I've got an explanation. A perfect one. I'm a dope. Not a run-of-the-mill dope. The world's champ. For years I've been taking for granted the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me--you! I've never shown you the appreciation you deserve. You could walk outta that door right now and I wouldn't blame you. You deserve something better than me. There are a million guys who'd give you anything if they could have a girl like you. ---Ralph Kramden to Alice, "The Honeymooners"
Tonight's Episode: I've been to Amazonia, but I've never been to me.
Scene 1: Waking Up With A Jerk
One of these days she would understand women.
One of these days she'd comprehend what brought her here to this pitiful campsite. Beside the snoring lump who'd shared his hospitality. Such as it was. A large brown jug ... of something. She wasn't sure what had crawled in there and fermented, but it was potent enough to give the former Destroyer of Nations one hades of a hangover headache. One of these days, she'd learn.
She had a tiff with Gabrielle. Well, a knock-down, drag-out blow-up that had ended in slammed doors, baby crying, and hurt feelings all around. And finding herself persona non grata at their hut, she'd stormed off in the direction of the woods only to stumble, literally, over a pair of size XIII boots attached to said snoring lump. To be fair, he'd acted the gracious host - he had no choice - and offered her fairly clean bedding for the night and the aforementioned container of illicit hooch. They'd traded pulls off the jug while she railed against the village, the Amazons, and so-called domestic bliss.
And now, here she was, the warrior princess, the lion of Amphipolis, waking up with a splitting head aggravated by the indescribably rank appendages encased in worn leather that had somehow ended up positioned inches from her face. She kicked one of them just for spite. She was entitled.
Joxer sat up, unglued his eyeballs, and his tongue from the roof of his mouth, and asked, in a plaintive tone, "What's for breakfast?"
"This. This is for breakfast, Joxer. This, right here." She thrust her fist as close as she dared to his face without actually touching him. "One knuckle sandwich coming right up. That's what's for breakfast!"
"All right. Okay. I was just asking. Sheesh." He yawned and began stretching and shaking out his wiry arms like a demented windmill. "We could warm up the old soupbone over the fire. Oh, fire's out. Well, we could...."
"We could shut our yap and not antagonize the tall woman with the throbbing headache."
"Or we could do that."
Xena sat heavily on a nearby log and held her head in her hands, moaning.
"Ya know, Xena, they say a bit o' the hair of the dog...."
"Sst." She saw he was about to open his mouth again. "Aaa. Did I say you could talk? Did I ask for your opinion? Did I?"
He mumbled under his breath, but she caught it just the same. "Just because she threw you out, doesn't mean, old grouchy leathers, you have to take it out on me. I was just trying to help, ya know."
"Yeah, I know. I'm ... I'm...." The words stuck in her dry throat, but they were always difficult for the imposing warrior to get out at the best of times. "Sorry. And ... thanks. But, if you should happen to mention to a certain bard how I spent the better part of last night getting wasted, you won't have a leg to stand on ... if you know what I mean."
She watched his Adam's apple bob as he gulped audibly. Reaching for the jug, not that she'd ever take his advice about anything, she was disappointed to find that the rotgot had been entirely consumed. "Empty. I don't s'pose ya got anymore of this ... concoction?"
"Not unless you help me distill some."
"What did you use to strain it with? One of your old socks? No, no, don't tell me, I don't want to know."
"Well, Xena, I was thinking...."
"Oh, I don't like the sound of that."
"Heh. Well, if you could get me into the meeting hall back in the village? I hear they serve some really fine brew there."
"Don't even think about it. Didn't you get in enough trouble the last time you broke the rules? You never learn, do ya?" She thought about what she'd said, and relented, somewhat. "Well, I got the same ... problem, sometimes. But, I swear, Joxer, one of these days," she socked one fist into her open palm making a loud smacking sound, "if you don't mind your pis and quos, I swear, right ... in ... the ... kisser."
But her heart wasn't in the threat. Her mind was filled with images of the bard's sad face, after the fight had reached its end. There was disappointment there, and something else, something that scared her very much, because she'd never seen that look on her face before. She shuddered at the thought of the bard seeing her like this. But she needed a way to keep her frustrations from overwhelming her, and rotgut never asked any questions, it just welcomed her warmly, every time.
She began to wonder, for the hundredth time, why she had consented to stay in the village for a second time. They'd been so close to getting away from all this, and then she'd decided that the bard deserved a chance to try her wings, as the Amazon Queen. She'd had every intention of staying by her side, of embracing this new life with her partner. But, oh, at what cost to herself? The only thing she was sure about was that something had to give. Either they left this place together, or .... The warrior refused to ever think of that other option. "I'll stay till I can't stand it anymore. And if I'm lucky, maybe my heart will go with me. How will it all end?"
Scene 2: Domestic Bliss
Xena had had it up to here ... or there, and then some. Joxer was still hanging around the village even after the drubbing she'd given him in front of everyone. Eve was teething already, ouch, and her partner, her ... soulmate, supposed. Her ... well, Gabrielle had been a real pill lately. When they'd moved into the Yakut hut together the bard had left the two cots separated by several feet of floor space and hadn't even bothered to suggest they move them any closer together. If it wasn't an out and out cold shoulder, it was certainly a very chilly prospect at bed time. One more "not tonight, Xena" and she'd be forced to do something someone, most likely Joxer if he continued to dog her steps, would be sorry for.
To her credit, Gabrielle did seem to be taking her duties quite seriously and had more on her mind than placating a moody, post-partum warrior princess. They hadn't been intimate in months. The warrior had been on the verge of taking her daughter, packing it up and in, and actually separating from her soulmate ... until she'd done something she'd never thought to do before. Read the bard's scrolls, and rediscover that "ineffable mystery," as the bard termed it, between them that brought them and kept them together. She'd apologized as best she could and decided to stay.
She caught herself whistling as she trudged through the amazon trodden mud to the log and hide hutch that housed the current meeting of the royal Sisterhood of Beavers, a dues paying (bring your own booty and check your weapons at the door) secret password club for warriors with an attitude. Really, Xena strongly suspected, it was just a way for the more domestic Amazons to get their friends and partners out from underfoot one night a week. The meetings started early, however, as the sun wasn't even thinking about setting for another three hours or so.
"Hey, Xena, how's it hanging?" A raucous voice greeted her enroute. She waved good-naturedly and pretended to check her chakram.
The sturdy amazon, a buxom woman named Scillia, snorted and came perilously close to invading the warrior's personal space, but refrained from clapping her familiarly on the back after Xena gave her a warning glance. Even though the fellow warrior would be her sponsor for this evening, Xena had her limits, and they were always clearly defined.
"And don't ask how the old ball and chain is, or the little woman."
"Sure, sure. Hah. She may be short, but she is our queen."
Xena was not amused. She hoped the comedic amazon would beat a hasty retreat once they were inside the lodge. The SOB sisters who were gathered in front of the building parted like the backflow around a beaver's dam when they noted the tall taciturn warrior in their presence. That's more like it. Show a little respect. She would be headed straight for the cask as soon as the doors opened. Xena intended on doing some serious swilling tonight.
Scene 3: Xena Meets the Beavers
"Do I have to use any weird secret password?"
"Uh ... no. No, Xena. This is just a bunch of buds, gettin' together for a fun time and a few, well, more'n a few if truth be told, brews. And wait till you taste last season's ale. The hard apple cider ain't bad either."
Scillia escorted her to the door of the lodge in the center of the village. The woman paused at the double doors and beat what sounded like a coded tattoo on the wood that framed tanned animal hide panels. A swatch of furry pelt was whisked aside and a dubious scowl did the opposite of greeting them.
"Who seeks entry?" It was spoken gruffly.
"Beaver Omega and," she grinned at Xena, "Beaver Zeta. Sister, may I present a warrior who seeks to join our Order, and wishes to be known as Fighting Tiger."
Xena's shout carried to the very edges of the village, where Mora, the eldest of the Amazons, had been peacefully sleeping in her hut. Immediately, the astounded woman threw herself on the hard floor and began offering prayers of thanks to Artemis for restoring her hearing.
The recruiting Amazon, who was every bit as tall as Xena, seemed to shrink in place and turned three shades of pale. "Uh," she said in a rather nervous tone, "it's just a small formality, Xena. Is there another name you'd rather be called by?"
"Yeah," she sneered, " call me, I'm with Stupid."
"Heh heh. Anything you say, Xena. Enter."
Xena tugged on the other woman's buckskin. "Hey, I thought you said no funny passwords."
"That would be silly. We don't do that. But everybody has their beaver name. Makes perfect sense to me. It's like a password. Ya gotta have a password to get in. Or what's the use of havin' an exclusive club? Might as well just call it a tavern, eh?"
Xena's eyes probably adjusted faster than most to the very dimly lit interior of the club. But even she blinked hard several times upon entering the dark den. Hmm. A smattering of tables. A huge cask, tapped, and giving up a free flowing amber brew to one tankard after another. A few women were filling pitchers and taking them back to their tables. And these were haphazardly grouped around a raised dais, upon which a huge carved wooden chair claimed pride of place. Xena took one look, then quickly turned again to stare at the oddity before her. It was obviously ancient, the intricate animal figures carved on the back had grown smooth and shiny from untold years of wear.
Wonder how many backs it took to get it looking like that? The arms were fashioned from the yellowed tusks of some large animal, the tips gracefully curving downward on each side, forming an almost perfect circle. It was impressively high, and at the very top, a pair of carved beavers, their tails crossed and held high in the air, crowned it perfectly. It was rustic, yes, and yet the carvings attested to the sensibilities of the woman who had made it. Xena found it beautiful. Looking around the large space, she saw that the walls were decorated with old tribal masks, the colorful dyes used who knew how many years ago to tint them still glowed softly in the semi-gloom of the hall. And everywhere, weapons, old and new, were displayed proudly. The warrior felt right at home.
