In Her Memory

by Nancy M

 

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Lilla belong to RenPics, and Universal/MCA. I have used them without permission, and intend no copyright infringement. The rest of the characters are the creation of my own warped mind. The events are based on real life.

Sometimes the best measure of a relationship is how one partner supports the other in time of crisis. Xena didnít get much chance to do that for Gabrielle in Season Five. This story takes place just before Lifeblood. Minor spoilers for Season Five.

Those readers who have been caregivers for elderly parents may find this story uncomfortable. The author found it incredibly cathartic.


"But Gabrielle, it's your turn."

"How can it be my turn when I never agreed to anything?"

"This is family," Lilla argued. "You don't have to agree with anything. It just is. And it's your turn."

"Because you say so?"

"Because Aunt Gilda has taken care of Gamma for three years," the younger woman explained. "When Gilda broke her arm I took care of Gam for two weeks, and then Ma took care of her for two weeks, and cousin Lara has taken the last two weeks, so it's your turn!"

"Lilla I have things to do, places to go."

"Too bad. I had things to do too, and so did Ma and Lara. What were we supposed to do?"

"You don't understand. The gods are after Xena and Eve, and me too. Isn't there a place she could live until Aunt Gilda's arm is healed?"

"You want to pay for it? Besides, I thought you said you'd given the gods the slip."

Gabrielle pursed her lips, knowing there was no real argument. Sensing victory, Lilla smiled. "Come on Gab. It's not so bad. Once you get used to it that is."

"Yeah, well, Xena won't be very happy."

"From what I've seen of her, Xena will understand. Maybe she'll stay with you and help with the laundry."

"Right. Sure." The mental image of Xena submissively washing dirty linens almost made Gabrielle grin in spite of her mood. She nodded an acknowledgement of Lilla's victory. "Let me get my stuff."

Together the sisters walked the mile to their Aunt Gilda's house, where their grandmother lived with her most recent guardian, Lara. Gabrielle knew that her grandmother must have a name besides "Gamma", but all the children had called her that since Gabrielle had first mispronounced "Grandma" at the age of three.

Lara had a curiously haunted look and barely spoke to Lilla and Gabrielle as she hastily collected her things and vanished. Gabrielle remarked on Lara's reticence, but Lilla brushed off the comment.

"She's fine. Gam can do that to you. She's probably on the back porch now. Come on."

Gabrielle had not seen her grandmother in well over a year. The forgetting disease had already begun to erode her mind when Gabrielle left with Xena more than five years before, stealing her logic and language a little at a time. By the time they had returned to battle Hope, Gamma needed someone to cook for her and care for day-to-day chores. She had worn garish clothes, and rarely remembered the day or month. Her vocabulary was that of a six-year-old, but she recognized people and would follow directions. But the disease continued to creep like a thief in the night, robbing precious memories and rendering a dozen words meaningless in a week.

The woman Gabrielle found on the porch bore little resemblance to the robust woman she remembered. The gaunt face startled her at first, but then a spark of recognition flared, and Gabrielle went forward to embrace her.

"Hi Gam! It's me! Gabrielle. How are you?"

"Well now, here's the tain a tain you tie the fold a gun now."

"What did you say Gam? I don't understand."

"It's the way notta notta key to run the brow. Can you?"

"I still don't understand."

Lilla interrupted. "Sure Gamma. I think we can do that."

"Lilla, what did she say?"

"Got no idea. Just take a wild guess and give her an answer."

"No, really. She's trying to say something. Gam! Try again. I'm listening."

A shadow of concern creased Gamma's brow. "Are you fund the busy? I can't thing a thing where he did that."

Lilla spoke soothingly. "It's alright Gam. You did just fine." Gamma smiled and looked away.

"Gabrielle, she just can't communicate. That's all there is to it. Once in a while she'll say something completely lucid, or she'll follow directions, but mostly you just try to say something in the tone of voice you think she expects."

"I guess I can do that. Does she know who we are?"

"I think so," Lilla answered. "At least she knows that she knows us, and she seems to remember she loves us. Let me show you the stuff you'll need in the house."

