The following takes place near the end of "Sins of The Past," after Cyrene forgives Xena and before Gabrielle appears unbidden at Xenaís camp.
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS
"Mother, forgive me, please."
"I forgive you... my Little One... I forgive you. Iím so happy to have you back."
"You know I canít stay for long."
No, Xena never could sit still. But I think she understands thatís not all I meant. This moment, precious though it is, canít quite make up the distance remaining between us ñ much greater than back when she challenged her elders as other children did not. She was always a handful, always her own person. I just never expected it to go so far. Never dreamed she would grow to shame us so. That I could ever wish her... gone.
Perhaps if I hadnít been so busy with the inn. If sheíd had a fatherís stern hand. If.... Ah, Cyrene, too late for that. Water under the bridge. Be thankful sheís here. Back to reclaim her heritage, make amends. Back to the Little One I loved and raised the best I could. I am still her mother, no matter that she towers over me now and got too big for her boots. If I must let her go again, I can at least send her off this time with a good meal in her belly.
She sits there waiting for me to bring her favorite dishes, prepared by my own hands. All that dark leather, those weapons and fearful reputation, yet all I see is my little girl. She fidgets, brooding, uncomfortable as usual when something isnít quite her way. Reminds me of the time I told her she wasnít old enough yet to ride the mare by herself. Youíd have thought Iíd commanded her not to breathe. Storm clouds darkened those beautiful bright eyes, and her voice wouldnít acknowledge my presence for two whole days.
Sheís not mad this time, but itís obvious sheís not accustomed any more to taking orders. She hasnít spoken more than a few words to that animated girl across from her. Gabrielle. Not that the girl seems bothered. Sheís managing to rehash the dayís events well enough on her own. Lucky for all of us sheís quite the talker and came out of nowhere to save my child from a stoning I gave permission for. I suppose I could return the favor by rescuing the poor thing from Xena.
"You two must be starving," I declare jauntily, leading Anna over with a second tray. "Hope I didnít make you wait too long." They both glance up at me gratefully.
"Your cooking is always worth the wait, Mother," Xena says as she helps us unload the dishes. "Gave me time to pick up some supplies I needed anyway."
"Me too," Gabrielle chimes in. "Not that I bought anything, seeing as how I left in kind of a hurry, which of course means I forgot a few things that I could use, including some extra dinars, though Iím not sure what to get anyhow without a little advise from Xena, who insists on being rather stubborn about...."
She realizes weíre staring at her, except for Xena, whoís already digging into her meal like she hasnít heard a thing. Gabrielle giggles. "Sorry, I rattle on sometimes. I meant to say that I helped Xena shop."
"Try the stew first," Xena abruptly "suggests" to the girl. "People come from miles around for that alone."
Gabrielle gets the hint. She grins sheepishly at me before sampling the stew. "Mmmm, this is good." She chews slowly, frowning thoughtfully. "Thereís something a little.... Is that rosemary I taste?"
"Why, yes," I answer, pleasantly surprised. "My customers seem to like it. Of course, all I usually have to go on is their grunts and how fast the food disappears. Itís nice to have someone notice."
Gabrielle laughs, blushing a bit. "Another of my tendencies ñ noticing things, especially if it has to do with food."
I want to follow up on that, but a slight stiffening in Xenaís posture stops me. Iím reminded she wears that dark leather, those weapons and fearful reputation for a reason, that underneath a stranger shares the body with the daughter I know.
"Well, youíve made this old cook happy," I say instead. I nudge Anna, whoís finding Gabrielle as inviting as I. "Come, letís leave them to eat in peace. You girls call if you need anything else."
Gabrielle looks a little disappointed but understanding. I return her smile and start to walk away.
"Mother?" Xena peers up at me, my child again on one of our better days when she senses Iím indulging her. "Itís delicious. Thanks."
"Youíre welcome, my Little... Xena. Always. Perhaps we can talk later, before you go?"
She nods. "Yes. Iíd like that."
When Anna and I are out of earshot, I tell her to put a "closed" sign on the door. The place is already empty. I decide I want to keep it that way. Iím suddenly rather tired. Itís not every day a parent experiences such a lifetime of horror and hope on only one nightís sleep.
I see the two have finished eating. They are arguing about something. Well, more accurately, Gabrielle is arguing. Xena sits with that stony expression that means sheís spoken her last word on the subject, so will deal with what comes after when it comes. I sympathize with Gabrielle, but have a few long-stored words to say myself. Sheíll have to get in line. I put some sweets on a plate and head over to them.
"I believe the only time Xena hung around the kitchen was when I baked these." I hand them each a couple of pastries. "Be sure to check with Anna before you leave. I packed a few things for you to take on the road." I pull up a chair and sit, smiling expectantly like we mothers do when we will not be denied.