"You said something about an ale?"
"Coming right up, Xena."
A small, feathered missle zizzed right past her ear and the warrior's spring-loaded reflexes snatched it out of the air without having to think about it. Darts. Someone was playing darts, dark as it was in here. Dangerous. Heh. It was her kind of place indeed. She sent it on its previous trajectory and heard someone howl, "Watch it!"
Her sponsor was at her elbow proffering the foaming beverage she'd requested and smirking. "Hope that wasn't one-eyed Sally."
Xena snorted into her brew, blowing a bit of sudsy froth on her amazon host. "Sorry."
"No harm done. Quite the contrary. I'll take it anyway I can get it. Hah. Same holds true for the ladies, eh, Xena? How's about a little game of pin the tail on the centaur?"
Xena took a healthy swig, "Isn't that a kid's game?"
"Not the way we play it."
Someone had passed her a pipe in the middle of a round table discussion on the pros and cons of chobos.
"All I'm saying is that stupid rumor about amazons cutting off a breast might not be such a bad idea if you've ever been on the receiving end of the dreaded snap-back. I was black and blue for a month. My partner said I looked like before and after winter and summer sketches of Mt. Erebus."
The warrior felt a tell-tale buzz between her ears that alerted her to the presence of some loco weed or derivative in whatever they were smoking. She hadn't partaken of anything like that since breaking the curse of a bowl a day opium habit she acquired when in the East. And when a gong sounded, for the briefest moment, Xena was swept back in time, to Chin, and Lao Ma's sumptuous palace. She felt the tiny hairs at the back of her neck rise in anticipation, totally convinced that the figure framed by the opening of the twin doors was the woman herself. Until the figure stepped into the dim light, revealing....
"The Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the Sisterhood of Beavers!"
"Wha?" Xena half-asked, rousing herself from her semi-stupor.
"It's the Empress of all Beaverdom," Scillia informed her, her voice a respectful whisper.
Xena opened her mouth to reply, but couldn't think of a thing to say. Instead, she took full advantage of her expression and downed the rest of her mug of ale.
After her fairly painless induction, and no one was willing to give the warrior princess the full initiation 'experience', Xena was now officially a member of the Royal Order, or Sisterhood of Beavers. They gave her her 'tails' and said a few words in swine-latin, waved a Yakut sacred blade over her head, though that was a bit dicey, she'd almost reverted to bad-girl mode then. And after several more tankards they'd broken up the party and it was time for all good little Amazons, and the bad girls who loved them, to be in bed. So, with a big silly grin on her face, Xena began to slowly wend her way ... home.
If only the path would stop wending its own way. It wasn't as if she was staggering, exactly, Xena of the hollow legs never became that inebriated, but, feeling as safe here as she ever did, the tall woman had allowed herself to imbibe more than her usual fair share of potent potables. And that hard cider really did pack quite a kick, as promised. She smiled when a warm arm wrapped around her and began to aid her in her endeavor homewards, looking down to see the smaller, blonde woman now tucked beneath her shoulder.
"Thanks, babe, I thought you might...."
"Oh, that's alright, Xena, you know I'd do anything for you." The shorter woman looked adoringly at her dark companion and Xena staggered in earnest.
"Uh, Eris, uh, hello, I thought you were...."
"I told you you could count on my ... devoted help whenever you decided you needed it, Xena."
The warrior's smile had taken on a sickly tinge. She remembered only too well the advances made by the young Amazon who was only too eager to apply for Gabrielle's 'position' when it seemed as though the long-time partners were on the verge of splitting up.
"Are you sure we're headed in the right direction?"
"I'm taking you home."
"Whose home?" Xena asked nervously,
"Your home, silly. I'll deposit you," sigh, "on your doorstep ... if that's what you want."
The kid was sweet enough, a real eager beaver; Xena grinned anew at her little joke, but buckets of trouble awaited if her other half was still awake at this hour. Nah, Xena reassured herself, not my Gabby. She sleeps like a bacchae with a stake through its heart, like a fallen goddess under the Eye of Horus, like the beautiful princess in that story she was telling me about the magic spell and the - Xena chuckled out loud as she thought about her partner in full bardic thrust, something she enjoyed more than she'd ever let on, and which, alas, she had not experienced in far too long. Her jovial mood was picked up on by her human crutch and Eris joined in the laughter, saying, "Here we are," as the hut opened and Gabrielle, in all her glory, stood gazing at the spectacle on her doorstep.
The woozy warrior now questioned the wisdom of having Eris bring her home in this condition. How could she possibly have forgotten that 'last' round of "hail fellow, well met" toasting that had lasted well into the night? Amazon ale, that's how! How many pints of the strong, dark brew had she raised in salute to one sister or another, before even she had reached her limits? "I'm outta here", she'd finally declared to anyone still standing, only to be met with slurred grumblings, like 'Bummer!' and "Party pooper!' from the seemingly always ready to party-hardy Amazons. Yep, definitely not your finest hour, Xena. Time to face the music.
"Hi, honey...I'm home?"
"Do you know what time it is?"
Xena continued to stare at her boot toe, and knew the reaction she would get, but she said it anyway, "Maybe if you hum a few bars...."
Gabrielle was unamused. "You come home smelling like an alehouse, with that ... that thing on your head. What in Tartarus is that, anyway?"
"You making fun of my hat?"
"You made fun of mine!"
Xena was the perfect picture of false hurt pride as she drew herself up to her full six plus feet, courtesy of 'the hat,' and began to explain the significance of the crossed beaver tails laid over the snout of the critter as its beady black eyes glinted in the soft candle light of their hut. Gabrielle was unimpressed.
"Evie has been teething. I've been pacing the floor with her all evening. I didn't get any of my own work done. I finally have her put down for the night. And now I'm going to bed. Good night, Xena."
"She's sleeping in my bed."
"And don't you dare wake her. Now, good night."
Gabrielle crawled into her bed and Xena watched their daughter sleeping peacefully in the middle of her own until, sighing in resignation, she quietly pulled two chairs together and, placing a saddle bag at one end, attempted to lay her long and lanky form into some semblance of a supine posture. It was a lot of things, but definitely not a good night.
Scene 4: Floor Play
Xena lay on her belly, nose to nose with their daughter. The little Eve was engaging in a friendly staring contest with the tall woman who gave great piggyback rides, but broke when the blue eyes crossed and gurgled a baby laugh that caused her mother to laugh too. Gabrielle looked up indulgently from her bed where she was poring over a large, detailed map of the Amazon territory, deciding just how far away she could deport Joxer and have it count as exile.
Uh oh. The bard's tone was uncharacteristically deep. Something else she learned from me. Xena smirked. Project your authority.
"Remember what we discussed? Baby on the floor, weapons above. Or vice versa."
Oo. I warrant latin, eh? "Yes, dear."
The warrior stood, scooping up the baby and depositing her on the bed with the bard. Xena chuckled and sat back on the floor watching Gabrielle's face go from indignant to maternal in a heartbeat. She sighed as she watched the interchange. Ice was melting. The sun would come out. It would be a good day.
Xena absentmindedly picked up one of Gabrielle's quills from the floor where she'd been tickling the baby's feet with the feather and brushed it across her lips, deep in thought. She fingered her chakram, with her left hand, where it lay on the rug until it spun, a perfect circle. She smiled and placed the quill atop her weapon and gave it a good spin. Staring in close fascination, she watched as it slowed eventually and pointed, as if inevitably, to her soulmate. "Well, now."
She hadn't played spin the anything since girlhood. So very long ago. Such a wave of tenderness and desire overwhelmed her as she crawled toward the bed. Xena thought back to the last time they'd had a moment alone. In the sweat hut with the near nude bard looking so delectable, covered in little more than perspiration. Xena had had to remind herself there were guards just outside the door. How the warrior had longed to underline her heartfelt words by taking that damp little bard in her arms and never letting go again.
As she stalked on all fours to the bed, Xena could feel her lips tingling already in anticipation of a sweet kiss. But Gabrielle saw her coming and, in a seemingly innocent move, held the baby up in front of her and Xena smiled resignedly as instead, she pecked Eve on the nose, taking her back from her partner. Then moved her sword, chakram and various daggers onto a high table before resuming their former play postures. Intercepted again. Watching as Gabrielle went back to her study, Xena smiled sadly through tears as the baby nibbled on her finger.
Oh, Hades in a handbasket. What has he done now?! Gabrielle had just happened to glance out the window of their hut when she noticed Joxer being led in cuffs to the stockade. She was about to scamper out of the domicile as quickly as a hare with a fox on her cottontail, reminding herself to put on a more disinterested queenly demeanor before she accosted her arresting lieutenants for an explanation, but Xena almost bumped into her on their threshold.
Reading the bard's concern, she swiped off the antlered headpiece that needlessly added further imposing inches to her already impressive height, and said, "Whoa. You saw?"
Gabrielle nodded. "What is it this time?"
"Well...we were having a lodge meeting, knocking back some of that special batch of ale the Thracian twins brewed last summer and swapping war stories...."
"Okay, yeh, mmhm, another wasted evening of sororal Amazonian excess, and then what exactly?"
"I swear I had no idea he was in there. And no one else would have either if he'd just kept his big mouth shut after we'd finally gotten down to 'one tankard of ale on the wall.'"
"He did. 'One more time!' he yells. He had a snootful by then. And though, I'll grant ya, some of the sisters have deep voices...."
