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I wish to thank SR, JS, RT, his lovely wife LT, ROC, Ren Pic and all the other initials in NZ for letting me use their creations. I shall return them as soon as I'm finished and will pay any costs incurred in restoring Gabrielle's hair to its original color.
This story is about love, family, silence and secrets. However it is not a secret that Xena and Gabrielle love each other and show it. I do not think closets had been invented yet in 50BCE. Perhaps my crack research staff could address that question and get back to us. Till then our protaganists will not hide their love in any closets.
Do I encourage reader response you ask? You didn't ask? Well you should have because I'm going to answer your question anyway so don't you feel foolish not asking? Yes I encourage reader response. Tell me what you think. Good, bad, indifferent. The bard wants to know. I can take it. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
As my friend Gin once told me . To the God of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies. The God of Grammer can bite me.
So now I submit for your consideration, complete and unedited, the original directors cut, with nude scenes by flabby body doubles added.
DREAMS LOST AND FOUND
By Jim Kuntz
Xena's breathing was deep and fast. It got faster and deeper. Little beads of sweat glistened along her hairline and her body was covered with a fine sheen of salty water.
"Okay," breath. "Gabrielle," pant. "Okay, enough." breath. "Gabrielle!!"
Suddenly Xena sat up and siezed the bard under the arms and lifted her up from between her legs and pulled her to her as she lay back down.
"Gabrielle!" The Warrior Princess barked. "You're driving me insane!"
The bard giggled and buried her face in Xena's neck and ran her tongue up and down tasting the delicious saltiness of her body. A sweet sweat she had worked very hard to produce from her lover. The Lion struggled to get her heart and her breathing back under control as the bard worked her way to Xena's ear and began running her tongue around inside it. Xena wrapped her arms tight around Gabrielle and hugged till she could feel the thumping of the bards heart against her breast. It was pounding like a war drum and felt wonderful.
"I love you Gabrielle." The Warrior Princess said. "But I swear you're trying to kill me. Are you tired of me already."
"I don't know Xena?" The bard whispered. "Is it possible to die of pleasure? If it is I should be dead already, all the pleasure you've given me."
The Lion smiled and stroked Gabrielle's fine redblonde hair and enjoyed the feeling of the bard's weight as it pressed down on her and the smell of her excited body and the delicate touch of her hand as she stroked her cheek. The bard began kissing down Xena's cheek and under her chin to that spot on her neck she liked so much. The Warrior Princess sighed contentedly. For a few moments there was only the sound of her breathing.
Finally she turned her head a little.
"Gabrielle?" She said quietly. "Are you looking forward to tomorrow? We'll be to the farm by noon."
The bard stopped kissing and Xena could feel her body tense.
"Sure." She said unconvincingly.
She scooched her body down enough on Xena's that she could lay her head on her chest.
"It will be nice to see Lila and mom." She said. "It's been almost two years." The Lion frowned to hear the bard leave out her father. Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "How long do you think we should stay?"
The Warrior Princess smiled. "That's hardly up to me. We've been together almost five years now beloved. We haven't spent three days with your family. We'll stay as long as you want. A day, a month, whatever. I'm tough. I can handle the in-laws just fine."
"Yeah, you do have the hide of an elephant don't you. "the bard said in a strange voice. "There's nothing they could do to hurt you."
Xena looked at Gabrielle with surprise in her eyes.
The bard got a striken look on her face.
"Oh Xena." She moaned softly. "That was such a stupid thing to say. I'm so sorry I said it. Please forgive me."
The Lion put her hand on the bards cheek. "Beloved, lighten up. It's alright." She smiled. "You've called me a lot worse than that."
"Have not." Gabrielle yelped in wounded innocence.
"Well, there was the time you called me a fat sow. That hurt. I've never been fat."
The bard smiled a slightly wicked smile. "I made that up to you didn't I?"
"Yes you most certainly did." Xena grinned. "You can call me a fat sow any time you want. Then there was the time you said I had the manners of a goat."
"Come on Xena. That was years ago." The bard complained. "Besides, you did have the manners of a goat."
"Gabrielle, it was a rowdy old boarding house. I got us the food didn't I? As I remember you ate twice as much as anyone else there."
"Yeah, you got it by pulling your chakram and threatening to cut the hands off anyone who reached across the table again."
"I'm a problem solver. I solved the problem."
Gabrielle laughed. The Lion lovingly stroked her cheek. It was so nice to hear her laugh. She had not laughed much the last few days.
The bard's humor faded away and she laid her head again on Xena's chest. There was a long silence.
"Well," Gabrielle said finally. "This will sort of be our coming out party won't it? This is the first time we've been away from the Nation since we went through the Ritual last fall. I can't believe it's been almost six months already since we became mates."
"Time has gone fast." Xena said quietly.
Suddenly Gabrielle rose up and sat back, her butt on Xena's hips. She looked down at her mate with soft loving eyes. She reached out and caressed the tattooed symbol on the Lion's upper right arm.
"You know," She said. "I still get a little thrill every time I see my emblem on your arm. I hope I never lose that feeling. It means so much to me."
Xena let her hand move slowly up the bards right arm till it carressed the tattoo emblazoned there.
"I know just what you mean." she said. After a pause she gave a little snort in her throat. "It will be interesting to see the reaction. A lot of people in the outside world don't even know Amazon marriage exists."
The bard frowned.
"You mean what the reaction from my family will be don't you?"
Xena knitted her eyebrows and started to say something but Gabrielle kept talking.
"Well that's irrelevant Xena, irrelevant." The bard looked at the Warrior Princess with intense eyes. "My commitment to you is complete and irrevocable. You are my present and my future. The day we were married was the most completely happy and satisfying day of my life. I can't begin to tell you what an honor it is that your symbol is on my arm. It fills my heart to bursting to know it's there. I will never betray or dishonor what it means beloved." The bards eyes became soft. "I love you Xena."
Xena's eyes were as soft as her mates.
"By the God's." She whispered. "What a tongue you have. You should be a bard."
She gently pulled on Gabrielle's arm and the bard bent down till her nose almost touched Xena's, their eyes locked together, clear blue gazing into emerald green.
"You are my beloved mate Gabrielle. My honor is yours. My courage is yours. My skills are yours. My sword is yours. My life is yours. I was born the day your symbol was placed on my arm and only death will seperate us. I love you Gabrielle."
They kissed. Long, tenderly, passionately, gently and with a deep hunger for each other that could never be truly satisfied. Finally Xena pulled back and smiled and she rolled the bard over with herself on top. Her hand moved slowly down Gabrielle's belly till it rested between her legs. The bard put her hand over the top of her mates.
"I thought you were done for the night?" She whispered in the Lion's ear.
"Second wind." Xena whispered back.
Gabrielle's hips began to move to the rythm of the Warrior Princess' hand.
"Thank the Gods for second winds." She whispered and then she moaned softly in Xena's ear.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Xena listened a long time to the delicate, rythmic, ladylike sound of Lila's breathing on the other side of the blankets strung up to divide Lila and Gabrielle's old bedroom. It concerned her more and more that the bard's breathing did not join her sisters'. Gabrielle never had trouble falling asleep. Finally she rolled over and snuggled up against the bard who was lying on her side with her back to the Warrior Princesss.
"She snores just like you." The Lion grinned into the bards ear.
"I don't snore Xena." Gabrielle replied. But there was no humor or playfulness in her voice. It was flat and emotionless.
The lack of response only deepened Xena's concern. Gabrielle was always ready for a playful argument. Always ready to trade barbs and wit. The Warrior Princess ran her hand down the bards arm till she laced her fingers with Gabrielle's.
"Lila was certainly excited about our news." Xena whispered. "The way she was jumping around and squealing and giggling I thought she was going to wet her dress."
"She's always been a wonderful sister. I should have been a better older sister to her and helped her get out of here instead of just thinking of myself. Sometimes I'm so selfish."
The Lion's eyebrows knitted together. Her heart felt as leaden as the bards voice. She had never heard her like this.
"Hecuba seemed alright with the news. She seemed happy for us." Xena whispered.
The bard shook her head.
"Mom doesn't know what to think about all this. She'll wait till Herodotus tells her what to think."
Xena was genuinly shocked at the bards words and the tone that went with it.
"That was more harsh than neccesary." she said, reproach in her voice.
Gabrielle did not respond and there was a long silence.
Finally Gabrielle said in a very low hollow voice, "He didn't say six words all evening. And three of those were 'pass the bread'. I've brought home the love of my life. My mate. And he couldn't even say congratulations or go hang yourself or anything. He acted like it was nothing."
Xena nuzzled the back of the bards neck.
"He had just come in from a long hard day plowing. He was tired." the Lion whispered.
Gabrielle's head turned sharply.
"Don't defend him Xena!" she whispered hotly. "Don't ever defend him!"
The Warrior Princess sighed and again there was a long silence. Finally she asked quietly in the bards ear.
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm wondering why I ever come here." Gabrielle replied.
"Because it's home." the Lion said and she squeezed Gabrielle's hand.
The bard let out a rush of air then she pulled Xena's hand to her mouth and kissed it and held it to her cheek.
"No beloved, you're wrong. You're my home. I don't want or need any other. You're enough."
Xena snuggled closer and kissed the bard's ear. She let go of Gabrielle's hand and began running her fingers slowly up and down the bards body. The way she did on cold nights out camping when the bard shivered. Gabrielled relaxed and finally Xena heard the steady regular breathing of sleep. But it was deeply disturbing, the feel of the bards body. It was as if she had somehow shrunk. As if she were pulling in on herself, collapsing. The Lion snuggled her face into her mates golden hair.
