The snow was falling harder and Xena could feel the chill
right to her bones. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at Gabrielle. Her
heart soared, they were together again, the warrior and her bard. Nothing would
ever separate them. Not man, nor the Gods, not even the end of their mortal
lives together. They completed one another, like the yin and yang, like dark
and light ... like life and death. Xena smiled over at the woman who had meant
more to her then her own existence. In a flash, their moment together was over,
and the pain ripped through Xena's body as the hammer struck the head of the
spike placed against her hand.
Xena's eyes flew open and she swallowed hard. The haunting image hadn't left her mind since the battle with Alti. Her heart ached for Gabrielle, though Xena couldn't be certain if the ache was for Gabrielle's absence or the vivid clarity of their future. She looked down at the bandages wrapped about her hands. The injuries were painful, but the pain filled her heart with hope ... Gabrielle was alive. Xena knew that now, and that belief had driven her homeward.
For four solid days she had ridden through snow-covered mountains, barren wind swept valleys and miles of silent loneliness. Xena was leaving the Northern Amazon landscape far behind and all the painful memories she had there. The horse she rode was frothing and near collapse, but the warrior princess refused to stop. Her body ached from the battle with Alti, but the pain in her broken heart pushed her onward. Nothing was going to stop her from finding her friend.
As the silhouette of the warrior princess crested the mountain pass, she stopped and looked down at the vast valley below. The snow-covered rocks of the last ancient mountain range gave way to the luscious greens and warm browns of the fertile land beyond. Her blue eyes followed the road as it snaked its way through the tall flowing prairie grass, until it disappeared beneath the cover of the distant forest. Xena could smell the warmth of spring and she welcomed the idea of finally leaving the cold of the northern country.
She scanned the horizon searching for signs of trouble, seeing nothing more than vast emptiness, the warrior princess pushed her borrowed black horse down the mountain trail. Once they reached the bottom, she urged him into a trot. They covered the valley floor quickly and Xena felt an inner relief as she entered the forest, the smells of pine trees and moisture thick moss welcomed her home. The thick stands of evergreens swallowed the heat and the light of the afternoon sun. It didn't matter, she knew she was back on the soil of her beloved Greece.
The sun stretched its shadows, ending its appearance for the day as it descended over the distant mountains. Xena knew she would have to stop and rest soon, more for the sake of the horse than her own. She also knew she had to decide on which direction to go in. In her mind she had decided Gabrielle would go in one of two directions ... Poteidaia or Amphipolis. Neither village was far from the Halls of War ... the last time she had seen her precious Gabrielle.
She shook out her raven hair, desperately trying to erase the heartbreaking image of Gabrielle's face as she fell into the fiery abyss. The vision had never left her, nor the regret and loneliness that had come with it. But she couldn't think about that now, she had to concentrate on where her friend might have gone. Amphipolis or Poteidaia, but which one? The question would be was Gabrielle going to look for her, or would she know Xena would be out looking for her.
The warrior's eyes fell on a small clearing just off the trail.
'Good enough,' she thought as she turned the horse off the road. The black stallion followed its rider's command into a small ditch and then scampered up the other side. He snorted toward a distant patch of grass, in hopes of a meal and a rest, but Xena clicked him farther along to where she would camp for the night.
The moss-covered clearing was open to the skies, the warmth of the sun had dried the layers of green carpet. Xena had noted there were plenty of fallen branches in the nearby forest for a fire. It was all she would need for a brief night's stay.
Her lips parted slightly in a moan as she slid from the horse's back. It had been a long time since her feet had touched the ground and she stretched out her sore tired muscles. The cuts and bruises she had suffered at the hands of Alti still riddled her body, the memories constantly tugging at her mind. Xena reached for her saddle and bags, carelessly throwing them to the ground. She gave the black stallion a much-deserved rub down, then staked him for the night in the grass twenty paces away. She paused for a moment and looked at her borrowed mount. His thick winter coat hid his strong powerful muscles, he wasn't Argo, but he was a good horse with a strong heart, and he hadn't disappointed her.
Xena busied herself making camp and building a fire. All she wanted to do was get some sleep, but she knew she needed food. Not that she was really hungry, but she knew she needed nutrition. Xena had eaten everything Yakut and the other Amazons had given her, so if she wanted to eat now, she would have to kill and cook it herself. With there being no river or lake nearby, she headed into the forest, alone, in search of a meal.
Xena settled back against her saddle as she watched the rabbit cooking over the open flame. The fire hissed and spit as the juices ran down the darkening meat and splattered onto the hot coals below. Her blue eyes transfixed on the mesmerizing flicker of flames as she began to work some of the stiffness out of her hands. The warrior worked her fingers until her hands were able to make a tight fist. Xena looked down at her wiggling fingers and realized she should change the soiled bandages. The tattered ends of the wrapped cotton were torn and gray and the palm side was black from holding the reins. She reached behind her saddle for her saddlebags and lifted the flap.
Searching through the saddlebags blindly feeling through their possession, Xena's mind drifted with exhaustion. Suddenly her heart grew cold and a desperate ache of loneliness slammed into her body. The moment her hand had touched the rolled parchment, her eyes closed, and a heave of emotions physically rocked her body. Everywhere she had gone and with everything she did, Xena had never let Gabrielle's scrolls out of her sight. They were a connection, the soul of Gabrielle, written on pieces of sheep hide. The bard's most cherished belongings somehow gave her comfort as if bringing her closer to her missing companion.
Fighting down her feelings of despair, Xena's fingers left the worn parchment and moved deeper into the bag. She felt with closed eyes, until she touched the soft leather she was searching for. The warrior princess pulled out her well-worn medicine bag and began to change the soiled bandages around her hands.
The shimmering light of the orange and yellow flames were enough to see the dry encrusted scabs in the center of her palms, and on the backs of her hands. Xena had attended to them regularly, knowing how dangerous an infection could be, especially traveling alone so far north. But deep in her heart she knew the real reason for checking them so often, as long as the wounds scared her palms ... Gabrielle was alive ... somewhere.
Xena brought her thoughts back to the wounds in the center of her palms. Thankfully, the only redness she saw was where the wound had already started to heal. She studied the punctures on both sides of her hand as she watched the movement of her fingers open and close. Xena's blue eyes misted as the snowy vision continued to torment her mind and lay heavy on her soul.
In the vision there were two things she was certain of; her friend was alive ... and the identity of the soldiers, they were Romans. But where or when this was, she had no idea. Even the why or how it was going to happen was an unknown. But most of it didn't matter, the wounds told her Gabrielle was alive and all she wanted to do was find her. Once she did, then and only then, would she concern herself with avoiding the future ... if it was possible.
Xena cleaned her palms and rewrapped them in clean cotton bandages. She flexed her fingers again and then brought her hands to her chest. She closed her eyes and felt her heart beating for the friend she loved and missed. The balance she desperately needed in her life was Gabrielle. Her absence had brought a loneliness to her soul she never thought was possible.
The continuous crackle of the fire could do nothing to fill the void left by Gabrielle. The warrior ached to hear the bard's soothing words and longed for her comforting touch. To hear a story spoken with passion and promise, to laugh at the silly things she sometimes did. No matter how Xena looked at it, without Gabrielle by her side, her life was just a shell of empty existence.
When the rabbit was cooked, Xena ate what she could, though she wasn't really hungry. Wrapping the remaining meat up, she stretched her long legs out in front of the fire. She went over her directional options and contemplated where Gabrielle might have gone.
'Poteidaia ... Amphipolis, or .' Xena searched her mind and tried to avoid a nagging, desperate thought. 'What will happen if Gabrielle isn't at either? Where do I go from there?' She pushed the doubt away, not wanting to open those painful uncertainties. By process of deduction, Xena finally decided on Poteidaia. If Gabrielle didn't know where Xena was, she was certain her friend would go home. All the dark haired woman could do was hope her friend was waiting for her there.
With the decision made, Xena tried to ignore the silent loneliness creeping into her heart and mind. She pushed away the emptiness and crawled deep into her furs. She drifted away into a lonely, fitful sleep, her arm draped sadly over a cold bundle of empty furs next to her.
The warrior had always fought the demons of her past in her sleep, but none horrified her like those nightmares of Gabrielle. When she had tackled Hope, taking both of them over the edge into the lava, the look on Gabrielle's face had haunted Xena. The expression of sadness and regret would be forever branded on the warrior's heart, as it played a game of torment with her soul.
The sound of Callisto's insane laughter grew louder and louder in her mind, as the warrior watched helplessly as Gabrielle descended to her death. The desperate plea she called out to Xena one last time, as the heat of the lava and flames drove the warrior back. Never before had she felt so useless as her hand reached out to emptiness, death had ripped away another person she had loved.
The sound of Gabrielle's name erupted from the pit of her existence as the nightmare tore through her mind.
Xena bolted awake, her trembling hands clutching at her aching chest. Her desperate need for oxygen had her gasping for air. She felt the chill of the night breeze as it brushed over her shivering, sweating body. Xena swallowed down the feelings of agonizing loneliness as she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped herself tightly into a ball. Only once before in her life had she felt such grief and despair.
Xena's heart tore open as she recalled her son's life being ripped away from her by the unfeeling, greedy hand of death. Solan was gone now and that ache had never subsided. She had seen him in Illusia and had made peace with herself when she had been given the chance to say good bye to her only child. It didn't make the feelings of despair any easier, but it was something she had learned to live with.
Her feelings now for Gabrielle were almost the same. Xena loved her son, but with Gabrielle, it was different. Xena was not with him everyday, by her choice she had tried to protect him from the dangerous dark side of her past. Her blond companion had never had that chance. Gabrielle had been by her side night and day, through thick and thin for so long, the warrior couldn't deal with the physical and mental silence that now engulfing her.
She had never told Solan while he was alive, that she was his mother. And she had never told Gabrielle before they were torn apart, just how much she truly loved her. Xena would thank the Gods themselves, if she were to be given a second chance to tell Gabrielle how she really felt. The change the bard had made in her life was overwhelming. Love was not a word she used often, or lightly, but she knew she loved the small blond woman, someone she had learned to call ... friend.
Xena pulled her furs higher and tighter around her shoulders as she sat for a while in front of the dying embers of the fire. Her thoughts and memories were filled with Gabrielle. They had been through so much together, they had to live through this. The warrior princess transfixed her gaze at the wavering coals, and made a silent promise. When she had her bard back in the safety of her arms, she would tell her the truth of her heart ... and the destiny of their souls.
The warrior leaned forward and threw another stick on the fire. She watched the fire lick lightly at the dry wood, her eyes reflected the flames as they consumed the fuel. Xena ignored her body's demand for rest, she knew her sleep would not be peaceful until her bard was by her side.
Xena broke camp early the next morning, knowing if she rode hard, she could be in Poteidaia by the afternoon. Hopefully, she would be sharing her evening meal with her missing friend. With the horse rested and fed, the warrior headed south at an easy gallop, her mind racing with hope.
The rolling hills of Gabrielle's home valley brought an anxiety to the warrior princess she was not used to. When she crested the last hill her heart jumped as her blue eyes spotted the small town of Poteidaia. Xena bit down on her wind burnt lips and squinted as if looking for the blonde's familiar form. The bruises and cuts on her face burned as she contorted her features, but there was nothing for her to really see. With a tap to the horse's sides, the two headed down the hill. The horse could smell the nearness of the village and as if sensing Xena's urgency, he picked up his pace.
The villagers looked up as the beautiful dark haired woman entered the small town. They knew all to well who she was, but few made any attempt to welcome the ex-warlord. Most of them kept busy and averted their eyes away from the warrior princess.
The sudden hush of the busy marketplace stilled the heart of Gabrielle's mother. Hecuba knew without looking what the cause of the indignation was. She knew in her heart of hearts, Xena would be showing up sooner or later. Her head lifted as the sound of slow-moving hooves echoed off the huts and homes of Poteidaia. Hecuba's eyes fell on the battered and bruised body of the warrior princess, she felt a mixture of emotions flutter through her tired old body.
This was the warrior her daughter idolized and it was this woman whom her daughter called friend. Part of Hecuba's heart hated Xena for taking away her innocent, naive child, and in her place, returning a mature, sullen woman. Everytime she saw Gabrielle there seemed to be more scars on her body and a disturbing darkness growing in her soul. But part of Hecuba also knew Gabrielle would never have stayed in Poteidaia, she would never have made a farmer's wife, despite what Herodotus said. Reluctantly she knew Xena was the best thing to happen to Gabrielle and Gabrielle was the best thing to happen to the ex-warlord.
