grimacing . . .
"Never mind that. I'll finish up tomorrow morning. Come sit with me in front of the fire, and talk."
Her mother sits on a ledge next to the fireplace; Xena, cross-legged, sits on the floor in front of her, spreading her skirt to cover her knees. "Mother? Would you braid my hair?"
"Xena! I haven't done that since you were ten."
"Just this once, tonight? I may be leaving soon."
"With your friends? You know I never expected you to stay. Move a little closer, little kore." Calling Xena by her pet name, she straightens the hair, begins gathering it.
"What was I like? When I was little?"
"You were into everything; if there was a basket, you wanted to know what was in it. Some days it seemed all you did was run and talk, run and talk. Lyceus was just the opposite. He liked to take his time. Of course, you both changed after your father left."
"Mother? What would you do if he came back? If he just walked back in the door?"
She stops in the middle of a braid, sighs, and suddenly seems older. "You know, the last time I asked myself that question was only, well it must have been five years now. And I still didn't know, even then."
"Would you take him back?"
"Maybe I would have. Not now. It's like water, that cut through our life. No, I must mean, like a river. I don't think we could cross to the other side any more. He's missed so much, like watching you grow, seeing the woman you've become. You were always his favorite. Well, everyone's, really. But then you changed." She shakes her head, starts over again on the braid, and they sit quietly. A log falls, sending a shower of sparks. And a new log shifts closer, crackles as the fire takes hold of it.
Very late that night, Xena sits on the roof of the inn. Wrapped in a black cloak, with her raven hair, she blends into the night, her eyes sparkling like stars.
"I thought I heard something on the roof."
"Come sit here with me." She offers him the cloak, and as he sits, he puts an arm around her, and she the cloak over his shoulders. Leaning into him, "When I was little, I climbed up here every night. Lyceus taught me the names of all the stars. See, look over there? That's the huntress."
"Ah, Xena, that's Orion. The hunter."
"Lyceus said huntress."
"I can see why you turned out the way you did."
Xena smiles invisibly in the dark, slides her hand down to Hercules' waist.
"So what is it you're not telling me?"
"I'm sorry. Hercules . . . What you did for me, I can never repay. And I could never get past feeling that debt. I wish . . ."
He drops his hand from her shoulder.
"No, please don't . . don't go away like that. I couldn't stand losing you."
Hercules leans into her, but doesn't move his arm back. "I think I'm the one who needs to be held."
Xena laughs, puts an arm around his neck to draw him closer, puts her head against his chest.
"So who's the lucky guy? Do I get to meet him?"
"No. We're . . . we're having problems. We haven't talked, seen each other in three months."
"Oh, no. I am not going to get involved in this. Xena, I'm not a marriage counselor." He starts to move away, but Xena's grip tightens.
"Too slippery to wrestle here. Get back here under my robe." Looking at her mistrustfully, he moves back. "Good. Now: who else can I talk to?"
"Your mother. Gabrielle. I always thought Iolaus was a good listener."
Xena falls silent again, and the two sit, separate, under the same robe.
"It's Gabrielle. The lucky one. I married Gabrielle."
Hercules bows his head, says nothing. Xena holds the back of her hand to his face, reaches, pulls him to her, and they lay back against the roof, his head on her shoulder. She feels each breath.
Dawn finds Xena in bed, awake. She sits with her knees drawn up, a sheet covering her, looking at light filtered through the shuttered window. Her own room, still full of childhood toys. Little pieces of patterned cloth she'd learn to weave, the scrolls Lyceus had given her, when she learned to read. And a piece of her own writing, pasted on the wall. A prayer to Athena, before going into battle, that he'd taught her. Only a slight pain in her stomach.
Hercules turns over, looks up at her. The braids somehow have come free, and her hair falls thickly over bare shoulders. Smiling, "Hercules. What a nice surprise to wake up to."
"If you'd called me Gabrielle, I'd be worried."
Xena giggles, then looks seriously at him. "Gabrielle and I usually give each other a lot more than a massage."
"Xena . . .is she attractive? Like you are to me?"
Xena screws up her face. How do you explain one love to another? "My first lover was a girl older than me. She came to the inn, like she knew I was there, traveling from the east. Kara." Xena frowns for a moment . . . "She taught me martial arts. And love." Turning to face Hercules, still serious, she shakes her head, slightly: "Yes, to answer your question. Some women are very . . . exciting."
"At first she was a chance to start over, to see what it meant . . just to have a friend. To have feelings: to miss someone, to wonder what she was thinking." Laughing, "I think she snuck up on me."
Hercules, silent, looks at the ceiling, at nothing in particular.
"Alright. I didn't answer. When we're . . . together, lovers . . .it's overwhelming. She shows me a place, inside me, only she ever found."
"I was thinking of Deineira. You almost described us."
"You're in love with Gabrielle."
"Yes, I am."
"Then I don't belong here. And you should be back with her."
"It's not that simple."
"Xena. Are you awake?" Her mother's voice floats up the staircase.
"Oh no. She said she didn't need me this morning." She looks around for clothing, sees her dress draped over a hope chest, reaches. As the door opens.
"Have you seen that young man? Oh. There he is."
"Mother, don't you ever do . . . I'm a grown woman. I need privacy."
"Oh, hush, Xena. I thought you were seeing that young woman in Samothrace. If I'd known otherwise I certainly would never . . . "
She closes the door behind her . . . "Iolaus? I've found him. He's with Xena. Would you like some breakfast?"
Xena, still in a state of shock, looks at Hercules, who is trying to control a smile. "Well. They say a mother always knows."