Lilla walked Gabrielle through the rooms of the house that had once belonged to Gamma, showing her where the cloth diapers were, and the supply of clean rags. "Remember to heat some water before you start to change her. She hates cold water, and once you start, you canít stop to wait for the kettle."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you get the old diaper off, if you donít hang on to her, sheíll be off wandering through the house, sitting on everything."

"Oh."

"And about the only thing sheíll eat is yogurt with some fruit in it. Thatís why sheís so skinny. On good days you can put some cereal in it."

"Good days?"

"Yeah. On bad days sheíll just spit the cereal or whatever out again. You can usually tell itís coming, so you can duck."

"Youíre kidding."

"Iím not. The other thing I need to warn you about Ė she tends to wander. You can leave her on the back porch because thereís a fence. But if she gets out the front door, Gaia knows where sheíll end up."

"Lilla, itís hard to believe you canít just talk to her Ė convince her to stay put for her own safety."

"Gab, you just donít get it. She doesnít understand. Anything. She canít follow directions because she canít understand directions. Just donít let her out of your sight and youíll be fine. Now I made some stew for you, so you wonít have to cook tonight. Itís on the table. The neighbors two houses over have a cow and they make yogurt for us."

Gabrielle was trying to absorb all she had been told. After a moment she nodded. "Thanks Lilla. Weíll be okay. Tell Xena where I am when she comes back from town."

"Sure Gab." Lilla smiled at her sister and left the house.

Gabrielle looked around her and sighed. This wasnít how she wanted to spend the next two weeks. They had been fleeing the gods since Eveís birth, and had finally gotten some breathing room. Now they were on their way to visit the Northern Amazons. But Lilla was right. It was family, and it was her turn.

She decided to start dinner. It was only mid-afternoon, but Gabrielle hoped to do some writing in the evening and wanted to get her responsibilities finished early. She collected an armful of wood from the front porch and in a short time she had a small, hot fire burning in the hearth. She had just ladled the stew into the kettle when she felt a presence behind her.

She turned to find Gamma holding an oil lamp at a precarious angle. Oil dribbled onto the floor. Gabrielle grabbed the lamp and righted it. Thank gods it wasnít lit, she thought.

"Gamma, where did you find this?"

The old woman stared at her without comprehension.

"Gam, can you put this back where you found it?"

Again, no comprehension.

Gabrielle sighed. "Okay. Weíll just put it here for now." She set it on the table next to the stew bowl and ladle.

She crossed the room to get a rag to wipe up the oil. As she leaned over to pull one from the bin, she again felt a presence behind her. This time she really felt the presence.

"Gam, itís not nice to grab someoneís butt like that," she said, pushing the old womanís hand away.

Gamma frowned. "Wanna tutu thinga?"

"What did you say?" She stopped herself, remembering Lillaís advice. She hugged her grandmother and felt the frail shoulders relax. Then she noticed the wetness on her own behind where Gamma had cleaned her hands on her skirt.

Another sigh. She pulled the rag and wiped her rear, then refolded it and crossed the room to the spilled oil.

Gamma followed her closely and Gabrielle almost knocked her over when she stood up. "Listen, why donít you sit here while I fix supper," she said, guiding the old woman by the waist. But Gamma refused to sit, even when Gabrielle tried to push her down.

"Okay. Stand up then. Just let me get supper ready." She tossed the oily rag in a corner of the counter and went to fetch the ladle to stir the stew. But the ladle wasnít where she had left it. She searched all over the table and counter, thinking she must have mislaid it when Gamma came in with the lamp.

She hadnít mislaid it. Gamma was using it to scratch her head. Gabrielle tried to take the ladle from her, but Gamma wouldnít let go. Stew was smeared through her hair.

"Gamma, give me the ladle."

The response was a defiant stare.

"Gamma, I mean it. I need to stir the stew. Itís starting to stick." She took a hold of the handle but Gamma was surprisingly strong.

"NO!" the old woman shouted.

"YES!" Gabrielle shouted back, surprised for a moment that Gamma remembered that particular word so well.

Gamma took a swing with the dirty ladle, smacking Gabrielle on the upper arm and splattering more stew.

"Ow!" she cried, more from surprise than pain.