"Thank you so much," Gabrielle says. "I canít remember when Iíve eaten as well. Motherís a good cook too, but there are only so many dishes you can prepare on a farm. Have you thought about putting together a scroll with some of your recipes? Maybe letting others buy them?"
Xena and I smile at her. You canít fault the girl for her enthusiasm. She glances from mother to daughter, finally realizing the unspoken message in our silence.
"Oh, you probably want to...." Gabrielle stretches and gets up. "Why donít I enjoy these outside? Itís still such a beautiful day." She looks pointedly at Xena. "You want me to get the supplies from Anna before I go out?"
Xena draws in a long breath. "Iíll take care of it."
Gabrielle starts to say something, but changes her mind. She bends down to hug me. "Iím so glad I got to meet you. Please come out when you and Xena are finished, so I can say a proper goodbye, okay?"
I return her embrace with genuine affection. "I will. I always wished for another daughter. I feel I have one now."
"Oh, thank you," she says to me softly with equally genuine affection. "I have a sister, Lila, but sheís younger. Iíve always wished I had an older one." She turns to Xena with stubborn hope. "See you soon? Iíll be waiting outside."
Xena smiles with gentleness Iíd feared sheíd lost. "If I could pick a younger sister, it would be you," she says. She adds playfully, "Maybe a little less chatty."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle grins and stands a little taller. "I donít know how you could be so bad, with a mother like Cyrene."
Xenaís eyes dim a little, though she keeps smiling. "No, she doesnít deserve the credit for that." She glances at the pastries in Gabrielleís hand. "Eat your desert while itís nice and fresh." She looks up at the girl with genuine affection. "You certainly earned it. Go on. I wonít be long."
Gabrielle hesitates, her face a patchwork of emotions, then nods and walks to the entrance. She glances back at us before closing the door.
Xena and I smile shyly at each other while she polishes off her sweets. After, she brushes her hands together and rests them folded on the table. I reach over to take the right one, pretending not to notice the barest tremor when I touch her. I study her palm, gently stroking the lines I remember and the calluses I do not.
"I used to do this when you were a baby," I explain, continuing my examination. "Such tiny fingers. So perfect. Almost as long as Torisí. I figured you might be tall. I prayed for a daughter, did you know that?" I ask, glancing up. She shakes her head before I return to her hand.
"Yes. Sons leave you ñ in pursuit of themselves, their fathers, another woman. Oh, they come back, when they need mothering, but you canít always talk to them like an adult." I gaze at my Little One. "Daughters, you can depend on. You can dream things for them that you would want yourself."
I sigh and pat her hand before letting it go. She surprises me by now covering mine. I feel a sting in my eyes.
"You probably donít remember, but I carried you around on my back. I made this little sling, so you could be with me when I was working. Iíd sing to you and tell you about my day. Youíd gurgle or tug my hair like you understood. When you got bigger, you took on the chores Toris always managed to botch. I donít know what I wouldíve done without you, once Lyceus came along. You raised him as much as I...." My voice catches and trails off.
We bow our heads, mourning the loss of that beautiful young soul. I suppose we also would rather not see the pain in each otherís eyes, since he died following his big sister into battle. I know it wasnít Xenaís fault, that he did what he believed in. Water under the bridge Iím not sure Iíve accepted yet though, and am pretty sure Xena hasnít either. But I must try, if this day is to be the beginning of getting one child back, instead of missing them both.
She peers up at me. My heart nearly breaks at the fear and resignation even she canít hide from the woman who brought her into the world.
"You never settled for second best. I was proud of that. Whatever you did, you put your whole self in it. Nobody studied harder, played harder, worked harder or tried harder than you."
She snorts softly. "I do have many skills. Who knew what Iíd end up using them for."
We sit quietly awhile before I ask the question thatís burned me all these years. "Xena, where was I during that awful time? Did I cease to exist for you? Did you... did you hate me and everything I tried to teach you, for not wanting you to fight those men who attacked us? Resent me for ñ ?"
"No!" she exclaims heatedly, leaning forward. "I meant what I said about not blaming yourself. My rage blinded me to you, to all the good in me. Like a fence that kept me from seeing the consequences or any other ways. Itís as you say ñ somewhere along the line I decided to be the strongest, the most determined and accomplished at winning. If it meant being bad as well, then I would become the baddest of the bad."
I lean forward to meet her. "We were lost to each other, yet here you are, my daughter again. What changed you?"
She pulls back and sits with her hands folded again. "Itís hard to say," she sighs. "My men became as out of control as I was. They tried to kill me."
A gasp escapes. My eyes close and my hand presses to my chest as I relive seeing my child at that warlord Dracoís mercy this very morning.
"That wasnít the first time, as you can imagine. Hercules had the chance to kill me, but didnít. I guess he put a hole in my fence. Suddenly all the horrible things Iíd done came pouring through. It sickened me. I couldnít figure out why I still lived." She seems to go inside herself a moment.
