Xena faces hurdles from the past and present as she tries to adjust to the life Gabrielle created before the warriorís resurrection in Japa. This story makes reference to events and characters introduced in "A Fly In The Ointment," "Suns of The Passed" and "Loveís Therapy."
"Come on, Gabrielle, be reasonable. All Iím doing is -."
"No!" The red-faced Chief Councilor leaned across the table. "I donít want to hear anymore."
Gabrielle jumped up, oblivious to the winces as her chair crashed to the floor. "When, Xena? When will enough be enough?!" She threw up her hands and stalked from the room.
Xena let out a long breath. Her glance around the table met the expected shrugs and averted eyes. They all knew how stubborn Gabrielle could be. Xena was on her own.
"I believe weíve been dismissed." The warrior forced a smile. "Might as well take shelter, get something to eat, `till the storm passes."
The others murmured agreement, expressing their sympathies in various ways as they headed for the door. Eve was the last to leave. She righted Gabrielleís chair before reaching across to lay her hand on Xenaís shoulder.
"Mother? Can I -."
"No." Xena patted her daughterís hand. "Thanks. Go on. Iíll be okay."
Eve took in the warriorís slumped posture, the strong hands lying limp in her lap. What could she say of comfort that Xena herself hadnít already tried? What answer could she give to Gabrielleís question that would satisfy both her mothers? How could anyone else bridge the chasm that threatened to sunder two such inseparable souls?
"All right." Eve lifted her motherís chin. "Iím here if you need me."
Xena smiled. She grasped her daughterís hand and kissed it. "Youíve been my rock." She straightened. "You know me - many skills and all that." She snorted softly. "Letís hope at least one of `emíll be ëenough.í"
Eve smiled. "It will." She blew her mother a kiss and left the warrior to battle her thoughts in solitude.
"All right, all right, everybody, settle down," Melop ordered with half-hearted brusqueness. In truth, he was enjoying the din. Nothing better than a bunch of cutthroats arguing the best way to take down do-gooders. The others preferred something physical. He didnít oppose that. He simply liked beating do-gooders at their own game, ramming their mush down their throats. Such satisfaction, watching them stand there with nothing to say that wouldnít expose them as the hypocrites they were. He hadnít run into any yet who didnít live by double standards - a high bar for people like him, one that lowered on a whim for people like them.
"Gabrielle." The name coated his tongue with the slime of everything he loathed. Everything that turned his greatest ambitions and accomplishments bitter. If not for her, he would rule everything worth having for miles around. Be the undisputed god of the stupid peasants who now treated him worse than the dirt they tilled. No more. His teeth ground at the prospect of spitting her out for good.
"Enough!" He pushed to his feet and glared everyone into silence. "Itís time we tightened the screws. I want her so undone sheíll slit her own throat."
"I donít care about her! Itís Xena I want!"
"Yeah, and I wanna be the one slittiní her throat!"
"No! Sheís mine! I been waitiní half my life for her blood on my hands."
"Listen to me!" Melop cursed his need to depend on idiots like these. Lowlifeís with no vision or appreciation for irony. It took all his considerable persuasive powers to make them understand why the cart would lead them to the horse. "You said you wanted her destroyed. You know how she is. Do you think she cares about herself? About anything we could do to her?"
The mostly female conspirators scowled at each other, not happy to admit the truth in Melopís words.
"Isnít that why youíre here? Because sheís so tough and willing to die? You said yourselves you saw only one weakness, one sure way to make her suffer."
"Yeah, never thought sheíd be stupid enough to have a heart." The apparent leaderís lips curled in a snarl. "All that talent, wasted on weaklings and guilt."
"And Gabrielle." Melop raised his chin. "Get to her, youíve got Xena. Break her and you break what matters most to Xena - her pathetic heart. After that, the body is all yours. Now, isnít that better than giving her some bumps and bruises she wonít care about anyway?"
"Okay, you made your point." The leader gazed commandingly around the room. "Better not take too long. Once weíre through with the little nuisance, we all get a shot at Xena."
Melop observed the others nod in assent. "Of course. All I want is the cart. When itís nothing but a pile of dust, for all I care you can whip the horse to Tartarus."
Xena took a sip from her mug. The tea had long gone cold, not that she noticed. She stared at a leaf floating on the liquid surface as if she could read her fortune in the tiny veins, interpret the meaning of her recent past. Several months ago sheíd been a ghost of herself - dead some five years until Gabrielle returned to Japa and restored her to the mortal world. Theyíd had their ups and downs readjusting to each other since, but - with some unexpected help from Aphrodite - seemed well on the road to recovery. A road that led to the Village of Dreams.
The closer theyíd gotten, the more excited Gabrielle became. And why not? Sheíd founded the village after Xenaís death, finally making a reality of her hopes to contribute to a better world. A haven of sorts between Amphipolis and Amazonia, it brought diverse people together in peace, enlightenment and mutual support. Xena had proudly watched her soulmateís efforts, enormously gratified by her success and stunned that Gabrielle would leave it for the uncertain quest of resurrecting a rightfully dead reformed warlord.
Xena shook her head. No, contrary to Gabrielleís calculations, dying on behalf of 40,000 souls hadnít been enough. Not enough to bring peace at being separated like that from Gabrielle. Not enough to obliterate the past or its multitude of victims who hadnít lucked up on the love of a stubborn warrior bard. Not enough to alter the darkness that would always flow through Warrior Princess blood. Xena snorted. Certainly not enough to quell her need for action and purpose, which had languished in the Village of Dreams.
The whole domesticity vs. a life on the road thing was a hurdle she hadnít fully appreciated. En Route to the Village, sheíd luxuriated in the feel of just being alive, of rediscovering her senses in the great outdoors. It had felt so new and yet familiar, reminding her of all the reasons she hadnít wanted to stay dead. Perhaps thatís why sheíd felt such a jolt when sheíd stepped into the home theyíd share. Numbly following behind on Gabrielleís enthusiastic tour, watching her partnerís loving caress of fixtures and belongings in the small hut sheíd occupied during much of Xenaís death.
"Oh, they kept my desk just as it was! Weíll have to get a bigger bed, of course. And look! They finished the addition I ordered in case Ö. For when I brought you back. We can use that for your workroom and guests. Remember this storage area? Oh, of course you do. Put your things Ö. Xena? You okay?"
Yes, Xena remembered the place from her ghostly visits, but not as permanent or Ö hers. Sheíd felt like a stranger trespassing on someone elseís private property.
"Itís Ö nice. Iím just Ö. Guess Iím used to more Ö space. You know, as a ghost. Or before Japa. Havenít really stayed in a house since I left Amphipolis. Didnít hit me weíd be Ö. Um, is this Ö it? I mean, hearth and four walls? No more Ö road?"
Gabrielle had said it would be their base, that they could do whatever they wanted, once theyíd settled in, seen what state the Village was in.
"Give it a chance, okay? I Ö I really wanted to have this together. Being part of a community. Not having to dodge arrows or save the world every minute. You havenít met any of the people yet. You might like them."
Xenaíd kicked herself for being so insensitive. After all, Gabrielle had long ago adjusted to a completely different life with the warrior. Now risked the one sheíd made at the Village in order to be with Xena again.
"Sure," Xenaíd said, walking over to give her partner a hug. "Just need a little time to break myself and the place in. A few days, my domesticity and social gracesíll be good as Ö. Well, hopefully no worse than before."
Theyíd spent the first couple of weeks visiting the various areas of the Village, introducing Xena to the inhabitants. At night they simply enjoyed being able to look at our touch one another, needing few words to convey their gratitude for having the chance. But soon Gabrielle found most of her days taken up with Village affairs. She told Xena to "relax," which Xena did. Apparently not quite the way Gabrielle had in mind.
"I talked with Turin today."
"You remember him? The Vice Councilor?"
"Short bald guy?"
"Nooo, thin guy with lots of gray hair."
"Oh, yeah, right."
"I told you he has a horse he could use your help with. He said he hadnít seen you."
"Yes, I noticed youíve been disappearing lately. Doing what?"
"Relaxing, like you said."
"The lake. Woods."
"You mean camping?"
"Thereís good fishing and hunting. Found a spot where I can leave my stuff, cook what I catch for lunch. Maintain my weapons on the fat chance Iíll need `em again."
"Iíd hoped youíd use some of your spare time a bit differently. Familiarize yourself more with the Village. Bet you couldnít name one family or tell the healer from the blacksmith."
"Come on, Gabrielle. You have a history with these folks. Iíve never been a ëminglerí - not without a reason - learning kidsí names or whoís married just for the sake of it."