"I won't tolerate this very long." she said in a whisper to herself. "If I can't make things better here somehow for you Gabrielle we're leaving. I won't have you suffering like this. Part of our vows were comfort and defend. I will, beloved, I will."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
After a breakfast shared mostly in silence Herodotus headed for the west field with Bet the mule to resume his plowing. Xena, Gabrielle, and Hecuba headed in the opposite direction to begin planting the freshly plowed east field. Lila soon joined them after stopping to feed the chickens and collect the days eggs. It was Xena's first time sowing wheat but she quickly picked up the nack of it. Gabrielle's mood brightened steadily as she talked to her mother and sister about all the happenings of the farm and valley over the last two years. Xena listened quietly. The big news was that over the winter Herodotus had purchased the shallow valley that ran along the north edge of the west field. It had lain fallow and grown back to pasture since old Zeta died several years ago. Herodotus had finally convined the widow to sell.
"What's he going to use it for?" Gabrielle asked Lila.
"He already is using it." Lila answered. "A month ago he bought a flock of twenty five ewes and a ram and Alpha the sheep dog from the shephards over in Pilum. You know, that village a couple valleys over to the west. He plans to have us make our own clothes and such with the wool and to sell the increase and any extra wool we might have in the Potadia market every year. You know daddy. He has it figured out to the last dinar. He says the sheep will pay for themselves in a couple of years and it will be all profit after that. And the flock is small enough that Alpha should be able to handle it without too much extra work for us."
Lila smiled brightly at her sister.
"Daddy always has some scheme going in that head of his. If we're not careful we're going to be rich someday. He's the best farmer in the valley. Don't you think?"
The bard kept working and did not reply. Lila's smile faded into an unhappy sigh. Xena noticed that Hecuba watched Gabrielle's every move with a sad slump to her shoulders. There was a long silence till the Lion spoke up and turned the conversation to a story of the problems the Amazons had had with the just completed bitter winter. Soon Gabrielle was happily telling stories and Lila and Hecuba were listening with rapt attention as they truly understood for the first time that Gabrielle really was the Queen of the Amazon Nation. Responsible for the welfare of her people. Xena's own chest swelled as she watched the pride and respect in Lila's and Hecuba's faces grow.
As the sun set in the west the women returned to the farmhouse to find Herodotus watering Bet and washing off the days dirt in the watertrough. Hecuba made a big dinner with Lila and Gabrielle's help. The Lion tried to help but was shooed out of the kitchen by the bard who said they wanted the food to actually be edible. Xena made a face at her and got a face in return. They both laughed. The Warrior Princess went out to the barn and brushed down and fed Argo while Herodotus did the same to Bet in the next stall. Not a word was spoken. Finally Lila called them in to eat.
Xena purposely took a seat next to the old farmer as they ate. The two did not say a word the whole meal while the sisters and their mother gossiped happily about everyone they knew in the valley. Finally Herodotus excused himself and went to bed. Xena watched as Gabrielle ignored him till he was gone, but once he was out of the room her eyes lingered a long time on the empty doorway he left through. The hurt in those green eyes stabbed the Lion like a knife. Xena's face assumed that impenetrable warlord mask and her eyes narrowed. Her mind focused with an iron determination only she in all the world possessed. Gabrielle started to say something to her but when she saw the look on her mates face she swallowed her words. She knew better than to disturb her love when she had that look.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Herodotus was just completing his second time around the west field behind the wooden plow, Bet's reins around his shoulders, when he was surprised by Xena approaching across the already half plowed field. She had on only her shift and boots. Her was hair tied back in a loose ponytail behind her head. Her chakram dangled from a hook on a thin leather belt tied around her waist.
"Whoa Bet." the old farmer called.
When she got close he looked at her with questioning eyes.
"Problem?" He asked.
"No problem." Xena answered. "I just thought I would see if you needed any help. The women seem to have things well in hand in the other field planting. Besides," the Lion flashed a wry grin, "they talk too much."
For the first time Xena saw a small smile on Herodotus' lips.
"So they do." he said quietly.
He looked around.
"Well, there's nothing really to do here but plow." he said. "It's hard work Xena and takes a lot of muscle. I doubt you'd like it."
"Maybe not." the Warrior Princess replied with a shrug. "But you don't know till you try. Besides, it's a new skill to learn. I like learning new things."
The old man studied the tall woman for a moment, then nodded.
"All right," he said as he pulled the reins over his neck. "Why not. A short rest would do my old bones good."
"What's that... thing around Bet's neck?" Xena asked as Herodotus helped her get the reins comfortably adjusted around her neck and shoulders.
"Oh," he said. "A little invention of mine. I call it a collar since it goes around Bet's neck like one. It helps her pull with her shoulders instead of her chest and neck. Everyone has always run their harness around a mule or horses neck to pull a plow. Of course if the animal pulls too hard they choke themselves so there is a limit to how much force they can put into pulling, which means that you can't sink your plow too deep into the ground or it gets too hard for the animal to pull. I've found that the deeper you turn up the earth when you plant the better your crop will be. So I invented the collar. I put it over Bet's neck and onto her shoulders. Then I attach the harness to the collar. Now she can pull as hard as she is able without choking herself. It's easier on her and I can sink the plow deeper when she pulls. I came up with it seven years ago and it's made a difference in my yields. Some of the other farmers around have started using it."
Xena noted the hint of pride in those last words.
"You're a very clever man." the Warrior Princess said sincerely.
Herodotus shrugged his shoulders.
The first time around the field was awkward as Xena struggled to find the co-ordination between keeping the plow dug into the ground and Bet on track using just her shoulders to control the reins. Herodotus walked silently alongside helping. The second round was better and the old man took his hand off the plow and only offered a few suggestions which Xena picked up on immediatly. The third time Herodotus walked behind Xena watching without a word. It was impressive how deeply she kept the plow buried into the ground and how well she had it under control. The old farmer knew how much shear strength that took. As Xena started around again Herodotus walked beside her.
"If you think you can handle things," he said. "I could go up and check on Alpha and the flock. I'll be back soon to relieve you."
"No hurry." Xena replied with a smile.
Herodotus hurried anyway and he was back before noon. The field was ploughed as well as he could have done it himself.
"You did well." the old farmer said after Xena pulled Bet to a stop. "I can take over."
"I'm doing fine." the Lion replied, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. "You must have other work you need to do? I could finish out the day."
Herodotus frowned a little.
"You don't have to hurt yourself Xena." he said quietly.
"If it starts to hurt I'll quit."
"Well, there are things that need doing that I've been putting off while I was ploughing." the old man said reluctantly.
"Fine. I'll see you at the house for dinner."And without waiting for a reply Xena gave Bet a chuck of the reins and she was off.
Herodotus watched the Warrior Princess, her shift stuck to her back with sweat, her body and hair covered with dust, with a strange, confused look on his face. Finally he headed across the field to his barn.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
After dinner Herodotus went out to sit on the steps of the front porch and enjoy the cool of the evening and digest a little of the huge meal Hecuba had prepared. After a candle mark Xena came out and eased down beside him. She turned her head to let the soft, cool breeze caress her face. After a long silence the old farmer looked at her.
"Thank you for the help." he said.
"You pick things up quickly."
The Warrior Princess shrugged. "Always have."
There was another long silence as the old man and the woman watched the beautiful sky in all its starry majesty and listened to the sounds of the night. Crickets chirping. Night birds singing. The rustle of the leaves in the breeze.
Finally Xena leaned back on her elbows on the porch.
"I lived a long time off the sweat of farmers when I was a Warlord." She said quietly. "But I never really knew anything about how they produced all that abundance. I was a tavern keepers daughter. I can tell you how many drams in a barrel of ale but I don't know anything about how to raise a good crop of wheat."
After a short pause Herodotus looked at Xena.
"It's a tough business." He said slowly. "It takes a lot of thought and planning to do it well. As much planning as running an army. And endless hard work of course."
The Lion chuckled and flexed her shoulders.
"So I found out." she said. She looked at the old man. "So tell me. I'm always ready to learn something new. Tell me how to raise a good crop of wheat."
Herodotus looked at the Lion with the same strange face he had made earlier in the day. He studied Xena's features searching for some sign that she was kidding or just humoring a boring old man. But her face was open and friendly and her blue eyes seemed to speak of a genuine curiosity. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and said to himself 'why not?'
They talked deep into the night. About wheat and many other things that went into running a successful farm. The old man was impressed with how sharp and perceptive Xena's questions were. And how quickly she grasped the larger concepts behind what he was doing on this farm. How he treated it not as a way of life with cycles to be endlessly and unchangingly repeated year after year but as a business to be manipulated and ceaselessly experimented with to find better ways to make a profit. He found it a pleasure to talk to someone who seemed to truly understand and appreciate what he was creating. Finally Xena stretched and yawned.
"I guess we should get some sleep." she said with a smile. "It will be another long day tommorrow."
"Your right." Herodotus answered. But he said it reluctantly. "Good night Xena."
"Good night old man."
Herodotus stood up and looked at the Lion through narrow eyes. Then he smiled to himself. 'Old man my ass. I can still plow you into the ground' he thought. He chuckled and went to bed.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Herodotus was headed toward the barn as the sun cleared the eastern horizon when Xena came out leading Bet. The old man frowned.
"Morning." the Lion answered. "I thought I would finish the west field today. I always like to finish what I start. You have other things you could be doing I'm sure."
"Well..., certainly." Herdotodus said, that funny look on his face for the third time.
"Good. I'll see you tonight at dinner."
The Warrior Princess headed west with Bet.
"Xena." the old farmer called after her.
She turned. "Yep."
She noticed the man's face was softer than it usually was.
"Don't be afraid to take a break when you need it. It can get hot out there."
"No problem." she said with a slight smile, and she and Bet were off for their day together.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
After another huge dinner Xena and Herodotus spent another long evening sitting on the porch talking about everything and anything that came to mind. Xena was impressed by the man's curiosity as he pumped her for information about the world outside his valley. And she appreciated how clearly and logically his mind worked. He grasped things easily and certainly knew a surprising amount about the world for someone who had seen so little of it.
The next day Xena started plowing the last, north, field. Herodotus spent the day on the barn roof doing a patch job he had not thought he would get too till summer. Hecuba, Lila and Gabrielle finished the east field and started planting the west. At dinner the old woman announced she would spend the next several days getting in her garden. They were well ahead of schedule and Lila and Gabrielle could finish the planting easily enough.