"I need some time alone. You go down first." As he sits up, pulls on his shirt, "By the way. Iolaus' life will be a lot longer if he can keep quiet about last night."
"Now that's the old Xena we know and love."
Left to herself, Xena puts on her chemise, rises. Again the simple rituals of washing herself, combing her hair calm her. She picks up an old piece of wood, shaped into a sword, small enough to fit a child's hand. Walking to the parchment on the wall she clutches the toy sword to her, as though the wood gives her strength. She didn't want to be the old Xena, but there was no-one else inside her. The prayer on the wall . . . she remembered making up stories about Athena; she so much wanted to be like the goddess. Now, it seemed, that included being Gabrielle's lover.
Xena smiles, looks at the toy sword. "Great goddess Athena. If you still hear me. Give me your wisdom, to find my truth. And your courage, to face it."
Setting down the toy, she folds her dress, opens the hope chest. She starts by taking out the chakram . . . .
The first night on the road, the three stop by a mixed stand of olive trees and tall bushes. While Hercules and Iolaus clear a firebreak, Xena clears the ground in the center and digs a firepit. After a half-hour's hard work, Hercules brushes off his hands. "I hope we're not taking someone's windbreak."
"It'll grow back. Look." In the dim light, Iolaus points at the roots of a bush. "Fire, last year. I'm a lot more worried what we're gonna do for dinner."
"I'll take care of that." Xena stands from where she'd been nurturing the fire, takes her saddlebags off Argo. "If I know my mother, there's enough food here . . . for both of you."
"Bag's too small." Iolaus chortles, rocks back and forth in simple glee.
Sitting next to Hercules, "Let's see. Stuffed pastries." Hands them to Hercules. "Lamb and rice rolls. Omelet. You don't deserve this. Ham." She sniffs "Onion bread." Xena hefts the bag, looks puzzled, then opens the other side and pulls out . . . a large wineskin. She hands it to Iolaus, who takes an expert swig. "Good old mom. Xena, yours is one in a million."
Xena, considering carefully, looks to Hercules, back at Iolaus. "Just what did you three find to talk about while I was getting ready this morning?"
"Oh, you know. Things. That mothers like to talk about."
"Herc did most of the talking. About how wonderful you are. I only helped a little." Iolaus gives her a self satisfied grin, and Xena, tired from being on the road after so many months, leans a shoulder against Hercules. Who does not respond.
Much later, after trading stories of giant centaurs, fire-breathing wooden men, psychopaths and Hades, the three sit quietly, thinking their own thoughts. Iolaus sighs. "This is like old times. Better, huh?" Hercules sees Xena tense . . . "Ah, . . . Iolaus."
"You know who I really miss, though? Gabrielle. I wish I could see her again."
"So do I."
Iolaus looks at her, but ignores the warning signs.
"That time she told me stories, it was like . . . mmph." Hercules, with hand over Iolaus' mouth: "Iolaus. Why don't we go for a walk." Before they can even rise, Xena puts a hand on his arm "Hercules? Would you go talk to Argo? I usually do, around this time, anyway. I'll meet you."
"You're not going to do anything drastic?"
"It's too dangerous. Mom would never forgive me."
When they're alone: "I said something wrong again, didn't I? I can't help it, Xena. I'm always nervous around you."
Xena looks at him, smiles very gently. In a voice softer than he could have imagined from her: "What's matters to me is what is in your heart. I know what I did to you was wrong. I wish someday you could forgive me."
"Forgiving you and forgetting you are different."
"I know. That's why I thought you could understand. What I have to tell you."
Iolaus, more nervous than before, takes the wineskin, as Xena shifts her weight, gets comfortable. Taking a twig and holding it in the fire, "Gabrielle used to be my best friend. Being with her brought me back to life."
"Hey, Xena. I'm sorry. Did you guys argue?" Offers the wineskin to her, but she shakes her head.
"No. We fell in love and were married last spring."
Iolaus chokes, spews his wine into the fire. "That's why I decided to tell you. I knew you could handle it."
"You're laughing at me, aren't you? You enjoy this."
"A little. But I want you to know how important she's been to me."
Xena watches him nod, then gets up, briefly rests her hand on his shoulder, then goes off to find Hercules and Argo.
"How's she doing?"
"I think . . . she's trying to say she misses you."
"I'll take over." As she helps feed, rub down Argo, Xena glances up. "What's wrong?"
Accusingly: "Because we didn't sleep together."
Hercules touches her back, quickly withdraws. "No."
"Then why can't you touch me?" Angry, she stops brushing Argo, turns to face him.
"I keep thinking . . . how I would have felt. If someone were giving Deineira a massage."
No longer angry, Xena tries to put her hands on his biceps, but he shakes her off. "And every time I look at you, it reminds me."
"Fine. Don't look at me. We'll split up in the morning." The hard edge back in her voice.
"That's the old Xena, I know and love."
"Oh. Ephiny. Come on in."
She looks around the bedroom, willing to swear that nothing's been moved since Xena left. Gabrielle, wearing a simple cotton gown, stands by a window; the soft morning light makes her hair glow golden-red. Two chairs, a small table with a breakfast tray . . .
As she sits, Gabrielle, shy, looks in her own cup. For a very brief moment, Ephiny envies Xena.
"That's Xena's cup. I always fill it. I'm being silly . . ."
"You still love her."
"Yeah. That's even sillier."
She sets her cup down, draws her knees to her chin, looks up . . . "Gabrielle, listen to me. This was after you were married, and you went home to be with your father. Xena came to Athens, visited PJ and me."
"She never told me. About a lot of things."
