A New Beginning
by Hind's Blood
Disclaimer: All characters are (unfortunately) not mine and belong to MCA / RenPic. No copyright infringement was intended. Author's note: This story is the second installment in my post-Motherhood trilogy. If you haven't read "Retribution" yet, then I strongly recommend you do, otherwise this one will make absolutely no sense. My humble thanks to: Warriorjudge - my best friend, for all your patience and support. Natalia - for correcting my numerous spelling and grammar mistakes. Comments & feedback are very welcome at: email@example.com
Disclaimer: All characters are (unfortunately) not mine and belong to MCA / RenPic. No copyright infringement was intended.
Author's note: This story is the second installment in my post-Motherhood trilogy. If you haven't read "Retribution" yet, then I strongly recommend you do, otherwise this one will make absolutely no sense.
My humble thanks to:
Warriorjudge - my best friend, for all your patience and support.
Natalia - for correcting my numerous spelling and grammar mistakes.
Comments & feedback are very welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It has been over three moons since I parted with Xena. That fateful day, by the side of poor Joxer's grave, is still vividly alive in my memory. Seeing my partner, my best friend shattered, pleading with me to return to her was incredibly painful for me. But turning my back and walking away from her was unbearable. My mind kept telling me it was the right thing to do, but my heart ached for her. I wanted to turn around and tell her I forgive her. I desired nothing more than to put my arms around her, feeling her heart beats next to mine, and never let go. But I couldn't.
As I mounted my mare, all I could feel was the incredible pain. The pain numbed all other sensations. I don't remember galloping away from there. I cannot recall the wind whipping my face, howling furiously across the prairie. I lost all sense of time. I rode like that, wandering in the wasteland, in my altered state, days and nights, letting my horse lead me as it pleased.
I started coming back from my haziness when we reached the outskirts of Athens. The sight of the small farmhouses reminded me of Virgil. A thought started forming in my still clouded mind: I have to find Joxer's son. I have to find him and explain everything to him.I embarked on a search for Meg and her family. They were newcomers, thus hard to locate. Finally, an elderly housewife directed me to a blacksmith's shop, in a small ally, not far from the market square.
I noticed Virgil from afar, descended my horse, and ran toward him. He was standing at the doorway, occupied with his anvil. Upon seeing me, he laid down his tools, strode toward me, his arms spread open.
"Gabrielle," he called "it's so great to see you again."
At that point I lost grip of myself. With all my remaining strength, I pulled myself unto his chest, my feeble arms hanging about me. I guess at that point I fainted, since the next thing I recall is me, laying on a soft bed in a back room. When he noticed I awoke, Virgil offered me a cup full of water. As I drank, I realized I haven't had any fluids for several days. Apparently, it was evident, since he immediately filled the cup again.
After I regained some strength, I sat on the bed beside him. He seemed troubled about something. Even before he spoke, I knew what was the matter.
"Where's Xena?" he finally asked me.
I slowly recounted the events of the past few days, from the moment he left for Athens, to my meeting with Xena at his father's grave. At the memory of those last few moments with her, the pain in my heart grew stronger again. My body weakening once more, I leaned against Virgil, placing my head on his shoulder. When I finished the story, I was sobbing, letting my tears stream down my face, wetting Virgil too. He didn't seem to mind that. Instead, he sent a long arm to my other shoulder, enveloping me completely. I realize now it was the first time I cried since the events leading to breaking up with Xena. I let it all out, weeping outloud freely, totally oblivious to my surroundings.
When my crying subsided, and I wiped away the tears from my face, I sat up again, and slowly regained my composure.
"Listen", said Virgil softly, "you have a lot of thinking to do, and you need a place to stay. My mother will be glad if you come and stay with us for a while."
He got up, and went to find his cousin to watch the shop in his absence. When he returned, I was still sitting on the bed, as I had been when he left.
"What's wrong?" he immediately asked.
"I'm not so sure about this." I replied. "I don't know how Meg feels about me now."
