Solan stopped running when he realized he had ended up with Argo and the other horse. Breathing heavily, the youngster threw his arms around the neck of the familiar mare and buried his face in the golden mane. His shoulders shook when he started crying. "They lied to me, Argo. Every one of them. No one told me anything..." Argo rested her head on the boy's shoulder, and whinnied softly in his ear. The boy clung desperately to the horse, the only anchor he felt he had left in the world. "I thought Xena liked me. She saved me from Dagnon...why didn't she tell me? She must really think I'm an awful kid...to leave me..." Sobbing louder, he let go of Argo and sank to the forest floor, pulling his legs up to his chest, and resting his head on his knees. "I thought she might even...love me..."
Ephiny could hear the sobs even before she found the boy next to the horses. She had no idea what to tell Solan, whose world had changed suddenly in the last few moments. Letting go of Xenan's hand, she knelt down next to the youngster, and wrapped her arms around him. Immediately, she felt the child's body tense up, and the sobbing become louder. Ephiny released her hold, and leaned back on her knees. "I'm sorry Solan. I didn't know either." The boy didn't answer, but the shaking slowed down a little when Ephiny began to caress the young man.
"Now do you see why you can't kill Xena?" asked Kaleipus. "You would leave me no choice but to call for war to protect my boy's family."
Lorent's eyes flashed with unsuppressed rage. "I don't believe the lengths you will go to save that...murdering harlot. But you're family, cousin. I will give her over to you...but make sure she never travels this way again. I won't be so generous, or forgiving, next time." The red haired centaur turned to his jailer. "Terek," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Release the prisoner to my...'family'."
As the small group left the house, Gabrielle handed her mask to Kaleipus, and then made her way to the jail with Terek.
The whole village was caught up in the events happening before them, and any pretense of not paying attention to the spectacle had stopped long ago. Most knew that the trial was to begin at dawn of the following day, but it looked like something important was about to happen sooner than that. Feeling all eyes on them, Gabrielle and the jailer entered the prison.
As Terek led the way down into the deepest part of the building, Gabrielle began to shiver at the dampness. The centaur held the only torch in front of him, and the bard had to move quickly but carefully in the unfamiliar darkness to keep up with him. Her heart was beating loudly; she was extremely anxious to see Xena, and she worried about what the centaurs had done to her in the time the bard had been away. It seemed to take forever, but finally, the slope they were on leveled out, and Gabrielle managed to make out what looked like a separate secure cell in the middle of the room she was now in. She jumped when she heard Terek speaking to another centaur; in the darkness, she could see no one else in the area.
"Javet, you're relieved. Now go."
The other centaur was happy to leave, and didn't even bother to ask why Terek was bringing another amazon into the prison. He moved up the slope without a backward glance.
Terek put the torch into the wall sconce, and wordlessly walked over to the cell's door. As he expected, the blanket was thrown over the woman's head. The jailer called Xena's name when he put the key in the lock, and opened the door.
"Awake," rasped a voice that the bard could barely recognize. She looked past Terek's shoulder to see her partner shivering in the cold, trying her best to remain upright on nerveless legs. The only noise was the jangling of the chain links above Xena's head as her body moved constantly in the cold. The jailer moved over to the winch, and released the catch, slowly lowering Xena's arms down. Without the support of the chains, the warrior's knees buckled even more, as her fatigued legs could not bear her weight. Gabrielle rushed to her woman's side, removing the blanket from her face, and throwing her arms around Xena's body.
Xena had been holding onto the one thought that had calmed her so far; she kept a mental picture of her bard in her head and forced herself to forget about the pain in her arms and the ache of her screaming muscles in her legs and feet. She concentrated on remembering each detail of her lover's face; how depending on mood, the eyes of the bard could look green or blue, and how electrifying they looked in passion. She remembered the softness of the lush lips as they parted beneath hers, or as they smiled at her in love; the way they brushed...
In one movement, the cloth was removed from her face, and she was looking into her bard's eyes; then she felt her woman's arm encircle her, as the chains continued to be lowered from above her head.
"Oh, Xena," the bard whispered, as in one glance she saw what had happened to her friend. One eye was still partially closed, but looked to be healing. Gabrielle had already noticed the bruises on the warrior's legs, and now saw the matching ones on her arms and upper body. As the restraints continued to be lowered, Xena's arms fell naturally over Gabrielle's head, as if the woman was going to hug her, but the bard knew the real reason Xena had done this. Xena leaned heavily against her lover, and Gabrielle gladly accepted the weight. At last, the chains were completely lowered, and the bard helped Xena to the ground, even though it was cold and wet, and the warrior was still shivering uncontrollably. The smaller woman turned to the jailer. "Release the shackles, and then leave us."
After Terek unlocked all the restraints, he left the two women in the cell, and went in search of Lorent.
"Xena?" the bard asked as she rubbed her hands over the woman's chilled flesh, trying to bring life back into the aching muscles. She wrapped the blanket around Xena's legs, and massaged the muscles of the woman's arms, gently rubbing the skin back and forth to try to bring feeling back into nerveless limbs. The area around the warrior's wrists was rubbed raw from where the shackles bit into her flesh. The skin was bloody and badly bruised, and Xena would need the help of Kaleipus' healer once they got back to the centaur's village. "Xena?" the bard repeated when she got no answer from her partner.
Unexpectedly, the warrior tightened her arms around Gabrielle, and pulled the woman to her closely, burying her face into the bard's neck. "Is it you?" she asked, the words muffled by the blonde hair of the smaller woman.
"Yes, it's me. But we need to get you out of here." Gabrielle pulled back out of the embrace, and cradled her friend's face with her hands. "Are you able to walk?"
Xena nodded slowly as the bard rose to her feet. Extending her arm down, she helped the warrior to stand, and that was when she realized just how weak her woman was. The warrior's legs were shaking with both the cold, and from having to support herself for the first time in days. The bard wrapped her right arm around Xena's back for support, and then bent down and retrieved the blanket, throwing it over her lover's shoulders. Taking hold of Xena's left hand, Gabrielle added her strength to the warrior and to help carry her weight. They left the torch in the sconce, since Xena really needed the bard's help to make it up the dark slope of the exit. With the dim light behind them, the two women slowly made their way out of the jail.
Kaleipus waited for Xena and Gabrielle to appear, a sack holding the warrior's weapons and leathers at his feet. Lorent leaned casually against his home but stood up when his former prisoner finally exited the jail. "Well, Kaleipus, there's your 'family'. Make sure I never see them again." The red haired centaur turned away from his cousin and went into his house, closing the door firmly behind him.
When the two women reached the middle of the square, Kaleipus took his place behind them. He could see Xena straining to remain upright, but knew the proud woman would want to be seen leaving the village unbeaten, and unbroken, so he did not offer to help her. He supposed Gabrielle was supporting her somewhat, but the blanket was concealing how much help Xena needed. Still, he wanted to be close in case he was needed.
The centaurs of Lorent's nation followed the strange procession, and came closer to watch the trio, forming a double line that resembled a gauntlet. The irony was not lost on Xena, and with a little bit of defiance, she lifted her head and stared at each centaur who was foolish enough to make eye contact with her. No one stopped them as they reached the woods.
Ephiny was watching the boys sleep, Solan finally exhausting himself from his conflicting emotions, when she heard the others approaching. As Xena staggered into the makeshift camp, the amazon rushed up to help her queen and the warrior; just when Ephiny reached Xena's side, the last of the woman's strength gave out. She would have fallen if the regent had not been there to help catch her. While Gabrielle and Ephiny lowered Xena to the mossy ground of the trail, Kaleipus reached for the waterskin and offered it to the women.
Gabrielle took the boda bag and poured some water into her hand, and gently tried to wipe some of the grime and dirt from her lover's face. When the water trickled onto Xena's lips, she made a feeble attempt to take the waterskin from the blonde.
"No, Xena. Let me help you. You can't drink too much at once," the bard said, as she propped her arm behind the warrior's back, and held the skin to Xena's mouth. After giving her a few short swallows, Gabrielle let her eyes roam over the woman, looking for any other injuries. "How do you feel?"
