One Last Warlord
DISCLAIMERS: Xena and Gabrielle, and any others that might pop in here, are owned by MCA/Universal/Renaissance. But I'm borrowin' em for this non-profit story for my own pleasure and anyone else that happens to read it. Subtext is also here, but not the sexy kind, but of love and emotions between two women. If you have a problem with this then bite my leather armband and read it anyways, maybe you'll learn to love others more and be more accepting.
Xena yawned widely and raised herself out of the comfortable chair. Stretching she heard several satisfying pops in her back. Straightening up again, she glanced out the window and up at the sun, gauging the time. Hmm.. Gabrielle and Lil Ephiny should be back anytime now. I hope they found some raspberries.
The ex-warlord, now retired adventurer, smiled absently at the thought of her longtime companion and their daughter romping through the forest, scaring off all the rabbits for miles in search of juicy berries. At the thought of her love and the daughter that Toris had generously given them, her eyes found the painting that she had commissioned in Athens last summer when the three of them had gone to meet up with Hercules.
Gabrielle had aged gracefully over the past fourteen years to become even more stunning each day in her partner's eyes. Her portrait a vision of strength and beauty that the artist had caught well, and yet that strength was muted by the love that could clearly be seen as the blond haired woman held a dark-haired, green-eyed five year old in loving arms.
Xena, of course, hadn't wanted to be in the portrait, but had been swayed as usual by the eloquent...no...
determined words of the bard. She thought of course that the artist's rendering of her was far to grim, but Gabrielle had said countless times that she swore she could see a twinkle in the eyes that looked at the two sitting in front of her and a slight upcurve to the lips on an otherwise seemingly fierce expression. Probably just a painting mistake...he just twitched one too many times when I happened to glare at him, she grinned evily to herself.
Her eyes strayed from the portrait to an object here and there throughout the room in the inn that they had called home for six years, all the objects collected in their many years of travel.
A shining dark emerald. So large as to barely fit into the bard's hand, received years ago in friendship when they had come across Cecrop's again. The story of how he got that back from Poseidon is still one of my favorites, Xena mused.
A scroll from Sappho herself, written on behalf of Gabrielle for her warrior. It had been with that scroll so many years ago, that Gabrielle's feelings had been finally expressed...and reciprocated. A fond smile of that first night crossed the woman's lips absently.
A blushing pink rose, a gift from Aphrodite on their wedding day. Still as fresh, soft, and fragrant as they day it had been gifted to them twelve years before. Though neither one of them had been pleased to find out that other gods had been there, though unseen, both had been glad to know that Ares had been firmly told to stay away. He's very lucky he did too..cause if I'd found out...the thought died as Xena made herself think of something more pleasant.
A lock of curly blond hair. Xena couldn't help but frown as her eyes saw it. We miss you Ephiny. She sent the silent thought to their Amazon friend who had died so tragically just before her namesake was born, trying to save a centaur village from the ravages of a passing warlord.
An old but well oiled and cared for bridle. Argo had finally died several years ago, having spent the remainder of her years getting fat and sunning out in the pasture.
An amazon mask. Not the one that still crowned her Queen, but another, a smaller one that fit their daughter as Amazon Princess. The larger one was used by the current regent, Kalia, to someday be bestowed upon Ephiny.
Her eyes continued around the room, pausing now and then as one or another object caught her eye. So many memories. I just wish mother was here to share them, and to see her granddaughter. Cyrene had passed on six years ago this coming winter, leaving the inn to both of her daughters, as she put it, and bringing them finally off the road and into retirement...for the most part. Xena still practiced her skills everyday, and went on missions of mercy when asked. Gabrielle was known far and wide for her stories, and not a small part of the income that came to the inn now was from admirers that came to hear her in person.
Xena's thoughts were abruptly interrupted as her hearing caught the faint sound of two sets of footsteps coming through the back enclosure, one set tiny. Her eyes sparkled as Gabrielle and their daughter walked into the room, a full sack over the bard's shoulder and berry stains on both of their mouths, a sure sign of success.
The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes at the sight, then bent down and picked up Ephiny, giving her several kisses on her sweetened mouth. "Eph. Did you and Momma bring back any berries for me? Or did Momma eat them all by herself?" she asked, giving Gabrielle a mischievous grin.
Ephiny giggled. "Nope. Not a single berry for you."
Gabrielle set down her berry sack then went over to the duo, giving Xena and their daughter a quick kiss. "Why you little scamp...you told!" she gasped in mock indignation as she started to tickled Ephiny.