The two stared at each other. Gammaís rheumy eyes had lost none of their penetrating stare and Gabrielle dropped her gaze after a minute.

"Please Gam," she said. "Please can you help me and let me use the ladle?"

The old woman softened. Somehow she must have understood the need and handed Gabrielle the ladle. Several strands of wiry gray hair clung to it.

With yet another sigh Gabrielle turned to look for the washbasin. It was empty, so she picked up the bucket and went outside to the cistern.

When she returned Gamma had left the kitchen. Gabrielle filled the basin and rinsed the ladle. She remembered Lillaís comment about having hot water available, but she was too busy right now to deal with it.

The stew had stuck to the kettle. It took several minutes of scraping to loosen it all, and Gabrielle had to add water to thin it. Then she got another rag and went looking for Gamma.

She found her grandmother in the back yard. She had pulled the blanket from the spare bed, Gabrielleís bed, and was using it to wipe the goat dung up from the ground. Stew and lamp oil coated her hands and the blanket, and she scrubbed the ground vigorously.

"Oh Gamma," Gabrielle groaned.

Supper took a bit longer to prepare than Gabrielle had anticipated. She had hoped to pick some fresh greens and to get yogurt from the neighbor. But by the time she had the blanket rinsed and Gamma cleaned up, the stew was thick and skimmy, and fresh greens and yogurt were a forgotten dream. Dirty rags littered most of the corners of the house.

It was an exhausted and famished bard that finally sat down to eat. Sheíd had to wash the ladle four times Ė every time she laid it down Gamma got a hold of it and used it to pick at something. The old woman was taller than Gabrielle, so there was no such thing as putting it out of her reach. Shaking her head she filled a bowl for herself and for Gamma. "Sorry about the yogurt, Gam. But I guess if youíre hungry, you can eat this. Thereís nothing wrong with your teeth."

Gabrielle took two quick mouthfuls, and spooned up an overcooked potato for Gamma. Her grandmother looked at the food blankly, making no move to open her mouth. After several futile attempts to force the issue, Gabrielle put the spoon down in the bowl.

"Okay then, you can watch me eat." She took another bite. Gamma watched her, then picked up her own spoon and dumped the potato on the table.

"Great Gam. Okay. So you donít like stew." Gabrielle went to fetch another rag. The supply was running low. Laundry tomorrow, she thought.

Gamma had pushed the potato around the table and was following it with a piece of venison. A greasy trail snaked across the worn oak surface. Gabrielle made a decision then to stop trying to clean up the messes as they happened, and wait until Gamma was asleep.

Gamma poured some more lamp oil on the table. Gabrielle ignored it and ate.

Gabrielle had managed three whole bites when Gamma upended the salt dish.

"Will you please stop that!" the young woman pleaded. Gamma grinned as Gabrielle rose to get a clean spoon to salvage the salt, which was too precious to waste. As she rummaged in the drawer she heard Gamma spit. She spun around in time to see a splash in her own stew bowl, where a wad of partially chewed venison now settled.

"Thatís it!" she roared. "Damn it, canít you just sit for one minute?"

"Such language, Gabrielle, and in front of the baby." The enraged bard turned to see Xena standing, grinning, in the back doorway. Eve balanced on her hip.

"Damn it XenaÖ" she started, then realized she was shouting. "Damn it Xena, if you had any ideaÖ" She stopped, just shaking her head.

Xena smiled at her. "Itís okay. I do have a pretty good idea. Iíve got a baby, remember?"

It was the wrong thing to say.

"You have no idea, and if you canít help, just, just, get out of here!"

"Hey, easy," Xena soothed. She reached toward Gabrielle with her free hand.

Gabrielle held up both hands, as if to fend off the warrior. "NoÖXena, Iím sorry. Itís just thatÖyou donít knowÖ Never mind."

"You want to talk about it?"

"No. Iím okay." Gabrielle clenched her jaw.

"Fine."

Gamma was now contentedly eating her stew without benefit of spoon or fingers. She simply put her face in the bowl. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders.

Xena looked between the bard and her grandmother. "I need to feed Eve," she said. "Is it okay with you if we stay here?"