Kaleipus moved closer to the small group. "Even though it'll get dark soon, I think we should move on. Lorent might change his mind, and I don't want to be here if he does. We can follow the river easily in the dark...if you think Xena is ok to travel."
Getting no response from Xena, Gabrielle nodded her head, knowing she could support Xena on Argo's back. Her next concern was in waking Solan, not knowing how he would react to his mom. She touched the boy on his shoulder, and gently shook him awake. When his eyes first opened, he looked at her with easy recognition, but just as quickly, his features turned and showed his distrust as he jerked away from her. A cloud of hurt washed over his face, and with his eyebrows turned down in pain, he glanced away from the blonde and refused to make eye contact again.
"Solan, I know you're upset with us. I wish I could explain, but right now, we have to get Xena out of here."
The boy refused to answer, but stood up and folded his arms across his chest. He didn't want to acknowledge Gabrielle or his uncle, and he especially wanted to avoid Xena. When he was sure no one was looking, he glanced briefly at the warrior. Although part of him saw the woman and remembered the friend he knew, a big part of him recognized Xena as his mother...and as the person who gave him away without a moment's hesitation. Now he understood why Xena knew Borias so well. She must have laughed at him at how easily she had kept her secret from him. Solan clenched his teeth, and tried to keep his feelings locked up inside. He didn't want the others to see how much their game had hurt him. When he saw Gabrielle and Ephiny helping Xena to her feet, he looked away, hoping that he didn't get caught watching.
"Solan...son.." Kaleipus called out to the boy. "Please come here." The youngster approached the centaur that he had been proud to call his uncle. With his arms still crossed over his chest, he looked at the ground and waited for the centaur to tell him something, anything, to explain what was happening. When he saw Kaleipus start to reach for him, he jerked away, and took a few steps backwards to stay out of his grasp.
"Son, we have to leave. Can I help you up on my back?"
The boy didn't want to show any weakness to all these people who were suddenly strangers. He slid up onto Kaleipus' back, but sat further back than normal. He usually would hang onto his uncle by clasping him on the shoulders, or by hugging him around the chest, but Solan no longer felt it was right to allow such an intimate embrace. Instead, he rested his hands lightly on the back of Kaleipus' waist, right where the fine horsehair met human skin. The difference did not go unnoticed by the grey haired centaur. He knew both he and his boy would have some adjusting to do in their new family roles, and hoped one day that Solan would understand why he let the boy think that his mother was dead. But right now, with full dusk on them, they had to leave.
Once everyone was settled on their mounts, and with Xena leaning heavily against her, Gabrielle led the group down the trail that led to the stream. When they reached their old camp, she heard Ephiny ask if she wanted her to gather up their things.
"No. Leave them. I don't ever want to see this place again."
Argo remembered the route, and followed the stream in the light of the moon to Kaliepus' village. Behind the golden mare followed Ephiny, holding her son atop the dark stead. Kaleipus took the last position in the group, wanting to hang back and make sure that no one was following them .
From where he sat atop his uncle, Solan couldn't help but stare at the two women leading the way. Xena's head was resting on Gabrielle's shoulder, as the smaller woman held her from behind and guided Argo through the shallows of the river. He closed his eyes as he thought of how much he would have liked to be a part of that family, but knew that his mother didn't love him. He thought about how it felt to have Xena hold him as Gabrielle was holding her now, and remembered when the warrior held him in her embrace as she was returning him to Lorent's village...to a family she knew wasn't his. 'She doesn't love meÖor she would have told me. I thought she was happy to see me when I found her fishing...but she was just probably happy to get rid of me...again.' Solan felt tears welling up, but refused to shed them over someone who didn't care about him at all.
It was a long silent ride through the night to a home that Solan wasn't sure was his anymore.
After only stopping once on the way, the group of travelers arrived at Kaleipus' village a few candlemarks past dawn. Solan immediately slid from his spot on top of his uncle, and ran to his friend Gowan's house. The centaur let him go, knowing the boy needed some time alone to adjust to his new family situation. The youngster hadn't said a word the whole way home, but Kaleipus knew the lad was confused and hurting. He would let him stay with Gowan for awhile, and then he would try to explain why he let him believe that Xena was no more than a 'friend', and not someone who would have a more personal bond with him.
Kaleipus led the way to his home, and took Xenan from Ephiny's arms. "Wait here," he instructed, and then went into his house, and put the sleeping one-year-old in his bed. After throwing a blanket over the child, he returned to the women, to help them move Xena from Argo. Thankfully, Xena had slept most of the night held in Gabrielle's arms, but in the light of day, the abuse she had been through could be readily seen. Not knowing if the warrior had any broken bones, Kaleipus gingerly carried Xena into his hut, and laid her on Solan's pallet, in the room Gabrielle had stayed in the other night. The bard quickly followed, and crawled into bed with her.
"Water?" Xena mumbled as she sank back against the soft cushion.
"I'll get it," Gabrielle said and started to rise from the pallet.
"No, I'll do it. You stay with Xena. That's the best thing for her right now," the centaur reasoned, and headed for the main room of the home.
He filled a waterskin with fresh water, and handed it to Ephiny. He showed her where his food supplies were, and pointed out his room where her son was now sleeping soundly. "I'll be back soon. Help yourself to whatever you want, and give them anything they need. Look for Thasus, or village healer. I'll be sending him over. I have to make sure the horses are taken care of, and I really need to talk to Solan." He paused for a moment. "Is there anything you can think of that you'll need?"
"No, nothing," the amazon replied, and then grasped the centaur's forearm. "Thank you for your help. My queen and her partner mean everything to me, and to my tribe. The Amazons will hear of your support."
Kaleipus nodded his head, and turned to the door.
"And good luck...with Solan."
The centaur nodded once more, and grabbed the reins of the two horses, first leading them to Thasus' home on the way to the stable. "Thasus," he called out after rapping on the door. "Your help is needed."
A middle-aged centaur, with dark hair and a wide strip of grey over his right temple opened the door. "My leader, are you injured?"
"No, Thasus, not me. But my friend Xena is at my home...would you look in on her? She's been through an ordeal, and I don't know how badly injured she is."
"Of course, of course," the shaggy haired healer said. "I'll be right there," he added, while gathering up small bags of crushed herbs to make teas and poultices to relieve pain. Not knowing what exactly he needed, he grabbed as many of the different pouches as he could. He hurried to the leader's home, mentally checking off additional herbs and plants that he could gather from the surrounding countryside if needed. Thasus entered the hut to find a curly haired amazon helping another woman to drink from a waterskin, while a smaller amazon propped the second one up. The injured woman had massive bruises on her arms and legs, particularly on her thighs. 'Internal bleeding,' he immediately reasoned, 'but old already. Probably hurts like Tartarus, though'. "I'm Thasus," he told the three women. "Can I help?"
Ephiny moved away from the bed, giving her spot to the healer. "This is Xena. She's been standing manacled in a dark cell for days, with nothing to eat or drink. We've been giving her some water, but she hasn't had anything to eat yet."
"Ok, let's lay her down. I want to check those bruises, and see if there's anything we're missing." Xena's left eye was still partially closed and swollen as she looked blearily at the strange looking healer. "Xena, I'm going to check you over. If I find a spot that hurts, will you tell me?" The woman nodded mutely as the healer lowered her back to the pallet.
Running his hands through the warrior's hair, Thasus found a good sized bump at the base of Xena's skull, just as the woman groaned in pain. "Sorry. How long ago did you get that?"
"Three days...I think," the warrior rasped. "Water?"
"How about some tea instead? It will help with the pain," he answered and turned to the curly haired woman with a questioning look. "Um..."
"Ephiny," the regent said as she introduced herself. "And this is Gabrielle."
"Ok, then, Ephiny. See the small pouches I left on the table there? Find the sky blue one, and pour half the contents in a mug. Will you make the tea for our friend, here?" He turned back to his patient to continue the examination while the amazon went about getting water hot for the drink. "Gabrielle? Will you get the ochre colored bag, and the brown one too, I think, and bring them to me? I'm going to show you how to make poultices for Xena."