Hecuba watched the confident sway of the warrior princess as she rode through the marketplace. Xena's icy blue eyes were transfixed on the road in front of her. Her lips were pursed tightly together, her warrior features chiseled in a stern look of daring. Nothing on her face told the villagers what Hecuba knew was in the warrior's heart. Xena had softened with time. Care and compassion had replaced the years of hatred carved into her once darkened soul. When Gabrielle was by her side, Hecuba had seen a whole new side of the warrior princess. The evil warlord was long gone from her icy blue stare, in its place was a look that reflected something Hecuba knew would forever protect her eldest daughter. As much as she hated to admit it, her motherly instincts told her Xena would never let anything happen to Gabrielle. She had seen for herself the way Gabrielle had doted on Xena, and the caring way the warrior called her friend. She knew, there was nothing Herodotus could do about it.
In a different light, she also knew Gabrielle had matured and experienced things she never would have in Poteidaia. Hecuba was constantly hearing her daughter's name being repeated as an up and coming bard, with infamous potential. She had a few of Gabrielle's scrolls herself, carefully hidden away from the disapproving eyes of the bard's father.
No, as much as Hecuba wanted to hate the warrior princess, she knew this was the woman her daughter loved more than life itself. As long as Gabrielle was happy, so was she.
Xena didn't even notice the older woman gaze. The warrior rode out of town, her heart pounding as she headed in the direction of Gabrielle's childhood home. Her confident air showing none of the nervous hope she held in her aching heart.
The rider and horse trotted through the gates of the small farm. The stallion ignored the scattering chickens at his feet. Xena's eyes darted from the barn, to the windmill and then to the small, quiet home. Her head dropped slightly as she felt an eerie stillness hanging over the farm. Her eyes scanned through lowered eyelids, but she couldn't see or hear a soul. She slowed her horse to a cautious step as she approached the house. She slid from the horse's back before he came to a halt and she walked the last couple of steps to the railing, looping the reins over it. Her head snapped up as the front door opened.
"You're not welcome here warrior!" Herodotus said flatly from the doorway. Gabrielle's father had never liked the woman who had taken his young, innocent daughter away. He despised the warrior and everything she stood for.
Xena stopped and pulled herself up straight. She should have expected the cool greeting, she was well aware of Herodotus' feelings towards her. To him, she would always be the warlord who had stolen his little girl. This was something she had neglected to think about, or maybe she had just chosen to ignore it. Either way, she wasn't leaving without her friend.
"Where is Gabrielle?" Xena refused to even acknowledge his icy reception. The old farmer said nothing at first as he put up a brave front, but Xena saw the flicker of fear cross his face.
"She's not here." Herodotus' negative words echoed in the warrior's aching chest. Xena searched his face for the truth, ignoring the old sword he held ineptly by his side. She realized with a sinking feeling of regret, he was telling the truth. Disappointment weighed heavy on her heart, but she refused to show any outward signs of discouragement to Gabrielle's father.
"Then where is she?" The warrior said, trying to keep her emotions out of the questioning command.
"I don't know."
Xena knew by his face, not his words, that this was not the truth. She realized he was very much like his daughter. Gabrielle could never hide behind a lie either.
Xena's features hardened as she took another step forward and glared into the farmer's face. She had neither the patience nor the energy for his petty anger.
"Where is she Herodotus... And don't lie to me." Her icy blue eyes bored into him, and the normally quiet farmer remembered why he had hated this woman so. He could never understand why his innocent daughter had left with this evil woman. Or why she insisted on standing up for her and calling her a friend.
The desperate warrior and the angry father stood glaring at each other. They were aware of what effect a physical confrontation between them would have on Gabrielle. Their feelings for the young woman were evident but that didn't stop their loathing of each other. The intense standoff continued neither willing to give in, or to give up. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the front door open slowly, a small feminine hand reaching for the doorframe.
Herodotus heard the small intake of air come from the wide-eyed warrior as she turned to see who was standing behind the farmer.
Xena's insides dropped as she saw the dark hair of Gabrielle's sister and Lila saw all too clearly the disappointment on the warrior's face.
"She was here Xena, but she's not now." The warrior closed her eyes not wanting to reveal the raw emotions threatening to take over her. Lila came through the door and stood next to her father. She didn't hold the hatred for Xena like he did. Lila was well aware Gabrielle would have left Poteidaia, even if she hadn't met Xena. Her wanderlust and her desire for adventure was too strong to be just a farmer's wife. Lila liked the dark warrior woman and what she had done for her older sister. In some ways, Lila was in awe of the warrior princess, just as Gabrielle had once been.
Lila looked at her father, and then back at the warrior. Xena knew Lila wanted to tell her something but she would never go against her father's wishes.
"Where is she Lila? I have to see her," Xena pleaded with the young girl.
Lila and Herodotus were astonished at the sound of concern and desperation in the warrior's voice. Lila looked at her father again, obviously seeking his approval.
Herodotus dropped his eyes to the ground and said nothing. It wasn't in his heart to tell the warrior what he knew. He glanced around his small farm, he was proud of what he had made of himself. Though he would never admit it, he knew this life would never have been enough for his daughter, the bard. His reluctant gaze fell on his other daughter, Herodotus knew Lila would not speak with him standing there. His shoulders fell in defeat and he hung his head and walked away. Regrettably, he knew he couldn't keep this dark warrior from his precious Gabrielle, but he would be damned if he was going to help her in anyway.
Xena waited for what seemed like eternity, until Herodotus was out of sight. The moment his broken frame was out of earshot, she turned and placed a hand on Lila's shoulder.
"Where is she Lila? Is she all right? I have to see her, please." Suddenly Lila looked at Xena in a whole different light. She knew how much Gabrielle loved this woman, but it never crossed her mind Xena might feel the same way. She could see the concern written on the warrior's bruised face and the pain of separation in her blue eyes.
"Gabrielle really isn't here Xena. She left ... two days ago." Lila watched as the warrior's shoulders dropped ever so slightly.
"Where did she go? ... Did she tell you where she was going?" Xena's heart had soared with relief, then crashed in disappointment. Gabrielle had been here and she really was alive, but she had left. Not waiting for Lila to answer, Xena stepped off the front porch and reached for her horse. She was leaving to find Gabrielle, no matter where the little bard had gone. Collecting the reins in her hand, she placed a boot into the stirrup. Xena turned back to Lila, still waiting for the answer.
"Lila, where did she go?" she no longer attempted to keep the desperation out of her voice.
"Amphipolis. She said she didn't want to wait any longer and she thought you might be there. So they left two days ago." Xena had started to pull herself onto the black horse when the words stopped her. Her stomach flipped over as an icy breeze went through her heart. She tried to moisten the sudden dryness in her mouth as her ears rang with Lila's words.
Lila watched Xena's motions freeze as a look of horror entered her blue eyes. Her face had paled considerably as she turned ever so slowly towards Lila.
"They?" She said as her numb foot slipped from the stirrup and fell with a thud to the ground.
Lila was confused and frightened by the warrior's look of apprehension. She had thought Xena knew her sister wasn't traveling alone.
"They ... She arrived with a young boy." Xena took a breath and tried to relax. The only they she could think of was Hope. Her sudden anxiety was that Gabrielle might have been traveling with her daughter. But Hope was dead! So, who was she with? Xena looked at Lila in question.
"Gabrielle said you would be happy. It was all she talked about. She said you would be happy to see Solan again."
Instantly Xena felt her world spin out of control as she fought to keep her legs under her. The skies darkened and everything around her grew distant as a roaring silence filled her ears. She couldn't hear Lila calling her name, as the memories of her dead son ripped through her chest. Xena felt her heart lurch and stumble as it tried to continue its rhythmic beating. She tried desperately to fill her lungs with some much-needed air. 'It not possible, Solan is dead.' The mighty warrior felt her strong body begin to disintegrate in a mind numbing sense of an inconceivable reality.
Lila reached for the ashen woman as she repeatedly called out her name. She feared the warrior princess was going to collapse right in front of her. Lila could feel Xena's trembling right through to her hand, as she had grabbed onto the strong muscles of the warrior's shoulder. The horror and fear Lila saw on Xena's face scared her. She had no idea why the warrior was reacting this way, but for the first time since she had met Xena, Lila suddenly feared for her sister's safety.
Xena fought her mind and body as she tried to gain some kind of control. It was unthinkable, Solan was dead. Xena struggled with the emotions threatening to overwhelm her. The warrior's heart pounded against her chest as if fighting to be heard. It didn't need an explanation, it had heard all it needed to. Her body ached and craved for the son that had been ripped from her life.
"That's not possible." The words whispered from her lips as her mind faltered back into reality. Xena looked down at her bandaged hands. She had thought Gabrielle was dead, and she was alive! Could it be possible her son was alive, too? Xena's mind fought for some understanding as she struggled with the actuality of what Lila had told her.
"What ... This boy ... What did he look like?" Xena's words and questions fell out of her mouth as she stumbled to comprehend. Her heart was picking up its pace, she could hear her own heart beat getting louder and faster in her ears.
"Light brown, shoulder length hair. He stood about this tall," Lila continued to describe the young boy as Xena reached for her horse again.
'It couldn't be... could it? How could it be possible for Gabrielle has my son?' Xena's mind swirled with unbelievable questions she couldn't answer.
The black stallion pranced as Xena vaulted onto his back, he knew something had changed. The woman riding him was sending out all different kinds of senses, and he could feel each and every one of them.
"They were heading to Amphipolis ... two days ago, you said," Xena demanded as Lila nodded in silence.
"HEEEEYAAAAA!" Xena slapped the stallion and charged out of the compound. Lila watched as the horse and rider departed in a flurry of dust and rocks. She could hear Xena's yell as the two disappeared from view. She pondered the fear she felt for her sister, hoping nothing had happened to her. Lila turned and walked back into the only home she had ever known. She hoped her mother would be home soon, she needed someone to talk to.
Hecuba watched in alarm as the warrior woman raced through town, her eyes wide as her raven hair flew behind her. The horse she was riding was stretched in a ground covering gallop, his mane and tail matching the flight of his rider's. Hecuba knew where Xena was going, and for Gabrielle's sake, she wished the warrior woman well.
Amphipolis was only a hundred miles northeast of Poteidaia, and the warrior princess knew if she pushed it she could be there by tomorrow morning, at the latest. Xena rode as if the fires of Tartarus were behind her and the black horse gave her everything he had. His long neck stretched out in front of his fast-moving feet and he ate up the ground she led him through. His pounding hooves echoed the beating of her heart as the distance between the towns diminished. Leaving the well-worn roads, the warrior took the stallion in a direct route to her known destination. He cut through the forest on nimble, but exhausted legs. Jumping fallen trees and splashing through slow moving waters as his rider urged him on. He dug his hooves into the rocky ground as they climbed steep hills and followed rolling meadows. Neither rider nor horse noticed the sun slide into the distant horizon, the moon now lighting their way. A little rain had begun to fall, covering Xena and the horse with a shimmering gleam as they raced through the night in search of the missing bard of Poteidaia.
The cool night air reddened Xena's cheeks as her mind raced with the speed of the horse she was riding. Solan was dead, but until recently, so had she thought was Gabrielle. It didn't stop her from questioning the validity of Lila's statement. Her child was dead and she knew that, she had burned his body and released his soul to the heavens. It was he who brought them to Illusia, where they learned the truth of their lies and the depth of their betrayal. Through the music of Illusia, they had healed their hearts and once again joined their souls. The memories of what she had done to her dearest friend haunted the shadows of her memories. Gabrielle had forgiven her, but Xena had yet to forgive herself.
'Maybe Gabrielle had died and somehow she had gotten them out of the Elysian fields, if anyone could, it would be Gabrielle. She could talk her way out of just about anything. But was it possible, could Gabrielle have talked her way out of death?' Xena was certain she could, and that meant bringing Solan with her might not have been impossible.
Xena's aching heart suddenly hardened when another thought entered her mind. Maybe it wasn't Gabrielle, maybe it was Hope! She tightened her hands on the leather reins and felt the bandages protecting her wounds. She was certain in her heart it was Gabrielle in her vision, not Dahak's evil offspring.
'Could they both have survived that fall into the river of lava?'