"What are they going to do with him?"
"Isn't that for the Queen to decide?"
"Grr. Why did he stay? Wasn't the punishment he's already taken enough to deter anyone?"
"Anyone but Joxer. You know what they say about gluttons. Besides, there's a little redhead he's been getting to know...."
When Xena had just casually let drop that the growing village was probably in need of a new sanitary system, a torch lit up over Gabrielle's head. And that was how Joxer came to be 'assigned' to latrine duty as a punishment for his latest infraction of Amazon law. Justice is a bitch. And she can see quite clearly.
Scene 5: Xena Gets a Job
There was a huge pile of wood chips smack dab in the middle of the Queen's yard. No one knew why, but it seemed to have a life of its own, with each new day adding to its length and breadth. The path, which began at the river's edge, meandered behind the royal hut and finally ended at the center of the village, was never without assorted groups of curious Amazons who would stop and stare and wonder at the strange sight.
Speculation was running rampant among the villagers; those with little imagination were convinced it was just a pile of kindling, though the nights weren't cool enough to warrant building a fire to keep warm. Others thought it must surely be a new kind of offering to the gods. The younger Amazons were certain their beloved queen was gearing up to throw the mother of all shindigs, happily anticipating one big honker of a bonfire in their near future.
One dark warrior, and the Amazon Rule Book required one in every tribe, a morose and unclever woman known to all as The Troublemaker, had told anyone who'd listen that Gabrielle would soon be showing her true colors, by burning a few of them at the stake. Needless to say, Phelas, the warrior in charge of the betting pool, refused to take her wager, all the while secretly wishing that if their queen really meant to roast a few Amazons, The Troublemaker would be at the top of her list.
Hidden from view behind this rare creation, and totally unaware of the sensation she was causing in the village, sat Xena of Amphipolis, one very unhappy, bored-beyond-belief warrior. A tree stump served as her seat, and stacked neatly at its side lay an impressive pile of evenly sized wood, just within arm's reach. One hand held a chunk of soft pine, the other a very sharp knife that effortlessly sliced away at the shapeless lump. All this activity brought her no joy, no satisfaction - the frown on her face easily gave that away. But she kept at it doggedly, keeping her own counsel, though it was obvious that stopping the repetitive action was not an option.
Attached to one ankle was a length of thin rope that moved rhythmically with every flexing motion of her foot. From time to time, her eyes would travel the length of it, soon coming to rest on what was attached to its other end. It was a baby's swing, suspended from a tree limb not twenty paces from where the proud mother sat. Inside it, her daughter Eve was fast asleep, lulled by the rocking motion of the rope and the constant slice, slice of the knife.
"It's good to see that one of us still knows how to do that, Evie. Wish your mom and I could say the same. Seems all we do lately is toss and turn all night."
A soft breeze, with just a hint of autumn in it, lifted the long strands of dark, glossy hair hanging loosely around her shoulders and sent a small shiver up her spine. Summer was almost over and with it had gone the sweet promise of a new life for them all. What had happened to Gabrielle's much vaunted plans for their domestic bliss? When had Gabrielle's strong desire to form a nest, coupled with Xena's equally strong determination to make it happen, gone awry?
"Isn't this what she wanted for us? Haven't I lived up to my part of the bargain? She's not happy, any more than I am."
The frustration that had been building in her almost turned to anger. Almost. But slowly, the anxious lines around her eyes eased away, only to be replaced by a sad expression of deep regret, as she softly repeated, "She's not happy."
Eris, the young warrior who had shadowed Xena's every move since they'd come to the village, saw the look and flinched in sympathy. Without thinking, she left the sheltering shadow cast by a large tree that afforded her refuge whenever she felt the need to be near her idol.
Xena looked up as she heard the approaching footfalls, her face quickly assuming a neutral expression.
"Hi Xena. What's wrong?"
What indeed. "Hey Eris. Where'd you come from?" Of course Xena knew exactly where the girl had been hiding. Having caught her at it so often, Xena often forgot all about her watchful presence. But the kid was alright and the warrior tolerated her intrusion, because she too knew what it was to love.
"Uh, I was just passing by and you looked so sad that I...."
"Just a little sawdust in my eyes. I'm fine."
"You don't look fine."
Xena bristled, then growled out, "I said I'm fine!"
This was a side of the Warrior Princess that had no part in any of Eris' romantic fantasies. And as she stepped back, large frightened eyes stared in disbelief at her idol.
Xena, to her credit, was immediately sorry for directing her anger at the blameless girl, and softened her tone as she said, "Didn't mean to snap at you. I've just been a little edgy lately."
"Is there anything I can do for you, Xena? Anything at all."
Xena smiled as she patted the girl's arm. "Don't think so, Eris, unless you have a cure for boredom."
Eris' eyes turned from Xena to the pile of shavings that had her sisters in such an uproar, then back again. That's it? That's why she's been so grouchy? Because she's bored? "Xena, why don't you go see Hesta? I'm sure she can help you out."
"Who's Hesta? One of them virgins?"
It was said with such distaste that the girl hurried her denial. "Oh, no! At least I don't think so. She hasn't been here long - came up from the Southern tribe. And she does have some peculiar ideas, I'll grant you, but I still think she can help, Xena."
"Hmm, guess it can't hurt. Where can I find her?"
"Do you know where Mora's hut is?"
A terse, "Yeah" was her answer. Xena had ample reason to know exactly where Mora's hut was. She'd been hunting in the forest and had just come out of the woods, on her way into the village when this old soul had accosted her, raining kiss upon wet kiss on the warrior's horrified face. It had taken every ounce of restraint she possessed to keep from pushing the woman away, finally making her escape by stomping back into the forest. A laughing Gabrielle had later clued her in, retelling Mora's mistaken tale of divine intervention in the restoration of her hearing. An aggrieved deity who'd been dispatched from Olympus in an attempt to put an end to the ecstatic woman's never-ending thankful praises had finally set her straight. Appearing before the befuddled woman, she'd strongly denied any part in Mora's "miracle," laying the "blame" squarely on the Warrior Princess. And now, the poor warrior shook her head, having absolutely no intention of ever passing by Mora's hut again.
"Well, she lives five huts down from Mora. You can't miss it, she's.... Eris paused a moment and wondered whether this was a good idea, after all. But she shook off her misgivings and continued, "She's hung a sign outside her door. You really can't miss it."
Xena sighed, slowly shaking her head, "At this point I'll try anything. Can you look after the baby while I'm gone? Gabrielle should be home soon."
"Of course, Xena. Take your time and don't worry about a thing." Smiling brightly, she watched her idol leave, then began chewing on her bottom lip as she remembered just how easily the warrior's anger had flared. "Hope I did the right thing. That Hesta can be a real pain in the...." The word was left unsaid as the baby awoke, and loudly proclaimed her presence.
The day was winding down as the warrior made her way through the busy village, exchanging friendly greetings with the Amazons she met as she neared her destination.
"Eris was right. You can't miss it."
The sign was half as wide as the hut and Xena covered her mouth with one hand when she saw the three large letters, and their meaning, written there.
ALPHA EPSILON ALPHA
Amazon Employment Agency
"Oh boy. This tribe may soon be minus one small Amazon."
But, out of options, she stepped through the open door, finding a tiny woman seated at a table that dwarfed her, and on which lay an open scroll, a very used quill, a bottle of ink and nothing else.
"Yes? May I help you?"
Xena lifted a shapely eyebrow, surprised by the volume of sound coming from the small woman. Apparently, she made up in voice what she lacked in height. "Well, I...." She wasn't allowed to finish speaking, as the scroll and quill were quickly thrust at her and she was told, in no uncertain terms, to fill out the application. Now.
"Gggrrrr." Hesta didn't flinch, she never even batted an eye. She just stared at Xena until, with one last growl, the dark haired woman began to write. Then Hesta started humming a tuneless tune, aggravating the warrior even more. Some time later, the scroll was handed back, well, thrown really, and the interview began.
"So, Ms. Warrior Princess, is it? I see by your application here that you are looking for gainful employment. What exactly is your previous work experience?"
Xena's jaw dropped like a stone, but no intelligible speech emerged. "Well, I...."
"You've listed Destroyer of Nations on your resume. What did that entail, exactly?"
"Homina, homina, homina...."
"No Latin spoken here. See the sign?
"Is that an honorary title, or was there some hands-on destroying involved?"
"No,no strictly honorary. A previous employer had promised me certain perks that she never delivered. What kind of compensation package you offering?"
"Patience. Now, do you see yourself as a jack, or a jill, of all trades? You've never actually joined the Amazon nation, why should we employ you when there are fellow sisters who might need this job?"
"I'm friendly with the boss ... your boss."
"Ahhh. So, Xena of ... Amphibious, is it? And exactly what is it you see yourself doing to contribute to our fair village? We don't have much use for warlords around here."
"Who sez I wanna fight? Just ready to settle down, my partner, you may know her? The Queen? She's all gung-ho on this domestic bliss thing. And now that we have a baby, I need to find some employment, ya know? Even the Queen has to eat."
"I've seen 'em come and go, all your tougher than your leather britches kick-ass warriors, we don't need any more attitude, missy, we're out the wazoo with warrior attitude, I have one opening other than the mess tent, take it or leave it."
"You'll be out of doors, fresh air, sunshine, water, you'll meet people ... commuters; you shuttle 'em across the river and bring 'em back after their work shifts. In the meantime if anyone needs to get across the river on a special errand or is visiting, you bring 'em over or take 'em across. How's about it, Ms. Amphibian?"
"Xena, you know Amazons do what they do for the good of the community. Talk of money is ... bah,.ptui ... in bad taste."