After dinner Xena and Herodotus again spent the evening on the porch. As Gabrielle snuggled herself into bed after saying goodnight to Lila she lay a long time on her back staring at the ceiling and listening to the murmers of her mates' and her fathers' voices on the porch outside her room. So many confused, painful thoughts and emotions and memories swirled in her mind that she wished she knew how to simply stop her brain from thinking. To blow it out like a candle. Finally she rubbed a tear out of her eye and rolled on her side and put Xena's pillow over her head to shut out the sound of their talking. That is how the Warrior Princess found her, asleep, when she at last came to bed.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Hecuba had just turned the first shovel full of dirt in the garden when Xena appeared around the corner of the house. The Lion looked up at the cloudless blue sky, the wavering orange ball of the sun only a few degrees above the far off horizon, and wiped her brow with the back of her hand.
"Going to be a hot one." she said as she reached Hecuba's side.
"Yes." the old woman said simply as she turned another spade of dirt. She stopped and looked at Xena.
"Weren't you going to plow again today?"
"Naw." Xena replied. "Herodotus can have all the fun. I thought I would help you today."
The Warrior Princess looked out over the acre of prepared ground that Hecuba planted every year.
"This is a big garden."
The old woman leaned on her shovel.
"Takes a lot of ground, and work, to raise enough vegetables and herbs for three people for a whole year." she said.
"I've never planted a garden. What do you do?"
"Well," Hecuba answered, "the first couple of days I turn the ground up with the shovel. Then I go back over it with the hoe to break up the clods of dirt. Then I plant. Green beans, carrots, tomatoes, squash. Different herbs. It takes four or five days. Herodotus and Lila are always out working the fields, planting barley and wheat, so I do it myself."
Xena looked over the garden again.
"Yes indeed." she said quietly. "A lot of work."
She smiled at Hecuba and reached out and took her shovel.
"Why don't you let me do that and you get the hoe and come along behind me." she said.
"Well..." the old woman said uncertainly, a little disturbed at this unexpected intrusion on the usual routine of her life. Finally she shrugged. "Okay."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Hecuba retuned from the barn with a big sturdy hoe and found Xena had already completed one long row and was halfway up the next. The old woman was amazed at how deeply the shovel bit into the dry ground under the Warrior Princess' foot and the rich blackness of the earth she turned up. She leaned into her work with a will and tried to catch up but she only fell further behind. The Lion worked with an implacable, machine like efficiency that never slackened or tired. Several times Hecuba took short breaks to rest as the morning wore on and the heat rose up from the ground in rippling waves. She mopped her sweaty face with a rag she kept in a pocket on her skirt and she noticed the water that steadily dripped from Xena's nose and chin as she bent over her shovel.
As the sun approached its zenith Hecuba squinted up at it under an eyeshade formed by her hand. She looked at Xena working silently a dozen rows ahead of her, then dropped her hoe and started toward the house. The Lion looked up and watched her go for a moment, then she bent into her shovel and resumed her backbreaking pace, as if some unbreakable law of nature forbade her from doing less than her absolute best. After a few candlemarks Hecuba came back carrying a basket and a bucket with a tablecloth drapped around her neck. She sat them down close to Xena and spread out the cloth. She sat down on the edge and motioned Xena to join her. They shared a lunch of bread, cheese, fruit and all the cool water they could drink. "Thank you." and "your welcome" were the only words spoken. When the last of the food was eaten Hecuba gathered up the tablecloth and the bucket and basket and took them over to the edge of the garden and the two women silently resumed work.
As the spring sun reach the three quarter mark in the sky the old woman looked up from her hoe to see that Xena was more than three quarters done with her spading. Hecuba shook her head in wonder. At the rate she was going the Warrior Princess would have the whole garden done before sundown. It was incredible. But the old woman also noticed that Xena's shift was dark and plastered to her body with sweat, the cloth showing the ripple of her muscles as she worked. She dropped her hoe and retrieved the water pail. In a candlemark she was back placing the bucket of fresh well water down beside Xena. The Lion looked up with an appreciative smile. The old woman got down on her knees and sat back on her heels. The Warrior Princess sat down crosslegged across the bucket from her and they shared a long drink from the cup she had brought. For a long moment there was silence as the two women stared past each other, listening to the birds singing in the trees along the far edge of the garden, watching the waves of heat ripple up from the freshly turned earth. Suddenly Hecuba's eyes locked on Xena's. The Warrior Princess' blue orbs gazed back unblinking. The old woman looked away and took a deep breath and then she looked back and her gray eyes were soft as they searched Xena's.
"Xena," she said quietly, "does Gabrielle make you happy?"
The Lion let out a surprised puff of air and then her eyes lost their usual hard focus and slowly they became as soft as Hecuba's.
"Yes," Xena said finally is a voice barely above a whisper. "Gabrielle makes me happy."
A small smile crept across her face, as if she were smiling to herself.
"She makes me happy in a hundred different ways. In ways I can't even begin to express. She..." Xena hesitated, searching for the words, words to explain to herself what she felt. "she is the best part of me. I've never been a very, "the Lion let out a soft snort of self derision, "affectionate person. The truth is I don't like people to touch me. I don't want them that close. Never have. But Gabrielle, she touches me. I want her to touch me. I think... I know I need her to touch me. When she touches me I feel whole. I feel human..." Xena's eyes dropped to the bucket then slowly came up to Hecuba's, "I feel loved."
Xena looked at the tattoo on her arm. She covered it with her hand and gently squeezed.
"Your daughter is my beating heart, my life, everything."
The Lion looked again at Hecuba, who was staring into space.
"I... I'm sorry if I embarrassed you." she said.
The old woman's gaze shifted to Xena.
"No. You didn't embarrass me"
She let out some air and regarded Xena for a long moment, her eyes penetrating. The Lion began to feel uncomfortable, like her soul was being picked up and examined.
"You are loved." Hecuba said finally. "Gabrielle loves you, as much as you love her. I see it in everything she does. The way her eyes are always searching for you. To see where you are, what you're doing, if you're alright. The way you two talk to each other, are considerate of each other. The way you laugh together."
"My daughter never laughed like that when she lived here with us. There was too much silence, too much pain. Gabrielle has such a good heart. I think she understands people so well and gives of herself so freely because she understands suffering."
The old womans eyes dropped to the ground.
"What a sad thing for a mother to say."
There was a long silence. The Lion wished she could reach out and touch this woman who was hurting so much. But she could not. It was too hard. Suddenly Hecuba looked up.
"My husband is a good man." she said. "He's a very smart man. He doesn't know how to do anything but work hard. He's brought us so far. We were so poor when we first got married. I'm glad Gabrielle was too young to remember those terrible times. She never had shoes on her feet till she was three."
The old woman looked around.
"We finally inherited this farm from my father when she was four, just after Lila was born. It was only half the size it is now and so run down. My father wasn't much of a farmer. Wasn't much of anything but a drunk. But Herodotus made this place bloom. Over the years he tore down the old house and barn and rebuilt everything. He made good sharp deals to buy more land and he's always experimenting with new ways to farm and building little inventions to save time and trouble. A lot of the farmers around here copy what he does."
"And he saw that the girls were educated. Not many around here are but he said he wouldn't tolerate ignorance. Gabrielle had a real gift for schooling. It's like she can remember everything she ever read and she's so smart. Don't you think?"
Xena smiled and nodded.
"Just like him. The truth is, not to be a braggert, but we're probably the richest farm in Potadia valley. He brought us here with his head and his back."
Hecuba took a deep breath, it came out a sigh.
"I've tried to be a good wife, tried to pull my weight and do my share. I think I have. In twenty something years together he has never said a cruel word to me but..." the old woman looked away into the distance, her eyes lost their focus. "my husband doesn't love me. I don't think he ever has. There is a space, a...a silence between us that can never be crossed, never broken. Sometimes it is very hard to..." the old woman sighed. "Very hard."
"And Gabrielle and her father. It's like they are at war with each other. A terrible war of silence. I know my daughter. She loves me, but we have so little in common. I'm just a simple woman satisfied by simple things. She has so much more going on in her head. Her imagination. I mean, by the gods, she is the Queen of the Amazons. And look who she brought home. The Great Lion herself. I would never dream of such things. She does. Like her father. They are so much alike. She wants his approval, his acceptance so much. But on her terms, not his. And he... oh I don't know what's wrong with him. What he wants from her. But they are like two rams out on the mountainside smashing each other with silence. Neither one backing down. Gabrielle was so unhappy here. So desperate to find a new life. So lonely. I at least have Lila. She's more than my daughter, she's my best friend. She ought to be married by now. She's had a few men sniffing around. I don't discourage them but I'm so relieved when they drift away. Herodotus seems to understand. He would have every right to find her a husband and marry her off but he never says a word about it. I wish...I wish he had someone. Lonliness is such a terrible thing. I think it must be what they punish the bad people in Tartarus with."
Xena said under her breath. "I know it is."
The old woman smiled.
"But Gabrielle found someone to give all her love too. Someone to love her just as much. Thank you Xena. Thank you for Gabrielle's happiness."
The Warrior Princess did not know what to say. So she just said quietly, "your welcome."
Then she rubbed her eyes for the tenth time. Hecuba made a little face of concern.
"Are your eyes alright dear?" she asked.
"Oh, it's stupid really," she said, "but when I work up a good sweat the water just seems to poor out of my eyebrows into my eyes. It's really quite annoying. Its almost gotten me killed a couple of times. When it gets bad I can hardly see."
The old woman stood up and took the rag out of her pocket and soaked it thoroughly in the bucket. Xena reached for it but Hecuba gently pushed her hand away.
"No dear, let me." she said.
The Lion hesitated a moment, then let her hand fall to her knee.
The old woman stood behind Xena and bent down and carefully wiped her face and let the cool water trickle over her hot skin. The Lion could not help but notice the touch was like Gabrielle's, gentle and soothing.