It was possible. If Gabrielle had survived, why couldn't Hope. She was a demi-god after all. The only thing to kill a God was Hinds blood, but what could kill a demi-god?
Xena pushed the black horse harder, ignoring the rain pelting against her skin. The more time she had to think, the more bizarre her thoughts became. All she could be certain of was, someone was in Amphipolis, and all Xena knew was she had to get there, fast.
By the time the warrior entered her own region she had thought of every possible explanation for who was in her hometown. Nothing was going to surprise her when she got there, even if it turned out to be Zeus himself dressed in a skirt and carrying a staff.
Xena pressed the stallion through the heavy underbrush until they broke out onto a road. The warrior slapped the horse with her legs as they raced down the road, ignoring the torrent of rain blinding her vision. The shadows danced with the rain laden, overhanging branches of the giant fir trees as the dark haired rider flew past. Xena's mind continued to play with her thoughts and emotions. She didn't hear the wheezing sounds of her mount and she didn't notice the froth dripping from his bit. When they broke from the cover of the forest, one side of the road fell away into a rolling field. Xena glanced over and spotted a faint trail through the thin birch trees. She vaguely remembered this to be a shortcut. Pulling the stallion's reins sharply to the right, the black horse turned and followed his rider's command. By the dim light of the cloud-covered moon, the stallion did his best to follow the path in front of him, but he was tired and unfamiliar with the terrain. Suddenly the black horse stumbled on his exhausted legs as the unstable ground broke away from under him. If the warrior had been of clear thought, and the horse had been Argo, it never would have happened. But it wasn't her horse, and Xena's mind had been too preoccupied to notice the eroded pathway. The stallion felt his hooves begin to slide and he tried to pull his head to stable ground, but it was too late. Xena knew they were going down and pushed with all her strength to clear the falling horse. Rider and horse tumbled over the small embankment, the panic scream of the stallion filled the night air. The first time they hit the ground Xena felt the fire of pain in her leg and a loud gut wrenching sound of breaking bone.
Moments later the two slid to a stop in the mud as the loose soil fell around them. She laid still for a time trying to collect her thoughts and to get her bearings. With a sputter, she noticed for the first time the downpour attempting to clean her face.
Xena felt the slippery chill of the wet mud beneath her and she knew she had to move. She flexed her hands and arms, nothing broken there, but she could feel the searing pain in her leg as the sticky mud clung to her skin. She slowly lifted her aching head and looked around. A clap of Zeus's thunderbolt lit the area around her. She could see the path about thirty feet above her, but it was too steep where the earth had let go, for them to climb back up that way.
Xena cursed herself for not paying closer attention. With pursed, angry lips she shook her head, but stopped when her eyes caught sight of the still form of the fallen stallion. A roar of thunder shook the ground as Xena closed her eyes to the image she had seen. With a sinking feeling of regret, she started to pull herself to her feet. Pain exploded through her upper thigh forcing her back to the ground. Xena squinted in the dark and could just make out a deep tear in the flesh of her thigh. Flexing her muscles, she could see the dark red blood pulse and ooze over her skin. She pressed her hand tightly against the flow of blood and cursed herself again.
Ignoring the burning sensation in her thigh for the moment, she crawled on one elbow to the fallen black stallion. She now knew where the loud crack had come from, as his motionless head lay awkwardly on the ground. She reached over and closed his staring eyes as the warrior felt a deep sense of remorse and guilt for the horse that had brought her so far. She laid a caring hand on his neck and closed her eyes.
"I'm so sorry, boy. It was my fault for pushing you so hard. You were a good horse ... Thank you." She hung her head in regret and sadness, her wet hair clinging to her damp face. After a moment of silent prayer, she slowly reached into her saddlebags for her medical supplies.
She pulled a water skin from her saddle and cleaned her hands and the wound the best she could. Feeling through her supplies, she found the porcupine quill and silk thread she needed to close her wound. Steeling herself for a brief moment before digging the quill deep into her flesh. With no light for her to see, her skilled fingers guided the silk through her skin. Her mind concentrating on her sutures, she closed her body to the pain it would feel later. Once the gapping flesh was taken care of, Xena pulled her saddle and gear off the dead stallion, and with one more remorseful look back, the warrior headed for Amphipolis.
Further down the gully, Xena found her way back up onto the road, but soon realized she needed to stop. As much as she hated to, she had to make camp for the night. Stumbling around in the dark, rainy night with her saddle over her shoulder and a leg wound was not a good idea.
She found a spot awhile later and threw her saddle to the ground. She gathered up some wood, made a fire, and ate what was left of the rabbit from the night before. The rains had started to lighten but it didn't stop the chill she felt. Xena reached for some more wood and threw it on the flames. The sudden heat did nothing to warm her body ... or her soul. Moving closer to the light of the fire, she looked over the quick doctoring of her leg. The stitches held the flesh together but it hadn't stopped it from seeping. She wrapped a cotton bandage around the wound and cursed herself again. All she wanted was to get to her mother's inn and hold her friend in her arms once again.
With a sigh she reached for her wet furs and wrapped them around her shoulders. Leaning against her saddle, the shivering warrior closed her eyes and hoped tomorrow would finally sooth her aching heart.
Xena's nightmares woke her many times throughout the night, each one worse than the last. She had never needed Gabrielle more then she did now. The care and comfort the little bard gave her wasn't something she thought about constantly ... until now. Her soft touch and caring words would sooth the warrior's fitful sleep, and her unconditional love would fill the warrior's soul. Without Gabrielle, Xena was alone to face the demons of her dark past, and the memories of what she had done to the woman she loved.
Xena's anxiety had her up way before the night skies had even begun to lighten. Yesterday's downpour was just a distant memory, as the sun peeked over the distant horizon. A chilling ground fog gave the campsite an eerie feeling, as the mist floated through the trees. It was the haunting silence the warrior couldn't get used to and she knew deep in her heart she didn't want to. Gabrielle's constant chatter was something she would never complain about again.
The warrior knew with her injuries, and without a horse, it would take more than a few days to make it home. She had only ridden a little more than half way. Pulling her tall body to a standing position, she looked down at her saddle. She could feel the aching stiffness in her leg, and she knew reluctantly that she would have to leave her saddle behind. She went through her supplies of what she needed and then packed her saddle into the forest. With extreme care and attention, she covered up her belongings with some branches and an oleander bush, hoping the poisonous purple flowers would keep prying eyes away.
With her saddlebags over her shoulder, the warrior princess headed out. She knew today she would really miss the black stallion, it was still a long walk home.
She focused herself, knowing every step brought her closer to Amphipolis, closer to Gabrielle and her son. These thoughts kept the warrior going mile after mile. Memories they had all shared. The first time she held her son, and then the painful moment she handed him over to Kaleipus. She knew the son of Xena would be safe with him, and he swore he would raise him like his own. Kaleipus had been a man of his word and Solan had become a fine young man. Xena had been so proud of him. And try as she might, she couldn't keep her mind away from the day that he died. She could still remember holding his warm body in her arms, and the smell of his hair as she refused to let him go. The misery of grief still tore at her heart.
Her thoughts drifted to Gabrielle, her friend, and companion, the woman she held nearest to her heart. The warrior smiled as she remembered the tough little farm girl who had stood up to the slavers to protect her sister. Xena had developed a soft spot for her then and there. Gabrielle had gotten them into a lot of trouble in the beginning, trouble that usually had been either got into, or gotten out of, by the bard's gift of words. Xena could almost pinpoint the exact moment she realized she had fallen in love with the little Bard of Poteidaia. It was the first time death had tried to separate them. Gabrielle had tried to save a young child and had been hit by an arrow. There were complications and Gabrielle's heart had stopped beating. Xena had refused to give up and with a desperate plea, she had pulled her back from death's iron grip. Xena held Gabrielle tightly in her arms, and the warrior princess knew then her heart belonged to the little blond, and her soul would never walk alone again.
They had many adventures together, but nothing could have been more catastrophic than the lies and betrayals that followed them from Britannia to Chin, and to the death of her son. She had blamed it all on Gabrielle, but after their trip to Illusia, she had realized they had both been to blame. Neither of them had discussed what had happen in Illusia, but they had learned from their mistakes. They no longer kept secrets from one another.
'Except for one,' thought Xena. 'I've never told you, how I truly feel about you.'
Xena never stopped walking, she had to find them. Throughout the day and into the night, she limped her way homeward. Forcing the pain from her mind with thoughts and visions of the people she loved the most. At times she thought she would never make it, she could feel the burn spreading over her injured thigh, but she pushed on.
It had been over three days since she had left Poteidaia when she finally saw the hills surrounding her hometown. Her leg throbbed, her back was sore, but her aching heart was beating loud and strong. Her awkward pace quickened at the thought of who was in one of those homes.
Amphipolis was nestled against the rolling foothills of northern Greece. Established years ago on the banks of the Strymon river as it ended its long journey to the Aegean sea. Xena could hear the waves crashing onto the nearby cliffs, the sound had lulled her to sleep many times in her childhood.
Her blue eyes watched the scurry of the morning activities as the marketplace came alive. Shopkeepers and venders readied their wares for the many travelers that stopped before making their way east or west. The sounds of a tight knit community lofted in the air as Xena made her way to the outskirts of town.
Though Amphipolis was where Xena was born and raised, she didn't receive any better of a greeting from the villagers and merchants than she had in Poteidaia. Many smiles turned to scowls of disapproval at the sight of the warrior princess arriving home. There were no looks of concern or any thoughts of care as the tall warrior limped past them on her way to her mother's inn. It had almost been a year since she had been back, and many of them still blamed her for their capture by Callisto. No one wanted to remember it was she who had saved them from Draco and the likes of Krykus and Cortese. All they seemed to want to recall was Xena the Warlord, Xena the Destroyer. The daughter who had shamed her mother with her taste for blood and power.
Suddenly Xena recalled the last time she had been home. When the Furies had punished her with persecution and madness and had almost convinced her to kill her own mother.
If anyone had been watching the warrior princess close enough, they would have seen the flicker of pain and regret on her face as her tired step faltered for a moment. It was another part of her past she wished she could forget.
Xena's heart flipped as she came around the corner and stopped in front of her mother's inn.
It was a large wooden structure with a thick, thatch roof, her family had built many years ago. Two large plank doors, long since faded to a silver gray, would beckon travelers and locals alike. Xena's eyes followed the roofline to the six rooms she and her brothers had added for their mother a long time ago. Without a husband, it was up to Cyrene to make her own way in the world, and the addition to the tavern had helped her mother with her loneliness and her monetary struggles. Sadly, Xena knew her mother was alone now. With the death of Lyceus, Toris was living in another town, and she only stopped in when she was in the area, which wasn't often.
There was a closed sign hanging from the front doors, but she knew her mother would be up and preparing for the morning breakfast crowd. Xena stopped, her shaking hand resting on the iron door handle. She had no idea what was waiting behind those walls. She closed her blues eyes for a moment, then pulled open the door and pulled herself inside
The dim light of the tavern welcomed the warrior to the only home she had ever known. Her eyes went to the long bar against one wall, and to the sign hanging beside the bottles of alcohol.
It had been a long time since she had called this place home.
Next to the bar was a swinging door that led to the kitchen, and Xena could smell her mother's cooking already underway. There were four bedrooms on the main floor. One of the bedrooms was now used as a storage room for the tavern and the inn. The other bedrooms Cyrene rented out to her regulars when they had had too much to drink. But Cyrene was a mother, and she had never let anyone sleep in her daughter's bedroom. It was still the same as Xena had left it many, many years ago.
The bedroom doors were in each corner of the large room Cyrene used as kind of a lounging area for the guests of her inn. There were two couches and a mix match of chairs surrounding an old weathered oval table. On the back wall over a large river rock fireplace, were the stairs that led up to the guests' rooms.
Xena's blue eyes focused back on the familiar movement of the woman puttering in the foreground. Her mother's body was swaying as she wiped down one of the five tables in the tavern area. Without looking, the small older woman said politely.
"I'm sorry we're not open yet, you'll have to come back later." She straightened up her five foot three frame and turned to see who she had spoken to. Her face broke into a welcoming smile as she saw her daughter standing before her.
"Xena." The warrior felt a comforting warmth in the way her mother spoke her name. Cyrene threw her arms around her absentee child and Xena melted in the embrace. Warrior or not, there was nothing like your mother's hug to make you feel better.