"Yeah, sure," Gabrielle answered as she took the last clean rag and started wiping the table. "The bedís in the room on the right. We share."

"Fine with me," grinned the warrior.

"Donít get too excited. The blanketís soaked and thereís only one pillow." She rinsed the rag and added it to the pile of used-but-usable wet rags.

"Thatís alright. Eve can sleep in her papoose on the floor."

Gabrielle looked at her feet, unsure how to apologize.

"Xena, Iím really sorry I blew up at you. Itís beenÖa long afternoon."

"I can see that," she answered, looking around at the soiled rags, the spilled salt, the venison gravy trailed on the floor from the last ladle stealing, and the lamp oil glistening where it pooled.

Gabrielle started collecting soiled rags. "Thereís enough stew for you if you want. I seem to have lost my appetite." She dumped out her own bowl.

"Thanks." Xena served herself, then sat down and produced a meal for Eve.

Gabrielle continued her task, breathing deeply. Xena ate quietly, Eve suckled noisily, and Gamma slurped. A lovely domestic scene, Gabrielle thought.

An hour later Gabrielle had almost finished the cleanup. She could hear Xena singing softly to Eve in the bedroom. The baby cooed with pleasure. Gamma was sitting happily in her own room, and Gabrielle had left her there, chattering to herself. The bard worked consciously to relax.

Who is that old woman in there, Gabrielle mused, and what has she done with my grandmother? She opened a cupboard to put away the bowls and stepped back as a stack of baking pans fell out, clattering to the floor.

She started to collect them, shaking her head with resignation. Eve started to cry, startled by the noise.

And Gamma started to sing.

Something in the timbre of the baking pans, so long idle, triggered a deeply buried but as-yet uncorrupted memory in the old womanís mind.

Gabrielle stopped to listen. The voice soared pure, as if on wings of silver. Gabrielle remembered the tune, although Gamma could no longer put words to it. Gabrielle had always called it the Saturday song, because her grandmother sang it while she baked pies and tarts on Saturdays. Gabrielle and Lilla would play on the floor at her feet, sometimes stealing scraps of dough and fruit from the table while Gamma pretended not to notice.

Gabrielle held the pans now, seeing not her own large strong hands, but her grandmotherís smooth and fragile skin, the blue veins showing, their delicacy belying her iron strength. She could smell the spices, the damp dough, the apples and berries and cinnamon, the sugar and butter baking into the crust. She could hear Lilla giggling, a sweet, light voice.

Gabrielle felt her eyes begin to well with the joy of that memory, the happiness of her youngest years. She shook her head and smiled, and finished collecting the pans.

Gammaís voice devolved into meaningless chatter, but Gabrielle continued to hear the Saturday song in her head, and the crystal voice that had sung it. She finished putting the dinner bowls away and was wiping the table one last time when she heard Gammaís shuffling step approaching the kitchen.

The bard smiled, still holding the gentle memory that had snuck up on her with little catís feet. She wanted to give Gamma a hug, to apologize for her earlier impatience, to somehow thank her for what she had given her childhood.

But the woman who stood on the threshold was not the warm, kind, funny grandmother Gabrielle expected to see and embrace.

The woman who stood there was naked from the waist down holding her soiled diaper in one hand and Gabrielleís pack, already smeared with feces, in the other.

Gabrielle felt fury rise in her chest, and just as fast she shoved it back down. She drew two quick, deep breaths, and almost gagged on the second as the odor reached her.

"Gamma," she said in as level a voice as she could manage, "Give me that." She reached for the diaper. Gamma sensed something was about to be taken from her, and clutched the diaper to her chest.

"Now Gamma. Give it to me now."

A look of fear came over the old womanís face.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and looked away. She counted to five and tried again, this time with a big smile.

"Thank you Gamma! You brought that for me?"

Relief flooded her grandmotherís eyes, and she handed Gabrielle the diaper. Then she turned and sat down on the pile of clean, damp rags Gabrielle had just stacked on the bench.

It took the bard the better part of two hours to clean her grandmother, the kitchen, her pack, and the various places Gamma had sat whenever Gabrielle turned her back.