"I see. Perhaps itís time we integrated you into Village life more. Gave you something to do besides relax."
"Works for me."
Xenaíd envisioned giving pointers to the militia, checking on defenses and potential threats. Gabrielle had other ideas. Like coaching aspiring Xena Scouts, conducting "show and tell" sessions for visitors to the library, teaching healing skills at the hospice, serving as Gabrielleís liaison to the village councils in the Alliance, and other activities conducive to "taking it easy" now that Xena had returned to the living with a modicum of peace in her soul. "Peace. Riiiight." Xenaís lip curled. "Like a tiger with no good leg to chew on."
Sheíd tried to be patient, to fit in. Thrown herself into her assignments with the usual focus. Held her tongue when Gabrielleís negotiation style made her skin itch. Pretended not to notice people regarding her as if she were still a ghost. Even as the weeks dragged on with monotonous "ease," sheíd rubbed her partnerís shoulders at night with no complaint or criticism. She truly wanted to give Gabrielleís wishes the deference they deserved. To suppress the urge to sneak away into the night - partly to satisfy her own needs, partly because otherwise Gabrielle might not have the life sheíd earned on her own.
And then sheíd heard about Melop, a Village enemy Gabrielle had dispatched a couple years ago with his tail between his legs. Not only had he been making veiled threats during Gabrielleís absence, heíd done all he could to stir up enmity among the Alliance sheíd forged in support of the Village. "Yessss!" Xena had thought to herself with only a smidgeon of guilt. "Maybe Gabrielle can use a moldy Warrior Princess after all." But no, Gabrielle had declared, "Iíll handle this. You go on with what youíve been doing."
This morningís council meeting revealed a new angle to Melopís strategy. Heíd accused Gabrielle of breaking one of her own principles by harboring a criminal - Xena. The council members discussed several options, including a trial. Xena felt it important to assure her cooperation. When she did so, Gabrielle went ballistic. If not for the chance to somehow silence Melop, Xena feared she might explode as well. "Heh. I still might."
The warrior glanced down at her hands. They clenched as she pictured what she could do to Melop, relaxed when she reminded herself why she shouldnít. The wily bastard had obviously studied his prey. Whichever way she moved, his trap would spring. Except she suspected she was merely the bait. If she let Gabrielle ride to the rescue, it could hurt Gabrielleís reputation. If she didnít, it could hurt Gabrielleís authority. Xena thought of all the times sheíd protected her partner without permission. She chuckled darkly. The role reversal was killing her. "But Iíll be damned if I let it kill Gabrielle."
Gabrielle couldnít remember the last time sheíd been this frustrated and angry. All those times Xena had come riding to the rescue, sheíd accepted the warrior couldnít help herself. No matter how capable Gabrielle had become, regardless of whether sheíd chosen to risk her life, she knew Xena believed it her role to be the protector. Yes, theyíd become more equal before Xenaís death in Japa. During Xenaís ghosthood, Gabrielle had become a protector in her own right - not only as a warrior, but in building a sanctuary for those threatened by or already victims of violence.
Sheíd returned to Japa to fight - and kill if necessary - to resurrect her soulmate. Her reward had been Xenaís life and the possibility the warrior could finally breathe in peace, free of the past, in a place where she would be honored for and use her multitude of nonviolent gifts. In truth, that desire had been a large factor in Gabrielleís creating the Village of Dreams - not just in memory of the Warrior Princess, but in hopes Xena would one day walk its paths in the flesh. As her home, not as another refugee. Yet now Xena stood with a knife at her throat, unaccustomed to needing protection unless her body lay broken or lifeless. Gabrielle shook her head at the irony.
Sighing, she gazed at the urn that once again graced her desk. She shuddered recalling how close sheíd come to parting with it before, emptying its precious contents across the lands and seas Xena had traveled. Sheíd kept it mainly for comfort, as the best physical evidence of the spirit that lived within her. Her mind had said that should be enough - that sheíd been lucky to have Xena as long as she did, that she could indeed count on the warriorís spirit to be with her always. Her heart cried for more. Would not be content with ashes of a flame extinguished too soon, dissuaded from rekindling the light of her life.
"I was right," she murmured, stroking the urn that now held a sprig of wild flowers to mark her certitude and perseverance. "But was it right? Bringing you back? To life? To the Village?" Did arrogance, naiveté, selfishness instead drive her vision of what could be? Blind her to the reality that Xena may have questioned their nomadic existence but never sought any other? The closest theyíd come was a brief stay with the Northern Amazons, considering it a good place to raise Eve. True, Xena had pushed aside her initial doubts, in deference to her partner. Gabrielle snorted softly, remembering the relief in Xenaís eyes when theyíd moved on.
She smiled wryly at the piece of flattened parchment on her desk, its edges curling toward the urn resting atop. The list sheíd compiled of activities to keep Xena busy and out of trouble. "Riiiiight." Working with the Xena Scouts. A real hoot. "They mustíve gotten soft while you were away," the warrior had declared upon her initial "review of the troops." Sheíd thrown herself into rectifying that situation. A few weeks later, Gabrielle glanced up from her work to discover "the troops" massed in her doorway, shifting from foot to foot.
"Leader Gabrielle? Sorry to disturb you, but we canít take it anymore." They said how exciting it was being taught by the great warrior whose name they honored. Theyíd done their best, "truly," to maintain her standards. "But Leader Gabrielle? If we run up one more hill or do any more kicks, weíll die! Weíll simply die! Nobody can do what she does. Are you sure sheís really mortal again?"
Gabrielle had followed them to the practice field, where their sisters endeavored to leap hurdles, knock the stuffing from a punching bag, shoot arrows until they hit the bullís eye three times in a row, mount a moving horse, or sweep an opponentís legs out from under her without sending her to the infirmary. Sheíd had a diplomatic talk with her partner. "I think your talents are being wasted on the novices. Iíd like you to work with the senior girls. Teach them how to teach the others." Xena had agreed, which meant Gabrielle now consoled 12 girls instead of 40.
The library had seemed a safer bet. No weapons or hills. At first people flocked there to hear personal accounts of famous battles or distant lands, no doubt expecting more than, "We rode in. We crushed them. There, in that valley near Corinth. Any questions?" Attendees soon straggled into Gabrielleís office, muttering theyíd just as soon stick to reading scrolls, thank you very much. Sheíd asked Xena how it was going. "I donít know, Gabrielle. They just sit there, staring at me. You sure theyíre interested in this stuff?"
Gabrielle had suggested maybe the content was over peopleís heads. Perhaps Xena should instead spend more time with the healers. That resulted in, "Gabrielle, weíve had it! Do you know what she did today? She slaughtered a pig, took out its bladder, stuck a reed in it, then got frustrated because we didnít have any patients she could use it on. I swear, she came close to making a hole in a manís throat. All he had was a broken leg!"
Xenaís excursions to Alliance villages on Gabrielleís behalf hadnít gone much smoother. As one chief councilor put it, "She acts like weíre fighting the Trojan War. We asked her to bring you our request for a discussion topic at our next meeting - how to handle some poachers whoíve been troubling us. Next thing we know, sheís drawing maps and telling us how to lay traps and making a ësecurity rotation schedule.í"
Everything finally came to a head at an Alliance conference a couple weeks ago. Concerns about Melop dominated the agenda, in some respects intertwined with concerns about Xena. Gabrielle had built the Alliance on trust - trust in her and her vision, trust between the various villages involved, trust that they were strong enough to withstand the threats to Alliance stability. She listened with some concern to the ways in which that trust had eroded during her journey to bring Xena back.
"Gabrielle, we respect your dedication to Xena," said the councilor kicking off the discussion. "Sheís a hero to many here. We just hadnít expected her presence might be a problem."
"Yes, Melop was already stirring up feuds between folks while you were gone. Since your return, heís been dredging up old stuff about Xena. People in my village were willing to put that behind them, when they heard Xena was dead, that sheíd died a hero in Japa. Now, itís like her past has been revived along with her."
"Uh huh. My folks wonder what her plans are. Does she seek to take over? Conscript us into armies or something? Her big talk about the poacher situation didnít help. Weíve done fine on our own. We donít want to go back to the days of depending on warlords."
"Whatís wrong with that, if the warlordís ours? I was glad to hear Xena was back. No offense, Gabrielle, but we could use some ëmuscleí to handle Melop. Talking wonít stop him, and most of us arenít warriors. Xena could keep our body count down if it came to that. Sheís an army by herself. We donít understand why she hasnít been involved in this Melop thing. Why hasnít she at least been put in charge of the Alliance militia?"