Xena's eyes went wide. "Ohho!! Momma's a berry hoarder. Come on Eph, let's teach her a lesson"
Tackling the bard, the two tickled the blond woman until she surrendered. Xena sat back, for a moment, watching the two people she loved more than life itself giggle and play. I am the luckiest woman alive, she thought to herself, then joined in the fun again.
* * * * *
The rider came galloping into town only stopping when he spotted the local inn. Villagers were already starting to gather, knowing that no one pushed a horse almost to exhaustion without a reason. Especially not Arnis, who bred horses on a large farm a few hours away.
Xena and Gabrielle both heard the commotion outside and came running. Catching the horse's bridle as it came to a heaving stop, Xena reached up and helped pulled the weary man down. Handing off the horse to the stableboy with explicit instructions, she then turned back to him, waiting patiently as Gabrielle gave the man cool water to sip.
Finally as the man caught his breath she spoke. "Arnis? What's wrong?"
Arnis looked up at Xena, the worry plain on his face. "Xena...there's a warband coming this way. Probably about thirty of them. I didn't resist, just let them take whatever they wanted. I started out as soon as I thought it was safe, Sophia here was the last one of my horses left...she'd been grazing up in that little grove of trees that's in the middle of my low pasture, so she was hidden from sight."
Gabrielle laid a hand on his arm. "Thirty or so? You sure?"
The man nodded reluctantly. "Seen 'em all as they came across the pasture."
"Well equipped? What did they look like? Did you see their leader?" Xena's questions kept coming as fast as the man could answer them, until she was satisfied. Finally she let Arnis be led away. Turning to the crowd, her eyes met her brother's.
"Get the men ready, Toris," she said simply, then turned to Gabrielle and escorted her back inside.
"Probably can't talk you out of this as usual?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle's eyes hardened into emerald stones, but the look was spoiled by a small grin. "Have you ever been able too?"
The two chuckled together. "I'll get Marina to take care of Ephiny, then I'll be right up to get my staff and to help you stuff yourself into your armor." The bards grinned wryly, though her eyes showed her concern.
Xena reached over and pulled her close. "Don't worry...we've done this countless times. What could be different?"
* * * * *
The last of the raiders that could be found were being tied up by the village guard and the hurt and wounded were being seen to. Gabrielle wiped the sweat off her brow, then looked around for her partner. Last I saw she was fighting over there... Her eyes swung over to the area where she had last seen Xena.
It was near the edge of the field and barely visible...but the bard's sharp eyes caught the two vague forms lying in the grass. A glint of a brass wristguard threatened to stop her heart as she froze. Then with a harsh scream she was running across the field.
Blood...so much blood, Gabrielle thought as she came upon the warrior. Xena was bathed in it and Gabrielle could see that most of it belonged to the warrior. Gathering her love in her arms, the bard brushed the dark tresses away from Xena's face.
"Xena?" she whispered hopefully.
She gasped in surprise as the pale blue eyes slowly opened, and her heart ached at the pain she saw there.
"Gab.." Xena tried to speak, but the bard interrupted her.
"No...don't talk. Please, just let me tend your wounds." Gabrielle refused to let her go though she surely knew the truth that just looking at the terrible wounds told her.
"Gabrielle...stop." Xena gasped. "It's no...use...you and I...both know it..and somehow..somehow I..don't...think Hades will let ...me come back to....you..this time." A wry smile caressed the warrior's bloody lips.
"You promised!" Gabrielle snarled, her eyes brimming over with tears. "Dammit, Xena! You promised!"
A crimson tear slowly ran down the warrior's face. "I...know. I...promise..." Her eyes fluttered and closed, her chest fell for the last time.
The village guards paused in their work as the heart rending screams swept over and through them. But not a man amongst them, not even Toris, was brave enough to go and glimpse the fallen Warrior Princess and the bard who wept over her.
* * * * *
Stories of strange sightings always tend to spread fast and it was not long after that very strange tale indeed were being whispered about the village. It started one evening when a dirty, blood covered warrior ran into the village square, so scared that he drew his sword and threw it down at the feet of the first villager he came across, in surrender. Old lady Prinis was just a bit astonished.
Toris recognized the man as one of the warband who had escaped during that fateful day, and though the guards tried to question him about others that had gotten away, the crazed man had only whimpered and muttered about ghosts and bloodchilling battlecries. No one paid much mind to the story, and in consensus the men kept the tale quiet, so as not to both the grieving woman and child.