"She doesn't blame you." He exclaimed. "She knows my father's death wasn't your fault."
"How about you Virgil? What do you think? You were there." For a moment I was afraid to hear his answer.
"My father died as the hero he always aspired to be. I refuse to blame anyone but his murderer. I refuse to take something off his last selfless act." Virgil spoke with conviction. "Now, let's go."
We walked past the crowded city streets. I hadn't visited Athens for a long time, thus savoring the various sights and smells, as if encountering them for the first time.
"You know, " started Virgil as he was pacing along my side. "We didn't have many visitors since we came here. My parents didn't have many acquaintances in these parts. Only yesterday someone came to pay his respects. An old friend of my father. Knew my mom too. I believe his name was Autolycus."
Hearing the familiar name I halted. I faced Virgil and asked, "Autolycus is in town?"
I guess the surprise in my voice amused Virgil. He coaxed an eyebrow, then replied: "Yes, I think he said something about a business trip..."
"Hide your valuables, then." I chuckled. This time, it was his turn to be surprised. I went on explaining: "You see, Autolycus, who is also a good friend of ours....I mean mine, is known as a thief. As a matter of fact," I added, "he is the king of thieves."
"Well, I was under the impression he was here on a legitimate business matter, something about opening another nightclub in the Athens area." Responded the young poet. That reminded me something Hercules told us, just before Eve was born, about Autolycus quitting the life of crime, settling down with his showgirl-ex-wife. I was wondering how he was doing ever since we last saw him at my birthday party. I was going to say something about him to Virgil, when we stopped near a small shabby-looking building.
"This is where we live." Announced Virgil and opened the door for me.
For a moment I remained there. In spite of what Virgil said earlier, I wasn't sure what to expect from Meg. Eventually, realizing I didn't have much choice, I mustered all the courage I could find and strode into the house, to face Joxer's widow.
We walked straight into the small dining room, which was very dimly lit. Once my eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness, I was able to inspect the place. The room was narrow, its walls stained with mildew and what seemed to be years of neglect. Most of its space was occupied by a large wooden table, surrounded by six chairs. On one of them, further to my right, sat Virgil's mother.
After a brief moment of hesitation, I slowly approached her. She raised her eyes to meet my gaze. Meg has always bared a striking resemblance to Xena. Even after all these years, that resemblance still made me tremble with amazement. True, while Xena remained as young as she had been, Meg had grown older, her figure transformed into that of a middle aged woman. She gained substantial weight, no doubt due to childbearing. But as I looked at her deep blue eyes, I could still see Xena in them.
"Gabrielle, it's so good of you to come." Meg greeted me, making an attempt to smile. I moved closer and gave her a warm embrace. "I'm so sorry Meg" I whispered in her ear.
"Please, have a seat." She indicated the chair right across from her.
As I sat there, my eyes locked with hers, I was overwhelmed with guilt. There I was, sitting with Joxer's widow, and she, instead of hauling me out of her home, is graciously giving me a heart felt welcome. If it weren't for me, her husband would still be alive. Because of me, she and her family were driven out of their home, and are now stranded, without their source of livelihood. I guess my expression gave her some indication to my emotions, since all of a sudden, Meg clasped my hands between hers. She looked me straight in the eye and said:
"I want you to know, I do not blame you for my misfortune. My husband, may he rest in peace, found his death in the noblest of causes - save another human's life. I have no regrets for that." I nodded in response, unable to find the right words. A few more moments passed in silence. I was the one to break it.
"Please tell me about him, Meg." I implored. "I was gone for 25 years, and I wish to know how he was doing all this while."