"No, no, itís not just about that. Donít you people get what Melopís doing? Gabrielleís founding principles say this village is a sanctuary for those in need, but not a place to harbor criminals. Melopís accused us of breaking our own rules. He says Xena never paid for her crimes - not just ones she committed as a warlord. He claims heís got victims from after she reformed, whoíve come forward to demand justice."
Gabrielle had adjourned the meeting promising to reconvene at a later date with Xena present. She had very mixed emotions. Sheíd purposely kept Xena in the background for a variety of reasons the warrior accepted. She now realized how much Xena chaffed under her new restrictions. Secretly, she wondered if perhaps her partner had been sabotaging - unconsciously or otherwise - her mundane assignments. Theyíd finally confronted the situation prior to this morningís council meeting. As had become their routine, they were relaxing at the end of the day, Xena as usual kneading the kinks out of her soulmateís tense shoulders.
"Xena, you know how much it means to me having you here, right? You still understand why Iíve wanted you to be low key?"
"Of course. Youíd gotten all these folks to have confidence in themselves. You helped them settle things by sitting down at the table, talking to each other. Iíd be a distraction from your customs. I wouldnít want that."
"But how are you feeling about it? Sometimes I think youíre okay. Sometimes I think it must be driving you nuts."
"Isnít that part of your plan?" Xena chuckled. "Not the nuts part. Adjusting to being more at peace?"
"Well, yes, but not if itís really driving you nuts."
"Gabrielle, you know these people. Youíve been up against Melop before and prevailed. You donít need me mucking about in all that. I trust youíre easing me into Village affairs the best way you can. I figure Iíll see more action when peopleíve gotten used to me being around."
"And what about you? Do you think youíll get used to being here?"
"As opposed to being dead? Or wandering the countryside doing good deeds?"
"Xena, Iím being serious here."
"Soím I. Youíre the reason Iím sitting here, my hands on you like I wished when I was a ghost. Iím helping you take the world from your shoulders, the way you used to do for me. Thatís more than I thought possible again."
"But is it enough? Enough to keep you going until we can figure out what to do next?"
"I told you - youíre what keeps me going. So Iíve hit a few bumps here and there. You forget, Iíve handled armies, giants, warlords, kings, demons, gods, screwballs. Rats. You think some teenaged girls or old healers can get me down?"
"What about Melop?"
"What about `im?"
"Heís inciting people against you. He may try to bring you up on old charges. Some believe heís got a point. Some believe you should lead us against him. I promised youíd be at the next Alliance meeting to discuss that."
"Okay? Thatís it?"
"What? Want me to say Iím gonna kick Melopís butt? Or that Iíll sit there like whatever happens isnít any skin off my nose?"
"Nooo. Iím simply asking -."
"Gabrielle, youíre the leader. Youíve established traditions and principles. Iíll honor that the best I can. Iím not worried. And if I were you, Iíd worry more about that kink in your lower back. Itís liable to become a bigger problem than either Melop or me."
Theyíd chuckled and moved on to other topics. Gabrielle admitted to herself sheíd ignored the little warning voice in her head. Sheíd been reassured when the Alliance council convened. Xena had sat quietly during the updates, until a representative pointed out that one option might be a trial. Next thing Gabrielle knew, Xena had declared, "If it comes to that, it comes to that. If I wronged these people, they have a right to be heard."
Gabrielle took several deep breaths. Too bad she hadnít done that this morning. Sheíd lost her temper. Argued with Xena about why they couldnít keep entertaining charges from decades ago. Yelled, "Enough!" and stalked from the room. The sunís position outside her window indicated sheíd been stewing a couple hours. Not so much about Melop anymore. About Xena.
Xena found her daughter in the library. "Walk with me?"
Eve looked up, not particularly surprised. "Of course." She instructed her assistant on what to do with the scrolls theyíd been cataloguing. "First Ö." She gave Xena a motherly "bet you havenít eaten" scowl as she put some fruit, cheese and bread in a basket. The two strolled to one of the secluded rest spots on the Village compound. They sat awhile, Eve waiting for Xena to finish absent-mindedly nibbling on bits of food.
"Not sure where to start," the warrior finally acknowledged.
Eve chuckled. "Mother Number One usually suggests ëat the beginning.í"
"Pffft. That old thing? If you ask me, she doesnít know if sheís coming or going."
"Not easy changing your whole life around on a momentís notice, huh?" Eve smiled with wisdom born of experience. "Iíll never forget that moment I almost killed you. All of a sudden I saw those visions of you bringing me into the world, loving me, fighting to keep me safe. I felt stripped of everything Iíd been. Like a newborn - fresh, empty yet of hate or loss or hurt."
"I wish I couldíve Ö. I wish youíd had that longer."
Eve smiled warmly. "I had it long enough."
"Long enough to know it was better than what was in my heart before. When I Ö when I lost you so soon after getting you back, it was enough to remember what you meant to me." She scooted over to lean against Xena. "Iím so grateful Gabrielle returned you to me again."
"Me too," Xena murmured, putting her arm around her daughter. She sat pensively staring out at some children playing in the distance. "Was it enough to bring you peace?"
Eve thought about that. "If you mean did it wash away the blood on my hands Ö no." She bumped her head against Xenaís shoulder. "Like mother, like daughter, huh? I canít change the choices I made before then, but itís enough to remind me why I chose the right path. For me to know Iím helping create a better world now. I canít change how others see me. Iím content who Iím trying to become is about as much as I could hope for."
Xena nodded. "When I died in Japa, I didnít have to worry about all that anymore. I finally knew how my life would end. That the choice I made was for a greater good. Now Ö. In a way itís like starting all over. I have to worry again if the choices are right, for the right reasons. Itís so hard Ö."
"Not being able to choose?"
Xena blinked at her daughter. "You know?"
Eve chuckled. "I have your blood. I know how hard itís been for you. Poor Gabrielle. She wanted so much for you to feel at peace here. Yes, she knows what itís like to have blood on her hands. She just doesnít understand what itís like to be defined by that. To wonder if thereís something wrong with you when days go by and you donít see the blood."
"You still feel that way? Even after Eli?"
"I know being a warrior wasnít my true path. Not like it is yours." Eve leaned away and smiled at her mother. "Unless getting purified in heaven and sacrificing yourself for those souls in Japa changed you?"
Xena snorted. "You see any wings?"
Eve laughed. "You hiding `em? I donít think Iíve ever seen you like this for so long. You know - so patient and cooperative. Not doing much more than being Xena: Warrior Godsmother and Storyteller."
"Heh, good thing you canít see inside my head. Itís a wonder the horns havenít popped through." Xena sighed. "Gabrielle deserves to be happy, fulfilled. If playing sidekickíll do that for her, itís enough for me to give it a go."
Eve held Xenaís eyes. "Is it? Enough? For how long? Even with bad guys battering the door?"
Xena suppressed a growl. Her daughter knew her too well.
"Uh huh, thatís what I thought."
"Eve, whatím I supposed to do? I knew Melop was trouble, but not about this ëletís try Xena for past crimesí thing. Gabrielle wonít let me near the militia. She doesnít want me fighting him. I support her principles and desire for folks to be self-sufficient. If I let her show favoritism toward me, Melopíll call her a hypocrite. If I leave, sheíll think itís because I didnít want to be here. Iím not saying itís my idea of paradise." Xena snorted. "I donít know what that is yet - here on earth, anyway. At least a trial might buy us some time."
"Gabrielle hates the trial idea. Itís a jar of worms we canít put the lid on, once itís opened. What revenge could be worth holding on to for over 30 years?"
Xena flinched. "Count the worms. That should give you some idea. I wouldnít be doing it from guilt or trying to pay for old crimes, though thatís probably what Gabrielle fears. Melopís using me against her. Heís got something more up his sleeve. I want to see what it is before I make any moves."
"Will you? Against Gabrielleís wishes?"
Xena gazed in the direction of their hut. "I donít know, Eve. Far as Gabrielleís concerned, I may have already crossed that line."
Xena stood outside their dusk-shrouded hut. The window framed her soulmateís shadow hunched in candlelight against a wall. Xena took in a deep breath before announcing her arrival with heavy footsteps.
Gabrielle straightened in her chair, quickly poising her quill above the closest open scroll on her desk. She was frowning at it intently when Xena entered.
"Hey." Xenaís crooked grin greeted the bowed blond head. She walked over to their storage closet to deposit her carry bag.
"Oh, hi." Gabrielle made a couple of marks on the scroll. She glanced over her shoulder. "Busy day, huh?"
Xena shrugged. "No more than usual. How `bout yours? Hope you havenít been sittiní at that desk since morning."