First, she had no hot water. Gamma would absolutely not tolerate cold rags. Two bite marks throbbed on Gabrielleís arm from her attempts to clean her with cold water. I really should have listened to Lilla, she thought. Gamma would wander, finger painting brown streaks while Gabrielle tried to rekindle the fire and fetch water. She called to Xena, but realized the warrior had gone for an evening stroll, unaware of what transpired in the kitchen. Eve started to whimper and Gabrielle ignored the child. Sheís fed, sheís safe, she can wait.

Finally Gamma was clean, freshly diapered and tucked into bed. The kitchen was clean. Gabrielleís pack was clean, and the walls and chairs were clean. Gabrielle sank, exhausted and fully clothed onto her bed.

Eve was still fussing when Xena returned a few minutes later.

"Gabrielle, how long has Eve been crying? Her diaperís soaked! Couldnít you change it?"

This time Gabrielle didnít shove the fury back down.

Xena must have understood, because she bore Gabrielleís tirade without comment, occasionally raising an eyebrow in respect for the bardís vocabulary. Later, Gabrielle would wonder if her friend had deliberately antagonized her, to provoke an outlet for her bottled-up anger. But for now she just ventilated it, then stormed out the door. Despite her exhaustion she ran a hard three miles in the moonlight, letting her legs and feet burn up the last of the frustration.

When she returned she stripped off her sweaty clothes outside in the darkness and doused herself with a bucket of clean, cold water from the cistern. It was bracing, an extravagance she felt sheíd earned. Since there were no dry towels remaining she flicked the water off her body and let the cool evening dry the rest. Then she rinsed her clothes and hung them to dry.

She could feel Xenaís eyes when she entered the room, but she knew it wasnít her nakedness that held the warriorís attention.

"IímÖsafe now Xena. No more explosions. Promise."

"Thatís good to hear. I guess I had it coming," her friend answered, and flipped the blanket back for Gabrielle.

The bard lay down carefully on her back and pulled the still-damp blanket over her. After a minute she kicked it off again.

"I agree," said Xena, and kicked her own half of the blanket away. "We can keep each other warm if it gets cold." She rolled onto her side, facing Gabrielle, and started to put her arm over her.

Gabrielle squirmed away. "No XenaÖ" she began.

"I was just going to hold you," the warrior said. "I think you could use it after today."

"No. I justÖitís just thatÖXena I need some space, okay?"

"Sure." Xena rolled away, onto her back.

They lay like that for several minutes, staring at the ceiling in the dark. Gabrielle was too tired to sleep. Her heart felt numb, washed by a great tide of rage, and the flotsam left behind by the receding waters was beginning to smell like rotten seaweed.

"Gabrielle?"

"Uhm?"

"You know itís the disease, donít you?"

"Yeah, I know."

"You wouldnít be angry at Eve for doing those things."

"Eveís a baby. She doesnít know better."

"And neither does Gamma."

"I know."

"So what are you really angry about?"

Gabrielle thought for a moment. Finally she sighed with resignation. "I donít know. Iím not even angry anymore. I donít feel anything."

"I think you do."

Gabrielle pondered for a moment. "Maybe itís not that I donít feel anything. Itís that I donít dare."

"The bard could almost hear Xena raise an eyebrow.

What I mean Xena, is that if I let out my anger I might lose control. Again. Like I did earlier. I donít want to do that to you. You are the most important thing in my life and I treated you like dirt."

"Hey! Thatís what soulmates are for!"

"What? To be emotional punching bags?"

"No Gabrielle. To be whatever their friend needs them to be. And thatís what you needed right then."

Gabrielle reached out and took Xenaís hand, squeezing it before letting go. "Thanks."

"Any time. But no weapons, okay?"

They were silent for several minutes. Then Xena asked again.

"So what are you really angry about?"

Gabrielle sighed. "You know, if she was a stranger, someone I was hired to care for, I donít think it would get to me. It would just be a job to do. An unpleasant one, but weíve both done much worse. So I donít think itís what sheís doing."

Xena waited while Gabrielle thought some more.

"Xena, I donít have any reason to be mad at that woman over there. She canít help it. Itís not really me sheís taking whacks at, and when I donít duck itís my own fault." Gabrielle rubbed a lump on the side of her head where it had met with Gammaís weapon of choice Ė the ladle Ė that afternoon.