Cyrene held her child tightly and closed her eyes as she felt Xena return the embrace. She had never shown a lot of affection to her mother, or to anyone, but she had changed over the last few years. Cyrene was no fool, she knew who was responsible for the change in her daughter.
"How are you mother?" Xena whispered into her mother's graying hair.
"Better than you, by the looks of it, my little one." Cyrene said as she pulled back from Xena and took a good look at her daughter.
Xena's restless sleeps over the last moon gave her a haggard look. Her normally clean leathers and armor were covered in mud and stained with the blood from her injuries. The cuts and bruises from Alti were still evident on the warrior's weary face. Cyrene took Xena's hand in her own and looked down at the dirty bandages loosely wrapped around her palms. She hesitated a brief moment before returning her gaze to the warrior's blue eyes, the small woman did not like the desperation she saw.
"Xena, my child. What has happened to you?"
Xena tried to pass it off, but her mother knew better and she held tightly to her daughter's arms.
The warrior tried to swallow down the lump climbing into her throat. The question she so wanted to ask refused to leave her mouth as her eyes began to mist. Xena looked everywhere but at her mother, as she fought to regain her composure.
"Is this because of what has happened recently?" Cyrene watched her daughter's expression with concern. Xena felt her emotional walls begin to crumble as her mother reached up and wiped away a tear off her dirty cheek.
"Are ... they?" Xena's hand went to her mouth, she was unable to ask what she so desperately wanted to know.
"Yes, dear. They are here and they are fine. Gabrielle has already told me about some of it." Xena's heart went to her throat and her knees felt very weak at the mention of her friend's name. Cyrene saw the color drain from her daughter's face. She was one of the few people who knew how her daughter felt about the pretty little blond.
"They arrived a couple of days ago, Gabrielle has been frantic with worry."
As the tall woman struggled to maintain her composure, Xena heard the familiar creak of her old bedroom door. Almost in slow motion, the warrior's blue eyes looked up, and there she stood. The young woman she loved more than life itself. The sun from the bedroom window lit up her blond hair, highlighting the touches of red. Gabrielle's green eyes were bright and shining as her look of surprise melted into a smile of happiness.
Cyrene watched as love entered Xena's eyes before the blue began to shimmer with tears. Cyrene quietly stepped from the room, leaving the two friends alone.
The warrior slowly crossed the room. Xena wasn't sure if she was even going to make it. Her legs felt all light and wobbly as she closed the distance between them. Her aching heart was bursting with relief at the blurring blond in front of her.
"Gabrielle?" The name croaked out in a sob.
"Xena." Gabrielle whispered with relief and longing. They stood and looked into each other's eyes for a brief moment, before they crushed in a loving embrace. Gabrielle fought down the sob as Xena's strong arms held her once again. The warrior was laughing and crying as she picked the little blond up and squeezed her tightly. There were no questions, there were no words, only two friends who desperately needed one another. A warrior and her bard reunited in a flow of happiness.
Xena gently lowered Gabrielle to the floor as she looked down into her bright green eyes. She lifted a shaking hand to brush away Gabrielle's tears. Only then did they get a good look at each other, but it was too much and Xena pulled her back into her arms.
They held tightly to one another, neither spoke a word as they cherished the safety and comfort of the other's embrace. Gabrielle pulled back and looked up into her friends battered face. As her hand reached to the warrior's wounds, Xena's fingers traced a fresh scar on the bard's cheek. She had already seen a few more of them on her arms and shoulders. Xena didn't have to guess where the scars had come from, she knew all to well. A smile lit up the warrior's concerned face, Gabrielle had survived, and Xena didn't care how.
Gabrielle was doing the same to Xena's fresh cuts and bruises. Her fingers feathering the wounds on the warrior's face, but she stopped to hold a hand on her cheek.
"I thought you were dead?" Xena's voice was a mere whisper but Gabrielle could hear the pain her disappearance had caused.
"I was ... I think. Xena, your face, what happened? By the Gods Xena, you're bleeding!"
Xena looked down at her injured leg. The wrapped cotton bandage was a deep crimson red as a ribbon of blood had curled its way down her leg. The thick liquid had already started to pool around her foot on the wooden floor. She looked up at Gabrielle and then at her mother who had come from the kitchen, upon hearing the concern in Gabrielle's voice. Xena tried to smile it away, but the sudden lightness of her head told her if she didn't sit down, she was going to fall down. The many weeks without proper sleep, missed meals and the injuries sustained from Alti and her fall from the stallion, had finally brought the warrior princess to a halt.
Cyrene saw the flutter of Xena's eyes and reached quickly for a chair. The two small women eased the warrior down. Once Xena was safely off her feet, Cyrene raced to the kitchen to get some water and rags.
"Xena what happened to you, you're not well?" Xena looked into the caring green eyes she had so missed and suddenly so desired.
Cyrene returned with a bowl of water and some rags and then retreated out of the room, giving the two companions some privacy.
"I have missed you so much Gabrielle."
The bard smiled briefly, but the concern quickly returned to her innocent face.
"Xena, what happened to you?"
"It's been a rough month..." Gabrielle looked up at Xena but didn't see the humor in her words. The warrior quickly tried to hide her aloofness. "The long and the short of it is, I fell off my horse a couple of days back. I had to walk the rest of the way here from Poteidaia."
"You walked here with that leg? Where's Argo? ... from Poteidaia!" Gabrielle looked up from Xena's leg, their faces were only inches away.
"You came from Poteidaia." Xena could only nod as tears formed and rolled down her face. Gabrielle watched as the dark features of her friend's face contorted in a desperate plea.
"Is it true? ... Is he here Gabrielle?" She had never seen Xena look so fearful. The green eyes sprouted their own tears as Gabrielle smiled and nodded.
"Yes ... Solan is here. He went down to the river to fish for breakfast. He's not very good at waiting ... just like his mother."
"But how Gabrielle? He was dead, we saw him in Illusia. It's not possible."
"It is, if Hades made a mistake. I wasn't supposed to be there, so he said he owed me one. I called him on it. I brought you back your son, Xena."
"And yourself," Xena said as she lifted her hand and gently rubbed Gabrielle's cheek with her thumb.
The warrior leaned back in the chair and stared at Gabrielle, it felt like a dream. All she had been through over the past moon was gone in the blink of an eye. Gabrielle was here and she was very much alive. With a few more scars, Xena noted, her family must have been impressed.
Solan. Xena tried to control herself, but the tears refused to stop. Gabrielle smiled as her friend tried to wipe away her rare show of emotions, Xena hated for anyone to see her cry.
The warrior started to stand, "I want to see him, I need to see him."
Gabrielle pushed her hard, back down into her chair.
"He'll be back shortly. We need to get you cleaned up, your injuries looked at, and some food into your stomach." Gabrielle said taking firm control of the situation.
"My leg is fine. I'm not hungry. And my son won't care if I'm a little dirty. I want to see him Gabrielle."
"I know you do. And I want you to see him."
They looked up as the front doors opened. Xena tried not to show her disappointment when her mother walked in. Neither of the united friends had seen her leave the tavern.
"I just went to see Janios. She said she would be here in a moment to look at your leg, and anything else that may need tending." Cyrene didn't tell the girls she had to threaten the healer to get her to come and look at her own daughter. She wondered how long people in this village would continue to treat Xena like she was still the enemy.
'Hasn't she paid her debt to society yet, how much more would she have to pay.' Cyrene's thoughts were well hidden as she smiled at her daughter and brushed away her dark bangs.
"I bet you haven't eaten in awhile, have you?"
She really didn't feel like eating, her stomach was tied up in too many knots, but she knew her mother needed something to do. The bright blue eyes looked up at Cyrene, and Xena nodded her head.
"There'll be lots leftover this morning."
She turned to the puzzled looks on the girls' faces.
"Well, I'm not opening up this morning."
"Mother, you can't do that. You can't afford to turn away paying customers."
"Look, my daughter doesn't visit very often, and if you think I want to spend time with these people instead of you, you're wrong! Now you two just sit there, smile at one another, and I will go and get us some breakfast." Cyrene turned and headed through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
"I think we just got told." Gabrielle said as she turned to look at her friend. Xena's blue eyes were studying the bard's features.
"I can't believe you're here. I've missed you so much, Gabrielle."
"I've missed you too, Xena." The warrior brought her hand up and the blond bard interlaced her fingers with Xena's. Gabrielle looked at the stained cotton bandages.
"What have you been doing?"
"Looking for you! ... I only just found out you were even alive. I went to Poteidaia and Lila said you had left to come here. So, I rode as fast as could to get here. I guess I wasn't paying enough attention ... and the horse slipped ... and well that's what most of this is." She said pointing to her injured face and leg.
"Oh Xena ... not Argo?"
"No, a horse I had got from the northern Amazon's."
Gabrielle held up both of her hands. "Wait, slow down. Where's Argo?"
"I left her behind when I went north. I couldn't take her with me."
"Why not? ... North? Why north?" Gabrielle's confusion was evident in her voice and the puzzlement on her face.
"That's where the spirits of the Amazon's go. I thought you were dead Gabrielle ... I had to see you... " Xena's voice trailed off when she realized how close she had come to crossing over.
"What do you mean you had to see me?" Gabrielle's concern suddenly darkened her features. "Xena, if you thought I was dead..." She cocked her head and tried to look Xena in the eye. Anger suddenly blazed in her green eyes as she realized what her friend was saying.
"You were going to take your own life?"
The warrior sat in reluctant silence, her downcast eyes refusing to look at Gabrielle. She knew her friend would not be pleased with her decision to join her.
"Xena, look at me. Were you going to take your own life?" Gabrielle reached over and lifted the warrior's chin. Xena's blue eyes looked up through half closed eyelids, as a tear spilled over her dark lashes.
Xena couldn't hold the stare coming from the innocent eyes of her friend.
"Because I couldn't live without you. I was so lost ... I couldn't find a balance in my life. Without you ... I had no center ... I had no reason." Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at the outpour of emotions from a woman who couldn't even say the word love in front of someone.
Without warning the front doors banged loudly and both women looked over at the young boy standing and staring back at them.
"Mother!" he cried out loudly. No one heard the pan hit the floor in the kitchen as Solan vocally identified the woman who gave him life. Xena struggled to stand as Solan embraced her with such force he almost knocked the wounded warrior over. The strong arms wrapped around the young boy as a sob broke from her lips. Xena held him tightly, something she never thought she would be able to do again. Xena never saw the look of fulfillment in Gabrielle's eyes, nor the look of astonishment on Cyrene's face as she stood in the doorway of the kitchen.
Xena hugged and rocked her son, kissing his head, feeling the softness of his hair against her lips. The warrior princess thanked the powers that be for the return of him. She looked over his head at the woman who had returned her child. As Xena mouthed the words 'thank you', Gabrielle nodded a smile of satisfaction.
Solan pulled away as his eyes spotted the blood around the chair, which she had been sitting in. He looked down at his mother's blood soaked bandage.
"Xena, you're hurt." He said, slipping back to the name he best knew her by.
"I'll be fine. Look at you!" She couldn't get the smile off of her face as she looked at her son. He hadn't aged or grown at bit in her eyes. He looked just as alive and as healthy as he had on the day that he died. Xena swallowed at the word, a word she no longer had to use.
'Solan and Gabrielle are both alive,' the reality hit her and her knees got very weak and her body started to tremble. Cyrene was by her daughter's side in an instant as she and Gabrielle helped Xena back into her chair.
Xena felt the warmth of her mother's touch as she turned to look her in the eye. The warrior could see the concern, but she could also see the pain and disbelief. Xena knew then that she had hurt her mother by not confiding in her. Cyrene had no knowledge Xena had ever given birth. She had never been told that she was a grandmother.
Cyrene saw the look of regret cross her daughters face. There was so much of her life she knew nothing about, but in the same breath, she had never asked either. She had been afraid to know the truth of who her own daughter really was.
Xena's lips started to move she wanted to tell her mother she was sorry. She never intended to hurt her or to keep that kind of secret from her own mother. But before a single sound could be muttered, Cyrene put her fingers to her daughter's lips.
"Later, my dear. This is not the time ... nor the place." Cyrene leaned over and kissed Xena on the forehead as she patted her shoulder. She stood up and admired her grandson. She had her suspicions when Gabrielle had arrived with the boy, something about him was all too familiar. Cyrene turned and walked back into the kitchen, a proud smile on her face as she whistled a lively tune. She was a grandmother, she couldn't wait to tell the ladies on poker night.