Meg nodded in compliance. "I remember that day like it was yesterday. A blizzard storm kept the gentlemen from visiting my establishment, so me and my girls spent the evening downstairs in the tavern, just passing the time with some idle gossip. Suddenly, the main door opened with a thud. A minute later, Joxer fell inside, landing hard on the floor. We all rushed to him. He was unconscious, his skin even paler than usual. He looked like he hadn't slept for weeks. When he came to, he told me about your strife with the gods, that little hoax you played on them, and about your subsequent disappearance by Ares' hands. He told me he had spent the last couple of weeks looking for you two, but you were nowhere to be found. Somehow, he managed to find his way to my establishment." The former harlot released a heavy sigh. She paused for a brief moment, then continued her story.
"As soon as Joxer regained his strength, he prepared to leave, to go on with his quest. He vowed he'd remain restless until he knew your fate. I offered to accompany him on his journey, so he'd have someone to care for him. I left someone I trusted in charge of the girls, and set out with him. We traveled for weeks in the freezing cold. We inquired about you and Xena whenever we went, but nobody seemed to know your whereabouts. Finally we reached a village at the foot of mount Etna. We did our usual routine, asking people around, but in vain. As we reached the nearby forest, he suddenly dropped to his knees. I've never seen him like that before. He was in despair. He just stayed there like that, sobbing, for quite some time. When his crying subsided, he got up and said to me: "It's over, Meg. They're gone." That was all he could say. Giving up that search was the hardest thing in his life. We immediately started our journey back. For a while, he was not able to speak, and I felt uncomfortable attempting a conversation. But when we reached my place, the first thing he did was drop to his knees again, only this time, to ask my hand in marriage. On the very same night the local priest married us. A year later, Virgil was born." Meg acknowledged her son with a fond look.
"When Virgil grew up a little and started walking around the place, we both realized a brothel was not the most appropriate place to raise children. So we sold the joint, and moved to the same village we ended our search. Joxer started his warrior princess collection, and a few years later, when we opened up our tavern, he used his various artifacts to decorate the place. We had five more children, four boys and one girl." Meg gave me a faint smile.
"Seems to me you made him very happy." I placed my palm on her wrist. She just kept smiling at me. We all stayed there for some time, quiet. Finally, Meg got up and said:
"You must be awfully tired from your journey. You're welcome to stay at out house for as long as you like." She showed me to a nearby sleeping chamber, and prepared a bed for me. Then she bid me good night and left me to rest. I laid down, the thoughts racing in my mind. The events of the previous days still haunted me, and to that were added reflections about Joxer's family and their prospects. In spite of what Meg said, I felt the tremendous burden of guilt washing over me. I blamed myself for Joxer's death, for Eve's execution, and for leaving Xena. I was the one who charged Xena for favoring her daughter over justice. It was my protest that brought her to hand her daughter over to the authorities. Although I knew Eve got a fair trial, I couldn't help thinking about Xena, witnessing her daughter's demise, unable to save her. That was the second time my friend had to go through the horror and pain of losing a child. From my own personal experience, I knew all too well what it's like to bring about the death of one's own child. Xena had made the ultimate sacrifice, and at least part of her reason for doing that was her hope the deed would convince me to return to her. Instead, I walked away from her just when she needed me the most. Thoughts about the past tormented me, as I tossed and turned in bed. At last, I reached a resolution. I cannot allow those regrets get the best of me. Things wouldn't have been better had I stayed with Xena. Even with Eve dead, I would still feel lost. For the past few years I have defined myself by someone else: I have been Xena's best friend, her partner and bard. Now it's time I create myself anew. I have to find out who I really am. And for that - I had to get away from her. I need a fresh start, a new beginning. I have made the right decision. And with that reassurance, I finally succumbed to slumber.
I must have been exhausted from the long journey, since I slept throughout that night and most of the following day. When I awoke, the house was still. Everyone had left for work, school or errands of sorts. I opened my eyes to meet two familiar ocean-blue eyes, staring right into mine. Startled, I swiftly rose to a sitting position.