After a thorough investigation of all the bruises, Thasus concluded that there were no broken bones, but the large contusions on the woman's legs bothered him. Although they were big, they should have started healing by now, but the wounds looked an angry black with no evidence of the yellowing of healing. Perhaps because she was left standing still for so long was the reason why the blood pooled and didn't get reabsorbed into the body.
Ephiny returned to the room with a hot mug of tea, and helped Xena to drink it. Any liquid that hit the dark haired woman's throat made her want to gulp it down quickly, but the heat of the medicine made her go slowly. She had just finished the mug when Thasus and Gabrielle approached her with a large bowl.
"Xena, we're going to put this warm poultice on your legs to speed up the removal of the blood that's trapped there. As soon as it gets cool, I want you to tell Gabrielle, so she can put on a fresh batch," the healer explained as he applied the tannish looking goop to her legs. "Aside for that, you have no broken bones, which is good. I want you to have only broth for today and tomorrow, until your body gets used to having nourishment again. Have as much as you want," he added, as he finished wrapping her legs in a soft binding cloth, "but go slowly." Xena was soon breathing easily and deeply as the warmth of the tea and poultice helped her drift off to sleep.
"Gabrielle, I'm going to make an ointment for her wrists and ankles. Those manacles really rubbed her skin raw. And as long as she's sleeping, let her rest for several candlemarks before putting a new poultice on. Then wake her up, get her to walk around a little, and give her some broth. She should be fine..." he stopped when the bard unexpectedly hugged him. "What's that for?" He wasn't used to amazons hugging him.
"Thank you, Thasus. You don't know how much I needed to hear that."
"Well...,um, " the healer didnít know what to say as he brushed his hands together several times to get the remaining poultice off his fingers. "I'll make that ointment, and be back later."
After the centaur left, Ephiny took the medicine bowl that had been left on the table. "You hungry? I could make something to eat."
"No, I think I'll just lie here with Xena. I don't want her to wake up and not know where I am." The blonde sat down on the pallet, being careful not to jostle the sleeping woman.
"Ok, I think I'm going to take a nap, too. I'm really beat. Call me if you need anything, all right?"
"Sure, Ephiny, and thanks."
The regent left the two women alone and shut the door to the room for their privacy. Xenan was still asleep when she curled up into bed with her child.
Kaleipus took his time rubbing down the horses at the stable. He tried going over in his mind what he could say to Solan to make the boy understand, and to feel better. The only conclusion he came to was that he had to convince the boy that he loved him, and always had. He was also concerned that once Solan got over the shock, that he might want to leave the centaur village, and travel with Xena and Gabrielle. Kaleipus knew if the youngster wanted to go, he would let him, no matter how much it hurt to say goodbye to his son. After adding some oats to the feeding troughs for both Argo and the other horse, he made his way to Gowan's house.
The centaur leader rapped on the wooden side of his neighbor's home. "Danaus? Gowan? Is Solan with you? I want to talk to him." He waited for a reply, but never got one. Instead, he heard a shout, and circled around the home to see the two boys running away from him, up the hill that marked the edge of the village, heading for the caves to the west. Kaleipus shook his head in frustration, knowing it was useless at the moment to make the lad listen when he didn't want to hear. Deciding it was best to return home, he first checked on his guests, and then settled in for a nap himself.
Gabrielle woke up before Xena did. She leaned on one elbow, and let her eyes caress her lover. Already the black eye looked less puffy, and Xena was breathing easily in her sleep. The bard gently cupped the woman's face with her free hand, and bent in for a kiss. The closed eyelids twitched slightly, and then opened to see a smiling bard staring down at her.
"Hey," Gabrielle whispered.
"How are you feeling? Are you hungry yet?"
"Mmmm, yes," the warrior responded, deliberately misreading the blonde's question, and reached up to pull her woman down for a kiss.
Gabrielle didn't resist when she felt Xena's lips press against hers, the agile tongue seeking entry into her mouth. After breathless minutes, the smaller woman broke away, only to feel Xena trying to pull her back down. "Easy, there, soldier. Let's get you up and walking first. I want to see if that poultice is working."
Xena groaned in mock annoyance as Gabrielle unwound the cloth bindings and removed the messy poultice. The bruised area looked less angry than before, and it seemed as if the pooled blood was breaking up. The blonde got up from the bed, and held her hands out to the injured woman. "Ok, let me see those legs move. Come here, you."
The taller woman swung her legs off the pallet, and stood up. Although she was still shaky from the lack of exercise, with the bard holding her, she circled the room several times before pronouncing herself cured.
"Not so fast, Xena. You're not up to warrior speed yet. Let's get you something to eat." As if on cue, the bard's stomach announced it's own rumblings. "I mean, let's get us something to eat."
The two women entered the main room of the house to find that Kaleipus and Ephiny had already started to prepare the evening meal. Glancing around, Xena asked, "Where's Solan?" Her mind worked to recall the details of the previous night's journey. Although she knew that Solan had been in the small group with her yesterday, beyond walking out of the village and reaching the horses, she couldn't remember much of what else happened. She had gladly let Gabrielle take care of her, but now something felt wrong. "Is he all right?"
Kaleipus helped the warrior to a chair. "Now don't worry, Xena. He's with his friend Gowan. He's ok, but I don't think he wants to talk to any of us now."
"Why? What's wrong? What did Lorent..."
The centaur leader stopped her in mid sentence. "No, it's nothing that Lorent did or said. But in order to get you out of there, I had to threaten him with a civil war. I had to tell him that my boy...is your son. Solan heard, and well, I'm sure he feels betrayed. I went to talk to him earlier, but her ran off."
"Ran off?" Xena started to rise from the chair. "I've got to find him!"
"Xena," Kaleipus put a restraining hand on her shoulder, and urged her back down into the chair. "I've told you, he's all right. He's with his friend, and the boy's father is one of my best warriors. He'll be taken care of. I'm going to talk to him tomorrow. He needs some time. Now please," he added when he placed a bowl of broth in front of her, "Eat."
Dinner was quiet and Xena couldn't help but think of her son. 'He must hate me,' she thought, as she felt Gabrielle grasp her hand under the table. She closed her eyes and clutched the bard's hand, the one person left who really loved her.
Xena and Gabrielle returned to their room shortly after dinner. The warrior was quiet, and although that was not unusual for the stoic woman, Gabrielle was still worried about her lover. The smaller woman watched as Xena sat listlessly on the pallet, staring at the floor. Taking a chance that she would want to talk, the bard knelt in front of the woman, and placed her hand on Xena's knee to get her attention. "Hey," she whispered. "Want to tell me what you're feeling?"
Xena closed her eyes at the images that were flashing through her mind. She knew why Solan had run off...he wanted no part of her. She couldn't really blame the boy. She certainly had done nothing to raise the son, ignoring him for more than ten summers. They had only met once before, and that was purely by accident. Although it was a hard decision to make, she had agreed with Kaliepus to keep the boy in the dark as to the fate of his 'real' mother. Now it seemed like a very bad choice, and one that would have repercussions for all of them in the future. Xena sighed to herself, and felt Gabrielle gently squeezing her knee. Opening her eyes, she finally noticed her partner's concerned look in the clear green orbs. "What? Did you say something?"
"I wanted to know what you're feeling," the bard replied while rising from her crouch. She sat on the bed next to Xena, and wrapped her arm around the slumped shoulders of her lover. Gabrielle reached up, and leaned Xena's head against her shoulder, stroking the glossy dark hair from the woman's brow. "I want to help, if I can."
"Gabrielle, I don't think even Gaia herself can help with this. I've lost Solan before I even really got to know him. I've made so many mistakes in my life. I was hoping to spare at least that much from him, but it looks like I couldn't even do that right."
"My love, you have to talk to him. It will hurt in the beginning, but Solan's a wonderful, sensitive boy. He'll understand."
"Will he, Gabrielle? He doesn't want to talk. He ran away from Kaliepus, the one person he considers his family. I've managed to destroy his life...he has nothing that he's sure of anymore. Solan must hate me more now, then when he thought I was the one who killed his father."