Gabrielle lay the quill down. She turned sideways in her chair. "I made my usual rounds. Had my usual conferences. Just finishing up some details on Ö some council business." She watched her partner pull out one of her lounging shifts. "Done for the day?"
"Yeah." Xena pulled off the black blouse and breeches sheíd begun wearing since her resurrection in Japa. The signature brown battledress now hung on display in the Warrior Princess Wing of the library. She smiled at Gabrielle. "I think Iíve filled my daily quotient for trouble."
"Oh?" Gabrielle could understand her partner letting off steam after a certain green-eyed monsterís earlier blow-up. She forced a playful grin. "Anything I should know about?"
"Thisín that. Nothing too bad."
"Like what? Iíll hear about it anyway."
"True." Xena dropped into the rocking chair in Gabrielleís office area. "I paid a surprise visit to the Scoutís practice field."
"You did?" Gabrielle couldnít recall needing to deal with any flustered young intruders that afternoon.
"Uh huh. We Ö talked."
"Talked?" Gabrielle frowned, trying to comprehend what this meant. "`Get your butt in gearí talk? Weapons talk?"
"Nooo. ëTalkí talk. The kind where you sit on the grass and just Ö talk."
Gabrielle leaned forward, still frowning. "About Ö."
"I said they could ask me whatever. Some of `em wanted to know how to tell if you should be a warrior. Seems a lot of `em came from bad situations - seeing their villages attacked. Losing parents to marauders. They liked learning how to protect themselves, but werenít sure if they should take up arms against bad guys."
Gabrielle steadied her breathing, not wanting the slightest sound to distract her from what she was hearing, or Xena from what she was saying.
Xena smiled. "Guess you wanna know what I said, huh?" She nodded at Gabrielleís nod. "I really didnít say much of anything. Just listened. Different ones talked about how they imagined using the skills theyíd learned. Farming or child rearing or teaching. Maybe help their families. Make something useful. A few said they felt most satisfied when they had a weapon in their hands." Xena chuckled. "They admitted they secretly liked running up hills in the mud. Everybody decided those would be warriors in the usual way. Like me. The others would be warriors in their own ways. Like you."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle turned her chair toward Xena. "Thatís the biggest challenge Iíve had with the Scouts. Getting them to understand they donít all have to be like you." Her brow crinkled. "Well, I mean Ö." She grinned. "You know what I mean. Weíd lecture them, tell them stories, but they didnít get it. Now you come along," she said, shaking her head, "and do it without words."
"Gabrielle, youíd already given them the answer - all the other ways you taught them to be strong. They just needed time to find it in themselves." Xena snorted softly. "A lot of us do. The lucky ones have somebody to help show us what to look for."
Gabrielle studied her soulmate a moment. "What other ëthisín thatí did you do today?"
Xena shrugged. "Iíd promised Milana Iíd drop off a herb mixture I use for infections. When I got to the healing hut, everyone was flying around like bats. Three pregnant women had come in. All ready to blow at any moment. We delivered two without much trouble. The third was breach. I had to -."
Gabrielle put her hand up. "Cut the baby out, like with Ephiny?"
"What could I do? Even Milana hadnít dealt with a situation that bad. Humph. She threatened me anyway. As if Iíd try something like that just for the fun of it."
Gabrielle winced. "It worked out okay?"
"Yep. Mother and baby both fine. Milana asked me why I hadnít come by much recently. I took it as an apology. Considering she practically kicked me out a couple weeks ago."
"My. Sensitive chats. Mid-wifing. Fence mending. Just ëthe usual,í all right." Gabrielle pursed her lips. "You didnít happen to solve the Melop problem while you were at, did you?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her check. "Uh, no. Contrary to popular opinion, I am not suicidal. After a certain party reamed me out at the council meeting, I dropped by the library."
"You talk to Eve?"
Xena blinked. "Eve?"
"Iíve had a lot on my plate, Xena, but I do notice a few things here and there. Iím grateful sheís been here for you."
Xena nodded. "I went for another reason too. Got a little nostalgic for some of my old gear."
"We retire it too soon?"
"No Ö. I needed to move on. Guess I just wanted to touch something Ö real. Something I could count on. Or used to count on." Xena allowed a crooked grin. "I knew who I was under those leathers. What to do with myself. Since coming back from Japa Ö."
"Kinda feel like those Scouts? Not sure what kind of warrior to be?"
"Mmm, more like Ö how." Xena sat back in the rocking chair, nudging it into motion. "Some folks wandered in. One said, ëI bet that battledress could tell some tales.í I looked at it and broke out laughing."
"Laughing?!" Gabrielleís mouth dropped. Images flashed through her mind of Xena inches from death, her battledress sliced and punctured, its surface slick with her blood along with that of her opponents.
"Remember when Callisto hit me with the poison dart?"
"Iíd rather not. It wasnít as funny to me as apparently it was to you."
Xena chuckled. "No, the funny part was you in my leathers. Not that you didnít look cute and vicious," she added quickly. "Anyway, the folks stared at me like I was nuts, so I had to explain. I ended up telliní `em how you pretended to be me. Rescued my body - the first of many times - and we saved those villagers."
Gabrielle relaxed back and folded her arms across her chest. "So, in other words, you finally do a proper ëshow and tellí - except itís about me?"
Xena smirked. "Uh huh. I was pretty good, if I must say so myself. I think I could do it again, now Iíve got the hang of the right subject matter."
"That would be nice, if it wasnít for one little detail. Itís called the Warrior Princess Wing for a reason."
"Exactly. Who better than I would know whatís important? Youíre a part of everything in there. Heh, one of my ëaccessories,í so to speak."
"As well you should be." Xenaís expression grew serious. She gazed at her soulmate as she had at her leathers earlier. "All the focus on my ashes, my spirit, my body, my gear, my legacy Ö. None of that defines me more than you. Youíre the one constant I can count on. I remembered as long as I have you, Iíll know what kind of warrior I am. Iíll find the ëhowí in its time."
The two held each otherís eyes, seeming to draw closer without moving a muscle. They found their voices simultaneously.
"Gabrielle, I didnít mean to - ."
"Xena, Iím so sorry -."
"Címere." Xena got up, beckoning Gabrielle to follow her into their sleeping quarters. When Gabrielle joined her, they sat on the bed, scooted back to lean against the wall, and snuggled together in each otherís arms.
"I was so afraid," Gabrielle confessed softly. "That my Elysia was your Tartarus. That my good intentions condemned you to the past you finally freed yourself from in Japa. Maybe to a new life thatís no more right for you now than before. Itíd be too high a price, Xena. No matter how much I love you or desire to have you with me."
"Hey," Xena said, tweaking her partnerís nose, "now whoís ëthe tortured warrior burdened with shame and guilt?í"
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Not you?"
"I have my moments. Not this time." Xena gazed thoughtfully into Gabrielleís office, at the urn sitting on her partnerís desk. "Iím thinking itís more a case of getting used to being in my skin again. Readjusting to the physical world I used to take for granted." She grinned. "Ghosts donít have to worry much about playing nice or ëto doí lists."
"That didnít bother you? Youíve been perfectly happy trying to imitate a regimented sidekick? In the background, not in on the major action? Babysitting -."
"Letís not push it, okay? Like I said, itís required some adjustment. Melop kinda messed with that. I sense heís hiding something he thinks will bring you down."
"Me?! Xena, youíre the one he wants on trial."
"I donít think so. Not as the end result anyway. Gabrielle, going along with him isnít about doing my old ëwell, Iím guilty of something I havenít paid for yetí routine. I need to see his cards. I have to let him believe the old bets still work." Xena glanced sideways at Gabrielle. "And, um, I need you to help sell it."
"So Ö let me get this straight." Gabrielle tilted her head back on Xenaís shoulder and stared up at the ceiling. "Youíll be running this little game, but weíll pretend Iím still in charge."
"Well, thatís not exactly -."
"Iím to go along with whatever direction you take - slitting his throat, letting `em put a noose around your neck, leading the militia into battle Ö."
"With some sign from you itís okay, of course."
"Which means weíve pretty much passed through the phase where you stand on the sidelines, exploring the inner peace and quiet you acquired during ghosthood?"
"Gabrielle, weíre talking one particular situation. It doesnít have to mean -."
"Afterwards, we can renegotiate Ö. What?"
Gabrielle smirked. "No offence, dear, but you suck at sidekick."
"What?!" Xenaís brow rose in outrage. "I beg your pardon. Thereís a bunch of folks around here whoíd say otherwise. I busted my butt making nice with those Scouts and those healers and -."