"You don't do yourself justice Hecuba," she said quietly. "Gabrielle is her mothers daughter too."
Hecuba took in a little gasp of air and her chin quivered for just a moment. Her hand fell to Xena's shoulder, then to the tattoo on her arm. She gave it a slight squeeze. Then she put the rag back in her pocket and silently started back for her hoe.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Xena and Herodotus sat quietly on the steps of the front porch digesting Hecuba's excellent dinner and watching the sun set in the west and the dark clouds building in the north over the mountains.
"It will be raining before moonrise." the old man said. "A good thunderstorm. We'll have a day off from field work. The rain will be good for what we've already planted. This could be a good year for wheat."
Xena studied the clouds for a few moments.
"After moonrise." she said.
Herodotus looked at her with slightly narrow eyes.
"After? Before." he said.
The old farmer snorted.
"Well, since the moon will be covered by clouds we'll never know for sure who's right will we."
Xena leaned back on her elbows and smiled a slight smile.
"Sure we will." she said. "We'll just assume I'm right unless proven otherwise."
Herodotus turned his head so the Lion could not see him grin.
"You're the only warlord I know." he said in a low voice. "Are you all this arrogant or is this a personality defect you alone are afflicted with?"
The Warrior Princess grunted.
"Right between the eyes." she said, a smile in her voice. "Gabrielle has that gift too. Just when I'm sure of my own stature in the world she chops off about six inches with that tongue of hers. I see a lot of you in her."
The Lion sighed wistfully.
"My life would have been a much better one if I could have had her with me years ago. Having the right person at your side can make all the difference."
Xena looked at Herodotus, his face a shadowy silhouette in the fading light. The old man stared out into the deepening gloom, silent. His hand came up and he wearily rubbed his eyes. His shoulders seemed to slump and for a shocked moment Xena thought she was looking at the oldest man in the world.
Suddenly he straightened, as if he felt her eyes and his own momentary weakness before them. He turned and looked at her, his face stern and composed.
"It will be a long day tomorrow." he said. "The old man needs his sleep. Good night Xena."
"Goodnight." the Lion replied as she watched him enter the house. Then her eyes narrowed and a thousand thoughts raced through her complex, analytical mind.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The room lit up bright as day then plunged back into darkness. After a few moments a deep boom rattled everything loose in the bedroom. Several more flashes and booms followed. The sound of rain pelting down on the wooden shingles of the roof filled the space.
"Are you awake beloved?" the Warrior Princess whispered.
The bard rolled onto her side to face Xena.
"Of course." she whispered back. "Who could sleep through this?"
There was another loud crack and boom.
"I just wanted to ask a favor." Xena said.
"Sure my love. What?"
The Lion smiled.
"Could you go out and see if the moon is up?"
The bard snorted in surprise.
"Are you out of your mind!" she said.
Xena chuckled at her joke and the look on Gabrielle's face. Her beautiful face. As she gazed on it the Lion's eyes became soft and hard at the same time, with love and desire. She put her hand behind the bards neck and her mouth on Gabrielle's. The bard responded instantly, matching Xena's passion with her own. She put her arm around the Lion's back and pulled their bodies together. The warmth and softness of Xena's skin and firmness of the body underneath excited her to the center of her being.
Xena took her mouth off Gabrielle's and searched for that special spot on the bard's neck that always made her shiver with pleasure. Gabrielle started to moan in the Lion's ear with delight, then some more restrained part of her brain spoke up. She pushed herself away as Xena let out a disgusted burst of disappointment.
"Xena," the bard whispered, "I'm dying to touch you too, but should we? Poor Lila is only six feet away."
The Lion pretended to think about it. Then she smiled.
"Gabrielle," she whispered, "we're mates. We're allowed. I say we have a wild orgy of sex. We'll just do it very quietly."
The bard giggled and started to move her mouth closer to Xena's.
"Gabrielle?" a timid voice called from behind the curtain.
The mates groaned together. Gabrielle gave her mate a quick peck on the lips then answered her sister.
Again there was a crack and boom of thunder.
"Remember," Lila said when the noise died down, "when we were kids and I'd get scared and you'd let me snuggle with you in your bed?"
The bard smiled.
"Of course I remember." she said. "I remember like it was yesterday."
She looked Xena in the eyes.
"Do you mind beloved?" she asked.
The Lion sighed, then smiled. She stroked her mates cheek.
"No, of course not."
The bard kissed Xena then rolled over and held up the blanket on her side of the bed.
"Come on and join us Lila." she called.
Instantly Lila bounded around the curtain and jumped into the bed. Gabrielle settled the blanket over her.
"Hi Xena," Lila squeeked. "This is so nice. I used to be afraid of thunderstorms, but now I think they are so exciting. All the noise and light. Don't you think so?"
"Yep," the Lion answered with a resigned grin. "It's pretty exciting."
"It was a long day." she said stretching. "I'm going to sleep. Don't you two stay up all night gossiping like a couple of school girls."
"We won't." Lila giggled.
Gabrielle gave the Warrior Princess a dig in the ribs with her elbow. "Ouch." Xena grimaced. She rolled over with her back to the sisters and settled herself into the bed for some rest.
Gabrielle and Lila laughed and talked a long time, remembering a hundred things that wove together the fabric of their lives as they grew in this house, this room. Finally there was a silence, broken only by the steady rythm of Xena's breathing.
"Do you think she's asleep?" Lila whispered.
"Sure." Gabrielle answered. "She was tired. And she sleeps so much better these days. For a long time she could hardly sleep at all. It used to worry me to death. I didn't know what to do to help her."
The bard smiled.
"Now she snores almost as loud as I do."
Lila grinned back, then suddenly her face lost all its humor and her eyes became soft and serious and sad. Gabrielle's eyebrows knitted together in concern.
"Oh Gabrielle." she said. "I've been afraid for so long."
The bard put her hand on her sister's cheek.
"It's been so long Gabrielle." Lila said. "No word, no letters, nothing. I thought maybe you had decided to abandon us. That I would never see you again. I love you sister. It frightens me to think you could just disappear forever."
There was silence.
"I'm sorry Lila." the bard finally said in a quivering voice. "I'm sorry I've been so selfish."
Lila's face brightened.
"Mom is so glad to have you here. Both of you. I came into the kitchen to help with dinner tonight and she was humming. You know mom. She doesn't hum. And she made those dumplings with the red peppers in them because you said yesterday that Xena liked them. The meals we've been having since you got here. You don't think we eat this way all the time do you? She's trying to make it hard for you to leave."
"I know," the bard sighed. "I know she is. We won't stay away so long again."
"And daddy." Lila continued. "Daddy's kind of taken a liking to Xena don't you think. The way they spend all that time talking after dinner every night. I can't remember him ever talking to anyone so much."
Gabrielle's face clouded and her eyes became hard and distant.
"Yeah, he can talk to Xena." she said, an unpleasant edge to her voice.
"Oh Gabrielle." Lila put her hand on the bard's cheek. "I didn't mean to..."
Gabrielle took Lila's hand and kissed it.
"Let's not talk about him anymore." she interrupted. "Let's get some sleep. It will be a busy day tomorrow."
As the two sisters snuggled in, getting comfortable exactly as they had all those years ago, Xena opened her eyes and stared at the wall, her mind completely focused on the puzzle to be unraveled. The problem to be solved.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
It was approaching noon when Herodotus entered the barn. Xena was brushing down Argo in his stall. The old farmers face was dark.
"Problem?" the Warrior Princess asked.
The old man went to the wall and took down a shovel and an ax from their hooks.
"What I feared." he said. "I was up at the pasture. Two lambs were missing. I found them at the edge of the forest. Or what's left of them. Not much. No mistaking the tracks. Wolves."
"Wolves?" Xena said surprised. "This far down out of the mountains?"
Herodotus went over and started to sharpen his ax on a turning whetstone.
"You know it was a hard winter Xena. Even harder up in the hills. I'm sure starvation wiped out a lot of elk and deer. Damm wolves are hungry. Hungry enough to risk coming out in the open. If I have to hire a shephard to watch the flock that will eat up the profit. The whole thing will become pointless. I'm going to send Lila into the village to get Xylon and his brother. Best hunters in Potadia valley. They'll kill the bastards for the bounty. Five dinars for every pelt. The village council pays it to keep the valley cleared of predators."
"Going to bury the remains?" Xena asked.
"Yep." the old man said. "Ax might come in handy if they are still around."
Xena finished brushing Argo.
"Why don't I take Lila into Potadia." she said. "I'm sure Hecuba could use some supplies, the way Gabrielle and I have been eating she must need something."
Herodotus finished sharpening.
"I forgot how much that girl could eat." he said to himself. He looked at Xena.
"Sounds fine." he said. "Looks like it will be dry enough to plow tomorrow. We can finish the north field in two days and we'll be done."
"None to soon," Xena smiled. "My shoulders are beginning to ache."
"It's a tough life." the old man answered. There was a pause as he looked at the Lion. Then he said quietly, "But you could do it."
Xena heard the respect in those words. She made a slight nod of her head toward Herodotus. He looked her in the eyes and returned it. He left without another word.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
"Uh, how exactly do you get up on these things?" Lila asked.
Xena looked down from the saddle at her sister-in-law.
"Just give me your arm." she said.
Lila put her arm up and the Lion bent down and grasped it firmly below the elbow. She straightened with a grunt and Lila flew up in the air. She had the presence of mind to throw her leg over Argo as she came down behind Xena.
"Oooh wow!" the young woman gasped. "That was like flying or something Xena. Gods you're so strong."
"So I've been told." the Lion said as she chucked Argo's reins.
Lila put her arm around Xena's waist and settled in to enjoy the trip.
"I've never been riding before" she said in the Warrior Princess' ear. "This is fun."
"Your sister doesn't think so." Xena replied. "She only rides when she has too."
"Oh, that's foolish." Lila looked around from her high perch. "This is great."
"Would you like a little excitement?" she asked.
Lila's eyes got bigger.