"I wanted to bury it all ñ the past, maybe even myself. Then I came upon Gabrielle. In saving her, it seems I too was saved again." She leans toward me once more, her eyes alive with the future Iíd seen in my little girl. "Suddenly I felt a renewed sense of purpose, a reason for not dying before. Only this time I wanted to do good."
I bestow on her a maternal grin. "And be the best at that too?"
She smiles her thanks, then chuckles at some private joke. "If I follow habit, I suppose Iíll give it as much energy as that garden you made me cultivate."
"You remember that?" I ask, laughing. "I thought I finally had your number. Youíd gotten so cocky. I kept waiting for you to storm in, admitting you werenít as smart as you professed. When harvest time came, all I could do was endure more cockiness. Even worse, I had to listen to the neighbors tell me what a fine daughter Iíd produced, who could grow vegetables as plentiful and healthy as yours turned out. I never again dared you to try something."
"Yeah, even Gabrielleís already discovered that." She shakes her head, grinning. "Not that she pays me any mind. I suspect sheís worse than I am."
"Ah, I was curious about that ñ how someone like her came to be with you."
She shakes her head again. "I didnít ask her, believe me. In fact, I pretty much threatened her to stay away. No, she followed me on her own. I meant to make sure she got home, once I finished my business here."
I pat her arm. "I must say, your taste in friends has improved since your teens. She seems the kind of influence that could do you good ñ warm, open, a pure heart, and obviously brave to stand up to us the way she did. Iím glad you changed your mind."
"Changed my mind?"
"About sending her home."
She purses her lips. "I havenít. What you say is exactly why I canít have her with me. Mother, Iím a warrior. Just because Iíll be fighting for good doesnít mean Iíll stop hurting and killing. Or that I wonít be hurt or killed myself. She doesnít need to see that. I donít want anything happening to her, and I canít be worrying about her if I donít want anything to happen to me either."
She says this in that "last word" tone. I believe sheís making a mistake, but decide it best not to argue the point.
"Does Gabrielle know?"
"Yes," she answers tersely. "She doesnít accept it, but thatís how it has to be. I... I was hoping youíd help me with that."
I sit back, shaking my head at the irony. Since returning to me, my daughter has asked only two things ñ that I forgive her, which I did gladly, and that I send away someone who might help that forgiveness stick, which I donít want to do. I respond with that motherly scowl of disapproval.
"Mom, it doesnít involve lying or anything. I have to leave without her following me. I need you to help her see why itís for the best. She wonít listen to me. She doesnít... know me, the way you do. All sheís seen is me saving people." She grasps my hands entreatingly. "Please? I couldnít bear her life on my conscience too."
What am I to do? She knows what sheíll encounter out there better than I. How can I question her judgment on that? How could I be a party to subjecting that innocent girl to Xenaís warrior life? I have her to thank for helping me get my own daughter back. Wouldnít her parents want the same? I am reminded once again why being Xenaís mother was never easy.
I let out a long breath. "Where will you go?"
My daughterís expression does not have the old smugness of knowing she has won again. Indeed, the touch of sadness tells me sheís aware that she may be the loser this time.
"Iím not sure yet. Iíll probably ride out first to that spot in the woods where Lyceus and I liked camping. Maybe itíll help me clear my head." She smiles at me apologetically. "I have a lot to make up for. Iíd best get started."
I squeeze her hands. We stand. I go back to the kitchen for the travel food Iíve prepared. When I hand it to her, she leans down to embrace me.
"Mother, thank you so much," she murmurs in my ear. "You donít know what this day means."
I pull back to memorize this warrior I carried within me before she took her first breath. "Yes, I believe I do. Please donít be a stranger again."
"I wonít," she replies with tears in her eyes. Or is it the tears in mine?
She heads for the back door. Iím suddenly taken by how quietly and gracefully she moves for someone in all that leather, with all those weapons and that fearsome reputation. She turns to wave before disappearing. My warrior. My child. Seems I canít love the one without loving the other as well.
I busy myself in the kitchen awhile, giving Xena time to make her departure. When I know I canít put it off any longer, I take a deep breath and go open the front door. I see that the girl has gathered her few possessions.
"Gabrielle? You can come in now."
I am nearly undone by the eagerness on her face. I turn my back on it and walk into the kitchen.
"Cyrene?" she calls out from the dining room. "Whereís Xena? Did she go upstairs?"
I force myself to sound nonchalant. "Sheís gone, dear." Even this makes me feel like a murderer.
I canít hide any longer. I go out to her. "She said she had a lot to make up for, so better get started."
The girl stands there, looking lost in her own skin. Finally she walks over to the table where theyíd eaten. She drops down, staring at the seat across from her as though she expects Xena to be there.