"But I'm not an Amazon, as you so pointedly pointed out! And I want cold hard dinars"
"Heh heh, dinars huh? Maybe we can make an exception, in your case."
"Thought ya might. What's the going rate?"
"All the ale you can drink, room and board, and ... an honorary membership in the lodge ... no dues, all expenses paid. Oh, and your weight in feathers, of course."
"Throw in a few floor mats and some sleeping furs and you've got yourself a deal. When do I start?".
"At your earliest convenience, and I do mean tomorrow at dawn."
Grrr. "I'll be there."
"You are now the new official uber-Charon!"
"WHAT?" The warrior bellowed. A little bird in the forest, minding its own business, was knocked off its perch. Xena's voice could really carry in this thin air.
Hesta quickly tried to clarify her remark. "Heh, just a little ferry joke, us being out here in the styx and all, sticks ... heh ... get it? Hoo boy, I kill me!"
The warrior was not amused. "Glad you're getting a chuckle outta this." She turned on her heels and walked out, but not before conveying her feelings to the stunned clerk. "You ever take the ferry, sister? Know how to swim? Better learn. 'Cause I'm not getting paid to double as a lifeguard."
Hesta swallowed, deeply, and shrunk back into her seat, as far away from the fearsome warrior as she could get. Once Xena had left the hut, she took a long breath, then thought what a great time this would be to go back and visit her old tribe. "Who knew this job could be so stressful ... and dangerous, too!" A few minutes later, Hesta quietly removed the sign from the front of her hut.
To say that this was the longest afternoon of Xena's life would be a gross understatement. But she bore it like the warrior she was. There were always choices, but in this instance, it boiled down to just one. And, sadly, this was it.
Stretch. Flex. Yawn. Scratch. Flex.
With an admirable economy of motion, Xena easily shrugged off the lethargy of sleep. It was a gift left over from her warlord days. You either learned to sleep with one eye open, or you forfeited the chance of ever opening both again. Her simple morning ritual continued as her gaze moved from one member of her family to the other, reassuring herself that all was well with both. To her surprise, she found Gabrielle staring back at her. She smiled her greeting as the bard said, "Good morning," with an answering smile.
"You all right?" Something's up.
"I'm fine, just wanted to see you off this morning."
Why are you doing this? A light went on over Xena's head. Of course! My first day on the job.
"You didn't have to do that. I know this isn't your favorite time of day." They both smiled at the obvious understatement.
"No, I wanted to." She averted her eyes for a moment, then lifted them and looked straight at her partner. "Are you sure you're okay with this, Xena? It's not like we'll starve if you don't...."
But Xena quickly cut her off. "Gabrielle, I want to do this." I have to do something to keep from going crazy. Can't you see that?
After a moment's hesitation, Gabrielle softly answered, "All right, Xena. Guess we'd better get going, huh? You don't want to be late, your first day." Why won't you tell me what's wrong?
With one last look, and a shared sigh, they went about the business of getting ready to start a new day. As Xena dressed in the soft leather shirt and trousers she wore while in the village, Gabrielle expertly brought the fire back to life, setting a small pot of water on the embers to heat.
"Yeah, sounds good."
They ate the simple meal in silence, a sound they were fast becoming used to, as neither really tasted what they ate. Eve woke and Xena quickly rose to tend to her, while the bard busied herself about the large room. A well fed, dry, contented baby was placed on a floormat to play, while her mother walked toward her partner who stood in the open doorway, her figure softly outlined by the day's first rays of sunlight. So beautiful!
As Xena reached the door, she obeyed the first instinct of her heart and wrapped her mate in a warm embrace, letting the feeling ease her pain, and loving the sensation caused by Gabrielle's lips, as they gently deposited a little kiss over her heart. Gradually, she became aware that Gabrielle had not returned her hug, and as she looked down, she saw that the bard was holding something in her hands.
"What's this?" she asked, curious to know what the small wooden box held. She grabbed it by its built-in handle and turned it every which way, not stopping till Gabrielle, with a chuckle and a little swipe at the warrior's arm, solved the mystery.
"It's your lunch, silly. Then added, with a charmingly shy grin that crinkled her equally charming nose, "I made those little dumplings you like so much. A working woman needs all the energy she can get."
"I...." Overcome by the simple, loving gesture, the warrior cleared her throat, gave her beloved partner a quick peck on the cheek, then hurried away. Gabrielle, with a thoughtful look on her face, stood in the doorway and watched her go.
Scene 6: A Ferry Tale
Xena got tired pretty quickly of spitting over the side of the sturdy raft waiting for business to pick up. The Amazons, being very clever, had devised a system using ropes and pulleys attached to trees on opposite sides of the river, that kept the heavy raft on an even keel against the changing currents. And with Argo's almost enthusiastic help, apples having to be administered to the mare after every crossing, Xena found the job less than challenging. But it sure beats whittling the day away.
So far, she'd taken a small hunting party, and several other groups of Amazons, across the river at dawn and had come back to the other side to await further customers. She had a pole attached at the water line, but hadn't had a bite. Might as well get something out of this, some genuine remuneration, food for their table. Their meager little domicile, of the separate beds and the bare walls, walls that always seemed to be closing in on her. Breathe, Xena. Fresh air was her restorative, a good stiff breeze whipping up a spate of whitecaps on the water. That would make the crossing more challenging, and more fun, if it kept up.
Xena felt her shoulderblades clench of their own volition. "H'lo, Joxer."
"So, it's true. You're working for a living. A job. You got a real job. Someone's made an honest woman of you at last, huh Xena."
"Is there anything I can do for you, Joxer?" She muttered the rest. "Besides give you an up close and personal view of the bottom of the river?"
"Oh, Xena, you know you don't mean that. Not after saving my life ... again. Nah. We're pals. Warrior chums. Comrades in arms. Old hands. Shoulder to shoulder...."
"Uh, Joxer, before you list any more body parts could you use your old hand to give me that pole. Yeah, that one right there. Thank you." Xena took the proffered oar, twirled it around her mid-section, catching Joxer as it swung back around and swatting him into the water. "Never, ever tell a warrior what she doesn't mean."
A series of splutters and he was going down for the second time when Xena relented and pulled him aboard. "Y'see any fish down there, old pal? You're the only thing I've caught all day. And I have half a mind to throw you back."
Huff, huff. Bwag. Spla.... "S'ok. I needed a bath."
"Well, you said it, I didn't. Got a date? Where you off to?"
He pointed across the river and nodded, water still dripping off his hat. Xena looked back to the village. "What about little ... what's her name?"
"Reah. Yeah. We're still seeing each other, but it's not like we're married. I'm not ready to get tied down. Gotta play the field. Y'know how it is with us warriors. One of the perks of the profession."
Xena sat and dangled her feet over the side, resting her forehead and arms against the rail. "Vastly over-rated," she mumbled.
"What?" He was trying to drain some of the water out of his ears.
"I said, it's not all it's meant to seem."
"Marriage?" he shuddered visibly, maybe it was just the refreshing involuntary dip. "You can't domesticate the likes of us, eh, Xena?"
"That's not what I meant. But...maybe you can't." Her gaze was wistful as she looked out across the river, knowing instinctively that at least one person on the other side would not agree with either of them.
"Xena, that's her. Her name's Trixina."
Joxer was pointing to a tallish woman waiting for him on the shore as they neared the opposite river bank. Not an Amazon, despite her imposing stature. She looked to be from a nearby farming community. And that wasn't all she looked.
"Uh, Joxer, you sure you know what you're, uh ... getting into here?" Xena canted her head to one side and wore a very skeptical expression.
"Sure. Nice girl. Very ... out-going."
"She's a little ... tall."
"So? No more than you. Anyway, nobody's perfect."
"What did you say her name was? Trixina? Joxer, I think she has a whole ... bag of tricks you haven't even seen yet." Xena reflected that if he'd been with them for their little adventure in the Miss Known World beauty pageant he might recognize a wolf in sheep's clothing when he saw one.
Joxer got ready to make a leap onto the far landing as Xena admonished, "Try and keep out of trouble, will ya? I don't want to be summoned to a crossbow wedding. And Gabrielle has enough to do without you adding to the load."
"Don't worry. I only gave her my Roman name."
"You have a Roman name?"
"Sure. Don't you? All the gods have them. And mom was half Italian, y'know."
"So, what is it?"
"Your Roman name?!"
Xena scowled. "Suits you."
"Doesn't it? But don't tell anyone. I like to keep it under my hat."
"Hmm, yeah, we know there's plenty of room there. Well, have fun, old pal. Don't do a thing that I wouldn't do." She clapped him on the shoulder. "Seriously."
"I can handle myself."
Xena bit her tongue. Along with a saucy reply that could've blistered it. "That would be the least of my worries." She added ominously, "Yours too."
Joxer's friend was statuesque, Xena had to admit. "She" was actually a little bit more feminine than most of the Amazons. But.... Definitely rough trade. She shook her head vigorously to remove any errant images. Well, whatever floats your ferry. It was nearly sundown and so she stayed on the far shore in anticipation of the imminent return of the hunting party. Skipping an occasional stone across the water, having grown tired of playing the same game with her chakram, and watching the ripples spread out, she remembered some long-ago conversation with her companion. I'm still me. Underneath it all. But, what, oh what would I be without you?
Scene 7:: Xena Builds a Porch
Xena stared pop-eyed at the wall as she felt a familiar, though nearer nostalgic these days, presence and weight behind her on the bed. Her breath caught as she swallowed the last moisture to leave her suddenly dry mouth and vainly tried to lick her lips as well. She waited for ... something ... anything. For Gabrielle to snake an arm around her middle and cuddle a little closer. To let her know, definitively, what was happening here, what she hoped was happening here.