Xena summarized. "So she canít help it, and itís not really you sheís striking out at. But youíre still angry. Just who are you angry at? You just said if it was a stranger, it wouldnít get to you."

Gabrielle felt her throat grow tight. Her anger was getting dangerously close to self-pity and she certainly didnít want to go there. So she took two deep breaths and tried to think objectively.

"Xena, Iím not mad a Gamma because that obscenity in the next room isnít Gamma. Itís some imposter who has kidnapped my grandmother and is spending her time trying to corrupt every memory I hold dear of that wonderful woman." Gabrielle almost couldnít squeeze the last words out.

Xena took her hand, but Gabrielle pulled it away. She didnít deserve to be comforted, not after the way sheís behaved today.

"Gabrielle, itís okayÖ"

"No! Itís not!" the bard choked, clenching her teeth. How could she explain it to Xena if she didnít understand it herself?

"Xena, where have I been the past five years? My grandmother has been dying slowly, slipping away and I havenít been anywhere near her toÖtoÖtry to helpÖto say goodbye."

This time Xena took her hand and wouldnít let go. She rose onto her elbow and looked down at her friend. "Gabrielle, you listen to me. You are not in any way imaginable responsible for your grandmother getting sickÖ"

"But maybe if Iíd been hereÖ" she interrupted.

"No!" Xena emphasized this with a squeeze of the hand that was almost painful. Then she spoke more gently. "No Gabrielle. No way. None. Period." Pause. "You got that?"

"Uh huh," the younger woman answered, unconvincingly. Xena lay back down again.

"Xena, if I had been here, I could have said goodbye before she got this bad."

"Dearheart," Xena started, using a rare term of endearment, "We almost never get to say goodbye to the people we love."

Gabrielle was still struggling with shaky breath. "Xena, part of me wants that imposter to die. I hate myself for that."

"Then hate the rest of the human race, too. Thatís perfectly normal."

"I guess so." She wiped her eyes with her free hand. "And the rest of me hates her for whatís sheís done to Gamma. Xena, I canít even remember my grandmother now. Except for a few minutes earlier, when she was singing, and the Imposter squashed that pretty completely."

"I heard her sing, Gabrielle. She has a beautiful voice."

Gabrielle was wistful for a minute, and her breathing settled. Xena released her hand and started to roll away.

"Xena?"

"Hmm?"

"Is that what Iím going to be like when Iím old?"

"I told you already Gabrielle. People in our line of work donít get old."

"Very funny. No, really. Everyone always tells me how much I look like Gamma when she was young. And I have her temper, her stubbornness, her hands, her eyes."

"Yeah, but thereís one thing you sure donít have."

"Whatís that," Gabrielle asked hopefully.

"Her voice."

Gabrielle giggled in spite of herself, and relaxed. Soon she fell into a deep sleep.

 

 

The next three days proved to be as challenging as the first. Gabrielle learned a few techniques for managing the stubborn old woman, but just when she would think she had the situation mastered, Gamma would pull something new.

Xena tried to help as much as possible, but Gamma developed an active antipathy for the warrior. By the afternoon of the second day even Xenaís presence in the same room would send Gamma into a dither of screaming and hitting. So the warrior helped behind the scenes, doing laundry, collecting groceries, and cooking while Gabrielle remained in almost constant company with her grandmother. It eased the workload on Gabrielle, but did nothing to give her the emotional break she so desperately needed. Even the bardís brief trips to the outhouse often resulted in Gamma breaking something or escaping.

Nightime was a mixed blessing. When she was asleep, Gamma could be left alone provided Gabrielle was within earshot. But her sleep was irregular. Twice Gabrielle found her grandmother in the kitchen, in the dark, playing with the knives. One time the old woman tried to crawl into bed with Xena and Gabrielle, almost stepping on Eve in the process. And Gammaís digestive tract did its most efficient processing at night. The cloth diaper rarely stayed in place for the whole night, so most mornings began with a major cleanup of linens, all of which had to be washed by hand. Gabrielle began to be alarmed at how quickly the water level in the cistern was dropping.

