See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
As they approached the aged building, Gabrielle looked around the birthplace of her partner. It was like many other small townships, including her own, where everyone knew everyone else and there were no secrets. Pairs of eyes watched their arrival and she knew the rumour mills would be starting soon about the mysterious strangers arriving at Cyrene's inn.
She had no idea what to say to this woman. What can one say? Hello, my name is Gabrielle. By the way here is your granddaughter. The one thing in her favour was that the child looked a lot like Xena and would hopefully aid her case in convincing the woman of the truth of her statement.
It was lunch hour and business was brisk. They found an empty table and sat down. Gabrielle searched through her belongings for the small pouch Xena had given her and extracted a couple of coins for lunch for both of them.
While waiting for their meal to arrive, she found the piece of parchment. Her curiosity got the better of her and she read Xena's message to her mother:
This is my partner, Gabrielle, who is in need of a friend right now. The child is my daughter - your granddaughter, mother.
Please look after them until my return. I love you.
She studied the bold script and the message it delivered. A woman of middling height, weary with age and long hours of work, brought two plates of steaming stew to their table. Gabrielle was about to speak when she looked into bright blue eyes, so reminiscent of one so dear to her.
"Your name wouldn't happen to be Cyrene, would it?"
"Yes. Can I help you?"
"Do you have a moment to talk?'
The older woman wiped her hands on her apron and took a seat. Cyrene asked the serving maid to bring drinks, and the ale proved to be cold and very tasty, quenching her dry throat.
"Now, what is it that you have to discuss with me? "
"Gabrielle. What do you want?"
"I don't know where to start. I... " Her voice faltered and she handed over the parchment. Her eyes never wavered from the older woman as she read the note, watching the face darken with astonishment, concern and then finally anger. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"No. No, it's no joke. I... "
"Get out. I don't appreciate this kind of sick humour."
"I'm not lying. Look at the child."
Cyrene's eyes turned to the youngster sitting quietly next to the young woman. She gasped. It was like time had turned back twenty years. Here was Xena all over again. "It's true?" Gabrielle just nodded.
Gabrielle had to move quickly as it looked like Cyrene was about to faint. She grabbed the older woman's arm, supporting her until her balance returned.
"Oh my." Oh my, indeed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena managed to put some space between her and Ares. His seductive power, while still pulsing in the background, lessened with distance. Her resolve, for the moment, was in disarray under the onslaught of his presence. She sat quietly while trying to rally her defences to fight this.
She drew on her memories of Gabrielle, looking for that elusive peace she managed to find when she was with the young woman. Remembering back to the night before on the beach, when she had felt that ethereal calm in her soul, she felt her body steady.
I have to get away from this.
Gathering her belongings, she walked down the path towards the temple. Ares appeared at her side. "So, you've agreed then. We will be so good together, Xena."
"Leave me alone, Ares."
"Don't fight it. You won't win."
She turned to face him. "Is that what you want, Ares? A puppet?"
"And what a beautiful puppet you would make, Xena. But no, I want your fire and your guile, it's what makes you so unique. Don't you realize that I am as much drawn to you as you are to me?"
"Come on, Ares. Don't sweet talk me. I've been killing for the last ten years. I just want some peace and quiet with Gabrielle and Marina for a while."
Ares' eyes closed involuntarily at the thought of Xena in full battle cry. His mind filled with images of her dark hair flying and blue eyes flashing as her muscular body flexed and bunched, her bloodied sword held in a velvet-like grip, swirling overhead and removing the head from her opponent's shoulders. He could nearly smell her battle lust.
He couldn't stop the groan that escaped his full lips. Slowly he opened his eyes, letting his gaze brazenly wander over the lithe form standing in front of him. Her long legs were on full display in the short battle dress that snugly fit her muscular figure, accentuating every dip and curve of her body. If it was possible, she had grown even more beautiful with age.
"Why do you want to waste away in some backwater of a home with blondie? You were meant for so much more, Xena. The world is there for those who are prepared to take it."
"What would I do with the world?"
"Rule it in my name, Xena. Have you forgotten so quickly that feeling of utter control? To have your every whim fulfilled? To crush anyone who defies your will? I seem to remember that you enjoyed that part in particular. "
"You just don't get it, do you? I may have wanted it a long time ago, but those days are past. I have everything I want and you don't figure in it."