"You hurt her when you married Perdicus. She . . . "
Gabrielle turns swiftly, spilling tea, staining her robe. "Oh, no. You're not going to make me feel guilty for that. I loved him and he needed me. I made my choice."
Gabrielle seems to Ephiny like a beautiful princess in a myth: imprisoned in a fortress, cut off from the world. Could she even be reached? This would hurt . . .
"We were together that week. At the end, I asked her to stay with me. Be my partner." Gabrielle sits, heavily; tries to smile at Ephiny.
But Ephiny does not smile in return. "It wasn't fun to hear, Gabrielle. Xena said she was in love." Blinking back a tear, Ephiny rushes on, "With another woman. She never told me who. But we know who she meant, don't we?" Ephiny unfolds herself, stands, but Gabrielle is faster, grabs her wrist as she turns to go.
"Did you sleep with her?"
Shaking her hand loose, Ephiny almost snarls her reply: "That's none of your business. You don't own her, Gabrielle." Walking right up to her, staring in her eyes, she pushes Gabrielle against a wall. "But I'll tell you this. Xena isn't a stuffed doll, you can kick and punch. Keep hurting her and she'll leave."
"What do I do?"
"I don't know what you do. She's working at her mother's inn. Last I heard." Ephiny releases her, leaves the room.
Xena rises before dawn, before Hercules and Iolaus, leaves them her mother's food instead of a good-bye. It was a kind of freedom: enough money to feed Argo, but no-one else to protect, support, worry over. Not even her mother.
A new ruler in Samothrace.
Through the morning, the thought gnaws at her, as Gabrielle's memory did every morning. She smiles at the hurt; Gabrielle certainly hadn't needed her.
A kind of freedom, but not a release.
As the rhythm of the road carries her, Xena abandons the present. She's fourteen: very much a woman, though her ceremony was months away. Time eroded the memory of the longing she'd had . . . for things she didn't then understand. Smiling at herself: memories of her youth, intermingled with memories of Kara.
It was midafternoon, when she always scrubbed down tables before the night's heavy business: dinner and drinking. This was really her time, and she'd spend it dreaming. Today it was travel, the lands to the east. She sighed, wondered if Patrocles would tell her that story about the king with the funny sounding name . . . Sennacherib. When Kara walked in.
Kara's eyes she noticed right away: gray, like Athena's were supposed to be. She turned to Xena, looked at her. So confident. "I want a room. Is there a monthly rate?"
Kara was eighteen, poised, sophisticated. Xena just managed to look back at her . . .
"Mother takes care of the money things." Remembering how young she felt just then. Kara didn't care: "Then why don't you show me a room."
Even while Kara was renting a room from her mother, Xena had already started a fantasy: Athena, come to take her to Olympus, teach her to be a warrior. Teach her . . . So when Kara turned those eyes on her, she gave a smile she hadn't intended. And Kara smiled back. "I need your help, mornings." Turning to her mother, "Is she free? I'd be willing to pay."
Xena remembers how angry her mother could look. "We're honest innkeepers, not slaves or servants. If you can't remember that, you're better off in another inn. Another thing: Xena is an adult. You ask her, not me."
But Kara remained poised, even bowed. "I didn't mean it like it sounded. But you're right, and I'll watch it from now on. May I speak with Xena, privately?"
And she knew, somehow, that Kara had gotten just what she wanted.
Curse Ephiny anyway.
She'd made a family: friends, a whole community of women to live with. Elatos had a real talent for poetry; maybe this spring they'd travel to Mytilenia, meet Sappho. The work she was doing with Mentor was important . . . and so were the self defense lessons.
She was losing focus. The problem was . . . the problem was, she just couldn't hit the road, chasing after Xena. She had responsibilities.
And what would she say? She could just see it. "Xena. I was wrong. I'll do anything to be with you, if you take me back."
The stupid part was, she could hear Salmoneus' voice: "That could work."
Right. Thank you very much, but no.
Xena was up at dawn, feeding the chickens, chopping wood, carrying water to the animals. Somehow, spending the morning with a spoiled rich girl, not much older than herself, didn't seem as romantic as it had the night before.
Kara apparently didn't eat much breakfast: a pot of honey, bread and some tea, she notices, as she carries the tray from the kitchen. But then, rich kids didn't have to work, either. Pushing the door open: Kara sits cross-legged on the floor, her face expressionless. The room isn't much different than her own -- better quality bedsheets, and a down comforter instead of crude wool, but pretty much the same. She sniffs . . incense. Just like in the temple ceremonies, except this has a different effect on her: suddenly, doing a rich girl's chores seems very exciting.
"Thank you for bringing breakfast, Xena." Her voice, unexpectedly deep, not a girls voice at all. "I know you ate when you woke this morning. But I'd like you to share tea with me in the mornings."
Xena, mute, afraid of her own voice, nods.
"You don't talk much, do you?"
"Can I sit?"
"Yes, of course. Maybe we'd better get to business. I need your help. We'll have to be together a lot, and we'll have to trust each other. None of it will work if you're angry at me."
"Why did you want me?"
"People talk; I've heard about you." Taking a bite, "From a long way off. You're the kore who wants to be a warrior. Who wants to be as good as a man."
Her face turns red. She had the first blood of anyone in her age group; nobody called her kore anymore. "I don't need you to laugh at me."
"Yeah. Plenty of people do that already."
Angry, Xena kneels to get up, then looks . . . into those eyes. She'd fantasized too much, that was the problem.
"Go ahead, Xe. Look. Look hard." And Xena lifts her eyes again, to meet Kara's.
Kara blinks and Xena notices things again. She's sitting on the hard floor and the sun is in a different position.