"Then put both arms around me and hold tight."Lila locked her arms around Xena and after the Lion was sure she was secure she dug her heels into the great warhorse and the palimino took off at a full gallop. Lila was frightened at first but then she got her balance. The Lion was so steady in the saddle it was like holding onto a tree. The girl relaxed and started feeling the thrill of speed and power. She began laughing. Xena could hear the echo of Gabrielle's laughter in the sound and she could not help but smile to hear it.
As they approached the village the traffic on the road got heavier and Xena slowed Argo to a walk.
"That was so much fun," Lila enthused. "Thank you Xena."
"You're welcome Lila."
There was a short silence. Xena turned in the saddle.
"I guess Herodotus and Hecuba grew up around here?" she asked.
"Sure." Lila replied. "Mom grew up on the farm we're living on and dad grew up on a farm just north of the village. His younger brother, Uncle Phides, farms it now. Grandma and Grandpa died years ago. Uncle isn't as good a farmer as dad. It's a poor place. It was when Grandma and Grandpa had it too."
"I suppose this place is like every small village. Everyone has known everyone forever?"
"Yep." Lila said. "No one seems to leave, except by the graveyard." The girl giggled. "Except for Gabrielle of course."
"Of course. So, are any of Herodotus' old boyhood playmates still around?" the Warrior Princess asked.
Lila frowned slightly.
"Gee Xena, you sure are asking a lot of questions."
The Lion shrugged.
"Just naturally curious. If I'm going to be part of the family I'd like to know some of the history."
Lila hugged Xena warmly.
"You are part of the family." she said. "Grabielle loves you so much. I'm glad she has you. That we all do."
The Lion put her hand over Lila's.
"Thank you." she said quietly.
After a moments silence Xena said.
"I'm still curious. Any of your dad's old friends around?"
Lila thought a moment.
"Well I didn't know them all of course. The ones I do know that are still alive are farmers like him. You'd have to visit their farms to see them. Except for Altimus."
Lila said the name with a certain distaste that Xena did not miss.
"Yeah." Lila said. "He owns the dry goods shop in the village. His dad owned the farm next to ours when I was little. When he died Altimus sold out and started the dry goods business. He didn't like farming. That was some of the first land dad ever bought to start building up our farm. They're about the same age so I guess they grew up together."
"You don't seem too fond of this Altimus?"
"Well," Lila said slowly, "you hate to talk poorly about someone, but he is one of those people, you tell him something and by the end of the day everyone in the valley knows it. They say old women gossip but gee, they could take lessons from him. And he's not always kind with the things he says about people. I really don't like that. Mostly I just try to avoid him."
"Hmmm." Xena said.
The Lion pulled Argo up in the village square and helped Lila down. She dismounted and tied the warhorse's rein to a post beside a water trough.
"Xylon lives on the edge of the village." Lila said. "I'll go and give him dad's message. I guess we should meet somewhere."
Xena nodded toward the fruit and vegetable stands on the other side of the square.
"We can meet by the fruit stand in a few candlemarks." she said. "You can help me bargain for Hecuba's supplies. I'm sure you'll know better than I what's a fair price."
"Okay." Lila said brightly, "See you soon."
She bounded away down the main track of the village, waving and smiling at friends and acquaintances. Xena watched her go for a moment then strode purposefully straight to the dry good shop.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The shop was small but orderly and well kept. Bolts of cotton, wool and linen lay on a table on one side. On the other wall a table held a large collection of clay and porceline pottery and cooking utensils. The walls were covered with shelves holding all the nic naks and neccesarys a Potadia homemaker could ever want or use. As Xena entered Altimus was standing on a chair stocking a high shelf on the back wall with woven baskets. He was a tall thin man with a shaggy mane of black hair flecked with gray around the temples. He had a sharp face with a beak of a hooked nose and a prominent adams apple protruding from his skinny neck. His eyes were large and round and seemed to bulge from their sockets.
He heard the movement behind him and hurridly put up the last of the baskets. He jumped down from the chair and turned to Xena.
"Yes," he said in a high pitched voice. "Can I help...you."
The man stared hard at his customer and shifted his feet a little nervously. Xena looked back with unblinking blue eyes.
"You're uh," Altimus wavered, "you're...uh. You're Xena. The Great Lion. The Warrior Princess. Aren't you?'
Xena shrugged her shoulders.
"Yep." she said simply. "And you are?"
"Oh, uh, oh. I'm Altimus. I own this shop."
Xena extended her arm and the man hesitantly took it. But the gesture had its intended effect. Altimus shed some of his nervousness at being in the unexpected presence of the legend.
"This is quite incredible." he said with a smile. "The Great Lion in my shop. Everyone in Potadia has been talking about you and Gabrielle visiting Herodotus and Hecuba."
The man visibly relaxed as he started talking, his favorite activity.
"Not much happens in a little village like this. Having a living legend here is quite the main topic of conversation, as you might imagine."
"I suppose." The Lion said idly as she started to look through the bolts of cloth on the table.
"Oh, if I can help you with anything please ask." the shopkeeper said eagerly.
There was a few moments of silence as the Warrior Princess pretended to shop and Altimus stood transfixed, watching her every movement. Finally she looked up at the man with a little smile.
"I recognized your name. Herodotus mentioned you to me." she lied. "That you've known each other and been friends since childhood."
"Oh yes, yes." Altimus answered, pleasantly surprised the Great Lion would know his name. "I can hardly remember a time I didn't know Herodotus. Or Hecuba. When Herodotus and I were young we and a few others were always together. When we weren't working like dogs of course. That farm life wasn't for me."
Xena casually moved to the other table and examined a few clay jars.
"Herodotus and Hecuba are an interesting couple." she said. "Did they have a long courtship before they were married?"
"Hardly." he said. "No, their marriage was rather sudden, to say the least. But it was definitely one to remember. One of the most sumptous this little village has seen. Everyone who was there still remembers it."
"Really." the Lion said, genuinely surprised. "I thought they were poor when they first married?"
"Oh they were." Altimus answered. "Very. It's rather an interesting story how that day came about."
"Oh?" Xena said. "Well I've always had an interest in history. Why don't you tell me the story."
Altimus put his hand on his chin.
"Well, its certainly been a long time since I thought of those days. But some things you always remember. Let's see, I was twenty that year. Herodotus was nineteen. Hecuba was seventeen or eighteen. I'm not sure now."
The shopkeeper was in his element, talking.
"Herodotus was kind of the leader of our little group of friends. Him, me, Timon, Phillip, Zenon. He was always the brightest of us. A very smart man. His folks couldn't afford schooling but he did chores for the local schoolmaster and was taught reading, writing and a little numbers in return. He really soaked that stuff up. Read anything he could find. Little Gabrielle was like that too. By the time he was sixteen I'm sure he knew a lot more than that old fart of a schoolmaster ever did."
"Anyway, early that spring Herodotus found out from a traveling pedler that there was some kind of disease affecting the wheat being grown out on the Thracian plains. Only half a crop had come in the previous year and they didn't expect any better for the new year. Herodotus was always quick on things like that. He convinced a dozen farmers around the valley to plant nothing but wheat that year. Most farmers around here usually plant half wheat and half barley. And they're pretty conservative about staying with what works. But Herodotus can be very persuasive with his facts and figures and ideas when he wants. He swore up and down that we could make a killing on the Athens wheat market that year."
"Well, in the fall we had a bumper wheat crop in the valley and me and him and our friends were put in charge of getting all the surplus to Athens for the fall buying. We loaded up our wagons till they were groaning under the weight and headed out."
Altimus smiled at the memory.
"Gods were we excited. It was the first time out of the valley for all of us. And we were going to the greatest city in the world if you ask my opinion. I for one was about to wet my pants. And Herodotus was right. The price was better than it had been in years. The men who had listened to him never had it so good as that year. I've never seen so many dinars as were in the sack we hid in Herodotus' wagon for the trip home. He paid us the money we had agreed on with the farmers for delivering the grain right then, while we were still in Athens."
The man sighed.
"Oh what a night that was. A young healthy farm boy in the big city with a pocket full of dinars. Phillip, Zenon and me found the classiest brothel in Athens and jumped in with both feet. The women, oh my, the women. Beautiful, slender, clothes of the finest silk, perfume, makeup."
Altimus closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"I can still smell the perfume after twenty five years. What a time that was. By the next afternoon we were broke and they threw us out but who cared. We had memories that last a lifetime."
The shopkeeper looked at Xena and cleared his throat. A little embarrassed at his candor.
"Well, anyway," he began again."We went back to the wagons and found Herodotus impatiently waiting for us. He was more excited than I've ever seen him in his life. You know how he is I'm sure. Hardly says three sentences together. Always has that grave, stoney look on his face. He's always been that way. But that day I thought he was going to start dancing on the wagon bed or explode or something. He said in the morning he had run into a young man in the market named Plato. They started talking about things and this Plato invited him to come with him to a gymnasiuem run by a teacher named Socrates."
Xena looked sharply at Altimus and the man smiled to see that he had her complete attention.
"Yep." he said. "The famous one. The one the Athenians executed some years back in that big scandal. I never really understood what that was all about but they tell me this Socates was the greatest philosopher in history. Anyway Herodotus spent the day with this Plato at the school listening to him teach. He said it was the most incredible experience of his life. Plato tells him if he wants to join the school he can. He'll have to move to Athens of course. They'd find him some kind of job to support himself. He'd be poor as dirt but he could spend his days learning from the great master himself."
"Herodotus said he didn't care about being poor. He was used to that. But this was the chance of a lifetime to do something he really wanted to do and he wasn't going to miss it. So we all got the wagons hitched and home we came as fast as we could. Herodotus planned to deliver the dinars and get his affairs settled at home and head straight back to Athens. That's all he talked about all the way back and we were happy for him. That he had found something he wanted to do so much. It would be nice if we were all so lucky don't you think?"
"So, we expected him to leave for Athens in two or three days. But that turned into four or five, then six or seven. I thought maybe he had gotten cold feet. Then suddenly he turns up at the farm and invites me to his and Hecuba's wedding in the village in a week."