"Iím sure you did," Gabrielle acknowledged with a pat to her soulmateís leg. "Thing is, theyíre not doing the grading. I am. Nobodyís more of an expert on the subject than me." She batted her eyes at Xena. "Wouldnít you agree?"
Xena scowled in answer.
"Thought so." Gabrielle nodded with a deep sigh of satisfaction. "Iíve been wondering why Iíve felt so Ö unsettled Ö about all this. About you. Despite my best planning, Iíve been looking over my shoulder almost every day weíve been here. Worrying what might be nipping at my heels next. Iíd forgotten the benefits of having you out front. Makes it much easier to keep up with you, know what trouble you might be getting into. Anticipate where youíre headed."
Gabrielle squirmed against Xena to get more comfortable, continuing to talk as if the warrior were merely a big pillow with ears.
"Sure, I can walk alongside, jump in when I want, but itís good to have breathing space. Perspective. I do like to analyze things. I can see when to rein in, when to prod. When to just let be." Gabrielle nodded to herself. "Yes, that suits me. Donít you think?"
Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "I can talk now?"
"I thought you liked being a leader."
"Oh, I do. Here, anyway. This Village was my dream. It was nice being able to make that happen. Not having to wait around for somebody else to do it. But itís different with you. I trust you more than anybody in the world. More than myself sometimes. I see my dreams come true in you in so many small, precious ways. More than that, I see it grow or reshape into something even grander than I imagined. Always full of surprises. Mysterious nooks and crannies to explore. I donít think I could ever tire of standing back - appreciating what I see, waiting to see what happens next - because I see myself, my hand, in there too." Gabrielle smiled at her partner. "And thatís not even the best part."
Xena swallowed. "Thereís more?"
"Uh huh. The best part is I can do that anywhere. Here. The road. Egypt. We have a home now. Family. Friends. Lots of choices if and when we want. Wherever you are, as long as I can see you, thatíll always be enough for me."
It never ceased to amaze the warrior how her partner could reduce a mountain into a lump of coal, transform something hard and dark into a diamond. She wasnít exactly sure what all she should see in the various facets of Gabrielleís vision, but felt incredibly fortunate at having the chance to find out. Suddenly she felt more relaxed - more free to be her not quite so heavenly self - than she had in a long time.
"So, um, basically youíre sayiní you trust me to do my thing? Even with Melop?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah," she said, giving her "first things first" soulmate a big squeeze. "Thatís the gist of what Iím saying."
The Village meeting hall buzzed with anticipation. How would the Alliance respond to this first real threat to the delicate relations between the diverse members who supported the Village and each other through treaties Gabrielle had presented them some five years earlier? What would Gabrielle do about the dark warrior whoíd served as inspiration for the Village during death, yet now walked among them - a living reminder of issues theyíd banded together to overcome? And what about Xena herself? Could this once larger-than-life presence bow to the needs of the Alliance? Subject herself to decisions that might limit her freedom to be and do what she wanted? Cram herself into the shadow of her modest partner?
Most from the other villages had never seen the Warrior Princess. Their impressions of her or her legacy were based on stories at least 30 years old. When she walked into the hall, looking as young as Gabrielle, they wondered where the myth ended and the mortal began. At Gabrielleís instruction, the warrior had sat discretely off to the side of the conference table as though surrounded by invisible shields.
The Alliance representatives assumed their places. Only a couple of benches set empty at the front, awaiting the arrival of guests scheduled to speak before the assemblage. Gabrielle stood, smiling at those in attendance. She did not need to raise her voice in the hush that fell.
"On behalf of the Alliance, I welcome you all. I must say, weíre not used to conducting business before so many people beside ourselves. We trust you will not be too bored."
A rough-looking stranger in the back didnít chuckle along with the others. "Do we get to talk?" he asked more like a challenge.
"Good question." Gabrielle took her seat. "We have an unusual agenda. As you no doubt are aware, accusations have been made against a Village resident. Accusations of import to the Alliance as a whole. Normally, discussion is confined to council members. However, we have agreed to allot time for comments from the floor. We will let you know if and when we believe it appropriate. Other questions?"
"Whereís Melop?" someone else in the audience inquired. "All the trouble heís caused and heís not even here."
Gabrielle smiled thinly. "We trust he will arrive shortly. Until then, we will deal with routine matters." She waited for other questions. Hearing none, she declared, "The meeting is now in session."
The councilors began working through their list of boundary disputes, modifications to cooperative arrangements, recommendations for addressing the poaching problem, the annual inter-village festival. On-lookers stirred restlessly as this portion of the meeting stretched into nearly an hour. As if sensing the moment for a dramatic entrance, Melop came striding through the doors and straight to the front. He stood smugly facing the council table, waiting to be recognized. When no one acknowledged him, he cleared his throat.
Gabrielle took her sweet time looking up. "Melop." She indicated a spot on an empty seat. "Weíll be with you shortly."
Melop scowled as the council resumed their discussion. He threw up his hands and stalked over to lean, arms crossed, against the wall, gazing importantly around the room as if to say, "See, this is why nothing gets done around here." A few minutes later, the councilors pushed aside the scrolls theyíd been working on and sat back in their chairs.
Gabrielle finally addressed Melop. "You may approach."
Melop made a show of adjusting his embroidered jacket before sauntering in front of the council table. He bowed his head slightly and slowly enough to communicate his insincerity.
"We expected you to bring witnesses."
"I did." Melop glanced pointedly at the impassive Warrior Princess. "I wanted to ensure their safety first."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "We did have a hole in the roof recently. It leaked during a heavy rain. Someone slipped in the water, sprained her wrist. I understand itís been fixed."
"You know thatís not what I Ö." Ever the politician, Melop decided against appearing to impugn the deliberative body known for its commitment to peaceful resolutions. "These are unusual circumstances. The accused has some stature here. Particularly," he said, pausing for emphasis, "with the Chief Councilor. Surely, given her reputation, you can understand our concern."
Gabrielle smiled. "Not really." She turned to her colleagues. "Any of you see the need for precautions? Against leaky roofs or other dangers?"
Melop bristled at the chuckles from both halves of the room. "We had hoped our complaints would be taken seriously. They are no laughing matter."
"We wouldnít know. So far, all weíve heard are vague crimes against unknown victims at some unspecified time in the recent past. If you want our ëseriousí consideration, I suggest you get on with presenting ëseriousí evidence."
Melop turned imperiously. He nodded to the rough-looking character who had spoken earlier. The man opened the door and beckoned to others outside. A half-dozen middle-aged women and two men filed to the empty benches in front. Scowling, they searched for the defendant, their eyes popping when they found her. The defendant stared back with some recognition.
"Melop!" one of the women hissed. She and the others surrounded him, whispering in agitation.
Gabrielle frowned, trying to remember why a couple of the faces seemed familiar. She glanced at Xena, who raised a "youíll see" brow. Gabrielle shook her head and assumed her Chief Councilor demeanor. "All right. Letís come to order. Melop, is there a problem?"
Melop broke away from the group. "Um, no, no problem. Many years have passed since the accusers last saw Xena. Iím afraid I neglected to warn them of her good luck - not aging as they have."
Gabrielle suppressed a smirk. "I see. Have they recovered sufficiently to speak?"
"Yes." A commanding brown-skinned woman glared at Melop before brushing past him. "I will represent our case." She nodded to the others, who sat. She waited until Melop reluctantly followed suit.
"Please, identify yourself," Gabrielle instructed, though by now she knew. "You may sit there," she said, indicating a chair at the end of the table opposite Xenaís position.
"Iíll stand." The woman turned dismissively and faced the audience. "My name is Ersina. We women were inmates at Shark Island Prison. Those two men were guards. A court sentenced Xena to life at the prison, for murdering an innocent young woman." She paused to allow for gasps of horror.
"After only a few weeks, Xena caused a riot. It resulted in deaths and grave injuries to inmates and guards alike. She escaped before order was restored. The rest of us paid the price for her actions in longer sentences. She robbed us of the freedom we were due, while she went free, pretty as you please." Ersinaís mouth curled in disgust.
"Weíd heard sheíd turned do-gooder. She put me and some of the others away. But we remember her before then. She even agreed sheíd been no better than us - probably worse. Admitted sheíd never been brought to justice like we had. We ask the good people here for that justice now. We ask it for ourselves. We ask it for the one victim in thousands whose death finally caught up with the ëheroicí Warrior Princess."
Ersina gave Xena a long, triumphant glare. "Her escape proves she hasnít changed. She doesnít deserve the leniency everybody keeps giving her. Show her ëfair is fair.í Enough is enough."