Gabrielle noticed the tension building in Xena's voice, and the muscles in her arms trembling with pent up emotion as she clenched her fists. The warrior pulled away from the blonde, stood up and began to anxiously pace the small room. "Why shouldn't he hate me? I'm still the 'Destroyer of Nations'...although my conquests now are of a much smaller nature. Now I just crush beliefs, family...If I were him, I would hate me too." Xena shook her head. "With everything I've done, I sometimes wonder why you love me. Why you stay with me." Xena stopped her wandering, facing away from her lover. She didn't want to chance a stray look at the bard, and see the disgust she felt for herself reflected in the green eyes.
Without hesitation, Gabrielle rose from the bed and enveloped her partner in her arms. "Why do I love you Xena?" the bard questioned her. "Because I know the real you. The one that helps others unselfishly. The warrior who fights for good. The woman who bit her tongue when a naive little girl from Poteidea tagged after her and drove her crazy. And as much as you can't see it, Xena, you have changed from who you were so many summers ago. Maybe realizing that you could give Solan a better life with the centaurs was the start of who you are today." Gabrielle moved in closer, and rested her head on Xena's chest. "And do you know why I stay with you?" she began, as she felt the woman she held start to pull away. "I stay because I don't know where I would go or do without you. You are my home. You have helped me become who I am today, and I like this new Gabrielle. I stay because I want to. I stay because I need to. I stay because I love you Xena, the woman who tries to change the world. I love you more each day. I love you. And even when I'm not saying it, Xena, you know I'm thinking it."
Xena drew in a breath sharply and tightened her hold on the smaller woman, recognizing the truth of her lover's words. She leaned down and softly brushed her lips across those of Gabrielle, showing her woman that she understood with the tenderness of her touch. Gabrielle returned the kiss, quietly thanking Gaia for bringing Xena into her life. Finally, Xena broke the embrace, and the bard led her back to the pallet. When Xena was comfortably resting beneath the covers, Gabrielle joined her, throwing her arms around the warrior.
A whisper broke the silence. "What am I going to say to Solan?"
Gabrielle's arms tightened around her friend. "You mean, what are we going to say to Solan?' ". Xena nodded her head, and ran her palm over the strong arms that encircled her. "We're not going to tell him anything. We're going to let him ask any questions he wants. And we're both going to answer those questions, not matter how much it might hurt at the time."
Xena nodded again, and relaxed into the arms of her bard. For once, it was easy to give up being 'the strong one', knowing she needed Gabrielle to hold her the whole night through.
Xena woke up shortly after sunrise, and slowly uncurled herself from Gabrielle's embrace. She heard a protesting sigh from her woman when the cold air of the room found the soft skin of the bardís back. The warrior rearranged the blankets over the sleeping woman, and left a kiss on her forehead before changing into her leathers. She planned on giving Argo a short exercising run, and stretching her own muscles in a light work out too. She decided against putting on her armor, since she would be staying within sight of the village. After grabbing some apples from the table in the main room, Xena made her way to the stable.
There was very little light in the barn, with the only illumination coming in from an opening above the loft. A happy nicker greeted the warrior as she made her way to the middle of the barn, ready to spoil the warhorse with her favorite treat. As she turned the corner to Argo's stall, she was startled to find that Solan had had the same idea, and was feeding the mare a ripe apple.
Solan had heard the woman enter the barn, and immediately felt his heart start to pound. The only way out of the stable was the one door that Xena had just entered, and he knew he was trapped. An overwhelming feeling of panic gripped him as he heard the woman stop in front of Argo's stall.
The boy heard the familiar voice and couldn't help but raise his eyes to the woman. The blueness of the eyes caught and held the youngster. He had never realized before just how much he looked like the tall warrior. The spell was broken when Xena reached out and tried to touch him. He dropped the remains of the apple and bolted past the woman, sure that she would follow him. When he reached the door of the stable, he headed for the woods, thinking he could lose her in his familiar playground. He never bothered to look back, so he didn't know that Xena was not chasing after him.
Xena fought the immediate impulse to catch her boy as he ran past her. Fearing that it would only alienate Solan more, she let him run from the stable, heading for the trees at the north side of the village. Once he was out of sight, she grabbed a support pillar of the barn, and held onto it to ground her. Her eyes closed in pain as she replayed over and over in her mind the look the boy had given her right before he dropped the apple. The look of recognition had quickly been replaced with pain and then fear. The fact that Solan now feared her hurt Xena more than the knowledge that he wouldn't talk to her. She had hoped that in time, she would be able to reach him and explain why she had left him with Kaleipus, but that look of fear changed things. She knew Solan didn't trust her, and probably wouldn't listen to anything she had to say.
The warrior picked up the half-eaten fruit and entered the mare's stall, offering it to the horse. Fighting the feeling of hopelessness that was threatening to wash over her, she leaned against the coarse hair of Argo's neck. "Well, pal, it looks like our family is going to remain to be you, me, and Gabrielle after all," Xena whispered while she scratched the animal's sensitive nose. All thoughts of a mind-clearing workout left her as she gave into her feelings of grief, her shoulders shaking with the release of pain. She didn't know if she would ever get over the guilt or sorrow of giving up her boy.
When Xena returned to Kaleipus' home, Gabrielle and Ephiny were just sitting down with two steaming mugs of tea. With one look at her lover's face, Gabrielle knew that something was wrong.
"What happened?" she asked, as she gave Xena her seat and got another mug of tea. Placing the cup on the table in front of the warrior, she then moved behind Xena to start massaging the tense muscles she knew she would find there.
"I found Solan at the stable. He ran away from me. I feel I should go after him, but I'm afraid that he'll just keep avoiding me." Xena barely tasted the hot liquid and didn't notice that Gabrielle and Ephiny were carrying on a silent conversation around her.
"What were you doing at the stables, Xena? Just grooming Argo?"
"No, Eph, I was going to take her for a run. It's been awhile since I've worked her."
"Well," Ephiny prompted. "That still sounds like a good idea. I've heard that Kaliepus has set up quite an obstacle course to train his warriors. Want to give it a try?"
"No, I think I should try to find Solan...try to explain," the dark haired woman said as she stood up. "Somehow, I have to get him to at least listen to me."
"Xena," the bard moved in front of her lover, and took the mug from her hands. "Go with Ephiny. Kaliepus is over at Danaus' place. They both probably know by now that Solan has run off again. I'll ask Danaus if he will go out and find him. I agree we shouldn't let this go on much longer, and Solan has no reason to run from Danaus. Go for a ride. Argo will probably enjoy the warrior's course."
"C'mon, Xena. Once Xenan heard about the course, that's all he could talk about. Let's see how my little guy does."
When Xenan heard his name said, he came running out of the bedroom he had been sharing with his mom and raced for the door, eager for the chance to have some fun at the track. "Xee-naahhh," the little centaur implored as he waited impatiently for the two women to join him, his hooves tapping rhythmically on the wooden floor of the home.
"Gabrielle, are you sure that Danaus will be able to bring Solan back? He looked so upset."
"Honey, go with Eph. I'm sure Danaus can find him."
Ephiny wound her arm around the tall warrior's back and edged her towards the door. Xena followed Xenan out, giving Ephiny a chance to look back at her queen, and nod her head in approval of their plan. The regent was glad she only had to keep Xena busy for awhile. She knew that Gabrielle had the harder part of the plan to complete.
The bard gave her friends a few minutes to find their way to the obstacle course, and then left Kaliepus' house. She had no intention of asking Danaus to help her find Solan, because she had a pretty good idea where the boy was. Passing through the village square, she headed for the grassy meadows, beyond which was the sacred ground where the centaurs buried their honored dead.
Gabrielle approached the graveyard from the rear and knew she had found Solan when she saw the heavy stone that once had balanced on Borias' marker lying broken on the ground in three pieces. She came around the front of the marker to see Solan sitting crossarmed against the stone, asleep. It was obvious that he had been crying and was probably emotionally drained from all that had happen in the last half week. The bard knelt down alongside the boy, and gently shook him awake. His arms shot out to the side when his eyes flew open, and he tried to scramble to his feet. Gabrielle put a restraining hand on his shoulder, and held the boy down gently. "Solan, please. I know you're upset, but you just can't keep running away."
The boy quieted down, and remained sitting not looking at Gabrielle. He rubbed at his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to keep the tears in, and said the one thing that hurt the most. "I liked her."