"Xena: I want the same things you do. Give me your trust, and we can do it."
Curse Ephiny. She wished she could talk to Neaira; she misses the older woman's wisdom. But a new grandchild . . . and her daughter was alone on the farm. That was something real she could be doing for the villagers. She could set it up though Mentor . . .
Focus. Things seemed to blur so much these days. The problem wasn't orphans, it was Xena.
Focus: the problem was her, not Xena or Neaira. She needed someone to talk to. If she had a whole community, why wasn't there anyone who understood her?
Gabrielle, wandering through the palace corridors, stops before a door, knocks. Motion on the other side, then "Who's there?"
"C'mon in. If you don't mind us being in bed."
Gabrielle peeks in; at least they're under the sheets. Shutters up over the windows overlooking the courtyard; chairs holding scattered clothing. A cheerful looking fire in the fireplace across from the bed, and the smell almost covers their scent. Great. This was really going to help her make a calm, reasoned decision. "I came at a bad time. I better go."
Elatos slides out of bed, naked, stands in front of the door. "Uh, we don't want to stop you or anything. But you look really bad." She takes Gabrielle's head, lifts it to the light, exposing tear tracks. Nods at Iros, who brings a robe, grabs another for herself. "Alright Gabrielle. It's time to talk."
Gabrielle feels surrounded by the two as they take her, sit her down on the bed. "We think . . "Elatos glances to get Iros' assent "that you need to do something. Specifically, about Xena."
"When we first moved to Samothrike . . we thought you were godesses, come to live with us. You seemed so . . . happy all the time. Full of life. Now. . . you're dying, inside."
Iros shifts, to look at her. "Gabrielle. Please come back."
The pilgrim road to Olympus is almost deserted. It may be the season; with solstice drawing near, people would be with their families. At least the roads stayed hard, otherwise she and Argo would be deep in mud. The bad side was that there wasn't much to keep her alert. She could drift off . . .
In her dream, she walks through a dense green jungle; vines grab at her feet, and she slashes them with a sword. The dream shifts to a clearing filled with exotic flowers, fleshy, intensely fragrant. She picks one, its center a dark ruby color; places it between her breasts. A small bird flashes past, then hovers around her neck, wings brushing against her. . .
She blinks. Still dark in her room, and something on her neck. What . . . Kara's hand. With a whole Kara attached, kneeling before her. Smelling like her dream: exotic, rich.
"Hey, Xe. I brought breakfast. Can I get in bed? It's chilly out here."
"Uh, yeah Kara. But I still need to do the chores. It's almost light."
"We do 'em together, it'll go twice as fast. So we can stay in bed a while. We could talk. Okay?" Kara grimaces in the half light, sets a tray in the middle of the bed, gets on the other side. "Your mom said you liked eggs and ham and bread and everything else there was, in the morning. Hope you like my cooking. Try some tea. I brought it with me."
The tea tastes different than yesterday's. It has a rich aroma, and a light, lingering taste, like a fruit. While Xena eats steadily, Kara talks. She must have been traveling since she was born, to see so much world. Mountains where there's snow all year; places so high you couldn't breathe. The temple of Ganesh, where they worshiped a god with a nose longer than her arm. Other temples where the gods were rocks and trees. And she talks about their techniques of fighting: martial arts.
She likes Kara's cooking a lot.
After the chores are done, the rest of the morning is a series of intense workouts. It starts with movement training; Xena discovers how beautiful Kara's body is; she flows like water. When Xena calls her 'slow river', Kara laughs, delighted. And looks in her eyes . . .
All day, Mount Olympus has been rising in front of her. The summit perpetually wrapped in clouds, a place of pilgrimage for centuries, Xena is at last close enough to make out some of the temples clustered around the base. There'd be a good place to get supplies, put up Argo for the night. But her destination was much further up the mountainside.
Getting a room, making sure Argo would be fed and cared for, grounds her in the present. It would take all her money, but after tomorrow nothing would matter. She sits alone in a corner, a glass of wine at hand, her sword even closer. Maybe her reputation, maybe her look. But as the dark comes, candles and fires are lit, and no-one bothers her. Slowly, Xena slips away into the past.
Xe and Kara: they're together every morning after that, and Xena's confidence, energy grows. One afternoon, after sword-practice with Lyceus, they steal a chance to sit, talk.
"So. You finally found a friend."
"Sure, sis. Used to be, the most beautiful girl in town wanted to spend all her time with me."
"You mean Kara?"
"No, dummy. You."
"You're being nice today. Let me guess . . ."
"Hey! Can't you take a compliment?"
"I bet, you're the only one in town, thinks I'm even pretty."
That shuts up Lyceus for a moment. "Just repeating what Kara said."
"Wait a minute. Oh, ho. You tried to get a date?"
"Yeah. What's wrong, you think I'm not good enough for her?"
"No. I think you're too good for any of 'em in town."
Xena sits, silent. She's really said about everything she knows how to say, knows the words for.
"You know, there's a lot of talk about you two."
"Yeah, she told me. 'The kore who thinks she's as good as a man.'"
"That's one of the nice ones. They can't figure out if Kara's the man and you're the wife. Or the other way around."
"That's silly. We're two girls."
"You're so innocent."
"Am not. I'm sophisticated. Like Kara."
That, at least, brings a laugh. "When two girls spend as much time as you two? And they never go with boys? Sometimes, they move in together, like they're married."
Lyceus sighs, gives up. "Sis, either you are the most innocent girl in town. Or . . . you're not telling me something."
"Hi. I'm sorry to bother you. But I'm . . . looking for a woman named Xena."
"I know you, don't I?"