"It's her, isn't it?" I should have gotten rid of her.
"Her name is Gabrielle. And, yes it is. But before you do anything rash – if you so much as touch a hair on her head, I'll hunt you down."
Ares looked deep into those familiar blue eyes and knew Xena had just made a promise. "Alright, she's safe from me."
"I will get your damn chakram. After that, we are finished." With her final word, she walked away.
That's what you think, Xena.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"How did this happen?"
Gabrielle raised her eyebrow.
"No. I know how this happened. But how did it happen?" Cyrene was not making much sense.
"I met Xena in Rome. She had been captured by Julius Caesar ten years before and was sent to Rome to become a gladiator. It took her all those years to gain her freedom and find her child."
Gabrielle knew the next question even before she asked it. "The father is Caesar."
"Oh my." Cyrene's brain had given up trying to formulate sentences any more. The revelations this young woman unfolded to her were taking away any rational thought she had left. It was just all too unbelievable, but here was the physical proof of her story.
She watched the child, who had snuggled in close to the blonde's side, and could not believe it. Here, she thought her daughter long dead so many years ago. Now, she found that not only had her daughter survived, but that she had now become a grandmother.
"Can we at least get a room in your inn?" Gabrielle reached for the hidden pouch and was stopped.
"No need. You are family. Come with me and we'll get you settled in. We will need to talk some more once you've had a rest." She turned her attention to Marina. "And you, little one, I will get to know you better as well." She kneeled stiffly. "And you are..."
"Marina." Gabrielle answered.
"Marina. Such a pretty name. And you, Marina... I am your grandmother, sweetie. I am your mother's mother."
"Grandma? Where's mama?" Marina's plaintive cry tore into her grandmother's heart. Cyrene looked up to the waiting Gabrielle.
"She's with Ares, honey." Cyrene's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline.
"We were on our way home when our ship was shipwrecked. Ares is trying to claim her back." The older woman pursed her lips, angry about the news.
"I'm not about to let that happen." There was a steely tone to Gabrielle's voice that caused the older woman to look up. Gabrielle glanced at Marina then back to Xena's mother. We will talk later.
Gabrielle and Marina had been shown to Cyrene's best room, which was bright and cheery. It was all so different from Rome. Where Antillia's home screamed opulence, Cyrene's inn exuded an air of country comfort. The furniture was well made and sturdy, built for practical use rather that ostentation. A bedspread of natural hues covered a soft downy mattress. In the corner stood a half-barrel, which substituted for a bath. Nearby, several buckets warmed by the fire, ready for use.
Gabrielle liked it. It was like home as she remembered it and she felt a forgotten urge to see her family again. But she had made a silent promise to herself not to go without Xena, because without her warrior her home wouldn't be complete.
The room seemed positively decadent after the last few days sleeping under the stars. Marina fell asleep within minutes of laying her head on the soft pillow, and Gabrielle had her first hot bath in weeks.
Warm water glided over her sun-kissed skin, soaking away the aches and pains of a difficult few days. Her mind wandered to Xena, silently wishing that she was here with her. She closed her eyes and could almost feel the soft caress of roughened fingers sliding over her skin, finding all those hidden spots that elicited a response from her.
Reluctantly, she opened her eyes to find herself alone. Her thoughts turned to her partner who was hundreds of leagues and a different dimension away. I'm coming, Xena, hold on.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena trudged on towards her goal, glad for the respite from Ares. She now had time to take in the countryside around her and start to formulate a plan. She glanced down to her arm and she stopped dead in her tracks. The scar from the recent arrow wound had disappeared, as had the recent gash on her leg. Instinctively, she reached for her back and found unblemished skin. What happened?
Her contact with Ares had been an intense one, her senses overwhelmed in an orgy of dark power. She now suspected that he had used some of his power to influence her, a side effect being the healing of her body. Taking some solace from the fact that it took more than just his charisma to affect her, Xena's steps took on a lighter tone. Things were not so dark anymore and her return to Ares' fold was no longer inevitable. Now, one more step towards her goal was one more step towards Gabrielle.
The forest had started to thin out and the deathly quiet grated on her nerves. Xena sensed the danger before she saw it and was ready with sword drawn. Strange birds circled above, eyeing her with intent. She stood her ground not knowing what to expect. Feathers rained down from the sky, their sharp points piercing her skin.