"And she loves you, honey. You don't know much."
"No she doesn't!" Solan tried to rise again, but Gabrielle held his hand loosely in her own. She knew he wouldn't try to run away now that he was talking. "She left me! She doesn't care!" A fresh trail of tears slipped down his face. "I must be really awful for her to give me up."
"Sweetie, you know that's not true. Do you remember how you felt when we had to leave Xena in Lorent's village? You wanted to stay and protect her, but you knew that we'd have to leave in order to save her. You didn't want to do it, but you had to." The boy unconsciously squeezed the bard's hand as he remembered the frustration and the uncertainty he felt at the time. "And Xena was a lot different eleven summers ago, Solan," the bard continued. "She was a warlord, just beginning to question her past. She didn't have any place that she could rest, that she could call home. And she didn't know if she could protect you like she wanted to under those conditions. So she gave you to Kaliepus, because she knew he was an honorable centaur, and would raise you as his own son. She had to leave you in order to save you...just like we had to leave her at Lorent's. Do you understand that she only wanted to help you?" Solan nodded, and Gabrielle hugged the boy to her. "She loves you, and so do I."
The youngster still wouldn't meet the woman's eyes, but at least he had stopped crying. "Why?"
"Why does Xena love you? You're her boy...and Borias' son. You're the best part of both of them."
"No...why do you love me?"
Gabrielle grasped the boy's chin, and raised it slightly so she could look him in the eyes, happy that Solan didn't shy away. "Honey, your mom means so much to me. I feel like her family...your family... is my family."
"I don't understand. Gowan's my friend, but my family is Uncle Kaliepus and his cousins."
"Solan, your mom is the other part of my soul...and she feels as if I am part of her soul. Do you know what that means?"
The boy thought about it. "I think so...you love her, and she loves you."
"That's right, honey. And now you know why it was so hard for me to leave her at Lorent's. I was scared for her, and I wanted to protect her, but I knew I couldn't do it by myself." Gabrielle again hugged the boy. "It's hard leaving the ones you love...even if you know it's for the best."
Solan rested his head in the crook of the woman's neck. "Are you sure she loves me?"
"Yes. But I know you won't be sure until you ask her. Do you think you're ready for that?" the bard prodded, as she rose to her feet, still holding onto the youngster's hand and helping him to stand.
"I'm scared. What am I going to say to her?" The tall spiky grass crunched under their boots as they walked through the meadow towards the village.
"What do you want to say to her?"
"Um...I liked the fishing lesson. I like the way she smiles at me."
"That's good...anything else?"
"Ummm...I like being with her."
"And I know she likes being with you too, Solan. And you know what? She is just as scared as you are. She thinks you won't ever like her again." They were passing the obstacle course area, and Gabrielle noted it's emptiness. 'Already done...I hope Eph got her back to the house,' the bard mused to herself. The two friends crossed the village square, their feet kicking up dust in the dry dirt. "Well, here we are. Ready?" The woman once more knelt by the boy and hugged him. Solan threw his arms around her and squeezed back. The blonde stood up, and opened the door to Solan's home.
Xena didn't look up, even when she heard the door open to Kaliepus' home. Instead, she continued to stare into the cold remains of the tea she had made to keep herself busy, but didn't really want. She sat alone in the hut; Ephiny and her son had decided to accompany the leader on his rounds of the village, getting to know more of Kaleipus' centaurs. But more than being alone, Xena was terribly lonely. Although her love for the bard knew no bounds, the warrior felt as if she existed in a very small world, one that contained just she and Gabrielle. Most of the time, Xena was very happy being able to turn to Gabrielle for love, support, and comfort, but unconsciously, she was always hoping that she could at one time claim Solan into their small circle. That wish looked impossible now. The boy was nowhere to be found, and wouldn't talk to her anyway if she approached him. Knowing from the slight movement at the door that Gabrielle stood there waiting patiently to get her acknowledgement, she felt one tear slip through her stoic resistance and slide silently down her cheek. Xena wrapped her palms around the cold tea mug, and still without glancing away from the seemingly interesting sight of mug and table, sighed sadly. "How can I tell my son that I love him, and didn't mean to hurt him?"
"You just did," was the quiet reply from her lover.
Xena stood up in one fluid motion, and in her haste, nearly knocked over the bench she had been sitting on. She didn't bother wiping away the earlier tears as a few more slipped past her defenses. Somehow, Gabrielle had managed to convince Solan to talk to her, but the boy would not make eye contact with the taller woman. Instead, he (so like his mother), found inanimate objects suddenly compelling, insisting on memorizing in exact detail the patch he had put on his right boot the previous summer.
The blonde stood behind the boy, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders not in force, but in comfort. She bent down and whispered in the small ear, "I know it's hard, sweetie. Remember that she does love you."
Solan slowly looked up and found blue eyes, masked in pain, watching him. Before he had a chance to speak, Xena moved to face him, and knelt in front of the youngster. Without physically touching him, but holding him with her eyes, Xena stumbled over the first words she got to say to her son, not the child of Borias and some nameless woman. "Solan...I'm so...sorry...that I never let you know the truth. It's my fault that you're hurting, and if I could change that, I would. I know you must hate me," Xena's eyes closed as she saw tears start to form in Solan's eyes, and knew she was right. "I can only hope that one day you will want to talk to me, because...I love you."
Xena waited for the boy to bolt for the door, but instead something unexpected happened. The last words she had spoken broke Solan's inaction. He instinctively reached forward, and wrapped his arms around his mother's neck, and buried his face in the dark tresses at her throat. Xena cautiously put her own arms around the boy's back, and when he made no attempt to back away, the warrior tightened the embrace. "I love you, Solan. I really do," she whispered to the youngster, as she rubbed his small back up and down. She could feel him silently crying, but had no idea how to stop the tears.
"I've missed you," the boy finally told her. Miraculously, Xena felt her intimate world increase by one. At last, she had a son.
The first thing Kaleipus noticed after he walked through the door was a huge grin on Solan's face. He and Gabrielle were chatting and sharing the last of the nutbread that the boy had found among the stores of his uncle's food supplies. Xena seemed happy to sit next to the boy at the table, a small smile on her face as she listened to the easy banter of her two companions. When Solan looked up and saw the old centaur in the doorway, he rushed up to give him a hug. "Uncle! Gabrielle's been telling us all sorts of stories about the Amazons! Did you know that she's only been their queen for about a year?"
The leader was at once surprised by the lack of tension in the room, and happy that Solan seemed to be coming to terms at last with the events of the past few days. "Yes, son. She's one of the main reasons that the Amazons are now our allies," Kaliepus said and ruffled the boy's hair. He glanced briefly at Xena, who nodded silently in return, telling him that things were working out between them. "I'm glad you're not upset with us anymore. You know we never meant to hurt you."
"I know. Mom and Gabrielle explained things to me." The boy squeezed his uncle one more time and then returned to the table to sit next to the two women. He popped the last bite of nutbread in his mouth just as Xenan raced into the house, followed by Ephiny.
The small centaur marched up to Solan, and started tugging on his sleeve. "Warrior."
Solan laughed at the serious expression on Xenan's face. "I'm not a warrior, Xenan. I'm just a kid."
"Warrior," the little centaur insisted, and tugged a little harder on the boy's leather tunic.
"I think he wants you to run the obstacle course with him, Solan. My little guy can't seem to get enough of it ever since he's discovered it," Ephiny explained when she saw the questioning look on the lad's face.
"Well, sure, I could do that. If it's ok with you, Uncle, and...um...Mom," the boy said shyly.
Kaliepus nodded his approval to Xena, letting the woman have the final say in the matter.
"Sure, honey. But don't forget to come back in two candlemarks for supper," she told him while Xenan waited impatiently at the door.
As soon as the little centaur heard that they could go, he flew out the door, followed immediately by Solan. "Hey, Xenan, wait up! Let's go get my friend Gowan...he'll want to race us too!" the boy shouted as he chased after the quick little kid who had the biggest smile on his face.
"Well," Ephiny grinned at the company she found herself in. "It looks like things really are working out for everyone." Gabrielle moved closer to her partner and held her hand under the table as Ephiny took a seat across from them.