Through it all Gabrielle banked her emotions. She never lost her temper. She never cried, she never laughed. When her anger at the Imposter stirred deep in her heart, she counted to ten, said a quick meditative mantra, and took up the nearest task, burying her emotion in the work.

Xena watched her friend with growing concern. There was no joy in Gabrielle. Xena had to admit that there had been less joy in the bard since their crucifixion, but there had still been a fundamental, mature contentedness with life. That was gone now, and Xena wasnít sure if the end of Lillaís two-week sentence would bring it back. By the afternoon of the fifth day Xena knew she had to do something. Gabrielle was unresponsive to any cajoling or humor, or display of affection. Xena even made nutbread and Gabrielle had reacted with polite indifference. The warrior knew her friend had buried so much grief and anger that no other emotion could fight its way to the surface.

Xena wasnít sure what tact would be best. Deliberately antagonizing her friend had worked before, but now Gabrielle was on guard against striking out at Xena. In truth, Xena knew that Gabrielle would be so angry with herself for losing control that it would be counterproductive. Besides, toying with the bardís anger could be dangerous for both of them. Add to it all that misplaced guilt and it would be explosive.

As it turned out, the warrior received help from an unexpected source.

 

Gabrielle groaned to herself when she saw the front door open. How had the old woman undone the latch this time? Sheíd only been away for ten minutes, answering natureís undeniable call. This was the fourth escape, and each time Gabrielle had devised new ways to block the door. The last time she wasnít sure she could get out herself if it was necessary.

An hourís search finally revealed Gamma in a neighborís barn, having an earnest conversation with Sally, a three hundred pound sow, who listened with studied indifference while her piglets suckled.

"Come on Gamma. Time to go home." Gabrielle still addressed the Imposter as Gamma, although no part of that wonderful woman was evident to the bard. It helped her to hold her temper if she imagined the old crone as a stranger she had been hired to care for.

Gamma looked up, her expression as exact imitation of a two-year-old caught doing something she shouldnít. Except the two-year-old could be trained, Gabrielle reminded herself.

"I wanna wanna thing to have my moo what?"

"Youíre probably right, Gamma. Letís go home now. Xena made pie for us."

Her grandmotherís face lit up as she immediately rose to follow Gabrielle.

 

The meal was relatively uneventful. Or at least she didnít do anything new, Gabrielle thought, as she dabbed at her top to remove the last of the spitĖout pie. Am I ever going to learn when to duck?

She finished her cleanup, then went to her grandmotherís bedroom to do one last check before retiring for the night. Gamma lay in her bed, her eyes bright and watching the bard as she came into the room.

Gabrielle went to the bed, sat down, and reached for the oil lamp to extinguish it.

"Gabrielle, tell me a story."

The bard snapped her head to look at the Imposter. Only it wasnít the Imposter who looked back at her. Wise, loving eyes leveled at Gabrielle.

"Please Gabby. A real story. Real in your heart."

Gabrielle took her grandmotherís hands in her own, and suddenly a memory came to her. The memory was fresh, like spring snow-melt, running over the first rocks on the way to the sea after being locked in the frozen whiteness for the eternity of winter.

 

She ran hard, as hard as her seven-year-old legs would carry her, and tears still blurred her sight. She caught her breath at the gate, then pushed through and strode into Gammaís house. Her little fists balled in anger and confusion.

"Whoa, child!" Gamma said as Gabrielle came huffing into the kitchen. "You donít look very happy."

Gabrielle shook her head, still not daring to speak.

"Why donít you sit there on the bench? Iíve some fresh muffins just for you."

Gabrielle looked at the hard seat uncomfortably. Gamma seemed to understand.

"Never mind. Why donít you sit up here? My lapís plenty soft."

Gabrielle started to climb into the welcome lap, and Gamma scooped her up and settled her on her knee. She hugged the girl as she squirmed uncomfortably for a moment, and then kissed the top of her head. Gabrielle sighed and relaxed just a little.

"Daddy doesnít want me to tell stories anymore. Ever," she sniffed.

"Hmm. Well, I like your stories just fine. Maybe you could tell them to me."

"He says I canít tell them to anyone."