Xena turned her gaze back to her son. The young boy beamed with innocence as he returned to the bag and pole he had left at the front door. Xena shook her head with amazement as she watched his jubilant stride.
"Look mother, bass." He proudly held up his string of fish from his morning on the Strymon river. The prideful mother nodded as Solan left to take his fish into the kitchen. They could hear his boyish protests coming from the kitchen. They knew without looking that he was squirming under Cyrene's hug.
Xena still couldn't believe it. His death had caused such pain and torment in her life. Everything she and Gabrielle had gone through, she turned and looked at the quiet blond woman. Only then did she notice the normally talkative little bard hadn't spoken a word.
"Thank you Gabrielle." The words came from the bottom of her heart, but she still knew they would never be enough.
"A mother needs her son, Xena." Gabrielle couldn't have spoken truer words. Xena reached for her friend's hand again, and gave it a small squeeze. Before either of them could say another word, there was a sharp rap on the inn doors.
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and went to answer it. She could tell by the woman's dress and the bag in her hand, this had to be Janios. Gabrielle took a step back and waved the healer into the tavern.
Janios had seen them all come and go. The good and the bad, the young and the old. Almost everyone in the village had been delivered into the world by her skilled hands, and most of the occupants of the town cemetery had whispered their last dying words to her. Her once tall body was now stooped with age, her auburn hair had long since turned to silver, but her hands were still steady and her mind was still very clear. Her sharp eyes had spotted the warrior limping into town early this morning and she knew sooner or later Cyrene would be knocking at her door. But Janios had no love for the warrior princess and it was only her respect for the innkeeper that brought her here to see the warrior's wounds.
Gabrielle watched as the old healer slowly unwrapped the soiled cotton. Not wanting to see the damage to her leg, the warrior transfixed her blue eyes on the blond woman in front of her. It didn't matter, the moment the wound was exposed to the air, Xena could smell the infection as she watched Gabrielle's face cringe in disgust. Janios muttered something under her breath but neither Xena nor Gabrielle could make out what the old woman had said.
Xena reluctantly looked down at her thigh and felt her own features tighten in concern
The wound was angry with infection, she could she the yellow pus seeping from one corner, while the other was gapping open. The steady ooze of blood told the warrior she had severed some of her sutures. The healer flushed out the wound, and then went to work with a needle and thread closing up the torn flesh. With the bleeding finally under control, Janios wiped the injury site clean and then placed a poultice along the entire wound.
The most serious of Xena's injuries looked after, Janios began to examine the bump on Xena's head. She looked over the fading yellow and green bruises on her face and then looked into the warrior's blue eyes.
"Headaches, dizziness, nausea." There was no evidence of care or compassion in the healer's short questions.
Xena shook her head no to all of them.
"What's under the bandages?" The old woman asked as she motioned toward the warrior's hands.
"Nothing. They're old and healing fine." Janios didn't ask any more. She didn't really want to even be here, so if the warrior said nothing, then she wasn't going to push the issue.
"Well, that's it then. You need to watch that infection closely, you could lose your leg! Give it a lot of rest and keep the bandages clean ... put another poultice on it later. But I gather I don't have to tell you any of this, you know about wounds and injuries don't you?" The healer put her supplies back into her bag and turned to leave.
"Thank you Janios."
The healer said nothing to Xena, but continued to mutter until she was out the door.
Gabrielle pushed the lock back into place, and then returned to Xena' s side.
She noticed how quiet the warrior had become.
"Are you alright Xena?" Gabrielle pulled a chair up next to her.
"Yeah ... Just tried I guess."
"Tired of the hatred these people have for you, or just tired of being judged by your past."
Xena said nothing at Gabrielle's revealing assessments of the situation. She had not forgotten how acute the bard's observations were.
The warrior sighed deeply and leaned her head back against the chair. Moments later she heard the swish of the swinging doors and her mother's footsteps.
Cyrene came from the kitchen with platters of food, followed closely by Solan carrying a tray of drinks. The sight of the two of them almost brought the tired warrior to tears. Cyrene winked at her daughter, the playfulness of the actions brought a small smile to her face. She sat up straighter in her chair and examined the plates of food. Bacon, meat patties and a whole bowl full of scrambled eggs. Only then did Xena realize just how hungry she was.
The conversation around the table was light and enjoyable. Gabrielle and Cyrene did most of the talking as Xena ate and watched the people she loved so dearly. She couldn't keep her blue eyes from gazing at her son as he ate his large breakfast.
'He's a growing boy,' she thought as she smiled another thank you over to Gabrielle. The little bard smiled in return, and then continued her conversation with Cyrene.
With her belly full of her mother's cooking, Xena fought against her closing eyelids. She didn't want to waste a single moment sleeping. All she wanted to do was spend time with each of them. I was a battle the warrior couldn't win, it had been too long since she had a peaceful sleep. Cyrene nudged Gabrielle's arm, a sweet smile of contentment crossed the bard's face as Xena's head bobbed down and rested on her chest.
Cyrene quietly went to her daughter's side, and placed a soft hand on her shoulder.
"Xena, I think you need to get some rest."
Her head snapped up and her blue eyes popped open.
"What, I'm not tired ... " The warrior looked around at the smiling faces. She was busted and she knew it.
"Let's put her in her own room, she can sleep with Solan." Gabrielle said to the two surprised women.
Cyrene turned to look at Xena, the mother saw the disheartened look pass through her daughter's blue eyes. Cyrene turned back to the bard and with a raised eyebrow, and "Then I'll fix up another room for you Gabrielle?" The little blond nodded in agreement.
Xena watched as her mother and Gabrielle disappeared into her old bedroom. She was surprised at Gabrielle's decision to sleep separately, but she didn't know what to say. Obviously, she felt uncomfortable sleeping next to Xena in her mother's inn.
It took all three of them to convince Xena she needed some rest. Realizing it wasn't a battle worth fighting, Xena limped slowly into her old bedroom. As much as she protested she wasn't tired, the warrior's blue eyes were closed before they left the room. Cyrene returned a few moments later with Xena's saddle bags and smiled down at the sleeping form of her daughter. She placed the warrior's bags in the back corner of the room and then stood to watch the steady rise and fall of Xena's chest. She had a million questions for her daughter, none of the least was why? In a mothering gesture she leaned over and brushed her daughter's dark bangs off her forehead. Kissing the tips of her fingers, she laid them gently on Xena's lips and then quietly left the room.
Cyrene smiled at the young blond and her grandson who were back sitting at the table. The innkeeper reached for the dishes and began to clean up from breakfast.
"If you wouldn't mind Gabrielle, I would enjoy your company if you could give me a hand?" Gabrielle flashed a bright smile and reached for the remaining dishes. Xena's son or not, Solan made a few excuses and was out the back door before someone asked for his help in the kitchen. His grandmother chuckled at the memory of his mother doing just about the same thing. The moment he was out the door, Cyrene's light mood changed as she turned to Gabrielle. She knew Xena's closest friend would have some of the answers she so desperately needed.
"When did she have him, and where?" Gabrielle looked at the old woman, her green eyes dropped to the floor.
"I think those are questions you should be asking your daughter, not me."
"But she never told me she even had a son or where he has been. Who has been looking after him, and why wasn't he brought here?" Cyrene pleaded with Gabrielle, and the bard finally gave in.
"All I can tell you is he was raised in a centaur village, by a centaur named Kaleipus. Xena hid him away for his own safety, he never knew she was his mother. Then he was ... then he died. Even Xena couldn't protect him from her past. She only told him she was his mother, after he was dead ... Don't ask Cyrene, it gets complicated. Anyhow, when I died, by error ... Hades said he owed me one, so I cashed in and brought Solan back to his mother. The rest you'll have to get from Xena." Gabrielle picked up her tray and headed into the kitchen.
Cyrene sank into one of the chairs, suddenly feeling the need to go and lie down. It was almost too much for her. When Gabrielle's words started to sink in, her heart went out to her daughter. She knew what it was like to lose a son, the pain, the torment ... Cyrene swallowed the lump rising in her throat. She closed her eyes and wished she had had the chance to say good-bye to Lyceus. Slowly rising from her chair, she picked up her tray and headed into the kitchen. She wasn't overly surprised to see Gabrielle was not there. Obviously the bard didn't want to discuss any further into Xena's past.
Cyrene was actually thankful for the peace and quiet of one of her daily chores. It gave her time to absorb all that had been said, and all she had seen. A while later, with the dishes done and the kitchen cleaned up, Cyrene wiped her hands on her apron and left to peek in on her sleeping daughter.
The bedroom door opened with its familiar creak, Cyrene stepped into the room. She wasn't surprised to see Gabrielle standing over the stilled form of her friend. The blond woman smiled up at Cyrene and met her at the door.
"I'm sorry I left. I know you would probably liked a hand doing the dishes."
"It's ok dear, I do them by myself everyday, one more won't make a difference."
"It's just ... I didn't think it was my place to discuss Xena's son with her mother. Plus there is some history there ... I really don't want to bring up."
Cyrene patted the young girls arm. "It's ok Gabrielle. You don't need to say anything more."
Gabrielle smiled at her and then slipped past her out the door. The older woman sat down in the chair across from the bed and gazed at her sleeping daughter. An hour or so later, when Cyrene came out of Xena's bedroom, she noticed both Gabrielle and Solan were gone. The older woman knew there was much more going on here than a simple reunion of family and friends. She had been around the water barrel a few too many times not to notice the unspoken words between the two old friends.
It was late afternoon and Cyrene was sitting in her empty tavern, alone. Gabrielle and Solan had not returned, giving Xena time to rest. She had contemplated removing the closed sign off the front doors, but had decided she too needed a day of rest. She rose from her chair and crossed the tavern to the large sitting room, she thought about lighting a fire in the fireplace. Cyrene's head came up as she heard a small moan coming from somewhere in the inn. The sound grew louder and she realized it was coming from her daughter's bedroom. Rising to her feet, she was at the bedroom door just as the moans turned to a bloodcurdling wail.
The desperate cry of a wounded animal ripped through Cyrene's heart as she threw open the bedroom door. Her eyes immediately went to her distraught daughter. Xena was sitting up in bed, her ashen face was covered in sweat, her eyes were open wide, and she was shaking uncontrollably. Cyrene crossed the room and collected Xena into her arms, she rocked her gently back and forth until Xena finally broke down into a sob. Not knowing what could have frightened her daughter, this way unnerved the older woman. She was not used to this kind of emotional out pouring from her normally unshakable child. She couldn't remember the last time she had held her daughter like this, or if she ever had.
"It's ok. It was just a bad dream, little one. I'm here, it's ok." She shushed as she rocked her back and forth, but it still took a while before Xena was calmed down. When she finally spoke, her voice took on an almost childlike quality and it broke Cyrene's heart.
"Tell me they're here, mother. Tell me the dream was real and the nightmare is over."
"They're here Xena. Both of them, Gabrielle and Solan."
The warrior princess was silent for awhile, Cyrene could still feel her daughter's strong body shaking beneath her motherly hold.
"Where are they, mother?" The question was just a mere whisper.
"They left earlier dear, they wanted you to rest."
Cyrene looked down at her daughter, the color had started to return, but she still showed signs of pure exhaustion. She brushed the damp dark hair off of Xena's face and smiled down at the warm blue eyes.
"Xena ... Why didn't you tell me you had a child?"
The warrior knew the questions would be coming, it had been one of the things toiling with her mind in her nightmares.
"I couldn't mother. I wasn't exactly in touch with you at the time ... I was too busy destroying nations and families ... including my own. I wasn't welcome here ... that I blame you. And when I did come back ... well ... it just never seemed to be the right time. I'm sorry mother, I never meant to hurt you. The only people who knew of him were dead, except for Kaleipus and me. I didn't even tell Gabrielle until she met him." Cyrene could see the pain and regret in the face she was holding. She wiped away a straggling tear as Xena looked up into her mother's face.
"There's a lot of things I regret in my life. But if I hadn't done them, I would never of had Solan and I probably would never have met Gabrielle."
"You've come along way my little one. We all have things we regret in life, but few of us ever realize, without our past, our present wouldn't be what it is. And our futures would never be possible." Xena closed her eyes to her mother's words as she tightened her grasp over the bandages. The painful reminders of what their future had in store for her and Gabrielle.