Kaleipus moved closer into the room. "But there are still some things we need to discuss, and some decisions we have to make," he said to the three women.
Ephiny stood up, ready to leave. "I'll give you guys some privacy."
"No, no, that's not necessary, Ephiny. I want your opinion on this too," the leader said and helped himself to an apple from a bowl on the table. "Danaus and I have discussed this, and we both agree that it's a good idea. Now I need to hear your thoughts. A lot of...," Kaliepus paused as he thought of the best word to use, "misunderstandings...have happened lately, mostly because we are one family, but with no formal ties to each other. He and I thought the best way to change this is if Xena and Gabrielle were married in a Centaur ceremony." He stopped talking, waiting to see what kind of reaction he would get from the women. When no one objected right away, he continued. "This way, Lorent or anyone else will never be able to say again that Xena is not part of our Nation. Another benefit is that the ties to the Amazon Nation would be that much stronger. And truthfully, I've learned to appreciate our Amazon sisters," Kaliepus said proudly as he nodded his head towards Ephiny.
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand under the table, and felt her lover's eyes on her as she looked at their centaur friend. "And who," her lips quirking into a smile, "would be doing the ceremony?" she asked, although she had a pretty good idea what the answer would be.
"Let's just say it will be a 'family affair'," the leader answered. "And of course, Ephiny, I would welcome your help in this. That is, if everyone approves of the idea."
The regent caught Gabrielle's eye and winked. "Well, let me see...my Queen gets to marry one of the best warriors in the business, plus we further extend out diplomatic ties with the Centaur Nation. Sounds like a good idea to me. And I would be pleased to help out as much as I can," she added as she grasped the centaur's forearm in acceptance. "How could we lose?"
"And another excuse for a party, right, Eph?" Gabrielle reminded the woman, while the other laughed at their inside joke.
"Great! I was hoping we would all agree. Now there's one other thing that we should come to an agreement on. What do we do about Solan's future?" Kaliepus knew this would be the hardest part of the discussion. He desperately wanted Solan to remain in the village with him, but Xena was his mother. He wouldn't do anything to stop her if she chose to take the boy with her when she and the others left. He had raised the boy the best he could, but he wouldn't argue with Xena if she wanted to start being a real mother to the boy.
Xena felt Gabrielle stroking her palm and thought about what Kaleipus was saying. She wanted the boy with her and her partner, but realized that a life on the road wouldn't be in Solan's best interests. She also knew that this was too important a decision to leave between them. "Maybe we should let Solan decide," she suggested, and was relieved when the centaur nodded in agreement.
Dinner was a boisterous affair as the youngsters, including Gowan, shouted to be heard above each other while recounting their best times on the obstacle course. Each one thought that he was the ultimate winner, although both of the older boys had to admit that Xenan, for as young as he was, kept up with them pretty well. The adults of the group sat back and let their children run themselves out of energy with their telling and retelling of their successes. By the time dinner was nearly over, Xenan was looking sleepy, and trying his best not to yawn. Ephiny however had noticed her son almost nodding off at the table, and decided it was a good time to put him to bed. Gowan also excused himself; although his dad knew where he was, it was getting dark, and the boy knew he should be getting to his own house.
Kaliepus looked around at the happy, relaxed faces encircling him around the table. He couldn't remember the last time he had ever seen Xena in such ease with her surroundings. The leader almost didn't want to break the mood, but they still had tomorrow's activities to discuss with his son.
"Solan," the centaur started. "When you and the boys were at the course, I've been talking to your mom and Gabrielle. Tomorrow I'm going to perform a binding ceremony for them; then, they will really be part of our family. As my son, you'll be expected to stand by me during the ceremony."
"Really? I haven't been to many bindings before, Uncle. Do I get to do anything during it?"
Xena reached under the table and squeezed Solan's hand. For such a young boy who had faced so much in the last quarter moon, he was still willing to show love for the important people in his life. Remembering her own childhood after the destruction of Amphipolis by Cortese's army, she realized how much better off the lad was here with the centaurs, and knew she had made the right choice in leaving him in their care so long ago. Solan was so open and honest with his feelings; with a start, Xena recognized that of all the people in the world, her boy reminded her most of her lover. Both had a tremendous ability to trust, even after being hurt in the past. Even through the worst disappointments, both were willing to try again. She closed her eyes as she felt the love the two had for her. She smiled to herself before Kaliepus' voice broke her thoughts.
"Yes, Solan, there is something for you to do during the ceremony. As part of the family, you are also part of the binding," Kaliepus saw the grin on the boy's face, and then grew a bit more serious. "And there's something else we want to talk to you about. Both your mom and I think you're old enough to make your own decisions. After the binding, Xena, Gabrielle, and Ephiny will be leaving. You, too, can go with them if you want. Or you could stay here with me...but either way, the decision is yours." It was the hardest thing for the centaur to say, but he knew he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he denied the boy his mother after he had finally found her. He was sure that Solan would leave; it was hard not to notice the hero worship in the youngster's eyes. In fact, he was already imaging life without the lad at his side; he knew he would be lonely, but convinced himself that if he paid more attention to his duties as leader, he could overcome his son's absence.
Solan had never expected that he would have his uncle's blessing to leave the village. It had been the only home he had known for as long as he could remember. In a small voice, he asked, "Do I have to decide now?"
"No, honey," Xena replied, still holding onto his hand. "This is too important a decision for you to make right now. Your uncle and I want you to think about it. We want you to find out what is right for you."
Glancing at Kaleipus, the youngster saw him nod in agreement. "Think about it, Solan. It's a big decision."
"Ok, I will," the boy said around a yawn. "But I think now I'll get to bed."
"I think all of us should. It's a big day for two of you tomorrow," Kaliepus added as first Solan, then Gabrielle and Xena, rose from the table, and started heading to Solan's room. "Wait a minute. What do you two think you're doing?"
"Going to bed," Gabrielle answered, a questioning look on her face. "I think we're all tired."
"Well, you can't stay together the night before your binding. Gabrielle, you'll have to stay with Ephiny and Xenan." Before either could argue, Kaliepus added, "It's part of the ceremony. You each have one more night alone to think about your lives apart...and what your life together will be like. To let you see what you're leaving behind, and what you are accepting."
"But we get to kiss each other good-night, right, Kaliepus?" the bard asked hopefully.
"Sorry." This last statement was met by two frustrated groans. "Well, just think how much better your first kiss tomorrow will be."
'If I live that long,' thought the blonde as she made her way to the bedroom on the opposite side of the house. She turned before entering the room. "Good-night, everyone. I hope tomorrow comes quickly."
After entering their room, Xena helped Solan with his boots as he got ready for bed. When he was almost finished, she blew out the candle that had been left for them, and removed her leathers, getting down to her shift. She climbed into bed after him, and lying on her side, wrapped her arms around her boy.
"Do you really want me to live with you?"
"Of course," she whispered as she hugged the child into her. "But I want you to make the decision yourself. Do you think you want to travel with Gabrielle and me?"
"I think so...you could teach me so much. But what about Uncle?"
"I know he'd miss you...probably the whole village will."
"I didn't think about that. I don't know..."
"Honey," Xena began. "We both love you. That's the important part. Always remember that."
"Ok," the boy yawned.
"And if you decide to stay with your uncle, I'll understand. I really do love you."
"Hmmm," Solan mumbled as he yawned again. "I love you too."
"I know," the warrior told him as she hugged him a little closer, just as both of them fell asleep.
Xena, already dressed in her leathers and armor, knelt beside the bed and ruffled her boy's hair. "Hey, sleepy-head. Time to get up."
"So soon?" the boy questioned even though he saw the sun shining through the cloths he used to cover his window. Sitting up, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, again reminding the dark haired woman of her lover. "I usually get to sleep a little longer."
"I know, but Ephiny has already come to get me to prepare for the joining. And Kaliepus wants to go over part of the ceremony with you," she said as she stood up and headed for the door.
"If I went with you, what would it be like...really like?"