"Are you awake, honey?"
Gabrielle was leaning over her now. "Yes. Yes. I am." Very. The warrior tried her best not to sound too eager.
"Good. Since it's your day off, do you think you might get started on the porch today?"
The Porch. The *#$! porch. Gabrielle had been after her to build a deck onto the back of their hut for weeks now. Xena counted to V before unclenching her shoulders and nodding her acquiescence. "Sure. I'll get right to it. Perfect wood-chopping weather. I suppose you want an overhang."
The ability to spit having returned, in spades, Xena lubricated her palms, hefted the ax and began to take out her various frustrations on a small stand of pine just outside the village. It wasn't a particularly difficult task, a little time consuming, perhaps, but that was a plentiful resource for her, these days. And it beat clearing brush from the yard.
"One sleeping porch coming right up, Your Majesty." She mumbled.
"Bet she thinks it's all I'm good for around here."
CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!
"One of these days, Gabrielle ... I swear, sometimes, y'know, one of these days", she raised her eyes in apparent supplication to the moon and wished she or Gab were on it, not necessarily in that order. She paused to wipe the sweat from her brow and all of a sudden was struck with a bittersweet vivid memory of bending a knee long ago and sending a prayer up to the silent, silver face in the sky on behalf of a growing love and deep-hearted concern for a young woman in pain. A golden girl who was in crisis, the shining light of her life that she didn't want to see dimmed by the sort of vengeful violence that had characterized her own existence. And, seemingly, at least at that time, the moon had answered.
Xena contemplated the waxing sphere. What was it made of, was it big enough to hold two people, was it a rabbit or a man that dwelt within its circumference or ... and then she started thinking about their old habit of naming star patterns and came full circle once again. Send her to the moon? She thought about that as she worked, a wicked smile curling the ends of her mouth. But a vision of Gabrielle began to form in her mind, smiling at her with so much love in those clear, honest eyes, that the warrior was immediately sorry for her evil thoughts, and resumed her task in a happier frame of mind. She wants a porch? Well, by Gaia that's what she'll get. The best damn porch the featherheads have ever seen!
Fragrant wood chips were flying, fast and furious, around Xena's head, and the woods echoed the rhythmic "chop, chop" of her axe. There was a smile on her face as she drew the back of her hand across her forehead, removing the beads of perspiration accumulated there, while unintentionally adding another layer of pine tar to her happy face. There was something very satisfying about this kind of work, not that she'd ever admit it, of course. But the thought of building something for Gabrielle, something permanent, made the hard work a pleasure, and she turned to her oldest friend, wanting to share this good feeling with her.
"Hey girl, I think we're done here. The logs are dressed, the rafters are cut, got plenty of planks for the floor." She'd planed the pine, would sand it smoother still once she had it set in place. "All we need now are a few volunteers," and here she couldn't keep that wicked little smile from showing, knowing she was using that word oh so loosely, "and this thing should be up before dark. Whadda ya say, girl, you ready to go?"
Argo had been such a trooper, as always, and hadn't let on to the slightest indignity at being used as a menial laborer. Xena patted her pale hide and praised her for not only helping her haul the planking back into the village, but for her continuing dogged persistence in towing the shuttle raft further up or down stream depending on the water level whenever Xena needed her to, during her workshift. The faithful animal snorted and turned back toward her mistress, ready to help haul the timbers home.
Once back at the hut, the warrior knew that it was just a matter of time before ... aha, there she was, just inside the tree line! Eris had shadowed her every step for as long as they'd been in the village; why would today be any different?
"Eris. Just the person I'm looking for."
"Yes, Xena?" The little Amazon had hurried over upon hearing her name, a half grateful, half hopeful look on her young face.
" I can use a little help here, putting up the uprights. Think you can find a few more hands?"
Her smile dimmed just a shade, her mind having conjured all sorts of reasons for Xena's need of her. But she brightened up quickly; anything that let her be near the Warrior Princess was welcome, even though manual labor would not have been her first choice. "Of course, Xena, how many do you want?"
"Oh, two more ought to do it."
"''K, be right back!"
Xena smiled after her, wondering if she'd ever been that young. Ah, well. Four deep holes had been dug earlier, and were ready to receive the columns, whole tree trunks, really, that would hold up the structure.
Eris and friends were soon back and the work began in earnest. Xena used a huge wooden mallet to drive home the stakes that would hold the four columns firmly in place, then climbed on the hut's roof, ready to start lashing the rafters that would form the overhang, and eventually hold the huge amounts of thatch that would provide shade and shelter to their new porch. There would be a relatively large platform with a wide thatch roof she'd add later. The planks were sized and ready to be fitted and nailed into place. Xena planned on making them shine like the deck of a ship. She had a special varnish recipe to cook up, add some weather proofing, a little color, maybe she'd even feel inspired to make a pair of rocking chairs, or, better yet, one big chair that could accommodate two. Three, she amended, with a smile. Ah, Gabrielle, you wanted your "domestic bliss," and I ... I can live with that, as long as we're in it together. This wasn't about 'playing house' - not anymore, and she had to make her partner, the one who'd been willing to follow her anywhere and everywhere, see that she was willing as well. It, this, was the least she could do. The hours flew by, and as the sun began to set, the warrior was able to step back and see what her hands had wrought.
"Alrighty, then." Xena stretched, groaning in perverse pleasure at the series of popping sounds it produced up and down the length of her spine. Hands full of splinters, cheeks and nose burnished from the hot sun, lips peeling from being so intent on her work she'd forgotten to drink much water during the afternoon. Damn, she felt good, tired to the bone, and reasonably pleased with herself. The breeze was cooling her now as the day, and the earth, tilted toward the dark side of the heavens and Xena could, finally, admire her hard work. Gabrielle should be coming home soon from another day of managing tribal matters. The bard would pick Eve up from the communal nursery, which tended to only a pair of toddlers and a few older children. It would probably be dark by the time they got home and she wouldn't even notice the work that had been done in her absence, by request. Xena sighed and hurried inside to wash off the dust and grime and put the kettle on.
Just as Xena had suspected, the preoccupied Queen of the Amazons had never even noticed the new structure now attached to side of their home. They'd eaten a simple meal of soup and bread, mostly in silence, Gabrielle, pensive and thinking deeply on weighty matters she seemed intent upon not sharing with Xena. She didn't ask about her day, mention the porch, or much of anything else, before absently kissing the warrior's temple and lightly brushing a shoulder with her fingertips as she, exhaustedly, made her way to bed. The stoic warrior hid her disappointment, as always, and followed soon after. Falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, she began a series of fitful dreams that culminated in something about a badger trying to tunnel its way into the middle of their hut, or was it a termite mound, she could almost swear she heard a scratchscratchscratch coming from somewhere beneath, underground, under...the hut. She awoke to a splintering sound behind their cabin. "No, no, no." She was up, out, and armed for badger.
"Gosh, Xena, I'm sorry, really, you know I am, it's just, y'know, it's just too hot to work during the day. They didn't say I couldn't dig the latrine at night. Just as long as it gets dug. I'd already checked out my route, and you have to admit, you work fast, there was nothing here this morning. You have your little project, I have mine. We talked this over. Remember? I'm basing this on the Roman model, they're good for some things, eh? And an underground tunnel is so much more aesthetic, don't you think, than an open, <shudder>, latrine. This way everything passes, heh, under the village and out to the river, downstream, of course."
Joxer was trying to remember the last time, if ever, he'd seen Xena shed tears. Deciding that was a time he didn't want to remember, he'd enjoined the warrior, the angry but morose warrior, to look on whatever bright side he could conjure out of desperation in the middle of the night.
Gabrielle, as usual, was sleeping through all the noise of a splintering of lovingly laid pine that had once, and too briefly, been a floor, and his near murder at the hands of the former Destroyer of Nations. He'd almost had a little accident, but that would've been perfectly germane to the activity with which he had busied himself this evening.
Later, in a more rational frame of mind, she'd reflected on how easy it would've been to chakram first, then claim darkness for an ally. He'd made such a tempting target, just his head peering through the hole, crowned with that stupid hat he always wore, no one would've dared to question her if she'd sworn she thought it really was a badger, instead of a sewer rat. She had reached a long arm down into the ruins of her well-crafted handiwork and yanked him up by his suspenders, settling, for the moment, for a deep-seated wedgie in the way of revenge. It would have to do. All that hard work. Up in ... smoke? Hey, what was that Joxer had said?
"I thought I was doing you a favor, your own private privy. That's why I broke through here and I paced it off perfectly, you have to admit. Look at the perfect hole I dug, did you ever see a more perfect hole?"
"I'm looking at him."
Large warrior hands scrubbed in futility at a downcast face, giving it a rare haggard appearance. "Joxer, you're a moron."
"Thank you, Xena."
Shame to use it all for kindling. Maybe she could salvage something out of this. So, now, she rolled her sleeves up once again and got back to work using the damaged boards to build a small shed over the 'perfect' hole. Hmm, what should she tell Gabrielle it was? How about an out-house? Yeah. That sounded just about right.
"Xena, what are you doing? That doesn't look like a porch. I ask you to do one little thing around here and instead...." Xena did not hear the rest of Gabrielle's muttered opinion as her so-called better half had already turned round, shaking her head, and retreating into the early morning gloom of their abode. It was sometime after dawn broke over the sleepy little northern village. Xena thought about her favorite future space travelers and carved a tiny crescent moon above the lintel of the small building's doorway. She grinned slyly, only she would ever know what it meant.