"You could have brought him here Xena. I would have looked after him." The blue eyes opened to look sadly at the woman who held her in her arms.
"I couldn't mother. If people found out I had a child, he would have been a target ... He was a target ... It was because of who his mother was that he was killed ... but he's alive now." She still couldn't believe her son was alive. Her eyes narrowed as the words dripped low from her lips. "I won't let him be a target again."
"A target by whom Xena ... who would try to kill a child?"
"My enemies mother ... I still have many of them, all of whom would love to find out that I have a son. It was a weakness I couldn't afford then, but I refuse to let him go again." Cyrene swallowed at the words of conviction growling out of her daughter. She wasn't sure how much more her heart could take, but there was one more question she wanted to know.
"Who killed him Xena?" The warrior pulled away from her mother's embrace and swung her legs off the bed. She sat in silence for a moment but didn't stand. She turned her solemn gaze to her mother.
Cyrene's mouth hung open in shock and despair. What a sick twist of fate, your own child killing the son of your best friend. The horror of it left Cyrene dizzy with disbelief.
Xena put an arm around her mother and filled her in on some of what had happen to them in the last year. By the time Xena had finished with the shortened story, she was sure her mother had turned a little grayer. They sat in silence, neither knew what to say to comfort the other.
Cyrene now understood some of the distance between the two old friends. The pain she could see in their eyes, and the torture that had almost destroyed their souls. And poor Solan was the centerpiece of the cataclysmic change in their lives, a constant reminder of the pain they had caused one another. What a burden for a young child to bare.
When Cyrene finally spoke, her voice was soft and desperate.
"What now Xena? Where are you going to go?"
"I don't know mother, but I know we can't stay here for too long ... I'm sorry."
"I can't say I like the idea of you all leaving so soon ... but I do understand ... now."
Xena looked at her mother, she suddenly realized how frail her mother looked. The warrior put her arms around her and gave her a big hug.
"What do you say we go and find those two, and see what they are up to?" Xena said with her best 'I'll be fine' smile.
Cyrene nodded and the two got up from the bed and left the room, she tried not to notice her daughter's painful limp.
Gabrielle and Solan were sitting at a table in deep discussion when the two emerged from the bedroom, they parted and turned to look at them.
Xena still couldn't believe it, it all seemed so unreal, the two of them sitting and smiling at her. It filled her own face and heart with happiness.
"Are you feeling better mother?"
Xena limped over to the table and ruffled her son's hair. She smiled down at Gabrielle.
"Yes, I've never felt better."
"Good," Gabrielle said simply.
Cyrene left them alone, giving the three some privacy while she went to attend to dinner.
The three sat at the table and much to Xena's surprise, she did most of the talking. The little bard sat in silence, smiling at the conversation between mother and son.
The warrior princess knew she would never be able to thank Gabrielle for the gift she had brought her. Every once in awhile she would look over at her friend, but Gabrielle's green eyes always seemed to be elsewhere. Something was definitely on the bard's mind. Xena's tried to hide her concerned expression, but she knew Gabrielle had seen it.
Suddenly the bard rose and walked into the gathering room. Her eyes went to the empty fireplace.
"Do you think your mother would mind if I started a fire?"
Xena was slightly startled, Gabrielle was not known for her ability to create a spark.
"I can do it if you want."
"No Xena, you stay and talk to Solan." Gabrielle smiled, then turned her attentions to the wood stacked next to the fireplace.
A small smile crept onto Xena's face as she watched her friend pile the kindling into a peak.
"You love her don't you mother?"
Xena turned her attentions back to Solan. She didn't know how to answer the question. Her love for Gabrielle wasn't something she felt comfortable discussing with him. Looking down at his innocent face, Xena knew honesty was her only way out.
"Yes, I do. But you know that don't you. I mean it was you who brought us back together wasn't it." She smiled as she gazed into her son's brown eyes. Xena wasn't certain, but there seemed to be confusion there.
"It was you, who took us to Illusia, wasn't it?"
His face lightened with a smile.
"Oh yes it was. It's where I learned I was your son." Xena returned the smile, but Solan never noticed the hesitation on her face.
Xena's head turned as Gabrielle's fire roared to life. The little bard was staring into the flames, a smile of accomplishment spread across her face.
"Wow, that was fast," Xena said.
Gabrielle turned to look at her.
"The kindling was already cut and dry. All I had to do was start it." Xena nodded with understanding. The glimmer of the fire shining brightly in her blue eyes.
"Could I get a hand in the kitchen, please," Cyrene hollered through the door.
"I think it's my turn." Xena reluctantly pushed off from the table and limped into the kitchen.
"What do you need mother?" The dark haired warrior said as she came through the door.
"Can you take one of the trays out to the table, dear?"
"Sure," Xena reached for the tray of food and turned to leave the room. She hesitated, then turned back to her mother.
"Is something wrong, dear?" Cyrene looked at her child with question.
Xena pondered her thought for a moment, but shook her head no.
"What is it Xena?" Cyrene didn't like the look on her daughter's face.
The warrior said nothing at first, it was like she was deciding on something. She bit at her bottom lip for a moment and then looked her mother in the eye.
"Did Gabrielle say why she came here to find me?" Cyrene was puzzled at Xena's question.
"She just said you had been separated, and this was the best place to look for you. She didn't go into a lot of detail. Why, is something wrong?" Cyrene had learned long ago not to dismiss her daughter's instincts.
"No, nothing mother." Xena leaned over, pecked a kiss onto her cheek, and left the kitchen.
The four sat down to the evening meal, the only one to notice the slight difference from earlier, was Gabrielle. She watched the warrior eating, and became very conscious of the icy blue eyes watching her. There wasn't much conversation as they ate, each seemed to be lost in their own thoughts.
"Oh, that was delicious Cyrene. Thank you again for the wonderful food." The little blond pushed away her plate.
Xena looked down at the half-eaten plate of food in front of Gabrielle.
"Are you finished?" Gabrielle looked over into the questioning blue eyes. Something was definitely wrong with the tall warrior.
"Yes, I wasn't really that hungry." She didn't like the look that came over Xena's face, Gabrielle quickly stood and collected some of the dishes off the table. She smiled over at Xena's mother.
"I'll look after the dishes tonight, Cyrene. You visit with your daughter."
"It's ok Gabrielle. I told you this morning, I don't mind doing the dishes, I do them every day."
Gabrielle just smiled and took the full tray into the kitchen.
"What did you mean 'this morning' mother?"
"It was nothing dear, don't worry about it?"
"Let me decide if it was nothing."
"I tried to talk to her this morning while we where clearing the breakfast table, and well ... she got a little upset and left. But she apologized late for leaving me with the dishes. I keep telling her, it's ok."
"What were you talking to her about?"
Cyrene looked at her sternly, she could see her questions belonged to the warrior and not her daughter. She also knew she didn't want to answer the question, with the answer sitting there next to them.
Xena saw her mother eyes glance to her son, she had almost forgotten he was still sitting there.
"Did you have enough to eat Solan?" Cyrene asked.
The small boy had been watching the interaction between his mother and grandmother. He quickly smiled and nodded. He didn't want them to know their discussion had bothered him. He reached for the other tray and began to load up the remaining dishes.
Cyrene smiled with pride, as her well-mannered grandson cleared the table. She looked over at her daughter, but Xena was not smiling. She was staring at Solan as he picked up the tray and headed into the kitchen.
"Xena, what is wrong with you?" The warrior shook her head, and brought herself back from where her mind had taken her.
"What were you trying to ask Gabrielle this morning?"
"Just about Solan, Xena. I wanted to know about my grandson, and since my daughter had neglected to tell me anything, I thought her best friend might." Ignoring the direct insult from her mother, Xena stood up from the table and crossed the room to sit in front of the fire. Her head was pounding, sending her thoughts she could no longer overlook.
Cyrene watched her daughter with concern and when the raven hair dropped into her hands, she stood and walked to her daughter's side.
"Xena," she said softly. "What is wrong my dear? Should I go and fetch Janios?"
"No," Xena mumbled through her hands, "I think I'm just tired that's all."
Cyrene moved in behind her daughter and rubbed her back. Xena moaned as the knotted points of pressure reacted to the soft touch. As much as she tried, the warrior couldn't keep her mind from slipping into the dark recesses of her painful past.
"Why don't you retire early my dear. I'm sure Gabrielle and Solan would understand."
"Understand what?" Xena looked up from her hands as Gabrielle crossed the room, a troubled look darkened her innocent face.
"Xena's not feeling well, Gabrielle. So I told her I thought she should go to bed early." The two old friends stared at one another.
Gabrielle immediately softened her features and knelt down in front of the warrior. "You do need to get some rest Xena. You do look very tired."
Xena struggled to produce a small smile. The soft green eyes of the woman in front of her tugged at her raw emotions.
"No, I think I would rather stay out here with all of you." The warrior looked around the room. "Where's Solan?" Her dark eyebrows furrowed with the query.
"He just went out to feed your mother's chickens. He should be back soon." Gabrielle stood in front of the fire, warming her hands on the dancing flames.
You two are done the dishes already?" Cyrene said.
"I told you, two could do it faster than one." Gabrielle smiled at Cyrene.
The three sat in front of the crackling fire, though Cyrene did most of the talking, she was very aware of the looks being passed between the two old friends.
A breath of fresh air blew in when Solan returned. He crossed the silent room and flopped down next to Gabrielle on the couch. Xena looked over at her son, she felt a familiar lump returning to her throat. The bard smiled in understanding and then nudge the young boy. Solan looked over at his mother and moved over to sit next to her. He snuggled into Xena's arms as the warrior lightly stroked his brown hair. Cyrene and Gabrielle smiled at the motherly show of affection by the warrior.
"Tell us a story Gabrielle. I've missed your tall tales." Xena said softly, her eyes never leaving the flickering flames of the fire.
"I really shouldn't, it's late and we're all tired."
"It's not that late Gabrielle. I'd love to hear one too." Cyrene said as she patted the reluctant Bard's leg.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena and their eyes locked, the warrior smiled as she ran her fingers over Solan's shoulder. The communication was clear, but there were only two people in the room who knew the full extent of what had happened.
A smile spread slowly across Gabrielle's face, a knowing smile that sent a chill through Xena's spine. The delight was evident in her changing eyes as one eyebrow cocked up under her blond bangs. The warrior looked down at the child next to her, she closed her eyes to the pain tearing at her heart. She knew then, when something is too good to be true ... it usually is!
The warrior suddenly cocked her head to the noise growing outside. Her intense gaze focused on the blond woman sitting across from her. She knew without question what her heart and mind had been telling her. This was not Gabrielle ... this was Hope. Xena watched with a rising anger as the blonde's eyebrow rose above her green eye, with a evil knowledge, Hope tilted her head.
'So the warrior woman has figured it out. It doesn't matter, I had my fun.' Hope's face darkened with a confident smirk.
Xena was all too aware of the danger they were in as Hope sat calmly in the identical body of Gabrielle. The daughter of Dahak had returned and Xena knew this time she wanted to make it personal. The warrior's eyes seethed with anger and hatred as she glared at the woman who had taken so much from her life.
Cyrene was unaware of the exchange between Xena and the woman she thought was Gabrielle, but when she turned to her daughter, she saw the hardened look on the warrior's face. Then she heard the voices loudly gathering outside her inn.
"What is it Xena? What's going on?"
The warrior broke her stare and turned to her mother, Cyrene was frightened by what she saw in her daughter's eyes. Xena tightened her hold on Solan's shoulder as she snapped back a glare at Gabrielle.
"What did you do?" The warrior's voice was low as the accusation rumbled from her chest. The smile on the blonde's face only deepened the warrior's contempt and stirred the ire in her soul.
"I just leveled the playing field Xena." The warrior watched the eyebrow rise in a winner take all challenge.
Xena rose off the couch slowly, keeping her hand on Solan's shoulder, her eye's never leaving Hope's. Xena made her way over to the bar and felt under the wooden counter for her weapons. Her fingers felt the familiar smoothness of her chakram and the icy cold of her sword. The warrior stood tall behind the bar, her hand still resting on Solan's shoulders as she placed the deadly ring on her belt..
'Your move Hope.' Xena tilted her head as the thought reflected through her icy stare.