The warrior made her way back to the pallet and sat down next to her son. She wrapped an arm across his shoulders, and drew him a little closer to her. "I'm not going to lie to you, Solan. Most people would think it's one big adventure after another. In fact, when Gabrielle and I first met, that's the reason she left her family...her home. She wanted the excitement that a little farming community couldn't give her. But she left in the middle of the night when her parents were asleep. She didn't give them a chance to tell her what I'm going to tell you now." Xena paused. Although she didn't want to frighten the boy off, she also wanted to be absolutely sure he knew what his future would be like. "It's dangerous being out on the road. We never know if the group of people walking towards us is going to be friendly or not. Many times Gabrielle and I avoid the most common roads so we don't have to chance meeting someone who might want to start something. And Solan, there are a lot of people out there who do. Now let me ask you something...you told me last time I was here that you didn't want to be a warrior. Is that still true?"
The boy nodded. "Uncle didn't really want me to be a warrior. Plus I wasn't very good when I would practice with the other kids. They were always better than me with swords and staffs. I kept trying...because I didn't want the son of Borias to be a disappointment," he finished, and hung his head, not wanting his mother to see his lack of accomplishment either.
Xena grasped the boy's chin and brought it up so she could look him in the eye. "Solan, not everyone has to be a warrior. What do you want to do? What do you like to do?"
"Well, four moons ago, a travelling bard named Homer came through the village. He had the best stories! He could tell funny stories, or tales of the gods...but I liked the ones about heroes the best. I thought...maybe I could write stories...about the centaurs."
'So much like Gabrielle,' Xena thought while she looked at her son. "Have you told anyone this? What does your uncle think?"
The boy sighed. "I haven't told him. I wrote few stories, but I don't think they're any good. At first the words seem right...and then they look stupid. I don't think I could show them to anyone."
"Solan, show them to Gabrielle. She's one of the best bards I know, and she even studied with Homer for awhile. I'm sure she would be happy to help you...you know how much she likes stories too."
"I don't know..."
A knock sounded on the bedroom door. "C'mon, Xena we have to hurry up."
"Ready in a minute, Eph. I'll meet you at the bathing hut."
Xena turned back to her son. "I have to get ready for the binding soon, Solan. But I need to tell you a few more things about being a warrior on the road...you never know where you're going to sleep. You never know when you're going to eat, or if you can catch something to eat. We don't have a permanent place that we can call 'home'...but there are good things, too. Gabrielle and I have helped a lot of people. And we also have lots of friends...the Amazons, your centaur nation, Hercules and Iolus. I know this probably doesn't make your decision any easier. But I want you to know what it will be like, if you want to join us, ok?" Xena got up from the pallet and impulsively kissed her son on the forehead.
The tall woman smiled at her boy. She didn't know if he was thanking her for the advise, or for the kiss she had just gave him, but decided that it didn't matter. "Well, ok. I can't keep Ephiny waiting any longer. See you in a little bit?"
Solan was happy about his mother's upcoming binding. "Sure," he smiled.
Xena left Kaleipus' house and headed for the bathing hut. It was dark and steaming once she got inside, with only a few candles for illumination. Even though the air was clouded, Xena knew Ephiny was in there with her. "Ok, what's the big rush?"
"Sheesh, for someone who's going through a binding ceremony today, you'd think you'd be a little more eager."
"Oh, I am eager, Eph. But just how long does a bath take?" Xena didn't know if she liked the chuckle she heard.
"It's much more than a bathing, warrior." Ephiny came up behind her and loosened the armor at Xena's back, while the other woman worked on taking off her armbraces.
"And Gabrielle let you perform this ritual on her earlier already?" Xena asked incredulously, while pulling off her left boot.
"Gabrielle trusts her regent," Ephiny paused for affect, and ignored the snort of laughter. "And so should you."
The last boot was off, and Ephiny slid Xena's shift off her body. "Now get in the tub."
The water was warm and relaxing as Xena settled into the deep wooden tub. While washing herself, she noticed that the majority of the bruising had healed, with only a few yellowish spots on her thighs reminding her of her ordeal. She sighed contentedly as she felt Ephiny wash her hair, usually a chore she only allowed Gabrielle to do. After a bucket of fresh warm water was poured carefully over her clean hair, she rose from the tub. Xena toweled herself off, paying close attention to get as much moisture out of her dark locks as possible. Just as she was reaching for her leathers, she saw Ephiny holding a large bowl of what looked like brown goo.
"It's for the binding ceremony."
"Eph, I could guess that since you're standing there holding it. What's it for?"
"I have to put it on you." A smirk played across the amazon's face.
"After I just took a bath???"
"All right. Everyone here who has ever been married in a Centaur Binding Ceremony, please raise your hand now." Ephiny continued smirking while balancing the big bowl in one hand and raising the other. "Ok, that settles it. Now...are you ready Xena?"
"I don't think I'm going to like this Ephiny."
The regent noticed that Xena had reverted back to using her full name instead of the more familiar 'Eph,' but decided to ignore it as she pushed her right hand into the goo.
Xena emerged from the hut unsure if Ephiny was playing a joke on her or not. The amazon had painted the warrior's complete right side, front and back, and from head to toe, with the brown goo. Then the regent had carefully helped her dress, being cautious not to smudge the straight line that defined the two halves of the warrior. Xena was sure she looked like someone had split her down the middle, and then glued her back together. By closing her left eye, she could see the brown on her nose and face; when closing the other eye, she still looked like the regular Xena with the tanned skin and clear features. She really hoped Ephiny wasn't pulling a fast one on her. Just as she was about to turn around and confront the woman, she heard a horn blow, it's wailing tone lingering in the warm air of the morning.
"That's our cue," Ephiny smiled, coming up behind the warrior. "Kaleipus is ready to begin."
Xena said nothing as she let Ephiny lead the way through the village and to the large meadows beyond. When they reached the clearing, the two women saw that all the centaurs of the nation had formed a large circle around a trio in the middle. Kaliepus had a royal blue cloak wrapped around his shoulders, signifying that what was to happen was an official centaur matter; in his hand he had a small scroll, tied closed with a piece of leather that had been dyed the same color blue. Xena smiled when she saw Solan; he had on a different set of leathers than his usual day-to-day clothes. She also noticed that he had a new headband to keep his hair back, and it too was the color of his uncle's cloak. Then she saw Gabrielle. Xena positively grinned when she saw that her partner too had been painted by Ephiny, but she would have smiled anyway when she saw the familiar green eyes twinkling at her. Ephiny led Xena to Gabrielle's right side, and then moved into the background to become part of the circle of centaurs.
The centaur leader waited for everyone to get settled, and then slipped the leather from the scroll. "We are here today to witness the binding of our two friends, Xena and Gabrielle, in our most honored of ceremonies. They are like halves of the same whole, waiting to be united so each may be complete. Xena and Gabrielle, are you ready to become one, and to be welcomed into the Centaur Nation?
"Yes," both replied at the same time, drawing a smile from Solan, who saw the love his mom had for Gabrielle.
"Xena, Warrior of Amphipolis," Kaleipus began. "Your courage and honor are well known to our Centaur Nation. Do you swear to bring these qualities to us, to share with your new family, and with your partner? To love and protect what you hold dear, and to love and protect those of your new Nation and family, as they will honor you? Do you swear?"
"Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidea, Queen of the Amazon Nation, your respect of life and your gentleness are known to us. Will you share your compassion with us, the centaurs of your new family, and with your partner? Will you teach us and remind us that honor is sometimes quiet and giving, not loud and taking? Do you swear to honor us with this binding?"
The centaur took a breath, and leaned down a little to get Solan's attention. "Ready, son?" The boy nodded, and approached the two women, taking his headband off as he did so. First, he picked up Gabrielle's right hand, and then Xena's left, and had them entwine their fingers together. The he took the blue leather band, and bound their wrists together. When he was finished, he returned to his uncle's side but not before gently squeezing the joined hands.
"Centaur bards and Amazon bards! Write down this date in your best scrolls and remember it well! Today our Nation's number increases by two! Join with us in celebrating the binding of our friends and Nations! Welcome all!" A loud cheer went up among the centaurs as each shouted their greetings of welcome. When Xena finally bent down and kissed Gabrielle, a second shout went out in encouragement, not that either woman really needed any. "And now, the Blending Ceremony."