A tense silence accompanied Ersina to her seat.
Smirking, Melop rose and faced the council table. "We recognize that Gabrielle founded this village in Xenaís honor. We understand the difficulty you may have in condemning her. All we ask is that you turn her over to our authority. Let us shoulder the burden of seeing that she receives an impartial trial."
Without bothering to confer with her colleagues, Gabrielle rose to respond. "No."
Melop smiled. He reveled momentarily in his imminent victory before summoning an expression of outrage and whirling to address the audience. "You see? I warned you it would come to this. All the garbage about forgiveness. Itís a ruse to protect that butcher! Gabrielle has created a ësanctuaryí all right. Not for victims of violence, but for one of its biggest perpetrators. How can you let someone lead you who breaks her own code of conduct? Who - ."
"I said no because your proposal is unnecessary."
Melop wasnít sure heíd heard the quiet interruption. "What?"
"Taking Xena somewhere else isnít necessary. We are prepared to try and sentence her ourselves."
"Y-y-you canít be serious!"
"As serious as the charges."
"B-but Ö." Melop winced at angry muttering among the ex-cons. Heíd been so sure Gabrielle would fall apart, scream in refusal, toss out desperate excuses - anything but this. "Any fool knows itíd be a sham! Youíd use whatever loophole you could. Keep us from harming one hair on her head."
"Why donít we see?" Gabrielle turned to her soulmate. "Xena, would you please rise and face your accusers?" Xena did so. "Were you sentenced to Shark Island Prison for murder?"
"Were you responsible for the riot that resulted in bodily harm to inmates and guards?"
Xenaís mouth quirked. "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"Did you use it as a cover for escaping your sentence?"
"No." Xena lifted her chin. "I walked away after the riot. In broad daylight and full view of the guards." She nodded wryly at Ersina. "Pretty as you please."
Gabrielle waited until Ersinaís former gang pushed their angry leader back down on the bench. "No one tried to stop you?"
"You had inside help?"
"The warden. Thalassa. The woman Iíd been sentenced for killing."
"No!" Ersina jumped up again. "You canít prove that! Sheís dead."
Xenaís head bowed. "Iím sorry to hear that."
"Xena?" Gabrielle steeled herself. "Why did the people of Literia believe youíd killed Thalassa?"
Xena straightened, her face expressionless. "Years before, Iíd come with my army, demanding supplies. Literia balked. Theyíd heard I wouldnít harm women and children. Thalassa led the resistance. I cut her face. Staked her where the incoming tide washed her in flesh-eating crabs. Her example convinced them I meant business. We returned later from verifying the storage area. The only sign of Thalassa was a pool of blood." Xena swallowed. "And pieces of her arm still tied to a post. No one knew sheíd been saved when the crabs Ö. "
"So you were guilty of mutilating her, if not of taking her life."
"I was guilty of that too. For the years she lived in bitterness, an exile from her home."
Even Ersina remained silent at the surprising turn of events. Villagers whoíd met Xena tried to reconcile the monster whoíd done such things with the woman whoíd taught and healed them. Those who knew Gabrielle wondered how she could so casually question the woman who meant the world to her. Councilors whoíd witnessed her outburst at the suggestion of trying Xena for her past saw her headed down a road theyíd never imagined her treading. Only Eve knew her mothers probably would not end up where anyone thought.
"Xena, do you wish to make any statements in your defense?"
"I have none. No."
"Please take your seat while we confer." Gabrielle beckoned the other councilors to huddle with her behind the table. After a few moments of urgent whispering, they filed back to their chairs. "The council will not to stand in the way of the justice the accusers seek."
The room erupted in stunned exclamations. The Shark Island group raised their fists in triumph. Except for Ersina - a wily veteran when it came to rats. She smelled one with confidence that equaled the confidence she sensed in the stoic Warrior Princess. Melop refused to claim victory until heíd toppled Gabrielle. He saw his plans for her unraveling as surely as she stood there, reputation unscathed. It was time he tied the last knot.
"Wait!" Melop bellowed, waving his hands. "Weíre not finished yet!"
Xenaís teeth clenched. The bastard was finally showing his hand, and she had a pretty good idea what card heíd play.
Gabrielle used her gavel to restore order. "Melop, weíre aware we havenít finished. Please, allow us to present the terms of Xenaís -."
"The penalty for attempting or aiding escape from Shark Island Prison is death! Do your terms include that?"
Murmurs surged again. Both Ersina and Melop blinked in surprise. Maybe Lady Luck was on their side after all.
Melop drew himself up. "Then I call upon this esteemed council to condemn not just Xena, but her accomplice." He raised his arm slowly and pointed. "Gabrielle!"
Villagers at both ends of the rooms focused on the accused pair, waiting for some sign of refutation. Instead, the two woman behaved as if nothing had changed. Melop used their silence to continue his attack.
"Yes, this proponent of peace and justice traveled to Shark Island for one purpose - freeing a condemned murderer. She wouldíve been hung on the spot, had not Xena saved her and started that riot. Whatever claims they make about mistakes in Xenaís sentencing, the law had spoken. Did they seek legal redress? No. As usual they took the law into their own hands. You may not think Gabrielle deserves hanging for that, but how can she continue leading you? At the very least, she should remove herself from presiding over these proceedings."
All eyes bore into Gabrielle. She glanced at Xena, translating her partnerís slight squint as "hang tough."
"I have no problem turning the gavel over to our Vice Councilor," Gabrielle stated evenly. "After we conclude the business with Xena. Unless the council wishes to change its decision in that matter?" she asked her colleagues. They conferred and shook their heads.
"Xena, please stand." Gabrielle focused on Ersina. "We will leave Xenaís punishment in your hands. To expedite matters, you may use the practice field on our premises. There are at least eight aggrieved parties. We trust that number is sufficient to dispose of her."
Ersina scowled. "`Disposeí of her?"
"We werenít sure what sentence you had in mind. Given the personal nature of your complaints, we thought you might want the satisfaction of fighting her. Of course, if you prefer hanging Ö."
"Whatíre you talking about?" Ersina turned to her companions. They appeared equally perturbed by what they were hearing. "You expect us to handle her? Youíre not chaining her first?"
"Um, no. We do have some irons you can use."
"I knew it!" Ersinaís nostrils flared. "I knew I smelled a rat. What guarantee do we have sheíll cooperate?"
"May I speak?"
Gabrielle turned to her partner. "Why, yes, Xena. Perhaps you can help resolve this?"
Xena moved a few steps closer to Ersina. "You have my word. I will walk out of here peacefully with you."
Ersina narrowed her eyes. "And then what?"
"Iíll go peacefully to the practice field."
"And youíll let us do whatever we want with you?"
Xena smiled. "Iíll let you try."
"We agree!" Melop jumped up to join Ersina. "Letís get this over with, so we can move on to Gabrielle."
"Shut up, you fool!" Ersina skulked over to her gang. "Donít you see whatís going on?"
"I see you got what you wanted!" Melop huffed in disgust. "Why donít you take it and be satisfied?"
"Take it? Maybe we couldíve, if Xena was gray and rickety like the rest of us. You shouldíve told us she was Ö was Ö." Ersina gestured toward Xena. "Like that! She beat the crap out of us when we were young. Howíre we supposed to ëtakeí anything from her now?"
"Sheís one woman! A bunch of hardened criminals like yourselves, you let a few years turn you into saps?!"
"Why you Ö," one of Ersinaís gang growled as they moved menacingly toward Melop. A couple of Melopís cronies in the back started forward. Others in the audience shifted wide-eyed on their benches, afraid to get caught in the crossfire, more afraid to miss a good fight. The council members nervously summoned militia members to take up positions around the periphery.
"Stop!" Gabrielle pounded her gavel on the table. "Everyone stay where you are and do not lay a hand on anyone else!"
All the players froze. In reality, none felt particularly passionate about joining the fray. Except for Ersinaís gang, who really did want to give Melop a personal demonstration of their saplessness.
"Ersina, are you saying you reject our offer?"
"You knew we would! Melop shouldíve known too. All he cared about was bringing you down."
"No! Donít listen to her!" Melop turned beseechingly to the audience. "I merely tried to help them redress their complaints. Was I to ignore Gabrielleís complicity? Keep from you information about why sheís not fit to lead? Itís one thing to ignore Xenaís criminality. How can you let Gabrielleís criminality go unpunished?"
"And what about the criminality of the accusers?"
"What?!" Ersina stared at Gabrielle in disbelief. "We paid for our crimes. Xenaís the one who didnít."
"But wasnít she one of you? Are you saying you werenít in on her escape plans? Youíre not simply bitter you didnít leave when she gave you the chance?"