Altimus shook his head.
"Let me tell you my jaw dropped to the ground. I had to bend over and pick it up. I couldn't believe it. He just finds the thing he most wants to do and now he's marrying Hecuba. I mean, by the gods, Hecuba!"
The man suddenly remembered who he was talking too and looked at Xena a little nervously but her face said nothing except 'please continue'.
"Well, uh," he said. "No offense or anything but you have to know how things were then. Poor Hecuba, her mother died when she was twelve and her father spent most of his time and all of his money in the tavern. He was pretty worthless. She was out there all alone on that little farm trying to do enough to keep them alive. My father would sometimes go over and help her with the heavy work out of pity. When she got older she turned out to be a not half bad looking young woman. A lot of us young bucks would wander over to her place for a visit. She was usually alone of course and about half wild since she was basically raising herself. And you know young men," Altimus smiled slyly, "at that age the head between your legs does all the thinking for you. Herodotus wasn't any different. He went to her place a number of times that summer and helped her with chores and such and then stayed the night. He wasn't the kiss and tell type but we all knew. Her father was usually passed out behind the tavern so they didn't have to worry about getting caught."
"Now all of a sudden he's marrying her instead of going to Athens. I told him he was being foolish. That he should follow his dream and not tie himself down here with a wife. I almost begged him. He just looked at me with that stoney face of his and left without a word."
"The wedding was something. He must have spent all his Athens money on it. I think he wanted to give Hecuba something nice in her life for once. A good memory she could keep forever. And I'm sure he was telling the village that he was serious about this marriage and that he expected everyone to treat Hecuba with the respect the wife of Herodotus deserved. Of course we all figured out five months later, when Gabrielle was born, why he married her."
"It was a brave thing he did. Not surprising when you think about it. He's always been pretty stiff necked about responsibility and duty. And certainly he saved Hecuba and Gabrielle from a life in Tartarus. I mean, when her father found out she was pregnant I'm sure he would have thrown her out and she would have wound up in Corinth or Delphi in some nasty brothel eecking out a living. We both know it happens all the time."
Altimus' eyes glazed a little, as if he were thinking and was not aware that his mouth was still speaking his thoughts.
"I don't know if I would have done it. To give up so much. And gods, the way things were then. I mean, he has black hair, Hecuba's is dark brown, Lila's is black, and Gabrielle's is so blonde. I wonder if he ever wonders if..."
Some sixth sense activated in the man. He shut his mouth and looked at Xena. There did not seem to be any perceptible change in her appearance. Yet Altimus could feel it on his skin. There was danger in the room. A hair raising feeling of barely controlled anger and violence. The man took a step back. Then another. Then he fled across the room away from the Lion. He pretended to straighten some brooms, his back to the Warrior Princess.
"I uh," Altimus said hesitantly. "I didn't mean anything by..."
He turned around. The room was empty.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Herodotus glanced several times at the door as he sat on the steps of the porch. It was a beautiful night. Clear, the stars blazing in all their brilliance, a cool gentle breeze blowing from the north, the three quarter moon perched above the big maple in the front yard so large and close you would swear you could hit it with a rock. The old farmer could hear the voices of all the women in his life coming from inside the house. The sound was muffled. Herodotus could not decide if it was the walls or some lessening in his sense of hearing that made the words too indistinct to understand. What did it matter? He was not very interested in what was being said anyway.
The farmer leaned back on his elbows onto the porch. Was Xena not coming out tonight? Herodotus was surprised how disappointed he felt. He had come to value this unexpected gift of conversation in his life. The Lion's mind was always so direct and penetrating in its understanding of things. And her breadth of experience in the world was exhilerating to a man whose vision of the places outside his valley came mostly from scrolls. Talking to her was a pleasure and an education. Now he was sad that a glorious evening was going to be wasted.
The old man stretched and was about to get up and head for bed when the door squeeked open and the Warrior Princess came out and eased down onto the steps beside him. Herodotus glanced over with a slightly annoyed look on his face.
"The moon was beautiful before it sank behind the maple." he said. "Sorry you missed it."
Xena shrugged her shoulders without looking at him. The old man frowned. There was something different about the Lion's body language tonight. A tense, hard edge Herodotus had not seen before. It was unsettling to see in a warrior of such awesome reputation. Something must have happened. But what? The old man looked away and there was a long silence.
Finally Xena asked. "Do you have dreams Herodotus?"
The man looked over at the woman, his eyebrows knitted together.
"Dreams?" he said. "What do you mean dreams?"
The Warrior Princess stared straight ahead.
"A simple question." she said. "What do you dream of?"
Herodotus looked into the darkness and a small bitter snort came up his throat.
"What do farmers dream of?" he said in a flat, emotionless voice. "They dream of plowing and planting. Working and worrying. Harvesting and storing. Of surviving for another year so they can dream the same dreams again the next."
Herodotus looked sharply at the Warrior Princess.
"Farmers don't dream Xena. They just live their lives over again in the dark."
The warrior still refused to meet the old mans gaze.
"I had dreams when I was younger." she said quietly. "You may have heard of them in passing. I dreamed of conquering the world. Sometimes the dream was so powerful I could hardly tell the difference between dream and reality. My life became the dream."
Xena let her eyes finally shift to Herodotus'.
"But my dream was a nightmare." Her voice had an edge of anger and regret. "A nightmare it took ten years to wake up from."
The old mans eyes stared back unflinching.
"Have you given up dreaming then?" he asked in a near whisper.
"I did for a while." the Lion answered. "Despair and lonliness make dreaming impossible. But then I found hope, and an end to lonliness. Now I dream smaller dreams, better dreams."
Xena's face softened a little.
"I dream of making myself useful to people who need me. I dream of growing old with Gabrielle. I dream of having her in my life every day."
Herodotus' eyes dropped slowly to the ground and he turned his head away.
"Your daughter has dreams too." Xena continued. "I love to lay with her in my arms at night and listen to her dreams. Her dreams for the Nation. For us. Her imagination is a force of nature. I always want to be with her, to help make her dreams come true."
Herodotus let out a short hard sigh from deep in his chest and his face clouded. Xena watched him a moment then leaned close to his face, her eyes focused and penetrating.
"You had dreams once." she said in a tight, intense voice. "Dreams of scholarship and enlightenment. Of learning at the feet of the master."
The old farmer turned his head sharply to stare into the cold, clear eyes only inches from his.
"Who told you that!" he demanded.
The Lion ignored his question.
"What might you be today if you had followed your dream. I never met Socrates but I've sat a few times in his gymnasium and listened to his pupil Plato lecture. The brilliance of his rhetoric, the depth of his understanding, breathtaking. Do you ever wonder if you were good enough. Good enough to be the masters protege?"
The old man bolted to his feet and faced Xena. The Lion was up just as quickly. They were so close their noses almost touched. Herodotus' eyes sparkled with anger.
"Are you mocking me woman?!" he growled in his throat.
"You gave up your dream didn't you old man." Xena continued. "Gave it up to save Hecuba and Gabrielle. To fullfill the responsibility you owed them. But you couldn't reconcile yourself to the loss could you. You couldn't find a new dream. Instead you've wallowed in regret and self pity for twenty five years."
Herodotus' face reddened, the way the bards did when her temper was up.
"Get away from me Xena!" he barked.
He turned and stalked toward the barn. The Lion followed only a step behind.
"But self pity wasn't enough was it?" the Warrior Princess hissed in the old man's ear, like his raw conscience sitting on his shoulder. "You had to push Gabrielle away. She was a living reminder of your loss and you weren't going to let her have even the smallest part of you. You shut her out and put a bleeding wound in her heart that she can never understand. Never heal. Is that her punishment old man? Her punishment for stealing your dream?"
With a savage roar of air out of his lungs the farmer whirled and smashed his fist into Xena's belly. It was like punching a tree trunk. The Lion barely grunted. But the man's face was crimson and he was past fear, past even self preservation. He swung from the heels with all his strength and his fist connected solidly with Xena's jaw. She stumbled back a step and fell. Immediatly the old man was standing over her, his eyes flaming as he looked down.
"I don't take that from anyone warlord!" he growled. "Now get up. Get up and fight!"
Xena lay propped up on one elbow. She slowly reached up with her other hand and rubbed her jaw. She nonchalantly examined the spot of blood on her finger from the small cut on her lower lip. Finally her eyes, clear, calm and penetrating, moved up to meet the old man's.
"Raise my hand to you Herodotus." she said slowly and distinctly, pronouncing each word carefully. "I don't think so. You're Gabrielle's father. That means a lot to me." Her blue eyes narrowed and seemed to search for the farmers soul through his eyes. "I wonder what it means to you?"
The man's red face radiated heat and he breathed in deep, gulping pants. Suddenly he turned and strode to the barn, both fists clinched at his sides. Xena watched him disappear into the building. Then she rubbed her chin again and mumbled to herself with a chuckle.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The Warrior Princess stepped around the blankets and tried to quietly undress. Suddenly there was the click of two flints together and the small lamp on the table by Xena and Gabrielle's bed flared to life.
"Beloved, you really shouldn't stay up so late. This farm life will catch up to you if you don't get enough re..."
Gabrielle threw back her blanket and got up and went to Xena. Her hand gently touched her mates jaw and swollen lip.
"Xena, what happened?"
The Lion shrugged.
"Clumsiness." she smiled. "I accidently ran into the edge of the door in the dark."
Gabrielle frowned deeply.
"Xena. You haven't accidently run into anything since you were six months old. Please don't lie."
The Lion looked at her mate and sighed a silent apology with her eyes. She took Gabrielle's hand and kissed it.
"It's nothing for you to be concerned with beloved." she said.
The bard looked at Xena questioningly for a moment. Then her face suddenly changed. The Warrior Princess watched the color explode into her mates cheeks. The bard turned away but Xena caught her shoulder and turned her back.
"Gabrielle." she said intensely, staring into her mates green eyes. "I'm asking you to honor my wish and drop this."