Gamma rocked her for a minute. "Did you tell him a story he didnít like?"

"Kinda."

"You want to tell me what it was about?"

"I told him how the dragon ate Lilla down at the market. He got real scared, and grabbed his sword and ran out."

"Oh dear."

"I didnít mean to scare him."

"Did you tell it like it had really happened?"

"It did really happen Gamma. Sort of."

Iím sure it did Sweetie. In your head. But sometimes people donít know whatís real in the world from whatís real in your head."

"No Gamma. This was real-in-the-world."

Gamma looked at the girl for a moment, her expression somber.

"Tell me," she directed.

"You wonít get mad like Daddy was when he came back from the market?" She squirmed uncomfortable again.

"No, child, I wonít get angry. But maybe we can talk about why he was angry."

Gabrielle gathered herself, then launched in the story.

"Me and Lilla and Perd and Perth was.."

"Were," Gamma interrupted.

"Yeah. Okay. We were playing Spartans and Athenians near the market and Perth and meÖI were trying to get away since we were the Athenians and we came around a corner and there were a whole bunch of chickens andÖ"

"Gabrielle, space out the events so the listener can breathe. And tell me what the chickens looked like. It makes the story better."

The bard-to-be thought for a moment. She was accustomed to her grandmotherís coaching. "When we came around the corner, there were chickens in the road. Mostly black ones, and a few browns, and a big rooster. He had a bright red comb and was trying to look dignified, like the temple priests, strutting around with the chickens."

Gamma was nodding her approval of the girlís style.

"Perth was first around the corner, and he must have stopped short Ďcuz I plowed right into him and knocked him forward. He flapped his arms around, trying to catch himself and the chickens probably thought he was a big eagle. They scattered everywhere, clucking and squawking and flapping, making an awful noise."

"Thatís when Morias came out the door to see what the commotion was. She hates it when kids make a racket."

"Morias?" Gamma asked. "Is she the widow who always frowns as if sheís angry? And looks like she could breathe fire?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Yeah. Thatís her. All us kids call her the dragon."

"Iím beginning to see where this is going," Gamma mused. "You really ought to have more respect for your elders," she added, suppressing a grin.

"So Perd and Perth and I all run like the wind. And poor Lilla is last in line. The dragon Ė I mean Morias Ė swoops down and grabs up Lilla and pulls her into the dark house. Morias is wearing these big billowy clothes and it looks just like she swallowed her."

Gamma was chuckling softly. "Well, I can certainly see why your Daddy was angry. He must have been plenty embarrassed to arrive at the widow Moriasí door with a drawn sword, looking for a dragon."

Gabrielle chuckled too, in spite of herself, as she realized what her story had wrought.

Gamma kissed her again, and hugged her tight. "Oh Lovie. I guess you know what you have to do."

Gabrielle nodded into the warm breast, somber again. "Uh huh. I have to apologize to Morias, and promise Daddy to never tell stories again."

"It would be best if you didnít tell any stories at home for a while. But I think you can tell stories to me, and maybe a few others. But Gabrielle, you have to think of the listener, and what the story will mean to them. The very best stories are the ones that are real-in-the-world, but you use your heart to tell them. So your listener knows what is true, but also hears your heart. Do you think you understand?"

The little bard thought for a moment, and nodded gravely.

 

"Gabrielle? Please?" Gammaís withered voice intruded into the grown-up bardís reverie.

Gabrielle smiled and looked up for a moment, gathering her thoughts.

"I will tell you of the return of Callisto," she began, in her best bard voice. "Of the wrath of Callisto, and of the pain of Gabrielle, the courage of Xena, and of the ineffable nature of a friendship as immortal as the gods." Gamma looked at her with love, and settled back on her pillow.

Somewhere during Joxerís attempted rescue the sparkle left Gammaís eyes and the Imposter returned. Gabrielle place the bony-satin hands on her breast, then tucked the blanket in around her. She looked deeply at the old woman before leaning down to kiss her.

"Thank you," she whispered softly to the old woman. "Thank you for letting me say goodbye to someone I love."

She blew out the lamp and backed quietly out of the room. Then she padded to her own bed, where Xena held her as she cried, and comforted her, and loved her.

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