"We met, a long time ago. My name is Gabrielle."
"I'm Xena's mother. Yes, I remember you. You're from Samothrace, aren't you? I'm so glad you've come."
Later, during dinner hour, Gabrielle stands in the kitchen, taking the plates, serving them. One of the older customers reminds her of her father. If there was time, after the nets were mended, and the catch was sold, he loved to sit in the tavern, talking with his friends. And as the sun dropped, he'd leave, come home to his family.
What if Xena and her ever did get back together. Married. Would they ever make a real family?
"She never came right out, and said it. But I knew she had women lovers." Xena's mom brings her back to the present. "I wish she could have talked to me. But she changed so much, after her father left."
"Do you mind, about Xena and me?"
Xena's mother stops, glances sideways at Gabrielle. "You know, where I was born . . . we had a saying for a child like her: 'she belongs to the gods.'" Takes a plucked chicken; chop, chop, cuts it in half. Rubbing the insides with a garlic clove, then with oil. "We knew she was different, right from when she was young. That we'd have to let her go her own way." Spitting the halves, sprinkling herbs on the outside.
"I only asked . . . because I really wish we could be family."
"Gabrielle. Are you sure Xena really wants a family? She's been alone so long."
The inn was a mistake: the food makes her ill; the customers spend all night drinking, getting louder the longer they drink. She turns all night on a mattress stuffed with grain stalks, and greets dawn tired, hung over. The pain in her stomach is pleasant in comparison to the nausea from the food.
Even Argo is irritable as they start up Olympus. By noon, horse and rider are exhausted, and Xena looks for water. She would have settled for a mountain brook, but stumbles instead across a slow-moving river, banks cut deep. It takes a little time to get to the water. Come spring, after the melt, it would be powerful enough to tear her and Argo away. Now, it looks just perfect as she sits on a bank, feet dangling over the water. The effect is hypnotic. . .
It finally happens, before Xena even knows she's ready. As usual, Kara knows first.
One day after workout, they're washing behind the inn, where the stream has cut a small inlet, shaded by trees. Xena really looks at Kara, notices how different their two bodies are. She feels chunky, where Kara is lightly built, boyish. Dark skin, small breasts . . . deep dark nipples: she was as different and compelling as her incense. Kara has a lot less body hair, too; Xena can even see . . . Kara catches her looking, laughs. "Xe. What you looking at?"
"I'm sorry. I wasn't . . " But Kara takes her hand, pulls her close, so close their breasts almost touch. "Nothing to worry about, Xe. I like looking at you, too."
"But I'm so ordinary." Kara only smiles, and Xena looks away, takes a deep breath. "Alright. I like looking at you." Just like jumping off a mountain, really.
"So what's next?"
Xena swallows hard. "I've heard. . . when two girls are like us. Sometimes they get together."
"That's what I want. But I've done this. Are you sure it's what you want?"
Xena, thinking back, remembers how shy and fearful she'd been just then. "I think I wanted it the first time I saw you."
"Yeah, I thought I knew that look. Well, Xe. Can you come to my room tonight?"
"What about right now?"
Kara laughs. "That . . is so like you. The answer is no. I've had to watch you for the last month, and wait. I am not taking anything less than a whole night."
And then the journey is over; she stands before the high temple of Athena on Mount Olympus. The temple itself is small, simple: a place to offer sacrifices, pray to the goddess. Perhaps talk to a priestess.
In back of the temple, a dozen or so buildings, places where the priestesses lived and worked. And almost certainly Kara was one of them. Finding her . . . she curses her fantasies, getting lost in the past. When what she needed was something to offer at the altar.
In the chill of the late afternoon, Xena sits across from the temple, watching a fire being lit in the brazier. Soon, the smell of meat; someone was offering the fat of a bull. Probably some wealthy landowner; sacrificing an ox like that took money. Which she didn't have.
Focus. She could feel herself losing her grip. Gabrielle would have remembered to bring something, even cheese. She smiles at the thought. Damn, she was still in love. Still connected.
Well . . . that was something. She rises slowly, pats Argo. And searches through her saddlebags. Not much, but she was all out of choices.
The priestess of Athena stands a good head taller even than her. Wearing a gray robe, hooded, her face hidden in the early evening shadows, only the flash of her eyes is clear. The effect is strong, and Xena feels distinctly out of place. Athena, her patron goddess. Whatever she felt, this wasn't a place to shade the truth.
"Yes?" The priestess tries to bring her to focus, hurry her along. She holds out the commitment necklace she'd given Gabrielle, so long ago, standing before Athena herself.
The priestess takes it, looks closely. "Well?"
"I want to offer this to the Great Goddess. I gave it to my lover . . . my wife. Now I want . . ."
"What? What do you want?"
"I want to free myself from her. I want release."
"I hope you find it a hell of a lot harder to forget her, Xe, than it was to forget me. Your offering is not acceptable."
Kara lives crammed into a tiny space: enough room for a fireplace, a bed, and some shelves built in along the fireplace. The ceiling is low, confining. She sits cross-legged on the stone floor, with her back to the fire; a pot hangs in the fireplace. Taking two cups from a shelf, she pours, sets the cups down between them. "Share tea with me."
The tea is strong and heavily sweetened, bringing her slowly to alertness.
"Your partner's name?"
"You're here because you're still in love with her."
Kara holds the necklace in the palm of her hand, then leans forward, ties it around Xena's neck. "Then you better wear this, to remind yourself. Isn't that what a commitment necklace is for?"
"She left me, Kara. It hurts, all the time."
"And you want me to help you get over her."
"Hmm." Kara pushes the tea things aside, pauses, gathers focus. "Now. Look at me. Who am I?"