Scene 8: Xena Reads Another Scroll
Xena was having a bad day.
" Where does it end?!" she muttered angrily. As she stomped about the spacious, one-room hut she shared with Gabrielle, her footfalls were partially muffled by the hard-packed dirt floor that made up the foundation of their cozy abode. Whatever was unlucky enough to be in her way was quickly, though quietly, pushed aside. She'd spent the better part of a candlemark, patiently coaxing the baby to sleep and, angry or not, she wasn't about to repeat that. Not until tomorrow, anyway. Her muttering continued, this time in a bad imitation of the bard's voice. 'Be sure and straighten this place up, Xena; the Council's meeting here tonight, remember? Oh, and if you get a chance, will you take the baby to the healer's hut? She prepared that poultice you asked her for, for Evie's rash. And while you're out, the yard could really use a little sprucing up, 'k? Love you. Bye.' And then, in a louder voice, "When did I stop being a warrior and become the hired help? Just 'cause she's off queening all day doesn't mean I have to like doing housework! Bah!"
Her meanderings soon brought her to the little table that she and Gabrielle used for private dining, whenever the village's communal ways got to be a little too much for Xena. More and more lately, this was where they ate their meals. Grabbing the nearest chair, she raised it above her head and felt the muscles in her arms twitch in anticipation of the satisfaction she'd get from smashing it to bits. But her eyes fell upon her daughter's tiny face, and slowly the tension abated, leaving just enough to bring the chair down, forcefully, on one of the colorful mats that the bard had lovingly scattered throughout the room in an attempt to make this, their first nest, seem like a real home for the three of them.
Heavily, the warrior collapsed onto the recently abused chair, elbows on her knees, her hands over her face, instinctively hiding the frustration so clearly etched there. More and more, lately, Xena found herself questioning the folly of giving in to Gabrielle's simple wish to remain here among the friendly Amazons, safely away from the Olympian gods who were hell-bent on seeing Eve dead. It was the right thing to do for the two people who meant the most to her in this world. But this way of protecting her family clashed mightily with every warrior code that had ruled her life up to now.
Because deep inside, no matter how she tried to rationalize it, it felt like hiding; it felt like running away. And that was unthinkable. And now that clash between what was right, and what was right for her, erupted in feelings of such frustration that the poor warrior felt herself being pulled apart. Quietly, that little voice deep within her, timid but insistent, whispered the truth against her heart: You're here because you love her, because her happiness will always come first. " I know that! Don't you think I know that?" The sigh that broke from her lips was loud enough to cause the baby to stir in her crib. Immediately, Xena started to rise but Eve cooed her little protest for being so rudely disturbed, then quickly settled down. Her mother did the same, and as she readjusted the chair, the toe of her boot met with some resistance under the table. Peering over the edge, she spotted Gabrielle's scrolls, some strewn helter-skelter, others stacked up in a neat little pile. It was obvious that the baby had been hard at play here. Her indulgent mother smiled.
"Ah Evie, I can't turn my back on ya for a moment, can I? What would your mommy say if she saw this mess?" But the scolding words were tenderly spoken, the only tone she ever used with her child. Sitting down on the mat, she began to make her own neat pile of scrolls. She smiled. "Guess I know where she got that from." Using the toe of her boot as a hook, she drew Gabrielle's scroll bag to her and fully opened the leather tie that normally held it closed. There was something still inside. "Ya missed one, Evie," she said, as she fished the object out from its hiding place at the very bottom of the bag. "Hmm, this is different." It was the smallest scroll, by far, of all the scrolls before her. Measuring about five finger widths across, it was fastened, not with the usual leather bindings, but with what appeared to be a small length of braided human hair, as dark and as shiny as.... "Mine."
She knew well the power of Gabrielle's written words, having experienced them for the very first time in this very village. Was it just a few weeks ago? Remembering how deeply the bard's words had affected her before, she couldn't keep her hands from shaking as, slowly, she untied the braid, opened the scroll and read, in tiny script, the outpourings of her Love's love:
I Sing of Xena -
The Owner of my Heart
The Keeper of my Soul
The Woman I Love
She walks in beauty, like the night
She can't possibly be talking about ... me?
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
Well, we do have a history there.
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
I think I'm gonna cry.
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Mellowed by the tender light that shines from your eyes, Love.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Yep, she's definitely talking about you, Xena.
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
Oh yeah. She's got it bad. No one ever thought of me as 'pure' before.
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
She really sees me that way?
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
I learned from the best.
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Innocent! Imagine. No, Gabrielle, what you see is you, reflected in me. How do I thank you for that?
She read the last lines through a curtain of tears that reached her heart and tightened around it, not cruelly, but in joyous pain. Such a wealth of love in so few words! Who deserved such a gift? She knew that she didn't, not in twenty lifetimes, but she was so very thankful that Gabrielle thought she did. The baby stirred again; Xena tenderly lifted her from the crib and kissed the little fists that flailed at her in sleepy ire.
"You know what, Evie? For the first time in my life, I wish I had words as good as hers, words that would tell her how much she means to me."
She continued to rock the baby as she walked about the room, pouring out her heart to the silent witness in her arms.
"If I were a poet, like your mommy, I could use fancy words to show her how much I care." A wistful smile graced her lips, and feelings so deep that even the baby was not allowed to share them, softened her eyes.
"Wish you could help me out here, Evie. Bet you'll be good at that, some day. But I can't wait that long, sweetie. Who knows how long my luck will hold? No, it has to be soon, but how do I do it? How do I tell her?"
Even asleep, the baby seemed to ponder her mother's question, scrunching her brow as a tiny pink tongue poked out the side of her little mouth. Xena smiled at her child.
"You let me know when you think of something, okay?"
At that moment, her eyes fell again on the bard's scrolls, and slowly, an idea began to form.
"What was the name of that poet Gabrielle's always going on about? Saffy? No, Sappho! Yeah. Wonder if she works on commission? Can't hurt to ask. I'll send Joxer out to find her. That's something even he can't mess up. But if he does," and here the warrior bared her teeth at no one in particular and made a punching motion with a fist, "bang-zoom! Right to the moon! Now where does Gabrielle keep her blank scrolls? 'Cause I've got a letter to write!"
Scene Nine: That Tree In The Forest
Warriors were tough as their leathers, hard as granite, unyielding as the wind. Or so she'd heard it said. So, it was always a matter of some amazement to this particular warrior that she could be made to blanch so thoroughly at the sound of the most dreaded words in this or any other language: "Xena, we need to talk."
A furtive look to her left revealed no possible exit through the front door; Eve was happily playing on the threshold. Shifting her eyes to the right, she spied a way out through the open window, and was just beginning to make a move in that direction when she saw one of the Queen's guards walk by. Rats! Can't go that way, too undignified. The S.O.B.'s will never let me live it down. And just as she began to calculate the number of steps required to jump safely over the baby and then keep right on going, her partner spoke again.
"Xena, please, this is hard enough without you looking for a way out of it." Busted! How does she always know?
"Gabrielle, am I your tree?"
That stopped the small blonde, brought her up short, adorably so, in her own cute little moccasins. A faraway look glimmered in the sub-surface of those deep green pools Xena knew oh so well. And then the beginnings of a smile graced the youthful features, and the bard swallowed in a vain attempt to drain the moisture from her eyes. Instead, it caused a slight choking waver as she said, "You know you are."
'Then let me grow." The tall woman spread her arms out to either side. "Freely. Don't cut me down to size." Her partner looked as though she was going to let go of those held-back tears after all, but Xena shook her head and smiled, attempting to suggest that there was no need to cry. Gabrielle cleared her throat and smiled back. But it was a sad little smile and it brought the warrior up short, her demeanor changing from playful to serious in an instant.
"I know what you're doing, Xena, but please don't. We need to talk. Something's terribly wrong and we both know it."
Xena lowered her eyes and stared intently at the ground. Please don't make me do this. I don't want to hurt you anymore. Gabrielle, who knew her so well, watched as her partner's easy stance stiffened in wary anticipation of what was to come. And for once, she wished she wasn't the one in charge of sensitive chats. But this was too important to put off any longer, and with a sigh, she stepped closer to her love and took her hand. Xena's fingers immediately tightened around hers, though she kept her head averted. Gabrielle hastened to reassure her.
"Hey, it's okay," she said gently, "just the two of us here. Haven't we always been able to talk our way out of any trouble?" For a moment, a tiny spark appeared deep within the troubled, hooded blue eyes.
"Speak for yourself," she said, as the ghost of a smirk curled her lips. It was exactly the effect Gabrielle had hoped to evoke, and she took full advantage of the lessened tension to softly ask, again, "Won't you tell me what's wrong? I can see you're not happy...."
"No, let me finish. For weeks now, I've watched you wrestle with whatever it is that's bothering you. And I've waited for you to say something ... anything that would give me a clue, but you haven't." Then, with a wry smile, she quickly added, "Not that you've ever been much of a talker." She was instantly pinned by one raised brow, and a terse, "Hardy har har." But her face relaxed into a smile so loving, it made Gabrielle's heart soar. We can do this. There isn't anything we can't get through, together.
"Come sit by me."
She led the warrior by the hand to one of the beds, one of the now glaringly separate beds, where they both settled as Gabrielle took Xena's hands and held them against her own face.
"Xena, tell me. Is it me? Please, please say no. Is it something I've said or done that...?"
"No!" Her response was immediate, and in that moment, Gabrielle felt the weight of the world roll off her shoulders. "Never you. It's my fault. I'm sorry, but I can't do this any longer. I can't stay here, Gabrielle. I can feel the walls closing in on me."