Months passed and slowly more sitings of the mysterious specter were seen and spoken of in the village. A little girl saved from drowning. Bandits driven off from assaulting a farmer. Eventually the stories were overheard by Gabrielle, but not believed.
Then one day Ephiny called out to her mother from the back yard, screaming. At a run the blond woman had come, fearing the child had climbed the old oak in the yard again, and perhaps fallen. But when she reached her daughter's side, she saw not pain but puzzlement on the small bronze face.
"What's wrong? "Gabrielle asked her daughter gently.
Ephiny turned up big green eyes to her mother's own. "I saw it, Momma."
"Saw what Eph?"
"The ghost. It was right up there." The little girl pointed up at the hill that bordered the backend of the inn and the town.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "You've been listening to too many stories. There is no ghost, Ephiny."
"I'm sorry, Ephiny. You've got a very vivid imagination, but that's all it was. OK?" The woman took her daughter in her arms and held her tightly for a moment. That's all it will ever be, she thought to herself in silence.
Ephiny nodded her head and patted her mother's cheek. "Ok, Momma." But Little Ephiny never forgot.
* * * * *
One day the harsh stabbing pain of grief finally dulled into only numbing pain, and Gabrielle knew it was time to pick up her life and assume long discarded responsibilities. So they packed up and moved to Amazonia, where Gabrielle took up the mask from her Regent and Ephiny learned what being an Amazon was all about.
Years passed, sometimes slowly. The moments savored and enjoyed. Sometimes the time passed so quickly that from one day to the next Gabrielle would look into the mirror and not recognize the stranger who looked back.
Ephiny grew and every time her mother looked at her beloved child, her heart would ache, for Ephiny was almost the very image of her Xena. Though the child was small like Gabrielle and her eyes were the same dew sprinkled moss green, in all other ways was she like the bard's lost love.
She took to animals, talking to them and always swore that they understood her, and her them. She ran like the wind itself and traveled like a squirrel from tree to tree by amazing jumps and leaps that reminded her mother of the fantastic feats Xena would do. The young girl's skills were boundless, taking her only a few months to master most.
They spent many years in Amazonia, visiting Amphipolis several times a year. One day found Gabrielle much older and traveling to the village by herself to live out the rest of her days. Her daughter now grown into a fine young woman, having taken up the mask when Gabrielle had abdicated. She loved her Amazon family, but the ache of years was finally catching up to the long old ache of her heart and she wanted to spend time in the place where she had lived with Xena.
And so...more years passed, with Gabrielle running the inn with Toris' son, Orestian. Several times a year, Ephiny would visit. One year came the news that her daughter was getting married, and the bard traveled to the Amazons and was received with love. Her cares were eased greatly when she saw that the women were thriving under the rulership of her daughter. Ephiny made a fine ruler...just like her namesake.
Another year passed, and another, until like droplets in a stream they passed by with barely a thought.
* * * * *
"Nanna? Would you tell us another story?" Little Matris asked.
Gabrielle reached up stiffly and pulled the grew wisps of hair out of her face. "Don't you think five stories is enough for one night?"
"Mother's right, Matris." said a very grown up Ephiny, as she smiled at her eldest son. "Your going to tire Nanna out."
The old woman made a rude noise. "As if three children and an Amazon Queen could ever tire me out. I'll have you know I walked..."
She was interrupted as three young voices and her own daughter's low timbre completed her sentence for her, out of loving memory. "You walked the length of Greece so many times that Xena wore out six saddles."
Gabrielle chuckled, her green eyes the only thing about her that seemed to not have aged.
Ephiny stood up and walked over to her mother. "Come on, I know you're tired. Besides, you'll need your strength, we'll only be here for two more days before we have to get back, and I don't want the children to run you ragged." She reached out a slim hand and placed it on Gabrielle's frail own.
"Ahhh...mom. But we wanna hear another one," pleaded little Solanari, the youngest of the three and the inheritor of ice blue eyes that sometimes stopped the bard's thoughts with a single glance.
Xenia, the middle child and already the tallest spoke up. "Yeah. I want to hear about the ghost the other children say haunts and protects the vill..." the child stopped in midsentence as she saw the stricken look on her grandmother's face. "Nanna?"
Gabrielle forced herself to smile. "You know I think I am tired. Help me up will you? I'll see you children tomorrow, sweet dreams."
Willingly Ephiny helped her mother to stand, then escorted her to her bedroom. Almost she spoke, but at the last moment and with an unspoken plea from her mother's green eyes, she kept her silence. Smiling sadly she kissed her mother's cheek.
"G'night Momma," she whispered.