Next to my bed, stood a young girl, not older than seven or eight harvests. "This must be Joxer's daughter. " I thought. We both just stayed there, eyeing each other carefully. The girl was a spitting image of her mother. She was tall for her age, her raven-black tresses gliding down her broad shoulders. I couldn't help noticing the remarkable resemblance she also bore to Xena. A thought formed in my mind. "This is how Eve must have looked like as a child." I shook my head as I tried to cast that thought out of it. Then I averted my attention back to the figure in front of me. The girl didn't seem to be frightened by the stranger that invaded her house, so I just asked her: "What's your name?"
"I'm Gabrielle." She replied.
I was completely taken aback by her answer. In fact, I was so amazed, I lost grip and almost fell out of the bed. "Joxer has named his little girl after me." I thought to myself, my eyes already filling with tears at the memory of my friend. However, I soon regained my composure and introduced myself:
"My name is Gabrielle too."
A big smile spread on the girl's face. She sat beside me and started talking :"My dad gave me my name. He was a hero, and used to tell me all about his adventures. He fought the bacchae, Cyclops and evil warlords."
"I see you like adventure stories." I remarked.
"Father used to tell me a story each night, before I went to bed." Replied the girl, rather enthusiastically.
"Well, I have a lot of stories too, and I can tell them to you, if you like." I offered. Upon hearing this, her eyes lit up like a solstice tree.
"Would you like me to tell you one now?" I asked, guessing the obvious response.
"Yes please." She implored.
I paused for a brief moment. Of all the stories I knew by heart, I wanted to choose one that would emphasis her father's bravery. I finally picked up the one about the time Joxer, Meg and Autolycus kidnapped a baby, who turned out to be the key to the kingdom, only to save it from Athena's charm and from a ruthless tyrant. When I finished the story, the girl's eyes sparked in joy.
"That is a wonderful story." Sounded a voice from the direction of the door.
To my delight, Virgil stood there, a wide grin across his face.
"I see you've met my little sister." He said to me, then turned to her and informed her she is needed elsewhere. When we were left alone, he invited me to the dining room for breakfast.
"I've brought some fresh bread and cheese." He said while escorting me to the table. I hadn't realized how famished I'd been, until I devoured everything he placed on my plate.
"I apologize for my bad manners." I said as I was chewing the last slice of bread.
"There's no need to apologize." He replied, the grin never leaving his face. "You were hungry. Probably haven't had a good meal in days."
I nodded in assent as I took a sip of my milk. Virgil waited patiently until I finished my meal, then started:
"So, what are your plans now?"
I paused for a moment, then mused: "Honestly, I haven't thought it out yet." I kept speaking as I reflected on his question. "The one thing that has always been a part of me is my ability to shape words into sentences, and sentences into stories. I've always been a bard, so I guess there's no use looking somewhere else."
"I was hoping you'll say that." Countered Virgil. "I know the perfect place to start."
"And where that is?" I asked.
"A very good friend of mine is the headmaster of the renown Athens city academy of the performing bards. When I told him you're in town, he insisted I bring you over." Virgil got up and headed for the door.
"Are we going to see him now?" I asked.
"There's no time like the present." He disclaimed.
As we were walking through the market, I turned to him and inquired:
"I had no idea you had formal training as a poet. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't really." He admitted. "I corresponded with Homer for quite some time, and when I got to Athens, I immediately went to see him."
"I'm sorry, but did you just say Homer?" I couldn't conceal my excitement.
"Yes, that's my friend's name. He's the most famous poet in all of Greece." Virgil looked rather surprised.
"I didn't know that." I countered. "But Homer was a very close friend of mine when we went to the academy together."
Virgil was about to respond, but was interrupted by a figure ahead of us, calling out my name: "Gabrielle!"
He was a man in his forties, wearing a purple toga and a turban meant to conceal his bolding head. In spite of the years that passed since I last saw him, I easily recognized my friend.
"Orion!" I cried and ran toward him.
"It's so great to see you again, Gabrielle." Homer pulled me into his arms for a long embrace. "I can't believe you still remember that name."
"Now how can I forget," I teased him "I picked it out for you myself."