The blonde's features turned dark and deadly as Hope smoothly slide in next to Xena's mother. The warrior knew her next move could be fatal to her and her family. Her mind was searching for a way out as her fingers tightened on the leather hilt of her sword.
"Do you think that is necessary?" Cyrene said as she left the bard's side, walking towards her daughter.
"Do you really need your weapons? You know how I feel about them, especially in here."
Xena turned to her mother, her sword held up in defense. Looking at her mother and then at Hope she realized her weapon would be useless against the demi-god. Her eyes steadfast on her mother, the warrior slide her sword into her scabbard. A loud voice boomed from outside the tavern.
"We know you're in there Xena. Come on out!"
"Yes mother, I need my weapons. You never know when you might have to use them."
Cyrene felt a shiver of fear go through her body. She was well aware of how her friends and fellow villagers felt about her daughter. Once again Xena's past was rising up to strike her down. She watched the chiseled features on Xena's face flicker with anger. The warrior looked back at Hope, who was once again standing next to her mother.
A loud thud was heard at the front doors as the wood creaked with the heavy weight thrown against it.
"Send her out, or we'll come in and get her." Xena had heard the villagers get angry at her before, but nothing like this. The mob outside sounded like a pack of hungry wolves ... and they could smell blood.
Cyrene looked to her daughter for answers, but Xena only had eyes for the blond woman standing next to her. The icy glare had all the fury and anger of a woman possessed.
The front doors shook again as the villagers attempted to break their way into the tavern. The warrior could hear the clanking of weapons as the door moaned again under the power of the desperate mob. Xena realized then, Hope had to of had something to do with them hunting her down.
Everyone turned at the sound of splintering wood as a flaming bottle exploded against one of the tables, the flames jumped to life from the spreading liquid. The angry mob was calling for Xena's blood and their chants filled the night sky with a venomous desire. The warrior turned from the flames and saw the smile on Hope face.
Xena took a step towards her mother as the blond twin of Gabrielle placed a possessive arm around the woman's shoulder.
"I'll look after her Xena ... You better deal with that mob before they burn the tavern down ... with us in it."
Xena looked from her mother to the flames growing around them. She knew what Hope wanted, she wanted Xena to make a choice, and she would, once her mother was safe. The warrior's eyes darted to the front doors. If they were to try to leave the burning tavern the angry mob outside would be waiting for them. The warrior's icy glare fell on Dahak's daughter, the smile had left her face, and a look of angry determination had taken its place.
Hope watched as Xena's eyes scanned her options.
"Oh, I don't think so Xena!" Hope sneered, the demon child shot her green eyes over to the window. The wooden shutters exploded from within, sprinkling the warrior and her child with flying debris. The flames surged forward eating the dry timbers the tavern had offered it for fuel and Xena could feel the heat intensifying as the orange fingers climbed the walls. Seeing no way out other than the front doors, Xena reached for a blanket and started to beat at the flames, her mind was racing, searching for a way out.
Panic started to rise in Cyrene though she didn't know if it was for her daughter, her grandson, Gabrielle or for her inn. She broke from Hope's grasp and joined her daughter's fight with the ever growing flames.
Hope's eyes sparkled with delight as she watched the warrior fighting a losing battle. The haunting shadows moved across her face as she began to play with her prey. She turned and smiled at Solan, the small boy smiled back. His eyes blazed with red as he joined his mother watching the women struggle against the flames. With just the power of evil, Hope's eyes picked up a chair and through it at the warrior's side. The wooden seat shattered into pieces as it struck Xena's body.
The warrior princess couldn't muffled the groan escaping her parted lips. She turned to face the woman who wanted to destroy her and everyone she had ever loved.
Hope began throwing everything she set her eyes on at the tall warrior, and it took everything Xena had to block the projectiles from reaching her unknowing mother. With her sword raised, she struck at every chair, plate, bottle, or object Hope could get her eyes on. Xena's need to destroy grew inside of her as blood ran freely down the side of her head. A deep gash from one of Hope's weapons had hit its mark. But it didn't slow the blood lust pumping through her warrior veins.
Hope slid across the room and stood in front of the battered body of the warrior princess.
"Couldn't fool you, could I ... Xena. What tipped you off?"
"Hades ... I talked to him, and Gabrielle was never there. She was an Amazon and they go someplace else. Besides, Gabrielle has an aura you could never understand." Xena glared at the evil that had filled her life with torment.
"My mother was pathetic. She tried to stop me and it cost her her life! My own mother made choices ... and she picked ... you." Xena saw the pain of betrayal slip in and out of Hope's all too familiar green eyes.
"You or her Xena. Make your decision. It's not hard ... mother made it. Now its your turn. Your life ... or your mother's!" Hope's green eyes shot to Cyrene. Xena looked over and saw Solan standing next to her mother, an evil smile was on his face. The flames reflected off his pale skin, his eyes glowing with an evil red. Xena tried not to think of him as her son, but as the demon child she knew him to be. He was Hope's child, not hers. The Destroyer!
"Survival instincts Xena. We all have to make choices ... just like the one my own mother made. But at least your mother loved you!" Xena watched in horror as Hope began to lift the flames higher around Cyrene.
By pure adrenaline and raw emotion, Xena had Hope by the throat before the daughter of Dahak could react. The warrior tossed her as hard and as far as she could, then dove at Hope's son. The child was taken by surprise, which was what Xena had hoped for. She closed her eyes as she drove her feet into the child's chest, sending him crashing into the bar. Grabbing her mother in her arms, she threw them both at the front doors. The weight of the two women broke the locks and the doors flew open.
The warrior tried to shield her mother from the fall, but the older woman landed hard on the ground. Xena looked down at her mother, but Cyrene's eyes were closed.
"Mom ... Mother!" There was no movement from the unconscious woman. "Mother!"
Xena felt the feet of the villagers close in. She placed a protective arm around her mother and looked up at the angry mob surrounding them.
Xena laid her mother gently to the ground and then slowly began to stand. The moment she was upright, pitchforks, axes and swords surrounded her neck and chest.
"Your hatred is with me, not my mother." Xena snarled at them, she could see Hope and the Destroyer standing side by side in the tavern, their smiles clearly seen through the flames.
Xena reached down and collected her mother into her arms. The weapons pulled back slightly as the warrior stood up.
"She is one of you. Why punish her, it's me you want."
Xena looked into the faces of the people she had grown up with. Villagers she had once called friends, but their eyes were now vacant, their minds taken over by the power of evil.
"I will go with you, if you save my mother ... and her inn."
Xena searched the crowd for a face she could trust, someone who would look after her mother, but all she saw was hatred. She felt the weapons pushing against her armor as the crowd surged forward. Time was running out. She could feel the heat coming from the inferno of flames that had once been her home.
"Do what you want with me, but leave my mother alone." The warrior's voice echoed the desperation she felt in her heart.
The blue eyes spotted movement at the edge of the mob. It was Janios. The old woman's eyes were alive, not vacant like the others. Somehow, Hope's powers hadn't penetrated the healer's mind. Janios nodded at the warrior, and she began to separate a path to the warrior's side. Xena could see she had her young son behind her, he too was free of the evil that had taken over Amphipolis. The closer they got to Xena, the more aggressive the mob became. The warrior felt the blows and jabs at her body but she refused to let go of the hold she had on her mother. As she felt Janios' wrinkled hands touch her own, Xena lurched forward from a blow to her shoulder, but Janios' son was there to take Cyrene from Xena's arms. The moment her mother was no longer in her care, the mob turned on her.
Xena struggled slightly, absorbing the blows as best as she could, until she saw her mother's body was safely away from the flames and the crowd.
She stood up tall and began to block the blows, she wasn't going down without a fight. The warrior battled heroically but there was just too many of them and she had no room to fight. She caught an outstretched arm and grabbed the sword from the loose grip of a villager. Blow after blow rained down on her as she defended herself from the onslaught of hatred. Her eyes caught the movement of Hope and her demon child as they started to leave the burning tavern.
Xena drew her sword, and with a weapon in each hand, she began to push back the villagers. Her eyes alive with vengeance she glared at the mother and child standing in the doorway.
"Kill me if you can." The warrior princess snarled at the possessed crowd as she looked at all their faces.
"Kill me if you can, but even if you do, my son will take my place." Xena grinned a deceptive smile at the blond who turned to glare at her.
"My son will be the ultimate conqueror. He will be The Destroyer!" The crowd paused as they looked at the sneering child standing beside the small blond woman. The flames of the tavern were lost in his glowing red eyes.
"Xena!" Hope screamed as she looked from the warrior to the mob slowly moving in their direction.
"My child ... my son. He will be bigger than me, he will destroy your town. He will destroy your lives!" Xena glanced around her, the villagers were no longer looking at her, their eyes were only for the Destroyer.
Anger boiled through Hope's body. She knew what Xena was doing now, as her green eyes darted left and right, the mob's hatred was turning to her son, her child!
"NO! It's her you want, not him. It's Xena you hate!" But Hope's words were not getting through to them.
"That boy is your enemy. He will kill your wives and husbands, your children!"
The zombie minds of the angry crowd turned on the boy. Hope drew a line of fire between them, keeping the weapons of the mob away from her son.
As the flames danced in front of them, Hope glared at the warrior princess.
"You would let them kill your son? Your own flesh and blood!" Xena raised an eyebrow at Hope's desperate words. The warrior now knew why Hope had picked his likeness for the body of her child. She had thought she could fool Xena, and that Xena would not be able to harm a child that looked so much like her own.
The destroyer looked at Xena, his features softened with fear and he reached out a small hand for his supposed mother.
"She made me do it, mother. You have to believe me. Don't let those people kill me."
The warrior fought to control her heart. She knew he wasn't her son, but her mind and motherly instincts twisted in doubt as she looked at the innocent face of Solan.
"Can't do it, can you Xena. You can't let them kill your own son." Hope looked at the crowd before them. Their only escape was through them as the fire behind her was roaring with intense heat. But she couldn't deal with them and Xena, as well as look after her son. He was too young, and his powers weren't strong enough to protect himself. Hope reached out to Xena's weakness ... her heart. The warrior cared too much and Hope was certain she wouldn't be able to kill her own son.
"Are going to let them kill your own son!"
"NO! Hope. I'm going to let them kill yours!"
"AHHHH" Hope reached for the child's hand and raced back into the burning tavern. With a running leap into the air, Xena somersaulted through the flaming door after them.
Xena looked desperately around the room, the flames were eating everything in its path. Her blue eyes went to the sign hanging over the bar, the words were all but gone now and the tavern with it. The warrior felt the hairs on her arms being singed by the flames surrounding her. Hot embers were floating through the air, as pieces of burning ceiling were dropping onto her shoulders.
Xena looked over at Hope and was surprised to see fear in the demon's eyes, but the warrior princess knew it was pure hatred in her soul.
"Can you do it Xena? ... Can you kill your own child? That's what you asked my mother to do! ... You can't can you? ... You're going to let the fire kill us all!" Hope had no way of knowing her words had struck the warrior's heart. Xena knew the child was not her own, but it wouldn't make it any easier to watch the flames take his life.
She grabbed for a blanket and threw it over the child's body, Xena tried to ignore the smile spreading over Hope's face.
A great roar filled the room as the rolling flames broke through the roof, bringing a shower of burning debris down on them. The warrior ducked and dodged the bigger pieces of wood as she watched Hope's actions with interest.
The daughter of Dahak had jumped away from the flames! Xena lowered her eyelids with a smile. It was the information she needed to know.
Hope turned back to Xena as the warrior looked up at the night sky now seen through the gapping hole in the roof. Flames and sparks roared into the dark as the smoke began to billow upwards.
The warrior and the demi-god locked eyes. Hope tilted her head in question to Xena's playful smile. With a wink and a war cry, she held tightly to the blanket-covered child and rolled out of sight into the growing flames. Hope tried to follow them with her eyes but lost them in the fire. Suddenly Xena was standing on the far side of the room just below the hole in the ceiling. All Hope could do was watch as she leaped up through the flames and into the night, the blanketed child still in her arms.
Anger and rage filled Hope's face.
The demi-god watched the hole in the ceiling fill with flames. She looked around for her own escape.
The mob outside the front doors had been forced back by the raging fire, Hope knew it was her way out. She zig-zagged through the intense heat and fire, she was partly mortal after all and she knew she had to get out of this death trap. Hope now understood what had made Xena smile, the warrior had seen her jump away from the flames. It had been the opening the warrior had been looking for.