She tries looking at Kara's face, but the glare of the fire distracts her. Weary, Kara her last hope, she shakes her head. "Kara."
Again: "Xena. Who am I?"
With the light glinting off her eyes, almost filling them it reminded her of . . . "Athena."
Kara tilts her head, looks at Xena with concern. "Why am I here?"
"I'm here. . . you're here." Xena stops, confused, and in her confusion, smiles. "I don't know."
"Yes. A good beginning. Sit next to me." She turns to the fire, then takes a small branch, holds it in the flame. The twig takes fire, dies out, catches again, only to die out again. Finally, the flame takes, and Kara holds the branch in front of Xena.
"Xena. Grasp this flame."
She looks at the flame, at Kara. Her will already starting to melt, she reaches, "Ah!"
She licks the hurt. But Kara holds the branch again. She reaches again, tries to hold it longer . . and cries out with pain. But Kara holds forth the branch. "Xena. Hold the flame."
For the longest time Xena watches the flame, hypnotized. The pain of her hand brings her back, and she looks at Kara's eyes. Deeper, even, than she remembered. "No."
"You learn fast. Enough for tonight. Sit on my bed. Let's heal your wounds."
While Kara looks through the shelves for herbs and a salve, Xena watches: her movement is still so precise, fluid. And she was still exotic, unattainable. The ache in her hand refocuses her. "Kara? Why did you burn my hand?"
She sits next to Xena on the bed, takes her hand, and gently begins to apply salve. "Why did you? I mean, even a slow two year old child won't do it twice."
But the warmth of the room, Kara's touch, blurs her mind. After months of being alone, the simple touch, the warmth of Kara's hand on hers, reaches deep into her. "I don't know."
Kara finishes wrapping a short piece of cloth around Xena's hand, ties it off. "That'll be better tomorrow. Not knowing is a good place for you to to be right now. I know it's hard for you, but let it go. Now, I think you need rest: lie down here next to me."
Xena lies awake, watching the fireshadows play along the wall. Everything was so clear, and so blurred. Kara was worse than wine. She'd have to remember to ask her in the morning. If Gabrielle still loved her.
Morning: they walk silent, arm around waist. The whole of her path, the long journey to Olympus, lies spread before Xena. Kara finds a smooth outcrop of rock, sits, beckoning Xena to lie back in her arms. Hesitant . . .
"We haven't done this in ten years."
Kara looks into the face of her former lover, gray eyes piercing blue. "The body remembers. Mine does, anyway." She gives the smallest of smiles, and Xena leans back, lets herself be held. She whispers, as though afraid someone might hear, "Mine too."
Kara says nothing for a moment . . . her hand touches the commitment stone "This is why you came. Back to work: the fire, Xena."
"I thought it was a test, maybe."
"A lesson. Xe, you can't hold fire. You *know* that. You'll get hurt, every time. Until you learn."
"This is about Gabrielle?"
"Why'd she leave you?"
"Why did you?"
"I didn't like the way you were all locked up inside. And I definitely didn't like where you were headed. Same thing, though."
"Is there breakfast, up here?"
"No meat, eggs. We could probably find some bread and cheese."
"Gabrielle'd be right at home."
Kara sighs. "Deflecting. Try something different. Why'd you ask to forget her?"
"The pain. I . . . oh. Oh."
"I'm not against relationships, Xe." Smiling, now: perhaps a memory. "But you're the only woman I've ever known who thought she could control the flame; you haven't changed much in ten years." Xena starts to speak; Kara places a finger over her lips. And Xena yields.
"Time to move on, Xe, spiritually and physically. You've found everything you need."
Kara rises, holds out her hand: Xena takes it, pulls herself up. They stand, on the roof of the world, holding each other.
Too early for anyone to be awake: in the darkness Xena moves about her room. Something wrong here: someone in her bed.
She hated it when her mother had to rent out her own room; now there's nowhere to sleep. Looking more closely . . .
She stirs, mutters sleepily, "Love?"
Xena kneels next to her. Soft, relaxed in sleep, Gabrielle is breath-catchingly beautiful in the moonlight. Release. Damn Kara.
She stirs as Xena shakes her; smiles. "This is the best dream since you left."
"Gabrielle: wake up."
Gabrielle shudders, wakes, sitting up.
"What are you doing in my bed?"
"Waiting for you."
Xena stops; all the words she had to say stop. She watches Gabrielle trying to wake up in a hurry, blinking, yawning. Remembers days together on the road: watching her wake was the best part of the morning. And then Gabrielle takes her hand. "You are real. Please, Xena. Be really here."
Disarmed, vulnerable, Xena reaches, holds her. "I'm real. my love. I'm real."
As any villager will tell you, a wedding is almost as good as a fair. Better, if it's the lord and lady of the land getting married. It didn't matter that it was the lady and lady to be married: after a long, hard winter and a late cold spring, the promised feast brought hope. Tribute from all across the island found its way to Samothrike; some came Lesvos, some the mainland. It was rumored that the great Darius of Persia himself would arrive. And after enough preparations, enough rumors, well, then a fair did spring up.
Tradition dictated the feast would be held by the parents of the bride. And while the young couple were busy treading traditions into the mud, Gabrielle privately asks Mentor to stand for her father. Xena spends a day riding through the island, talking with Ephiny. In the end, she agrees to accept the union. Stepissos sends his regrets, which suits Gabrielle and Xena just fine. He does send a young stag and doe, for the feast. The slaughter of two innocent animals sickens them both, and Gabrielle donates the food to the town.