Tearing her hands away from her partner's face, she began to pace restlessly before her, releasing months of pent-up anguish that had finally reached the boiling point.
" I wanted to do this for you, I wanted to so badly...."
"No, listen! How many sacrifices have you made, because of me? You've given up your home, your family, your blood innocence," quietly adding, after a moment's painful hesitation, "your daughter. All because of me."
Hearing this, Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to grab her partner by the shoulders and shake her, make her understand how wrong she was. But she knew that Xena needed to purge herself of all these misguided feelings of guilt, so she kept silent and let her continue.
"In all the years we've been together, what have you ever asked of me? Nothing! I lead and you follow; you give and I take. And now, the first time you ask for something ... something as basic as a home of our own and a stable life to go with it, what do I do? Moan and groan and carry on like a two year old. Anyone would think you'd asked for the moon." Looking miserably at her mate, she softly added, "Maybe it would have been easier if you had."
"Xena, all those things you say I've given up - have I ever once complained that I miss them? Or have I ever said I regretted throwing my lot in with yours?"
"No, of course not! You're ... you're ... you're Gabrielle!"
It really proved impossible for the bard not to smile at that. While others might wonder at the logic of that answer, Gabrielle understood it perfectly. Verbal compliments from her partner were few and far between, but when they came, they were memorable, and she cherished everyone of them.
"And in all the years we've been together, Xena, what have you ever asked of me?"
The warrior stared at her in shocked disbelief. "What are you saying?"
"The truth. You've never imposed your will on me, Xena. From that very first day we met," and here, the soft light that shone from her eyes was reflected in her partner's equally tender gaze, "to this very moment, what I've done, for you or with you, I've done because I've wanted to. The choice was always mine. We're partners, remember? And I choose you, above anyone or anything else. Now, and always"
There are moments in life when you just want to fall to your knees and thank the Fates for dealing you a winning hand. For Xena, this was that moment. Having no words to express what she felt, she stumbled blindly toward the blessed light that she prayed would always shine for her, and clung to the warmth she found there. Long moments later, after the lovers had exchanged whispered words of love, Gabrielle again addressed her mate.
"But Xena, if being here is so terrible for you, why did you agree to stay? We were almost out of the village, once, when you suddenly decided you'd changed your mind and were willing to give this another try. Why not just leave then?"
'It's simple. I saw how much you enjoyed being here with your sisters, how, as their queen, you were making a difference in their lives. How that made you happy."
"Who says I was happy?"
What? But.... Weren't you?"
"Well, for a while there, I did enjoy it very much. But after a time, I found myself daydreaming about the open road, and all the trouble we can usually get into, instead of concentrating on the vagaries of Amazon law. Which can be pretty vague, let me tell you."
"Did you really miss it?" Xena could hardly believe what Gabrielle was telling her.
"Yeah, I did. I was so sure that this was what I wanted, but once I got my wish, it just didn't measure up to our old life, you know? And then you started looking so unhappy and acting so strangely ... but now at least I know why you took that silly job."
Xena lowered her head, chuckling to herself, then with a wry smile she admitted the truth. "It was either that or keep whittling until the forest ran out of trees." They both laughed at that, remembering the huge pile of kindling that occupied their back yard, and was still causing a commotion among the tribe.
"Did you know they started a betting pool over that, in the village? Wonder if they'll let me wager? I could make quite a killing."
Xena hugged her tight. "Bet ya could. But Gabrielle, are you sure you won't miss all this? Hades knows when you'll ever get the chance to do this again."
"Let's see, will I miss being painted blue and howling at the moon all night long, naked?" She bit her lip to keep from laughing, then said, more seriously, "No, love, I won't miss it. My happiness doesn't come from material things or from honorary titles. I carry my happiness with me wherever I go. It's a big, beautiful package, all wrapped up in leather. You may have seen it around? Needs plenty of sunshine, fresh air and elbow room to thrive?"
And then somehow, she found herself sitting on Xena's lap, and gently murmuring, "There is a tale of lovers who were together all their long lives and could not bear to be parted by death, so the gods took pity on them and transformed them into trees, side by side, sacred and immortal, where they could entwine their limbs forever."
"I like that idea. Not the turning into an actual tree part. But the limbs entwining." She crossed the first and second fingers of her hand, in what also just happened to be an age-old good luck symbol, for emphasis.
Gabrielle chuckled. The bard shifted slightly, then sighed. "It's not that I don't ... desire you, Xena. I do. I always have. Even before I knew what those feelings meant. It's that ... I want you too much. It scares me. I don't know how to deal with it."
"Let that be my problem." Please.
The little bard placed her head on the broad warrior shoulder. " I don't want to be a clinging vine. Choking the life out of you."
"Aw, ya never were." She hugged Gabrielle tightly to her breast. Her eyes twinkled. "A sapling maybe, or a seedling. My tender little shoot. Wondered sometimes if you'd make it."
"You did cast a long shadow. I couldn't see the end of it sometimes."
"Is that a tall joke, shorty?"
The bard laughed, a magical sound Xena had heard not often enough of late.
Gabrielle hugged her soulmate and kindred spirit. "I always saw the light and the warmth and moved toward it. You nourished me, gave me deep roots."
"Alright, enough with the tree ... what do you call that, when you....?"
"Yeah. Let's try that entwining limbs part."
"In the middle of the afternoon?" Gabrielle blushed and burrowed snugly into Xena's neck, gently compliant. "What about...?"
"She's ready for her nap."
They looked to where the baby was valiantly fighting a nodding head. Xena stood with Gabrielle in her arms and deposited her lovingly on the bed before swooping on her daughter and laying the droopy-eyed child in her cradle. Then she closed and bolted the door.
The warrior turned and stood, hands on hips, before her bard, her queen, her partner, and her life. "Now, I'd like you to define 'too much' for me."
"Oh, you would."
"I would, I really, really would. And I don't mean the kind you saw." Xena made a back and forth motion with her arm.
Playing along, Gabrielle smiled seductively, and said, "And what did I see?"
"Hmm. Now you'll just want me to build a teeter-totter for the little one?"
"Shh. Come here. There are other ways of showing you what I mean." Gabrielle reached out and pulled the taller woman to her by an errant strand of rawhide. As the warrior hovered above her, the bard, with a seriously sultry smile, issued her invitation. "Xena of Amphipolis, come on down here."
Who could resist such a tempting offer? Not Xena; she surrendered. Gladly. "Ah, just as I've been trying to tell you. And I'm planning on speaking volumes."
And just as twin heartbeats picked up and warm lips met, someone knocked on their door. Xena growled; Gabrielle giggled; the baby woke and started screaming her protest. The warrior reached for her chakram, but the bard was quicker and intercepted her arm before she could grab it. "Xena, we can't let them stand out there all day."
"Go on, take care of Eve. I'll see who it is."
With one last yearning look at her chakram, and a parting grunt, the warrior went to calm the baby, while Gabrielle adjusted her clothes as she walked to the door. Swinging it open, she found one of her personal guards standing at attention, though she dropped to one knee as soon as she saw the blonde woman.
"What is it, Alia? Is there a problem in the village?"
"No, my Queen, but a messenger has just arrived from Egypt, and bears a message for the Warrior Princess."
"Make him comfortable, and tell him we'll be there shortly."
"Yes, my Queen." Rising quickly, she hurried away to do the Queen's bidding.
When she turned, she found her partner standing behind her, holding the now quiet baby. "You heard?"
"Yeah. Let's go find out what this is about."
"Right behind you."
Together, they went to meet their unexpected guest. Their private time together would have to wait.
Scene Ten: And Away We Go!
The center of the village was alive with activity on this crisp, sunny afternoon. The friendly Amazons liked nothing better than to "meet and greet" after the day's labors were done, gathering around the large communal well that marked the geographic center of their world.
A thin, wiry woman with close cropped salt and pepper hair was regaling a small group of friends with what was surely, judging by the rapt looks on their faces, a very interesting piece of news.
"And he never suspected a thing! Can you imagine?"
"Come on, Tilda, how's that possible?" The woman nearest to her refused to believe what she'd just heard.
"Yeah, Tilda, nobody's that dumb." A round of laughter served to confirm the group's collective disbelief.
"I tell ya it's true! One of the villagers we trade with, on the other side of the river, told it to Aya, who told it to Minta, who told it to me. See? Straight from the horse's mouth!"
"But if it was so obvious to everyone else, how could the guy not know that 'she' was a 'he'?" There was general head shaking all around.
"Not everyone has your taste in women, Rhandi." The poor warrior had the good grace to blush, as her friends' raucous laughter echoed around her.
"Okay, so I'm not picky - I admit it." Then, with more bravado, "But you can bet your chobos that would never happen to me." Hoots all around greeted her emphatic declaration, and as she turned away in mock anger, a movement caught her eye. "Hey, here comes Gabrielle, and Xena's with her."
Six pairs of interested eyes immediately turned in their direction, watching as the pair moved through the village exchanging friendly greetings with everyone they met. The messenger from Egypt, standing at the entrance to the meeting hall, otherwise known as the Lodge, also watched as they approached. He had absolutely no problem identifying the Queen of the Amazons. There was a stateliness to her bearing, a graceful confidence to her stride, an overall dignity that proclaimed her as royal to even the most casual observer. And the tall woman who walked beside her, equally regal in bearing despite her rustic costume, must surely be the Queen's consort. The very woman he had traveled so far to see.
"Ah, the Warrior Princess." He couldn't help comparing the description he'd been given to the woman herself. "Either Hosni has never laid eyes on her, or his powers of description are woefully lacking. She's magnificent!"