"Xena? One of us?" Ersina snorted. "I told you. She sent us there. Nobody couldíve made her go if she didnít want. Might as wellíve sentenced herself. And acted like it. Too good to associate with us."
"Sure, she took pity on a few," said another ex-con. "Stood up to the guards in a couple womenís defense. But when we asked her to join with us to Ö." The woman speaking suddenly clammed up.
"To what?" Gabrielle prodded.
Ersina shook her head in disgust. She glowered at Xena with grudging admiration. "Gotta hand it to you. Always manage to come out on top, donít you? If I had your luck - and hers," she said, scowling at Gabrielle, "I could kill, lie, cheat, and never worry about a thing."
Xena shrugged. "Maybe. I wouldnít know. My ëluckí seems to mean ghosts that wonít stay buried.."
"Figured Iíd have to fight you for leadership of the prison gang. I didnít care if I lost. Weíd finally have somebody who could make Shark Island ours. When you refused, I thought youíd gone soft. Then you took out all those guards by yourself." Ersina clenched her fists. "I saw us getting free. I forgot even the ëoldí Xena held herself above everybody. Shouldíve known youíd turn on us."
"Ersina? Tell us what really happened. What harm could it do now?"
Ersina regarded Gabrielle a moment, then Xena. "She fought the guards for abusing another prisoner. But like the others said, she was never one of us. Watched her ëpís & qís.í Let Thalassa chain her, throw her into the pit. Mightíve died there, if you hadnít weaseled your way into Thalassaís confidence."
The second ex-con joined Ersina. "Xena burst out to keep them from hanging you. I could taste my freedom. We had the guards on the run and our sights on Thalassa. What did Xena do?"
"She fought us!" another woman threw out bitterly. "She pulled us off the guards. Yelling, ëThatís enough!í like she was the commandant or something."
"Yeah, then ran up to where we had Thalassa cornered. Ersina wouldíve taken care of her, if Xena hadnít butted in."
"Stop!" Melop was beside himself, sputtering angrily at the ex-cons, but not anxious to get too close. "Donít you see what theyíre doing? Youíre ruining everything!"
"Oh, cut the crap, man. Itís over." Ersina grabbed one of her gray braids and shook it at Melop. "It was over long before our hair turned white. Long before Xena somehow got back all those years we lost. Our kind never get a break. We were fools to think weíd get one now."
"Ersina?" Gabrielle walked over to stand beside Xena. "Itís not too late to get a break here, at the Village. You could live in peace and dignity. I would gladly petition the council on your behalf."
Ersina looked at the Shark Islanders. The two former guards shook their heads, got up and walked out. The ex-cons seemed uncertain how they felt. Getting no response, Ersina spoke for them.
"We donít need your pity. Weíve done all right for ourselves. If not for Melop stirring up old grudges, we wouldnít be here." Ersina begrudged Xena a thin smile. "Truth be told, we did get a break. Things werenít so bad after Xena. Thalassa had the place cleaned up. Made the guards treat us better. Even brought people in to teach us trades we could use on the outside."
"And was Thalassa who Xena said? The person she was sentenced for murdering?"
Ersina smirked. "Yeah, what a hoot thatís how she got her wooden arm. Xena being the reason she had no heart. Of all the bad things Xenaíd done, sheíd got sent up for murdering the bitch who threw her to the rats." She shook her head. "Iíll never understand you," she said to Xena.
"You couldíve finished Thalassa off. Instead, you risk everything to save her. Why? Why turn your back on people like us, like you? What makes you think youíre so much better?"
"I donít. I just like myself better, being better than I was."
Ersina snorted. "Itís all about you, huh? Guess Iím too old and tired to hate you for that. Maybe if Iíd listened to myself way back when Ö. Pffft. Water under the bridge now. Some of us live with what we get. Somebody like you lives with what they make."
"Whatever, we have to decide for ourselves whether itís enough." Xenaís eyes conveyed the resigned sadness of someone who knew all too well the fickleness of fortunes. "Doesnít mean it wonít be too little - or too much - to someone else."
Ersina shrugged. "Yeah, well, time has a way of balancing things out. Seemed to for Thalassa. Got her heart back anyway. We heard she returned home, when she retired from the prison."
"She deserved that much. I Ö wish the same for you. All of you."
Ersina returned Xenaís unflinching gaze. Finally the ex-con nodded acceptance at what she saw in the honest blue eyes. "Thatís somethiní, I suppose. Moreín we had before." She glanced at the sulking Melop. "Probably not enough for him though. Too bad, seeiní as how heís responsible for this family reunion." She turned to her former gang. "Hadnít seen some of these girls in awhile, before we got together for his ëfoolproofí plot. Maybe weíll take you up on your offer of hospitality," she said, addressing Gabrielle. "Hang around a couple days. Rehash old times."
Gabrielle smiled. "Weíll make arrangements soon as we finish here."
Ersina nodded. She and the others resumed their seats.
"Seems weíve completed the proceedings concerning Xena." At the other councilorsí nods, Gabrielle indicated for Xena to sit on a front bench. She swept her eyes around the room. "Thereís still the matter of Ö me. Turin, would you be so kind as to take the gavel?"
The Vice-Councilor nodded. "All those in favor of Gabrielle sitting in the accusedís chair, please raise your hands."
Melop and his cronies raised their hands. They glared at everyone else to no avail, as not even the Shark Islandersí hands went up.
Turin conferred with the other members. "We have our verdict." Turin smiled. "It appears the overwhelming majority feels you may return to your Chief Councilorís chair."
"Thank you." Gabrielle smiled with heartfelt gratitude and moved to take her seat.
"Weíre not quite done yet. The council deems it best that I preside over a last bit of business." Turin gestured for Melop to come forward. "Melop, over the course of the Villageís existence, you have made several serious charges against Gabrielle."
"Indeed, I have," responded Melop, slightly encouraged. "This Shark Island thing is only the latest evidence I have that - ."
"I did not ask you to speak. We want to give you a piece of advice. You, your trouble making and accusations are not welcome here. Gabrielle is our leader unless or until she says otherwise. Xena is now part of our community. Her past lies somewhere else, even if it lives on in memory. Calling on it for revenge stops here. It will henceforth fall on deaf ears." Turin looked at Xena and Gabrielle before addressing Melop again. "Enough is enough. Go. Take your skeleton rattling with you."
Melop noted the finality in Turinís voice, the disgust on all the faces he surveyed. He knew heíd lost, but wanted to throw one last barb at his blond nemesis. Until he felt a chill coursing up his spine. He traced its source to a pair of ice-blue eyes that froze whatever words heíd stored for this occasion. Gritting his teeth, he wheeled and stalked with his cronies out the door.
Gabrielle sat quietly in a corner of the Warrior Princess Wing. Sheíd set up a private lunch in another section of the library for the Shark Islanders. Xena and Eve had joined them. The visitors had heard of the notorious Livia, but were stunned to learn she was one and the same as the gentle Eve. And Xenaís daughter. The conversation had been fairly superficial - battles witnessed and fought, escapades some of the women had been on with the "old" Xena, their fights with the "new" Xena. Theyíd eventually wanted to see the exhibits recording the transition of a village girl into the Destroyer of Nations and ultimate champion of the greater good.
Now they sat - some on chairs, others on floor mats - comparing notes about how their lives had gone so wrong. Unlike Xena and Eve, the Shark Islanders had been pushed into depending on themselves at a young age - escaping from bad homes, orphaned, scrounging for food to feed siblings and even parents, falling under the influence of boyfriends with only greed or malice in their hearts. They shared another similarity - admiration for a tall, dark-haired young warlord who took what she wanted and needed no one.
"You were my hero," Ersina said softly, as if talking to herself, like the others unaware of the growing audience of villagers whoíd noiselessly wandered in and now listened in rapt attention. "A bad, kick-ass, take-no-prisoners female whoíd never let anybody rule her."
"Yeah. Wasnít nobody else for me to look up to," agreed another. "My ma let everybody walk over her. Let `em get to me, if they wanted. I wasnít gonna be like that. No, I was gonna hook up with Xena - go where I wanted, do what I wanted, take no crap from nobody."
"I heard she went places nobodyíd even heard of. Land, sea, didnít matter. Free as a bird."
The women talked about their dreams as if it were yesterday, as if they hadnít embarked on their fateful journeys over 30 years before and already experienced the consequences. Their words, their gray hair and lost youth sent a chill up Xenaís spine. She stole a glance at Eve. Two pairs of blue eyes locked in recognition of what it was like to learn that something set in motion long ago could take on a life of its own. That there was more than one way to be a mother and lose her child.