"Gabrielle?" She glances at me numbly. "You can stay here tonight. Stay as long as you want. Weíll discuss the best way to get you home whenever youíre ready."
Her lips move, but nothing comes out. Sighing, I go over to sit with her. She doesnít have to say anything for me to recognize she doesnít belong where she came from. I know the signs. I take one of her limp hands.
"What will you do, if you donít go home?"
"I... donít know," she answers as though this hadnít occurred to her. "I thought Iíd be with Xena."
"Didnít she warn you that couldnít be?"
She looks at me with the puzzlement of a child whoís been disowned. "I told her she wasnít alone anymore. I thought she understood I wanted to learn from her, be like her. I told her of my dreams and that I couldnít make them come true at home. How could she not believe me?"
I choose my words carefully. "Gabrielle, she did believe you. Thatís why she was afraid."
"Afraid? Xena? Sheís not afraid of anything!"
"Youíre wrong," I respond, smiling at her naiveté. "Sheís afraid of herself, of the harm that could come to you traveling with her."
Her lips pucker. She straightens like a mother defending her child. "Xena wouldnít let that happen. I know sheís done some bad things, but I have faith in her. You shouldíve seen how she defended my village, and she didnít even know us! She wanted so badly to come home. She fought for Amphipolis again, even though you all wanted to kill her. Iíve seen the love in her. I saw it at her brotherís tomb."
This startles me, though I suppose it shouldnít have. "She went to Lyceusí tomb?"
"It hurt her that no one believed she was trying to change. She wanted comfort from the only person who might understand. She said she felt so alone. Thatís when I realized that being her friend wasnít just about her helping me. She needed someone too."
I study this strange girl with a motherís eye. No, she is not that different from my daughter. She too must have her way. Has the same stubbornness to seek it, no matter where it leads or what she must go through to get there. The same loyalty that pushed Xena to stand up for her kin. Yet also compassion to match Xenaís shame. Joy to lighten Xenaís world of death and destruction. Words to fill her well of silence. Laughter to ease her pain.
"Yes, just what my Little One needs," I think out loud.
"I have something to say about this too, you know. I wish everyone would stop treating me like a...." Gabrielle looks at me sharply. "What? What did you say?"
"I said maybe you are what my daughter needs. Sheís probably out there now telling herself what a monster she is, that she doesnít deserve family or friends. How can she stay strong enough to fight for the good in her, if she keeps beating herself up? If her own harsh voice is the only one she hears?"
"Yes!" Gabrielle hunches forward, encouraged. "She needs me! I promise I wonít fail her. No matter how bad things get, no matter how bad she gets, Iíll stick by her. I have to find her, donít you see?"
I canít help but grin. Her enthusiasm is infectious. No wonder she slipped through my daughterís defenses. I mentally apologize to her parents for what I am about to do.
"Gabrielle, I want to trust you with something, but Iíll need your word in return."
"Youíve got it!"
I laugh. "Gabrielle, you donít even know what youíre agreeing to yet."
"If itís about Xena, it doesnít matter."
I nearly say what a lucky woman my daughter is. "I believe I know where sheís gone."
Gabrielle gasps and nearly comes across the table. "You do?"
"I know where she said sheíd probably stay tonight. If I tell you, you must pretend you found her on your own."
"I can do that!"
"If sheís not there or she refuses to let you stay, you have to come back here and let me know."
Her face clouds. "Cyrene, nobody can stop me from following her if I want. Thatís not fair."
"Iím not asking that. I simply need to know what youíre going to do. Xena trusted me to look out for you. I canít send you on a wild-goose chase and have you vanish without a clue as to your whereabouts."
She ponders this. "Okay, thatís fair. I agree." She grins at me. "So, where is she?"
I give her directions and warn her that itís a few hours walk, much of it through the forest. The sun is already beginning to set. We both know itís risky, especially since she isnít familiar with the area. But this may be her best chance. I tell her to wait while I collect some blankets and other supplies for her. When I return, I discover her gone. She has left a note: "Thank you for everything. You wonít regret it. Your new daughter, Gabrielle."
I ease myself into the seat still warm from Gabrielleís presence. I realize my earlier weariness feels lighter. We all make mistakes. Maybe someday Xena will forgive me mine, but I donít think Gabrielle will be one. It canít be an accident she came into our lives, first to help Xena renew her sense of purpose, then to give me the chance to welcome my daughter back. If she finds my Little One ñ and I believe she will ñ perhaps she can help her become the woman I saw inside.
I have prayed for the Destroyer of Nations so many nights, even when I pronounced her dead. I can finally sleep knowing that she is alive, well and dedicated to being the best of the good. I am heartened that she may not have to bear her enormous task alone. Funny how daughters can surprise you sometimes, maybe more so than sons. Who wouldíve thought my perfect baby girl would mean such troubled waters, that a small young runaway dreamer might make the strongest bridge?