The crowd backed away as she jumped through the flames, landing gracefully amongst the villagers, she had them back under her powers but she wasn't certain for how long. The quiet mob kept their distance from the blond woman as she looked up at the roof searching for her son and for Xena.
Hope's eyes darted around the flames but she saw nothing. 'Where is she?'
"XENA!" Her scream couldn't be heard over the roar of the fire. Suddenly Hope saw movement, her eyes narrowed in fury at the tall dark haired woman standing proudly on the roof.
The warrior princess still held the blanket around the child, protecting him from the sparks and burning embers flying about the night skies.
Xena intense stare softened as a smile started to form on her sneering lips. An evil playfulness filled her face as she flipped open the blanket. All she had been holding was more blankets and Xena discarded them into the fire. Hope's eyes widened in horror as she watched the warrior princess disappear from her line of sight.
Xena leapt from the burning roof and landed painfully on the ground. She could now feel the intense pain in her injured leg, but she had to get closer to see if her plan worked.
Hope looked at the empty space were Xena had been, her head snapped back to look through the burning doorway of the tavern. There, alone amongst the flames stood her son as the tavern was disintegrating around him.
"HAAAAAAA!" Hope let go a mother's scream as she ran back in to save her son. She never felt the flames searing her mortal skin. She never felt her lungs filled with deadly smoke and heat. She only felt the love she had for her child as she held him tightly in her arms.
Xena watched through the smoke and flames as Hope held her son, the tavern falling in around them. The tavern released a loud moan as the building finally succumbed to the fire. The weakened structure collapsed inward as a wave of rolling flames burst through what was once the doorway.
Hope never saw the beam that broke her neck, nor did she feel the roof plummet down on their bodies. She just held onto her child as they returned in defeat to her father's domain.
'Maybe there was a small part of Gabrielle in her after all.' Xena thought as she watched the flames claim the mortal lives of the mother and son. Hope had given her life to save her child.
The warrior turned and looked at the crowd. Hope was dead, and with it her powers. The villagers now stood staring at the fire they had created. Now with broken hearts they knew what they had done to Cyrene and her tavern, not to mention her daughter. Their minds had no memory of the blond woman who had entered the burning building, Xena wondered if they ever would.
They parted as Xena slowly limped her way through them. Her broad shoulders hung heavy as she went to find her mother.
The healer's hut was on the edge of town, set back a bit from the road. A stone lined path led up to a small simple structure where the sick and injured sought relief. A large herb garden was set off to one side of the walkway, Xena recalled spending many hours with Janios picking and learning the herbs. She was the one who had started Xena on her way to becoming a healer, as the young child learned the ways of healing.
'Those were better times.' The warrior thought as she reached for the door handle and limped in.
Janios looked up at Xena as the warrior entered her home. The healer was thankful she had escaped the evil powers that had swept through her hometown as she watched the battered and bloody body of the warrior hobble across the room to a bowl of water. Xena reached into the cool liquid, removed a cloth and began to wipe away the blood and soot caked to her face.
"Is it over?" the healer asked cautiously.
Xena nodded but said nothing as she looked around remembering the simple, but clustered hut. Dried herbs hung from anything and everything, they were the main arsenal in Janios' fight to heal the wounded and dying. A small table with two simple chairs sat directly under one of the hut's windows. On the table were a number of candles flickering in the stillness of the night. Xena's eyes went to the man's jacket hanging by the door. Janios had lost her husband before Xena was even born. Now only the healer and her quiet son resided here, the jacket must have been his.
"Are you alright?" Janios asked as Xena folded the cloth back onto the table.
"Nothing serious." Xena said in a monotone voice as she crossed the room to kneel bedside her mother. The blue eyes traveled to the wooden splint on Cyrene's arm as Xena placed a gentle hand on the bandage wrapped around her head.
"Is she going to be alright?"
"I think so Xena. She's got a broken arm and a good bang on the head."
Xena brushed away the hair off her mother's face as Janios slipped out the door to give the warrior some privacy. Xena never noticed her leave, nor was she aware of the tears rolling down her face.
"I'm so sorry mother," she whispered. "I never meant for this to happen."
She hung her head and closed her eyes. She felt so tired, all she wanted to do was let go. She stayed knelt next to the bed, ignoring the pain burning in her thigh. Unaware that she had drifted off due to exhaustion, Xena jerked awake as her mother began to moan.
"Xena," Cyrene murmured.
"Mother." Her eyes began to flutter open and she tried to sit up. Cyrene closed her eyes to the pain in her head.
"Easy Mom, you've taken quite a blow." Cyrene's eyes shot open as a pained expression filled her face.
"The fire! Solan and Gabrielle!"
Xena tried to hide the pain in her heart when she regrettably spoke the words to her mother.
"It wasn't Gabrielle and it wasn't Solan, mother. It was Hope, and the Destroyer, her child!" The warrior hadn't let her mind or broken heart think about what that meant.
"They're dead?" Xena nodded to the question.
"Your tavern is gone ... mother. I am so sorry." Cyrene lifted her good hand to her daughter's cheek.
"It's ok my little one. It was only wood and timbers, it can be rebuilt. I'm more worried about you." Cyrene said as she examined her daughter. The soot and blood had been washed away and with it had gone her hope that Gabrielle was alive.
"What's happening to you?" It wasn't the new cuts on Xena's face not that the old ones had begun to heal. It wasn't the bubbled burns on her shoulders. No, it was the eyes that tore at Cyrene, they mirrored the depth of pain in her daughter's soul. Cyrene wondered if she would ever heal.
"It's ok. I've lived through worse and survived."
"I know that my child. But I've never seen you look lost before." She watched as her strong daughter struggled to maintain her emotional armor. The small hut suddenly went very quiet as neither woman wanted to speak.
"How did you know? I mean how did you know it wasn't them?" Cyrene asked in a soft caring voice.
"The moment Hope mentioned Hades ... I talked to him weeks ago ... Gabrielle wouldn't go to him ... I knew in my heart then it wasn't them, my brain just took a little longer to deal with it."
Cyrene ignored the reference to the God of the Underworld. She knew her daughter had had many dealings with the powers that be.
"And you have?"
"Yes ... No ... I'm not sure." There was no sense in lying to her mother.
Xena didn't want to answer her mother anymore than she wanted to answer the question herself. The sullen woman could only shake her head and Cyrene knew no answer would be coming.
She touched her mother on the hand and looked lovingly into her eyes.
"You get some sleep mother, I'll be right here."
Xena rose slowly, swallowing the moan that threatened to escape her lips. She limped over to one of the windows, almost dragging her leg behind her. Sooner or later she knew she would pay for all the damage she had done to her body. She lifted her head and looked out at the night skies. Her blue eyes may have been looking at the stars, but her mind was on a certain mountain in the northern Amazon region.
Her heart ached like it never had before and she felt her soul spiraling downward into the abyss. Her focus had left and her world had gone up in flames. Her mother laid hurt, her tavern was in ashes, Gabrielle had turned out to be Hope, and her son .... Xena's shoulders slumped in dejection. She steadied herself against the window frame and hung her head, she wasn't sure if she could take anymore. She wasn't sure if she wanted to take it anymore. Her heart wasn't in it. She felt lost and alone without her light to guide her, without her center to keep her balanced. Without Gabrielle she no longer felt complete ... just empty.
Her eyes drifted down from the sky and they fell on the fire still burning where her mother's tavern had been. She could see bodies scrambling to fight back the greedy monster of destruction. Xena closed her tired eyes as her thoughts went to another fire ... in another place ... in another time. She knew then, Gabrielle was the most important thing in her life as the two sat side by side in front of a fire. Gabrielle's words echoed in her mind.
Gabrielle: "You promise me. If something happens to me you will not become a monster. There's only one way to end the cycle of hatred, and that's through love and forgiveness."
Xena: "Don't you go changing Gabrielle. I like you just the way you are. Go get some sleep."
Gabrielle: "NO! No, you promise me!"
Xena: "I promise."
She had kept her promise and at times it had been hard. But now she didn't care about that promise, the reason she had kept it ... was gone. Her broken heart held no desires, her soul held no more dreams. Who really cared if she continued on her journey for redemption? Without Gabrielle her world had turned dark, not out of anger, but out of heart break.
Xena stood at the window for a long time trying to collect herself. She lifted her hanging head when the healer entered the room.
Janios walked over to the solemn woman, she placed a gentle hand on the warrior's arm. Her eyes fell on the burn blisters rising on the warrior's shoulders.
"I'm sorry my child. I'm sorry for everything. The people of Amphipolis owe you a debt and an apology. You have tried to repair the damage of your violent past and the people here have not made it easy for you."
"It's not suppose to be easy, Janios" Xena said without looking at the old healer.
"No, it's not. But enough time has past for us to forgive you."
Xena stared out the window as she tried hard to find something in her soul that could care.
"Janios ... How come you and your son didn't succumb to Hope's powers?"
"When you've been around as long as I have Xena, you learn to spot evil in whatever form it possesses. I could see into the demon's heart ... if she had one! I've seen a lot of things in my lifetime, some of which I can't explain. It doesn't take a smart mind to survive ... just a strong one. Now ... Let me see what that wicked woman did to you?"
Janios turned the reluctant warrior around.
"Some of the aloe plant will help with those burns. You could use a stitch or two in that stubborn hard head of yours." She looked for a sign her humor had been appreciated, but Xena was nowhere to be found inside those blue eyes. All Janios could see was pain, the old woman's heart went out to the woman who had almost been like a daughter to her. She had always hoped that Xena would follow her gift of healing, but Janios understood the different roads we all have to travel.
Her aging eyes inspected the bandage wrapped around the warrior's leg, she could see even by the dim candlelight in the room, the spots of blood and infection seeping their way through the fibers of cotton.
She went into the small back room she used to store her supplies and returned with a number of items in a basket.
She removed an aloe vera leaf and began slicing it thinly down the middle. Once the thick leaf was separated, she rubbed the sticky sap-like substance on Xena's many burns. Every now and then, she would look into Xena's blue eyes, but they remained aloof and indifferent. Janios continued on, stitching up the warrior's head and a few other nasty cuts she had found on the warrior's body. She unwrapped the bandage on Xena's leg and was thankful the stitches she had done had held during the battle. Janios could still feel the spreading heat of infection on Xena's swollen thigh. After spreading a thin layer of a thick cream over the wound, Janios turned and faced the warrior woman.
The old healer's eyes fell on the bandages wrapped loosely around the warrior's hands. They needed to be changed, but she remembered Xena's reaction from earlier and chose to ignore them. She studied the dark features on Xena's face and Janios didn't like what she saw. When she finished what she could do for Xena's physical injuries, she put her supplies away and went to work on the mental anguish crushing the life out of the once spirited woman.
Janios rubbed her old weathered hands together, her eyes closed tightly as she mumbled some words under her breath. Xena hadn't been paying any attention to the old woman, but now she wondered what the healer was doing.
Just when Xena was about to speak, Janios opened her eyes and took Xena's hands into her own.
"Your wounds will heal my child, the old and the new. In your heart will be the answer and in time you will know the truth." The warrior stared at the old woman, trying to understand what she had just said. But before Xena could ask or say a word Janios stood, winked at the warrior, and then left.
Xena sat for awhile, pondering the cryptic message.
"Time ... Everything heals with time!" As she muttered the words out loud, she felt her anger starting to rise inside of her. "Not this time Janios!" She brought her hand up and began to rub her forehead. 'By the Gods I have a headache!' Then she saw her hand. The gray stained cotton bandage was hanging down in front of her eyes.
'What had the old healer seen? ... The vision?'
Xena felt her heart kick start in her chest. With everything that had happened, she had forgotten about the vision. Hope was dead and Solan had not come back from Hades grip. But what about Gabrielle!
If the vision was true ... there had to be a glimmer of hope!
Her blue eyes stared down at her hands as she slowly turned them palms up and then palms down.
'If the vision is true ... the wounds should...' She wouldn't let her mind finish the thought. Xena held her breath as she slowly began to unwrap her future. If they were there, Gabrielle was alive ... and if they weren't, well, she knew what her choices were.
The continuous wrap of stained cotton fell into a pile in her lap, leaving only a thin veil to cover their secrets. Xena took a deep breath and unwrapped the last of the cotton. As the bandage fluttered to the ground, Xena opened her eyes to what the future held ... in the palms of her hands.