Arrangements. While the two families don't exactly hit it off, they can all sit at the same table. Gabrielle thanks the goddess for Iros and Elatos. Each seems to have taken a side of the family. Elatos seems fascinated by her childhood: up to something: what, she won't say.
And the two brides still take a morning walk together. The blur of love's recovery doesn't eliminate all their differences. But they talk. Xena smiles, hearing the story of the feast and Ares' spear; at the end she surprises them both by crying.
Talking about Agape, Kara is harder, hurts them both. Finally Ephiny suggests they take a day apart, thinking and feeling about the meaning of commitment. Xena, predictably, leaves at dawn with Argo, on the road. Gabrielle laughs to herself, but wonders if this is a sign.
Equally predictably, Gabrielle gets up late, has tea in the courtyard, the first time she's done the ritual since Xena returned. It brings back so many sad memories, that later, in the warmth of the afternoon, Gabrielle takes Athanike out.
She finds Xena at the site of the funeral pyre. The rock is cracked from intense heat, marked with black. "The first time we made love, was here."
"The first time I remember was in our bed, that night you brought me home. I remember how confident you seemed."
"All I remember is being scared. That Ares cursed you. To forget me. Or you wouldn't want me anymore."
Gabrielle, sitting, leaning back on two hands, smiles. "C'mere. I want you in my arms, if we're gonna talk."
Xena stands, the light at her back. Smiling, looking down at Gabrielle, she looks like a goddess risen from the sea. Turning slightly, she notices Gabrielle's look, kneels before her. "Tell you what. Just this once. Let's not talk."
Surprised, she lets herself be pushed back. Then Xena's weight is on her. The sea, the light chill, sharpen her senses. The warmth of lips against her neck, long hair over her mouth shock her. She breathes deeply: the smell of Xena's leather, sweat, and the herbs on her hair.
When they ride in together that night, Ephiny only looks, says nothing.
The day of the wedding dawns clear and slightly chilly. Outside their window, Gabrielle glimpses flags, tents from the fair. The courtyard was already filled with tables for the feast; she sees her mom, some of the women from the self-defense class, enjoying quiet moments in the sunlight. Xena's mom is probably already in the kitchen, organizing the volunteer cooks. That's the advantage to marrying an innkeepers daughter, right there.
Tippity-tap. "Ephiny! PJ's awake?"
"At dawn. I . . know this day is going to be busy, and I didn't want to interrupt. But . . . where I come from, we give a new couple . . ." overcome with embarrassment, unable to continue, she hands Xena a vase. Reddish brown, painted. A chakram . . . and a rose. "I'll be leaving tomorrow." Xena feels tears start; fights them with a deep breath. Drawing Gabrielle to her side, the three hug, silently.
Iros and Elatos stay behind to prepare the feast, while Xena, Gabrielle and their families make the twenty minute ride to Mentor's palace. Mentor himself stands at the entrance to the central courtyard, with a few of his close friends. Gabrielle had been surprised at how many of the chief landowners declined the invitation to the ceremony, preferring the banquet itself. Xena attributed it to the difference between accepting their marriage and accepting their right to hold the land. In any case, many couples from the villages and tradespeople from the town had shown; the main hall was full.
Standing at the entrance to the hall, Xena wears black leather and gold embellishments, sword strapped to her back. Talking with her hadn't done any good, except to elicit "I'm not changing who I am." Xena'd argued about Gabrielle's dress, as well; she wanted white. They settled for her formal light teal gown, which at least everyone recognized. The biggest argument was over the golden labrys Agape had given her. It didn't seem like a good sign for their future, but Gabrielle ended the discussion by saying that until Xena saw fit to find her another commitment necklace, that *was* her commitment necklace.
Mentor's banquet hall has been cleared of tables. A long series of pillars support the ceiling, leaving an unobstructed path to the other end. Between the pillars, well-wishers, invited guests and the curious wait. Open windows at the top of the room let in sunlight and fresh air.
At the first sound of the lyre, they begin a slow walk, arms linked. Xena walks with her eyes focused, unwavering, ahead, a slight smile on her lips. Gabrielle too tries to look ahead, but twice glances up to read Xena's expression.
Athena stands at the other end of their path, flanked on either side by a winged Nike. They stand restlessly, wings moving as though ready to take flight at any moment; one holds Athena's spear, the other her shield. The goddess herself is dressed in a short white tunic, the golden aegis of Zeus draped over her right shoulder. In case there were lingering doubts how the gods viewed this ceremony.
At last, the couple stands before Athena. She speaks softly, but her voice is clear throughout the hall, over the murmers of the onlookers. "We are here today to witness the marriage ceremony of these two young women. Gabrielle, Xena: take each others hands."
Athena pauses a moment as they turn to face each other, right hands clasped. "Do you have anything to say?"
"I, Gabrielle of Poteidaia stand before you, goddess Athena. And pledge to honor the truth that is my love for Xena. For all of time."
"I, Xena of Amphipolis, today stand before you, great goddess Athena. And pledge to honor the truth that is in my love for Gabrielle. Until the end of time."
Athena smiles: "You are now united in marriage. You yourselves must find a union of spirit."
A shout goes up in the hall, and Xena and Gabrielle turn to face the crowd. In the back, they see Polybos move forward, go to one knee . . . having just cast Aries' spear. Gabrielle, frozen in time, watches it head directly towards her heart.
Events blur. Xena steps forward, catches the spear in flight, as Athena takes her own from the Nike at her side. The other has already taken to flight, swooped down at the end of the hall, and returned with Polybos. Hovering, she drops him, like a hawk its prey, at Athena's feet. The goddess holds him up, squirming, by his neck, looks in his eyes for a moment. Then tosses him to the other Nike, which snarls, showing fanged teeth. She too takes flight, bears Polybos off, like a mouse taken by an owl. Athena speaks, and the whole hall hears:
"Ares has been unchained."