The centaur circle broke apart as they hurried to get the area set up for a party. Some of the villagers went to their homes to return with different meats to be cooked over a pit fire that two centaurs were working on to bring to life. Others brought kegs of ale and port to quench the craving of what they knew would be a thirsty day. Everyone pitched in to make sure the work got done quickly so all could enjoy the party. Already someone had brought out a drum and was keeping a steady beat. waiting for his musical brothers to join in. Alone among all the activity, Xena bent down and gave Gabrielle a more intimate, passionate kiss. "I love you, Gabrielle. You've given me so much, maybe more than I deserve."
The bard pulled the woman down for another kiss. "All I know is that I deserve you...and I love you more each day." With her free hand, she threaded her fingers through Xena's hair, pulling her closer for a soul searching kiss. Her eyes closed as Xena deepened the kiss, needing to feel the closeness as much as Gabrielle did.
A light cough nearby brought them both back to earth. The dark haired woman looked up in exasperation. "You again?"
"Is that any way to talk to one of your best friends?" Ephiny smiled when she saw Xena trying to keep scowling before laughing. "I just wanted to tell you that Kaleipus is giving you his home for the evening. We'll all be staying at Danaus' to give you some privacy."
"Ephiny, did you really get painted like this when you married Phantes? Somehow I just don't see it." Xena squinted her eyes at the other woman.
"Of course I did, and so did Phantes. It's tradition. And I kinda like it."
"Ok, I believe you. Now tell us what 'The Blending Ceremony' is all about."
"That's the easiest part. In fact, you're already doing it. Everytime you touch each other, some of the paint comes off on the other person. You're blending together, and with the Nation, everytime you touch one of the centaurs. You should see your faces now...all my hard work...gone." Ephiny sighed forlornly as if truly sad at the loss of her artwork, and then laughed. "But it was worth it, right?"
"Definitely," Gabrielle answered, and kissed Ephiny on the cheek, leaving some of the paint behind. "It's definitely worth it."
"Good! Then let's go see what these guys have to drink, because I think you'll be getting a lot of toasts from them, and you need to be prepared."
Xena and Gabrielle followed after the amazon, taking their time and just enjoying their being together, and at last ended up near the kegs of ale. Accepting a mug of amber liquid, Xena took a sip and then offered the drink to Gabrielle. While the bard was tasting the brew, the warrior clasped Ephiny around the shoulders, smudging the paint on her arm, and leaving a defined dark streak on the amazon's back. "So...Eph...how long do we have to stay at this party? Are we supposed to keep our hands tied like this?"
"Yes, you'll have to keep the band on until you're alone tonight. It's to remind you that you are now one, and that your actions should be as one. And even though you want to leave right now, warrior," the amazon jabbed Xena in the chest as she made her point, "...you're going to have to hang around and at least look like you're having fun. The plus side is that you can only dance with each other...the bad side is that this day is going to seem torturously slow for you. So keep your chakram on your belt, and we'll have no trouble."
Xena scowled at the regent, but even Ephiny could see the laughter behind the sparkling blue eyes. "And just how long did you and Phantes last at your party?"
Smirking, Ephiny rolled her eyes away from the warrior. "Uh, we're discussing your Blending Ceremony."
"That's what I thought," the dark haired woman smirked right back at the curly blonde, convinced she had Ephiny on the ropes when the smaller woman wouldn't meet her eyes.
Gabrielle decided to come to her friend's rescue. "Did someone say 'dancing'? Xena?"
Looking down at the beloved features of her partner, Xena felt her heart beat faster in her chest as she recognized the love she saw in the bard's eyes. "Yes, my love?"
"Would you mind dancing with someone who loves you?"
"No, my love." Xena closed her eyes as she felt Gabrielle's lips brush against hers. All thoughts of teasing Ephiny left her when she felt her lover's warm hand slip into hers gently. "I love you," she whispered and let herself surrender to the magic of the bard's touch. Only having one free hand, Xena wrapped it around her woman, and bent down for another taste of Gabrielle's sweet mouth as Ephiny discreetly left the two of them alone. Soft, gentle, delicate kisses where given and returned as the moments slipped away, each lost in the exploration of the other. At last breaking free, Xena grabbed Gabrielle's free hand, and placed it on her own chest right above her heart. "Only you can make my heart race like this, my bard. Only you can make my breath stop when you love me. Only you know the way into my soul."
Moving her hand out of the way, Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena's chest. She could feel the steady pounding rhythm that told her what Xena said was true. The bard inhaled deeply, not only to calm her own racing heart, but also to drink in the scent of her partner. She placed a kiss over the woman's heart and then on the small scar the warrior had on her right breast. "And you are my soul. I would give you everything I have, just to have you by my side."
"All I want is your love," the warrior replied as she locked eyes with the blonde, melting at the depth of feeling she saw there.
"I love you...all of you...you make me complete," the bard whispered, and started tracing the outline of Xena's face, her fingers blurring the paint as they traveled over the full lips. After one more lingering kiss, Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes in contentment. She felt so much at peace being with the woman she loved.
"Mommmmm!" Solan yelled as he ran up to the two women, followed closely by Xenan. The little centaur circled the women in his excitement, the grin on his face infectious. "Some of the centaurs are going hunting for a special surprise. Is it ok if I go too? Ephiny said Xenan could go when I told her I'd watch him."
"Well, ok, Solan. Just remember that Xenan is a lot younger than you, so make sure you keep an eye on him."
"I'll watch him, I promise! C'mon, buddy!" the youngster called as they ran to catch up with a small hunting party that was just leaving the meadows.
"Do you notice how much his eyes look like yours?" the bard asked Xena, thinking about the boy. "His smile is all you, too."
I know...it seems Solan got a lot of my physical appearance. But striving to be honorable, to watch out for others, that's Borias."
"Well...I know a certain Warrior Princess that has those traits too."
"Hmmm...maybe," Xena looked lost in thought. "He has a new hobby...it seems he met your friend Homer, and he's even written a few stories of his own. He feels that they're not good enough to show anyone. Would you talk to him a little? I think he only needs some encouragement."
The bard nodded in agreement as they wandered over to a table filled with breads, cheeses, and some cold meats that were set out for a noon snack. Their promised dance momentarily forgotten, Xena held a plate while Gabrielle picked a few morsels of everything for them to share. Chewing on a grape, the bard offered her woman some of the fruit, holding a juicy grape between her thumb and forefinger. Xena let Gabrielle place the grape on her tongue, while also taking the opportunity to capture the finger in her mouth, sucking on it gently, and promising more with her eyes.
The bard drew in a sharp breath and pulled her hand back. "Gods, don't do that. We have the whole afternoon to spend here with the centaurs. I'll never make it if you tease me like that."
Xena chuckled quietly. "Well...I'll try to be good, but you know how headstrong we warriors can be."
"You two still at it?" a feminine voice asked.
"Eph! Did Zeus make you my conscience without telling me?"
"Nope," the amazon shrugged. "I just like to torture you, Xena. And I brought you something to drink. You're both looking a little...hot," Ephiny paused. "...And bothered," she added as the all too familiar smirk reappeared on her face.
"You know, even though you're such an annoying amazon, you do come in handy sometimes."
"I'll take that as a compliment. I know you meant it lovingly." The regent helped herself to some of the cheese and bread, and then followed the two women to sit on the grass and listen to an older centaur beating a slow rhythm on a drum. After a few minutes, Kaliepus wandered over and joined them on the ground.
"He's good," Gabrielle noted as the drum player finished one song and began another.
"Yes, he's been playing for years. Taught himself the rhythms. You'd never know he's almost deaf."
"Deaf?" the bard questioned, taking a closer look at the mysterious centaur. "But how..?"
Tenio slowly lost his hearing over years, but his passion for life remains the same. He feels the rhythm through his hands, through his body. He plays the flute too, but the drums are his specialty."
"I don't think I've seen him before today," Xena took a sip of ale and passed the mug to Gabrielle.
"You wouldn't. He can be terribly shy around women. But he can never resist an opportunity to play. Our nation is lucky to have such a fine artist."
The conversation died down as the group listened to Tenio play intricate melodies on the drums, while finishing the meal they shared amongst themselves.
Part 3 -(End)
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