"I had no idea you two knew each other." Said Virgil when he caught up with us. "Why didn't you tell me, Homer?"
"I wasn't sure Gabrielle would remember who I am." Replied the poet. "and I didn't want to make a complete fool out of myself."
"That could never happen." I assured him.
"How about drinks in my office?" suggested Homer. Both Virgil and I accepted the invitation, and soon we followed our gracious host into the building. When we were inside his office, sipping refreshing orange juice poured for us by a servant, Homer turned to me and said:
"Gabrielle, Virgil told me about your...misfortune. Now, I don't know what your future plans are, but I think you could use the solace this place can offer." I guess he noticed my bewilderment, so he went on explaining: "You can stay here at the academy for as long as you like. You'll find the faculty's quarters rather comfortable. Here you can rest, maybe catch up on your writing, then figure out what to do next. Take all the time you need."
"I don't know what to say." I answered, feeling confused by the offer.
"Say yes." He replied. "This is the perfect place for reflection. You'll get all the privacy you need. Besides, you're quite a celebrity, you know. The scrolls of Gabrielle of Potedea are a vital part of our curriculum. They are being taught here to our students as the perfect example for poetic writing. Don't worry. I'll make sure the student won't be bothering you." He added.
I contemplated the matter for a few minutes. His offer was incredibly generous. He was right. The academy was the perfect place for me right now. I really shouldn't stay with Meg's family in that crowded little house. Besides, I was in no particular hurry. I had no other place to stay while in Athens, and wasn't up to confront my family yet.
"Thank you, Homer." I responded. "I'm accepting your offer."
They both seemed delighter by my response, and suggested we go celebrate it in the local tavern. I joyfully joined them.
It took me a while, but eventually I adjusted to my new life. I started my days working on my scrolls, catching up on my stories, which I have neglected ever since Eve was born. Homer made sure my room was secluded from the rest of the compound, and that the students would not interrupt me at work. I would stay in my chamber throughout most of the day, the only person I met was the servant who brought my lunch and afterwards cleared the tray and dishes. Every so often, in the late afternoon, I would call on Meg, taking little Gabby (that's how we all started to call her) for a stroll. Each time we've met, I'd tell her another story, and the girl would listen eagerly until I was through, and then shower me with curious questions. I immediately took to Joxer's daughter. She was smart, imaginative, and reminded me much of her eldest brother. How I enjoyed those encounters with her!
Almost every night, Virgil, Homer and I would meet at the neighborhood tavern. For hours at a time, we'd review each other's work, discuss public affairs, and convey some juicy gossip, like a pack of old ladies.
Pretty soon I grew accustomed to this quiet routine. I enjoyed the company of my friends, and, as Homer predicted, found solace in my writing. On occasion, I would ponder my life with Xena, wondering how she was. The anxieties of the first few days in Athens melted away, and I was able to think fondly of her, recalling some of our best moments together. Alas, the illusion of peace was about to be shattered.
One day, I was walking in the market square, accompanied by little Gabby. I had already purchased the new parchments I came for, but the young girl seemed eager to stay on, so I had to watch her bounce around from one shop to another, checking out the merchandise here, tasting fruit there. All of a sudden, she halted, a few paces ahead of me, staring at something to her right.
"Gabrielle, look!" she called me. I hurried to her, and found out she was inspecting a centaur, who was standing very close to us, near the blacksmith shop.
"It's terribly rude to stare at people." I scolded her, yet kept looking at the centaur. I took her little hand in mine, and prodded her out of there. As we were leaving the market, I noticed the centaur was following us. Life on the road taught me to stay alert for stalkers. I immediately stopped, making sure we were in a crowded place, and addressed him:
"Why are you following us?"
At this point, I got a close look at him. He was young, in his late twenties, his face was unintimidating at all, his blue eyes had a somewhat friendly sparkle. The centaur tilted his blond curls, then said:
"I apologize for that. It's just that I wanted to make sure you're the person I was looking for."