"Goodnight. I'll see you in the morning. Perhaps I'll tell the children some more stories at breakfast?" she offered her eyes twinkling merrily again.
"OK. But don't tire yourself out. Your not young anymore."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Get those grandchildren of mine to bed or I'll show you and your behind how young I really am. Your not the only Amazon Queen in this family you know."
Ephiny dodged out of the way of the swatting hand, chuckling as she made her escape back down the hall.
"Amazons." Gabrielle made a rude noise and went to her room.
* * * * *
Like a warm hand caressing her chest, it came upon her in the middle of the night. Then cold and pain made her open her eyes wide in shock. So hard to breathe...Goddess the pain. Quickly it spread outwards from her chest until finally with relief she closed her eyes and was still.
* * * * *
Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. It was still very dark out, but that wasn't a surprise. It was rare that she slept through the whole night anymore. In fact she relished the quiet hours before dawn. A nice hot cup of tea sounds good right now, she mused silently, then raised herself out of bed. As she stood upright she raised an eyebrow in surprise, something seemed out of place.
Turning around she looked down and stood quietly for a moment. Oh...hmmm..I guess I was more tired than I thought.
Sighing softly she made her way through the house, pausing only to gently kiss her daughter and her three grandchildren on the cheek. Then walking through the main room of her house she paused yet again, looking around at the odds and ends she had collected over the years.
A fine silver hairclasp, that with little difficulty she could picture holding back dark raven tresses.
A toy lamb, that if you pulled the tail would bleat. Even after all these years it still works, Gabrielle chuckled to herself.
A finely made map that Xena had made several years before they had settled down. And on one particular spot, instead of the name Amphipolis, had been lovingly printed, Home.
A lock from their daughter's first haircut, carefully preserved by two proud parents in a glass globe.
A feather from the legendary Pegasus, that Hercules had given them long ago as a momento.
A staff, heavily weathered and worn, decorated with the colors and markings of an Amazon Queen.
Her eyes continued to roam around the room, stopping finally on a portrait fallen on the floor. Taking a few moments she brushed off the dust and set it back on its hook, and then quietly stepped outside.
The village was till asleep, the only sounds the crickets and soft snorts of the horses in the stable. Not really caring where she stepped, Gabrielle made her way slowly to her destination, her eyes taking in all the details of the night, from the heaven full of stars, to their sparkling reflection on the placid river.
Finally cresting the hill she sighed again and looked down at the village below and waited.
She did not have to wait long.
The pale form could be seen coming across the fields soundlessly, the horse and it's rider moving as one as they galloped through the mist, then slowed and made their way up the hill.
Gabrielle silently watched but was silent, suddenly unsure of herself. As the ghostly apparition came beside her, she looked up into the laughing ice blue eyes and couldn't help but smile in response.
"You kept your promise," she whispered.
The raven-haired ghost smiled gently. "The only way I was allowed to. But you didn't believe." The eyes showed sudden pain.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I didn't believe in myself. I didn't want to go on. But I couldn't leave, I still had too many responsibilities. Ephiny. The Amazons. So I..."
"I love you," came the simple words that drove away years of pain and loneliness. The specter reached down and offered a hand. "Tired of walking?"
Gabrielle's smile outshone the stars. "Definitely." She clasped the offered arm in her own and was hauled up behind the pale rider. She wrapped her arms around the lean youthful waist, then leaned forward to whisper. "I love you too...I never stopped."
Blue eyes turned and gazed into green. "I know."
Moments later all that was seen was a pale shape slowly making its way across the fields, with two riders on its back.
* * * * *
Ephiny closed the back door and walked into the main room, tears running down her face. Tears of sadness yes, but most of joy. She knew what she would find if she went to her mother's room, but that could wait.
She stopped a moment as her eyes saw the old family portrait that she barely remembered sitting for when she was a child. Something's different. She narrowed her eyes trying to figure out what it was, but soon gave up and went to go check on her children. Must be my imagination.
She smiled at the thought, her mind going back to when she was a child and had seen the ghost for the first time. Mother said it was my imagination. That was the first and only time I ever humored her.. But it hadn't been the only time that she'd seen the rider on her golden horse. In fact, it seemed that some days the ghost was around every corner she looked...watching over the two of them. Ephiny didn't doubt it for a moment, and never had.
Quietly she left the room and its odds and ends. Its treasures. Its memories. Left it to be watched over by a painting of three. One with fire kissed golden hair and spring green eyes. One a child, dark with twinkling eyes. And one with a content smile.
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