He might not have thought so a few short hours ago, but unburdening her soul to Gabrielle and finding true understanding and acceptance there had made a marked difference in her attitude. The always intelligent eyes were now bright and alert, and with her head held high and her shoulders thrown back, she was the epitome of quiet, confident authority.
As they reached the meeting hall, the messenger from Egypt bowed low before them as he said, "Your Highnesses, I come bearing an urgent message from Queen Cleopatra. I was charged with delivering it only into the hands of the Warrior Princess."
The Amazon queen smiled kindly at the soft-spoken man, then said, "I am Gabrielle, and this is Xena. She's the one you seek. But please, let's go inside where we can continue this conversation more comfortably." The messenger bowed again and, flanked by a squadron of royal guards, followed them into the hall.
"What will you do?"
They were back in the queen's hut after having spent a good part of the evening in earnest conversation with Cleopatra's messenger.
"Gabrielle, I can't ignore a direct summons from Cleopatra ... she's my friend. And much as I'd have appreciated her being a little more specific as to why she wants to see me, I'm afraid there's only one thing this can mean."
Ah. That word again. They hadn't had to deal with it, well, except for the domestic kind, since they'd arrived in the village. But the bard had never truly believed they'd ever be rid of it. It was a constant in their lives; if they didn't find trouble on their own, trouble would surely find them. So it was with a touch of resignation in her voice that she turned to her partner and said, "When do we leave?'
"I thought I'd ... what?"
"You heard me. When?"
Gabrielle, you don't have to do this."
"Don't have to, want to."
"But you and the baby can stay here safely while I...."
"Xena, do you recall a conversation that took place, oh, half a lifetime ago? Between a crusty old ex-warlord and a beautiful, starry-eyed young girl?" Her eyes twinkled as she said this and she watched as her partner stepped closer and took her hands.
"Yeesss?'' One dark eyebrow had definitely climbed higher than the other.
"If I recall correctly, it went something like this: 'Where you go, I go.' Remember?"
Xena pulled the charmingly smiling bard toward her and held her close, glorying in the sensations carried by the torrent of love that flowed between them.
She kissed her once, twice, three times, each kiss a little deeper, each kiss a little stronger. Gazing deeply into eyes that were the color of summer, she softly asked, "Do you know what I thank the stars for?"
"No, what?" whispered the bard..
"Guiding me to Potadeia, all those years ago, leading me straight to you. 'Cause baby, you're the greatest."
"I love you, Xena."
"I love you, Gabrielle."
The two guards standing watch outside the queen's hut exchanged knowing smiles as the light within was extinguished. They heard the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor. Ah! There would be no midnight pacing; this would not be another sleepless night for the two occupants of the royal hut. But if by some chance it was, the widely smiling guards were certain that neither the Queen, nor her consort, would mind in the least.
The next morning dawned chilly and clear on the day that would see the start of their journey southward, and the brightening sky reflected the softened blue of early autumn.
There was so much to do, so many little details to see to, that Gabrielle wondered how she could possibly do it all. But Xena was adamant about leaving today. There was something about the vagueness of Cleopatra's message that triggered all the warrior's internal alarms, making her certain that speed was of the essence and that any delay might prove costly to her friend. That meant every preparation had to be done before the sun was high in the sky, or they'd be forced to put off their departure until the next day. And that was no longer an option.
"Xena, I'm off to call the council together, to let them know we're leaving. And we both know how well that's gonna go over." The irony of her words was not lost on her partner.
"Tell 'em I said to...."
"Um ... I'll be sure to give them your love, Xena. Do you think you could start getting our gear together? I can help when I get back."
"Way ahead of you, bard." She pointed to the overflowing saddlebags that lay ready just inside the door of the hut.
"But how ... when?"
"Many skills; come in handy sometimes." With an evil little grin, she led Gabrielle to the door, adding a final pat to her backside to hurry her along. "Go do some queening while I find Joxer. I've got an errand for him to run. Have you seen him?"
"Not for days. Xena, do you think he's alright?"
"Sure. Last time I saw him, he had a heavy date with a ... um ... girl, from across the river. But I'll find him. Now go! Meet you back here in a little while."
Xena asked several women around the village, in the hopes that someone had spotted him recently, thus saving her the time and effort of having to hunt him down. Unfortunately for Xena, no one had seen him lately. The warrior was not happy.
"We don't have enough to do, and now I've gotta go chase after him. One of these days, Joxer, one of these days ... pow! To the moon!" Luckily for the warrior wannabe, he wasn't there to see the look on Xena's face as one fist loudly met her open palm. It would have ruined more than his day.
Xena decided the first place to look for Joxer had to be his miserable little campsite near the river, just outside Amazon land. And once there, though neither he nor his gear were anywhere to be seen, his footprints were everywhere. But she quickly saw that some crude effort had been made to cover his tracks.
It proved ridiculously easy for the trained warrior to follow his trail, and soon she was standing at the mouth of a small cave that was half concealed by bushes. The muttering began as she entered the cave. "What's the matter? Too hard for you to completely conceal your hiding place? You'd think after all these years, something would have rubbed off on you."
She sensed his presence before she could see him, but as soon as she called his name, he was upon her, holding her in a tight hug.
"Xena! Thank goodness you found me! You're just the woman I wanted to see. I bet you had a hard time following my tracks, didn't you?"
"Joxer! Get off!"
"Why are you here?"
"Believe me, Xena, you don't wanna know. It isn't pretty. And neither was she! Er ... he."
"What are you talking about? Quit babbling and tell me."
"Trixina. Remember? The one I had a date with? Turns out 'she' was a 'he'. Can you believe it?"
A light went on and illuminated the warrior. "Ah! But why are you hiding?"
"Are you kidding? I can't lift my head in the village. The guys were all over me about this. I mean, they won't let me forgot and keep raggin' on me. I tell you Xena, it's enough to drive a man to drink!" He shivered in horror, recalling just how close a call he'd just had. Why, one more mug of ale and he might have found himself engaged to Trixor. Brrrrr!
"Did you miss me, Xena?" he asked coyly. "Is that why you're here?"
The warrior counted to ten before she allowed herself to answer. "No, Joxer, I need you to do me a favor. Get your gear and come on. I'll explain as we walk."
"Anything, Xena! Put me to the test; I'll accept any challenge, no matter how hard."
"I want you to go to Athens and find a woman named Sappho."
"Who is she, Xena? One of your old warlord buddies? Some statuesque, built like a brick out-house, tough as nails, leather-clad babe?" He was almost drooling as he added, "Va va va voom!"
"She's a poet."
"A ... a what?" There was no mistaking the disappointment in his voice.
"You heard me. I want you to deliver this letter to her, and wait for a reply. If you can't find her at any of the local inns, go directly to the Royal Academy of Bards; they'll know where to find her."
"Okay, Xena. Might take me a while to get back here, though," he answered, being in no big hurry to return to the scene of the crime.
"That's fine. But we won't be here. Gabrielle and I are leaving today. We'll find you, when we get back"
"Whatsa matter, Xena, all that domesticity get to you?" He smirked as he said this, and Xena was quick to answer him.
"You hungry, Joxer?"
"I could eat. Why."
"How'd you like a nice knuckle sandwich?"
Joxer stepped back as Xena's fist approached his face. "Er, on second thought, never mind. I'll just be on my way now. Say good-bye to Gabby for me." They had reached the river and Joxer boarded the ferry, now manned by a sturdily built young Amazon. They traded arm salutes, then Xena watched as the currents took him further and further from the riverbank.
I'm counting on you, Joxer. Safe trip. And don't disappoint me.
Entering the Amazon village, she spied her partner standing by the well, with what appeared to be the entire Amazon nation surrounding her. The horses were nearby, loaded down and ready to go.
"We all set?" Xena addressed her mate with a smile.
"Yes." The poor bard must have hugged a million of her Amazons sisters before finally turning to Cyane, who'd been appointed the new queen by the council. "I won't say good-bye. We hope to come back some day, if you'll let us."
Cyane smiled and said, "You and Xena will always be welcome here. The job is yours, Gabrielle, whenever you want it."
Gabrielle returned her smile but shook her head. "I think I'll keep my old job." Here she turned and looked directly at Xena. "The hours are long and the pay isn't great, but you just can't beat the perks that come with it."
The warrior put her hands around the bard's waist and easily lifted her into the saddle, but not before they exchanged a look that gave the Amazons a collective hot flash. Then she turned toward Eris, who was standing next to Argo with Eve held safely in her arms. And as the young girl deposited the baby into the carry sack on her mother's back, she gathered up her courage and addressed the warrior one the last time. "Good-bye Xena, I'll miss you." Then, on tiptoe, she placed a tiny kiss on the warrior's cheek. It was one of the bravest things many of her sisters had ever seen. But Xena smiled at her kindly and hugged her as she said, "Good-bye kid, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, turned in the saddle and waved a final good-bye to the women who would always hold a place in her heart ... her tribe. Then, urging her horse forward, she rode quickly toward the wide village gates, followed closely by her partner and their child. Once outside the gates, she slowed her pace and watched as Xena came abreast of her. Turning to her partner, she again offered her a way out. "There's still time to change your mind about this, Gabrielle. Are you certain you won't regret doing this?"
The bard returned her earnest gaze, and reaching out to take her soulmate's hand, she closed the book on the matter, forever.
"If Artemis herself came down and asked me to stay, if she offered me all the riches in the heavens to do it, if the fate of the world depended on my staying here, I'd still follow you. Because, Xena, to me ... you're the greatest!"
Locking her eyes on the horizon, Xena's smile grew larger by the minute. Because, no matter what awaited them, the present was as sweet as she could ever wish. Hand in hand, they rode toward their future, as always, together.
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