"Funny how things work out," Ersina mused as though reading Xenaís mind. "All of us were the same age back then, but you were our example. Now we look like your mothers. Your daughter could be your sister. Turns out the life we thought you had isnít the one you wouldíve wanted for us. You end up locking up folks who wanted to be like you."
Xena sighed. "I didnít think about any of that." She snorted. "Like you said, it was all about me. Not at first maybe. It twisted into not caring who got hurt, as long as I had my way. I donít know why Iíve had so many chances. I can understand your bitterness about that."
"Nah, doesnít make much sense anymore. The bitterness, I mean. Not sure what the rest of us were destined for. Pretty clear youíre doing what you were meant to." Ersina chuckled. "Heck, the gods or somebody even gave you extra years to do it."
Xena smiled. "Iím not sure how ëextraí they are, seeing as how I slept the whole time."
One of the other women frowned. "You mean, when you were a warlord? Before you woke up to your new life?"
"Uh Ö not quite." Xena exchanged wry glances with Eve. She turned to where she knew her partner was standing. "Thatís a story a lot of folks donít know. It has Ares in it and an ice cave. Since ëstoryí is music to Gabrielleís ears, Iíll give her the pleasure of telling it."
"Quite a day, huh?" Gabrielle led the way into their hut. She rolled her head to relieve the cricks in her neck. She could hear the bed singing her name. She turned to see Xena had dropped down into the rocking chair, staring sightlessly ahead. "Xena?"
Gabrielle walked over to stand behind the warrior. "Lean forward," she said, beginning to massage Xenaís shoulders.
"As a bowstring."
Xena let out a long breath. "Think youíre right."
"Hm. I remember doing this the day you let them take you."
"Mmmm." Xenaíd let her eyes close. "Hm?"
"The Literians. When they came for you. I donít think Iíll ever forget seeing you put in chains like that. Holding your hands out so they could do it."
Xena reached up to pat one of the hands soothing her. "Yeah."
"I said something about you carrying the world on your shoulders."
Xena chuckled. "You would."
"I didnít know then how right I was. How far youíd go to lessen the weight."
Xena tilted her head back. "You know I had to try. If not for me, for those who bore it because of me."
Gabrielle laid her palms against Xenaís cheeks. "Was 40,000 enough?"
Xena closed her eyes a few moments. She sighed and grasped Gabrielleís hand, gently steering her in front. Gabrielle knelt, continuing to hold on.
"When those women talked about me stopping them from attacking the guards, telling them, ëThatís enough?í It reminded me of something else." Xena shuddered slightly. "Rats."
"The rats in that pit Thalassa threw me in. They kept coming and coming. Swarming over me and Ö. I was tied, like she was with the crabs."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle gave her partnerís hand a squeeze, knowing that was all the sympathy the warrior would allow.
"I guess itís just not in me to feel helpless too long. I used the only weapon I had at the time - my mouth. I yelled at the little bastards. ëThatís enough!í I grabbed some with my teeth and tossed them aside. Even killed a few."
Gabrielle steeled herself against exhibiting her disgust, not so much at Xena but at the situation sheíd been in.
Xena grinned. "I know. Disgusting. But it worked. Buggers left me alone." Her eyes drifted into the distance. "Iíve come to see my past a lot like those rats. It comes in the form of people who smell my blood. Mostly itís happenstance. They werenít looking for me. Werenít planning to hurt me. I put myself there. Let my guilt make me vulnerable. I canít fault them for that. I canít pretend theyíre not there just because I canít bear to think of them crawling over me."
"Xena, they may never stop. Itís been years, and still they come."
"Whether itís people like Melop or Thalassa or Ersina, theyíre coming from a dark place. Doing what seems natural, when you canít sense anything but filth and stench. I donít want to give in to dark places anymore. Inside myself or somebody else. I regret with all my heart what Iíve done. Iím sorry everybody doesnít get the chances I have. Or my daughter. But Iím not going to give up on myself. Lie down and let my past tie me up. Eat away at me. Keep me from trying to fight my way out."
"Xena." Gabrielle swallowed. "You donít know how much it means to hear you say that. I couldnít accept your death in Japa meant nothing. The years I spent without you. Otherwise, bringing you back would be like turning the hourglass upside down. Letting the guilt start all over again."
Xena relaxed back in her chair. "I felt what it was like to be free, Gabrielle. Free of a past I could do nothing about anymore." She grinned. "Not even with my mouth. Since you brought me back, I have felt the weight again. The responsibility of doing something with my skills, my chances, my Ö."
"Heart? Of course you do."
"That freedom I had after Japa? I know now how it feels, when responsibility comes from a light place. Itís Ö fresher, cleaner. Less like a burden I can never set down."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "And what about your need for action? You saying thatís lightened up too?"
"Hey, I did pretty good at that council meeting. You know," Xena added, smirking, "in the background, pulling the strings while you pretended to be in charge."
Gabrielle ducked her head. "Sorry about that. Iíve gotten used to -."
"Donít be." Xena brushed her partnerís arm. "It was great seeing you do your thing. Believe me, I was perfectly happy sitting there with my mouth shut."
"And it was great watching you with Ersinaís group and Eve. I felt some healing going on."
Xena sighed. "Yeah, I suppose. They got bad deals. I knew something about them when I put a few of them away. For crimes that paled in comparison to mine. The prison authorities were often little better than the inmates. If Iíd been them, Iídíve wondered where was the justice in that."
"They seemed to accept life isnít fair. I think Ersina really meant it - popping by for a visit sometime." Gabrielle held Xenaís eyes. "And you? Any healing there?" she asked, pointing at Xenaís chest.
Xena smiled. "Being here? Yeah, Iím finding my stride. May take awhile, but Iíll give it my best shot. "
Gabrielleís eyes misted. "Thank you," she said softly. "Weíll take it a day at a time. Stay open to possibilities like always."
"Yeah. Like always. I just hope Ö. I donít want my presence to change what youíve created here. You know - the spirit. Your role as - ."
"Sounds like a topic for another day." Gabrielle yawned and stretched. She uncurled and reached her hand down to Xena. "Enough philosophy. Iíve got a better idea to prepare for tomorrow."
Xena pursed her lips, studying Gabrielleís hand. "Does it involve giving me something to do where I donít have to talk? Something along the lines of kicking butt? Or at least keeping butts in line?"
"That can be arranged." Gabrielle batted her eyes. "Although I had something a little different in mind."
"Yeah?" Xena reached up and let Gabrielle help her to her feet. "Should we get more comfortable to pursue your line of reasoning further?"
"Uh huh. That would be good."
They strolled arm-in-arm to their sleeping quarters. They undressed, soon snuggling into bed.
"So, tell me more about your idea."
Gabrielle propped up on her elbow. "Iím afraid it does involve your mouth. I have mixed emotions about that."
"Oh?" Xena propped up.
"Mmhm. I kinda wish you hadnít been so graphic about your assault on the rats." Gabrielle shuddered. "Itís hard getting that picture out of my mind. The lips I love most in the world, snacking on the creature I like least. Biting and shaking the furry varmint till it squeals for mercy."
"Ugh." Xenaís mouth scrunched in disgust. "Donít remind me. Didnít taste so hot either."
"Iíll take your word for it," Gabrielle assured quickly. "Thing is, we must get past that - the trauma, I mean. How can we have a healthy relationship, if weíre thinking rats every time we kiss or .Ö"
"Ah." Xenaís eyes began to gleam. "Iím seeing your point." She frowned in thought. "So Ö maybe we need another image to replace that?"
Gabrielleís eyes began to gleam. "My thoughts exactly."
"A different experience?"
"Uh huh. One that feels better."
"And, one would hope, tastes better."
"Hmmm. Thatís a pretty tall order."
Gabrielle grinned. "Nothing new there." She ran a finger down Xenaís torso. "I had one of those filled quite awhile ago."
Xena grinned. "Yeah? Me too. Well, a shorter one, but everything in it was really important." She traced small circles on Gabrielleís cheek, suddenly struck by the normalcy of the moment. For the first time since her resurrection, she felt Ö settled. Home. Committed to trying out a domestic life they hadnít experienced before. "Um, you know, tall orders can be tricky sometimes. Have stuff you donít really want. Leave out something you need."
"Why donít we test that out? Iím ready to put our ideas into practice."
"Itís just that so much has happened. Changes that -."
"Really, really ready."
"Youíre not a little worried - ."
"Xena, I already told you. Whatever you are, whatever you have - whatever it is I really, really hope you do soon - trust me, itíll be more than enough."