Her cheeks continuing to redden Gabrielle silently took the Lion's hand off her shoulder and grabbed her clothes from the foot of the bed. She stopped at the end of the blankets and looked at her mate with flaming eyes.
"Xena." she said tightly, barely controlling herself. "Please pack whatever you think we will need. We're leaving in the morning."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
After dressing the bard burst into her parents bedroom. Hecuba looked up sleepily.
The bard saw the place next to her mother was empty.
"Go to sleep mother." she said tonelessly. "I'll see you in the morning."
When Gabrielle entered the barn Herodotus was sitting on a bench against the wall on the opposite side from the large double doors. A single torch in a bracket on the support post in the center of the room gave off a low flickering light that cast everything in gloomy shadow.
The old farmer stood up when he saw his daughter. Gabrielle's face got redder, to some color of crimson never before seen by mortal man. She advanced on her father.
"What kind of man are you!" she yelled. "How could you hit Xena?! Why would you try to hurt her?! Do you hate me so much you have to hurt the person I love most in the world?!!"
The words were like hammer blows to the old man and his shoulders slumped a little more with each one.
"Answer me!!" the bard screamed.
Herodotus only looked at her sadly.
Suddenly a lifetime of vague, unanswerable, unknowable pain flowed out of Gabrielle's heart and down her arms into her hands. Her fingers curled up into fists and with a gutteral screech that came up from the deepest, darkest part of herself she attacked the man in front of her.
Herodotus took several blows to the face before he was able to catch a wrist, then the other, in his strong hands. He forced the bards arms down to her waist and held them there. She struggled furiously for a few moments but finally gave up the unequal battle. Still her eyes flared like red hot coals at the old man. He took in a deep breath and let out a ragged, weary, emotional sigh. He looked deep into his daughters blazing green eyes and even in her passion the bard saw in her fathers brown eyes a person she had never seen before.
"Gabrielle." he said in a whisper. "What I did was the most shameful thing I have ever done. It was inexcusable. I've never raised my hand to a woman. Never thought I would. I..."the farmer took in some quick shallow breaths, and sadly shook his head. "I'm deeply sorry for what happened. I apologize Gabrielle. In the morning I'll apologize to Xena."
Some of the fire faded from the bard's eyes, replaced by shock and confusion. Herodotus had never apologized to her for anything, ever. Who was this person in front of her with soft hurting eyes instead of stern unyielding ones? But there was still plenty of anger roaring in Gabrielle's system. A lifetime of anger.
"You don't need to apologize to Xena." she spit. "You need to thank her for sparing your life. You couldn't have hit the Great Lion if she didn't let you. The only reason you're not a corpse is because my mate loves me."
Herodotus' eyes lowered to the ground.
"I'm sure you're right." he said quietly.
He released Gabrielle's wrists and turned and went to the bench. He collapsed onto it like his legs would not hold him up one more moment. His shoulders slumped and his face sagged. The bard watched transfixed. 'Where is Herodotus?' she wondered. 'Where is the cold, silent, infuriating granite rock of a man that we clung to through so many storms. Who never cracked or wavered no matter how powerful the waves. This man looks so old and tired and sick.'
For a moment Gabrielle was frightened. Frightened for her father. Her anger began receding. She went to the bench and sat down at the end, her body angled so her back was to the old man.
"Why Herodotus?" Gabrielle said, her voice asking this time, not demanding. "Why did you want to hurt Xena?"
The old man rubbed his eyes and sighed.
"I didn't want to hurt Xena." he said quietly. "I wanted to hurt the truth. I wanted to smash it and make it disappear."
Herodotus laughed a hollow painful laugh.
"Plato's place is safe. The master would have seen through me soon enough."
The bard frowned deeply. She did not know what to make of such cryptic statements. What was this all about? She wanted to speak to her father so badly. To understand at last this terrible silence between them. But the silence was too powerful. She did not have the strength to break it. She felt her spirit shrink under the weight of it. Suddenly her whole body jerked with surprise. A hand had been placed over hers where it rested on the bench. A strong, calloused hand.
"Gabrielle," Herodotus said, forcing the words out through the emotions that constricted his throat. "A man...a man makes choices in his life. He does things without thinking that later have the most..." the old man sighed. "the most far reaching effects. But those choices are his own. And a good man, a...uh...a better man than me, faces those effects alone. He doesn't allow others to be injured by them. I'm uh..." Herodotus rubbed his eyes and raggedly cleared his throat. "I'm not the man I ought to be. The man I want to be. The man I should have been for you. Only I am responsible for that. But uh, I...uh want you to know something."
The old farmer lightly squeezed the bards hand and felt it trembling like a frightened bird under his.
"You've uh...done the most unbelievable things with your life. Wonderous, incredible things. I can take credit for none of it. It's all happened because of the remarkable person you are. But I can tell you Gabrielle...daughter..." the old farmer took a deep breath and swallowed hard. "I'm so proud...so very proud."
Words failed. Herodotus rubbed his eyes to keep back the tears that were about to fall. When he opened them Gabrielle was facing him, her nose red and running, tears tracking down both cheeks. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and smiled weakly.
'How beautiful you are my daughter.' the old man thought. 'How beautiful.' He reached up and touched a thick, calloused hand to her cheek. She closed her eyes and moved her cheek in a little circle against his skin. When she opened her eyes she found herself looking into watery brown orbs.
"Is it... is it too late daughter," Herodotus said in a whisper, "for you to be my dream?"
Gabrielle gasped for air. Tears began to fall again from green eyes. Hesitantly she put her arms around her fathers neck, where they had not been for so long. Slowly she pulled herself close and buried her face in his shoulder.
"Daddy." was all she could say.
Herodotus put his arm around her and hugged her small body to his. 'I swear Gabrielle,' the old man thought, 'tonight we start to heal two hearts that have bled long enough.' They held each other till very late into the night, because neither of them could bear to let go.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The sun was well up over the horizon when Herodotus came out of the house and headed for the barn. He was almost there when Hecuba and Lila came out with slings of grain over their shoulders ready to start planting.
Lila smiled brightly. "Well sleepy head. You're going to join us after all? Did you bring Gabrielle?"
"Is she still asleep?" the old man said. "Well, let her sleep." He looked around. "Have you seen Xena?"
"She just left on Argo." Hecuba said. "She wanted to give the horse a good stretch of the legs and she said she was going to check on the flock before she came in to start plowing."
Hecuba looked at her husband with serious eyes.
"She's worked so hard. They both have. Shouldn't we make them rest. This is our farm, not their's."
Herodotus looked back at his wife for a long moment, his eyes as serious as hers.
"No," he said finally, slowly, "this place belongs to all of us. It is our family farm, our home. Gabrielle's and Xena's home too. We'll share all of its pleasures and work and pain together. It's what was meant to be."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Herodotus reached the top of a grassy knoll and had a clear view of the broad shallow valley he had purchased for his flock. To the right the valley sloped up to a heavy tree line. The beginning of the forest that extended for a hundred leagues over the poloponese hills till it ended at the start of the great Thracian plain. Half a league away Alpha was racing back and forth behind Herodotus' small flock barking furiously, pushing the sheep to move faster down the valley toward the farm. Suddenly Argo burst from the tree line several hundred yards further up the valley. She raced heedlessly through the flock scattering them, and came straight toward the old farmer. Herodotus threw up his arms and tried to flag the great warhorse down.
"Whoa Argo!" he yelled. "Whoa horse!!"
The palimino ignored him and galloped past at breakneck speed headed straight for the farm. Herodotus watched her go with disgust then turned and started to run for the spot where he had seen her emerge from the forest. As he got close to the trees, breathing hard from the effort, he could hear the muffled growls and yapping of wolves. Searching quickly he found a good branch on the ground and stripped it of its twigs, turning it into a makeshift staff, then he plunged into the woods toward the sound.
After fifty yards he spotted Xena in the distance between the trees. She was standing a few yards from a great oak in a small clearing. But her posture was strange, crooked. When Herodotus got a little closer he could see her left leg was sunk past the ankle in some kind of hole. A dozen wolves were scattered around the clearing and back into the trees, some standing and watching the Warrior Princess, others slunk low and crawling forward, looking for a opening to attack. A few yards away from the Lion a wolf lay on its side, a chakram buried in its ribs. Xena, sword in hand, swiveled back and forth, desperately trying to protect her back despite not being able to turn all the way around.
Herodotus stepped behind a tree and took some deep breaths to steady himself, then gathering up all the air he could he burst into the clearing yelling his best warcry and flailing at anything that moved with his staff. The startled wolves jumped and then as a group loped back into the woods until they blended into the foliage and disappeared. The old farmer ran to Xena. He could see she was flushed and dripping sweat.
"Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.
The Lion put the point of her sword on the ground and leaned on it wearily.
"I've been better." she said with a slight smile.
Herodotus dropped down on his hands and knees beside the Warrior Princess' stuck foot and began examining it closely.
"So how did we manage to get in this mess?" he asked as he started digging around her ankle with his hands.
Xena wiped some of the sweat from around her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I caught the pack coming out of the forest to take some lambs. Poor Alpha was doing the best he could but they would have killed him soon enough. I chased them back here and killed one with my chakram. I hoped if I killed a few the rest would get the message and head back for the deep forest. I was just dismounting from Argo to retrieve my chakram when something startled her and she bumped into me and I stepped back right into this hole."
The Lion took a couple of deep breaths and wiped more sweat.
"The roots of the tree or something have got me. I can't budge it. It didn't take long for the pack to figure out I was in trouble. They must be awfully hungry to be this aggressive. At least I got Argo out of here." Xena sighed with relief. "I sent her back to Gabrielle. Dumb horse would have stayed here and died with me if I hadn't given her something to do."
Herodotus started to dig furiously then suddenly stopped. He looked up at Xena.
"Roots alright. You must have sprained your ankle. The swelling is making things tighter." The old man let out a disgusted breath. "A good ax and I'd have you out of there in a candlemark."
Xena looked around.