Then, quietly, to Gabrielle and Xena, "There's sure to be more of them. We have to get everyone out of here."
But before any of them can move, Stepissos enters the room. He stands opposite Xena, Gabrielle and Athena, a dozen armed, armored men behind him. Grinning broadly, challenging, he holds the sword of Ares.
"Gabrielle! Xena! Sorry to be late for your wedding. But we are in time for your funeral."
Mentor moves in from behind, raises a dagger . . . as Stepissos turns, the sword itself leading him, cutting deeply into Mentor's abdomen. Mentor, wisest of counsels, tumbles over, dying as he falls, and Stepissos completes his turn, facing them again.
Xena turns to look at Athena, hefts the spear she caught. "Athena. Cast together!"
"I'm with you, Xe . . Xena."
The two let loose their spears simultaneously, and Stepissos begins to realize what is about to happen. Holding the sword before him as a shield, as he'd witnessed Gabrielle do . . .
But the sword alone can't decide which spear to deflect, and hovers uselessly in between. The twin spears slam into his body, throwing him back against the wall. Impaled through his heart and liver, Stepissos releases the sword of Ares . . . and another has picked it up.
"Xena! The sword!" As Gabrielle grabs her arm, Xena looks back at her, confused. "They've been to the palace. Ephiny!"
As if responding to thought, the two Nikes hover above Athena's head, then fly out the hall. Gabrielle catches a disquieting trace of blood on the mouth of one of them, before Athena's touch brings her back. "Gabrielle, stay with me. Xena . . . I want that sword." Xena nods, and runs into battle.
As she nears the end of the hall, focused on a bearded warrior, holding the quivering sword before him, Xena leaps, flips, and with perfect precision her feet land on his back. He falls forward, and the sword, unerringly finding its target, pierces his heart.
And then Gabrielle, Athena are by her side. As Athena takes the sword, Gabrielle pulls her spear from Stepissos body. He sags slightly; she flips it around to use as a staff. The three stand side by side, facing Stepissos' men, the men who surely must have violated their home, fought their way past Ephiny, Iros and Elatos. The two groups face each other, waiting . . .
Athena straightens, smiles and walks directly into their midst. She grabs one by the throat, twists, drops him. Two more rush in at her side; Athena turns once with the sword, and they drop, doubled over. The remainder move back warily, opening a path through the main entrance.
"Get going. I'll clean up here." As Gabrielle, Xena run past, out the hall, Athena tosses the sword in the air, catches it, and smiles brightly at the remaining warriors.
They ride furiously, realizing whatever happened must now be over; the Nike's would have seen to that. The path bends, switches back around a stone outcrop. Past that . . . the road climbs steeply towards their palace. Their view obscured by rocks and trees and the rise of the path itself, all that is visible is a heavy pall of smoke.
Closer in, villagers throng the road, heading towards them. A jumble of carts, horses and people block their progress; soon they are engulfed in a wave of refugees from their feast. As Gabrielle tries to maneuver through the crowd, villagers reach up to touch her, for reassurance.
Gabrielle is not reassured: desolate, uncomprehending, she looks at the sea of people. Torn between Xena, barely visible ahead of her, and staying with the villagers.
The palace finally rises before them, obscured by smoke. Xena notices a pile of fleshy bones, says nothing, looks quickly away. Even the tents and booths of the fair have been either trampled or burned. And as it burns, the second story of the palace slowly sags, then crashes into the lower floors, feeding the flames below.
They ride, slowly, looking for any sign of life, but the wind-whipped smoke makes their search almost impossible.
Finally, on the seaward side, where the wind blows clear, a small group of survivors sit. And . . Ephiny stands, waving, running towards them.
Gabrielle notices a small hoof, and a thumb stuck in a tiny mouth, protruding from a sling at her hip. She swallows relief, but something still threatens to burst inside her.
Iros looks up from Elatos . . . and Ephiny cries out: "Xena! Get over here! Now!"
Elatos lies before them; an arrow in her chest; Ephiny has kept the wound clean, but left it for Xena to deal with. Iros herself seems unable to speak; she clings to Gabrielle, until Xena looks up from examining the wound.
"Gabrielle, you know what to do." She nods, mutely, moves to Elatos' head, to hold her steady as Xena extracts the arrow.
Elatos shudders as the arrow comes out; Gabrielle takes Xena's sword, begins shredding her gown to use as a bandage. And Xena seems to prefer silence to any offer of false hope.
She moves to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. While Gabrielle sits with the survivors, Ephiny follows Xena.
When they return, Gabrielle rises, and the two walk, hand in hand, surveying the palace. The raiders had been thorough; not even the outbuildings were salvageable.
"Gabrielle, we'll have to move these people."
"Gyrian's. He's close to Mentor's palace."
"We need everyone off the island, tomorrow. If Elatos makes it, they can join us later."
"Xena, we have to go after whoever did this. We can't just leave!"
"The island isn't safe. Gabrielle . . . most of the major landowners were in the raid; Ephiny saw them riding in." For the first time, Xena actually smiles. "Your defense class cleared the grounds before they even got inside the gates. Ephiny kept them back."
"Went after the sword. She knew what they wanted."
Gabrielle drops Xena's hand, puts her arms around her . . . wife's . . . waist, rests the side of her head on Xena. Looks out to sea, hears the ceaseless crash of waves.
"Everything we worked for, we built. It's all gone."
Xena holds her.
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