"Me? Are you sure?" his words troubled me.
"Yes. You are Gabrielle was Potedea, right?" he asked.
I confirmed with a slight nod.
"I am Xenan, the son of..."
"Ephiny." I completed the sentence for him.
"You look just as I remembered." Xenan reached out his harm for a firm hand shake.
"But you have grown." I exclaimed. "I would have never recognize you. How are you?" I inquired.
"I wish I could say all is well, " he sighed "but regrettably, that's not the case."
"What's wrong?" I asked, concern evident in my voice.
"I bring you bad news, Gabrielle." He said gravely. "Your tribe is in danger." The grim expression on his face indicated how serious the situation he was talking about really was.
"Little Gabby," I knelt and faced the girl, "can you run and fetch your brother? We'll be waiting for him at the tavern."
She nodded and immediately dispatched on her mission.
When we found a table in a secluded corner in the tavern, I asked Xenan for the reason he sought me out. He sighed, paused for a moment, then slowly uttered the words, as if afraid to say them.
"About a week ago, I passed through my mother's village. Even though I left it after she died, I know how strongly she felt about her tribe, and so decided to pay it a visit. Upon my arrival, I encountered one of the eldest amazons, who knew both you and my mother. She informed me the whole region had been raided by an army swooping on the country from the north. The tribe was barely holding out against this mighty army. With the high death toll, and the supplies running short, that amazon admonished, they are likely to befall before their enemy. The amazon implored me to get help. She told me that you, Gabrielle of Potedea, is the tribe's only hope. But I fear I have wasted an entire week looking for you, during which time the amazons are most likely to have lost the battle."
"Hold on, Xenan. Why am *I* the only one who can help them? Who's their enemy?" I inquired.
"It is the army of the one god, Gabrielle. They move from village to village across the land, convincing people to convert to their faith. When they encounter refusal, they sack the village, killing every living thing, looting whatever they can carry with them, then they burn everything to the ground." He answered.
"The army of the one god?" I asked horrified. "Are you sure?"
Xenan just nodded in assent. Then he bowed his head down, as avoiding my eyes on purpose.
"Is there anything else you're not telling me about?" I demanded to know.
Reluctantly, his gaze still averted, he slowly uttered:
"This army...is lead by Xena."
"That can't be..." I murmured.
"Unfortunately, it is." he replied. Xenan resumed eye contact and said: "Xena is commanding this army of darkness. Ares, the former god of war, serves under her as her second in command."
I was speechless. The thoughts were racing in my mind, incoherent. While I was in my state of confusion, Virgil showed up. The minute Xenan finished recounting the events to him, Virgil exclaimed:
"That can't be right! This is not Eli's god of love!"
"That's right. It's not." I suddenly countered. They both turned to me, their faces wearing an expression of utter bewilderment. All of a sudden, the haziness cleared, my mind was sharper than ever. "It's Dahak." I exclaimed, swallowing hard at the thought.
My listeners remained quiet, pondering this revelation. I, on the other hand, got up and turned toward the exit.
"Where are you going?" Virgil grabbed me by me shoulder.
"To see some old friends who might be able to help." I guess Virgil noticed I was resolved to embark on this mission, since he let go of me. I reached out my hand, gently touching his arm.
"Listen to me, Virgil." I instructed him. "Xena's army is in Boeotia. She'll be in Athens within two weeks, after taking Thebes and Megara on her way. She'll most probably put a siege on Athens, until the city falls. And when that happens, everyone within the city walls is doomed. I'll be leaving immediately. If you don't hear from me in three days, take your family southward, to Sparta. You'll be safer there, at least for a while."
"I can't let you go alone. I'm coming with you." Said Virgil sternly.
"No, Virgil. Meg depends on you now. Go, get them to safety." I commanded.
"What are you going to do?" asked Xenan from behind me.
"I'm going to stop Xena." I answered, resolved. "I have to. For the sake of us all."
TO BE CONTINUED
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