"Ooops." she said with a shrug. "To many wolves, not enough axes."
She looked down with a resigned smile at Herodotus.
"I think you better go back to the barn and get one." she said quietly.
The old farmer frowned. Then he looked down and started to unlace Xena's boot.
"Maybe we can slip your foot out of your boot?" he mumbled. "Use your sword for leverage?"
The Warrior Princess could see the pack spreading out and beginning to work their way around the flanks to encircle them. She put her hand on the old man's shoulder.
"We need an ax Herodotus." she said in her best warlord voice. "Go get one, now!"
The old farmer looked up sharply.
"I don't take orders from you warlord." he answered angrily. "You or anyone. You're the great military genius. Think of something constructive or shutup!"
Fire jumped into Xena's blue eyes but before she could speak a growling wolf made a lunge at her. The Lion's sword struck like lightning and the animal yelped and limped away with a deep cut on its shoulder. The old farmer grabbed his staff, stood up and put his back to Xena's. The pack completed it encirclement. Individual wolves crawled forward and lunged and snapped, forcing the humans to react and fight.
"They're hunting us like a big stag." Xena said grimly. "They'll attack in relays till they wear us down. Then they'll charge as a pack and finish us."
"Well, that's a brilliant analysis of their tactics general. Now what are WE going to do?"
Between attacks Xena looked around desperately, her mind racing. She could tell from the old farmers deep panting that his strength was waning. At last she spotted an opportunity.
"Look old man at the oak." she said. "See that knothole there in the trunk? You can put your foot there and step up to that thick branch that runs overhead. I can reach that far with my sword. I can keep them off you till you're up."
Her words were answered only by heavier panting. Suddenly she dug an elbow hard into the farmers side. He grunted with surprise and pain.
"Are you listening to me!!" the Lion roared.
Xena felt Herodotus press his back harder against hers.
"I'm busy here!" he shouted. "Keep your damm elbows to yourself!"
The Lion growled deep in her throat with frustration.
"No wonder Gabrielle's so stubborn." she spit.
"Yes, I taught that little girl everything she knows about stubborn." Herodotus gasped. "But I didn't teach her everything I know."
Suddenly the old man cried out in pain. Xena turned to see that a she wolf had sunk her teeth deep in his forearm and was pulling him down and away. Desperately she forced herself around till she felt and heard the crack of her ankle as it seperated but she got around enough to thrust out with her sword and sink the blade into the animals chest. The wolf let go and yelped and jumped away. The other wolves started at the sound of her pain and drew back.
"Now damm you now!!" the Lion roared as she turned back and grabbed her ankle, tears of pain in her eyes. "Get in the damm tree now!!"
Xena took some deep breaths and adjusted herself to the pain. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and focused. 'Where's Herodotus? Does he need help?' She started to look up and suddenly the old farmers back was again pressed firmly against hers. The Warrior Princess' shoulders slumped with despair.
"Why?" was all she could say as she watched the pack begin to creep forward again.
"Why?" Herodotus replied. "By the gods Xena, did you really think I could ever tell my little girl that I climbed a tree to save my life and abandoned the person she loves most in the world to be ripped apart. I'll cut my own throat first."
The pack drew closer. The Lion steadied herself on her good leg. The old farmer got a firm grip on his staff.
"Thank you Xena" he said quietly, "for making my daughter happy."
"I love her old man." Xena said quietly back. "She gave me a reason to live when I had none. Making her happy was the least I could do."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Xena limped slowly across the back yard to where Herodotus was sitting on a long swing dangling from two ropes tied to a branch on a majestic oak. He watched her approach with narrow eyes and a disgusted look that got more disgusted the closer she got. Finally she handed him a tankard of ale and collapsed on the swing beside him with a relieved grunt. She took a sip of ale from her tankard as he took one from his. Looking straight ahead he growled out of the side of his mouth.
"I made you that cane for a reason you know."
Xena looked down at her cup with a little smile.
"I know." she said. "But it has been five days now. That's enough time limping around like an old cripple with a cane. I'm a fast healer."
"No." Herodotus growled. "You're just vain."
Xena looked sharply at the old farmer, then looked away. She shrugged and sighed.
"So, I don't like feeling weak and helpless. I'm the Lion of Amphipolis after all. I like to look the part." The Warrior Princess smiled. "I prefer to think of it as a warrior's pride."
"Uh huh." Herodotus said after taking another sip. "Well your pride is distressing Tartarus out of your mate. She gets that wounded puppy look on her face every time she sees you limping around without your cane, so cut it out, or I'll make you a crutch and tie it under your arm."
The Lion snorted.
"I'd like to see that."she said.
"Well, if you don't stop abusing yourself you will."
There was a long silence as the old man and the warrior rocked slowly back and forth together on the swing sipping their ale.
Finally Xena asked quietly. "How's your arm?"
Herodotus took his arm out of its sling and flexed his fingers.
"It stopped throbbing this morning. It'll be fine. You did a nice job of wrapping it. Thanks."
There was another silence and more rocking, then the old farmer suddenly laughed. Xena looked at him with questioning eyes.
"What was that noise Gabrielle made when she came galloping up on Argo?" he asked through a smile.
"She was trying to mimic my warcry." the Lion chuckled. "She doesn't do it very well. Sounds more like some poor sparrow being stepped on doesn't it."
They both laughed at the memory.
"You were right." Xena said. " Xylon and his brother are excellent hunters. That was impressive work they did with their bows. Your flock should be safe enough now."
"Yeah, we finally had some luck didn't we. They being at the house looking for me when Argo came galloping into the yard."
Xena took a drink of ale, then said quietly.
"You could have let them have all the bounty on the pelts. They saved your life you know."
"Whoa there woman!" Herodotus barked. "I let them have eighty percent. That's more than fair. Those wolves were on my land hunting my sheep. They took a hunk out of me to boot. Legally I only had to give them fifty percent. I'm running a farm here Xena. Not a charity. If you had to run it you'd find out. Life is hard. You do what you have to to make it. You think running an army was tough you try this for awhile. I'll teach you what tough is. I'll teach..."
The old man's voice trailed off into silence and he looked away from the Lion and took a sip of his ale. Xena looked down and rolled her cup slowly between her hands. The silence this time was very long.
"So" the old farmer said suddenly, breaking the quiet. "When am I going to see some grandchildren? Amazon's have children don't they? I assume you don't spring from the ground fully grown right?"
Xena gave a little snort back in her throat.
"No." she said. "Amazon's don't spring from the ground."
She took a sip of ale.
"Abandoned and orphaned female babies and toddlers are regularly brought to us. Some by outside villagers with the decency to give them a chance at life instead of just ignoring them to death. Many are brought by women who grew up as Amazon's but decided to leave and find their lives outside the Nation rather than go through the final initiation. They are always on the lookout for girls who need us. As for Gabrielle and I, as a mated couple we can adopt as many as we can care for, as many as we want."
The Warrior Princess stared at her tankard for a moment, then took a long drink.
"Gabrielle talks about it from time to time. I know she wants to start a family."
Xena looked at Herodotus with a slight smile.
"You know she would make a wonderful mother."
The old farmer nodded.
"But..." the Lion looked down at her cup and rolled it between her palms, then looked far away into the distance.
"I had a child," she said in a low thick voice. "A fine son. He had his father's build, and a sharp mind and a good heart. Nothing of me I'm glad to say. I was never a mother to him. Never anything I should have been. Then one day he was gone."
The Warrior Princess sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand.
"That's a heartache that's hard." Xena took a gasp of air. "That's hard to get used too. You forget for a while it's there and then suddenly..."
Xena's shoulders slumped with the weight of regret. Herodotus put out his hand to touch Xena's arm, but just before he did he hesitated, and let his arm go behind her and fall lightly on the back of the swing.
"I know something of that feeling," the old farmer said quietly. "Gabrielle was gone from me. And it was my own fault. But someone gave me a chance to find her. A chance to heal a wounded heart. People can have second chances in life. They just have to be willing to accept them. Why not accept your chance Xena? Gabrielle won't let you fail. She's much to stubborn for that."
The Lion sniffed again. Then she looked at Herodotus with a tiny grin.
"They'll all be girls of course." she said. "You'll be drowning in females."
The old man smiled.
"That's all right. I'm used to it. Just be sure to bring them every spring and fall to visit Grandma and Grandpa."
Xena grunted and made a disgusted face.
"You ruthless old bastard, you just want some free labor for planting and harvesting. You ought to be ashamed."
Herodotus smiled wider.
"I'm a farmer Xena. That's what children are for. And daughters-in-law. A little hard work will be good for all of you."
"I don't know if I can put up with you or not." Xena said.
The old man shrugged.
"To late. You have to. Putting up with the in-laws is part of being married. You should have thought of that before you jumped off the cliff."
Xena smiled. "Guess so."
The old man's face became serious.
"And when planting is done there's a trout stream I know. My secret place. Gabrielle says you like to fish. Maybe you could put up with the old man for a week there to?"
Xena looked at Herodotus.
"Maybe I could."
The old man took a slow breath, then smiled.
"And Xena. Gabrielle will want to mother those children to death. Don't let her. They'll need some of the Lion in them too."
"Oh, I don't know old man." Xena grinned. "I'm not brave enough to get between Gabrielle and her children. I like my head where it is. I don't think I could see anything with it stuck up my ass."
Herodotus burst out laughing, long and loud. Xena joined him.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
"Gabby, did you hear me?"
Gabrielle turned away from the window of her bedroom that faced the backyard.
"Oh. What? Did you say something Lila?''
Lila saw a tear falling from the bard's eye and made a face.
"Gabby, what's wrong? Is something wrong out there?"
"No, Lila." Gabrielle said with a smile. "Everything is right. More right than I ever dared hope. More right than I deserve."
The bard grabbed Lila's hand. "Now what is it you wanted?"
"Well, mom wants some help cooking. She's making something special tonight."
"Great." Gabrielle grinned. "Let's make tonight the most special dinner this family has ever had together. Let's make tonight a time together we will never forget."