Backing into the shadows of the overhead trees, she knew she was cornered. Without going back, her path was now a gauntlet to the next set of trees. Between her and protection on the other side was an open piece of ground and a bridge fording a stream.
She studied the creatures hovering above for a while, deciding on her next course of action. The birds were not like anything she had seen before. They were reminiscent of large vultures but were less hideous in appearance. Their wing span easily surpassed her body length and they glided effortlessly around in circles above her, barely using any of the impressive strength in those large wings. Their colour was not quite black but more vibrant midnight blue, the sun shimmering across the feathers, making them seem barely visible.
She unslung her bow and nocked an arrow. Pulling the string back, she aimed for the underbelly of one of the flying beasts and released it. The arrow flew true to its target and brought it down not far from her. She could see there were more birds than she had arrows for, so an alternate plan would be needed.
As she contemplated her next move, she noticed that the deadly missiles stuck into the carcass of the downed bird but bounced off its feathers. Bracing herself for the onslaught, she ran to the massive bird and dragged it back under cover.
The plumage of the large bird was actually quite beautiful. The feathers were dark, but held a golden hue and seemed to vibrate in the sunlight, sending colours dancing in a rainbow overhead.
Xena tried to remove one and cut her hand. She studied the feathers more closely. The surface was soft to the touch but they had razor-sharp edges. She gave the problem long thought and emptied her backpack in the hope of finding a solution.
Sifting through the contents, Xena had a revelation. This bag held the last ten years of her life and she took a moment to reflect on it. Besides the medallion from the Roman Senate, she had a couple of small items that belonged to Antillia. She could not leave Rome without a memento or two of her adopted mother. A signet ring, bearing the crest of Antillia's family, held special significance. The older woman wore the ring constantly and it was the sigil that sealed her release from bondage. The only other item she allowed herself to take was a necklace that was a special favourite of her benefactor. Maybe one day she'd go back to pay her respects properly.
Her hand rested on some aged leather. Ahhh... This, if nothing else, was the one piece that had defined her over the last ten years - her gladiator attire. The miniscule costume had become a second skin over the years, and her fingers warmed to the soft leather like an old friend.
She had, at one point, thought about getting rid of it but Gabrielle stopped her. When she questioned it, the small blonde leant over and whispered in her ear. Now, she would die first before getting rid of it, waiting for the day when Gabrielle would fulfil the promise she had made. Oh yeah... Xena's mind filled with images of hedonistic pleasure and fantasy play. Her body reacted with a jolt at the thought of what that small woman would do to her.
C'mon, Xena, back to business. There was really nothing in her pack useful for extracting the feathers. What she really needed was a pair of blacksmith's pliers. She had no metal except what was in her armour. With that thought in mind, she looked down and found what she was looking for. Detaching a couple of the smaller plates, she used them to grab the feather, sandwiching it in between them.
As quickly and carefully as she could, she plucked its feathers, repeating the exercise until she had a small pile of them next to her. Gathering branches, she made herself a crude shield, weaving the collected feathers into its surface. She re-attached her armour pieces with bloodied fingers.
By now, the air was thick with flying feathers, all trying to find her. Raising the shield overhead, Xena made her way over the open ground steadily and quickly, trying to keep as much of herself under the protection of the makeshift covering.
The air fairly sung with the sound of flying projectiles whizzing around the sky. If it was possible, the number of feathered arrows increased, and some of the birds resorted to diving at her in a suicide mission to stop her at all costs.
She was dodging backwards and forwards, trying to keep her path irregular and unpredictable. Birds of huge size crashed into the ground, their feathers brushing her legs and leaving cuts in their wake. She reached the bridge and had no choice but to run in a straight line.
It was a matter of hurdling downed birds as they tried to block her path. Her goal was only a few steps away and she ran as fast as her long legs would carry her, ignoring the searing pain from a number of wounds.
As she reached the safe haven of a grove of trees, the attack stopped. She slid down a tree trunk, pulling in great gulps of air as her stressed body cried out for rest. Her body was a mass of nicks and cuts from the feathers, her damaged hands barely able to hold her sword. A godly chuckle echoed around the forest.
"Is this some sort of sick game, Ares?" she called out to empty air.
A disembodied voice answered, "I gotta see if you still have it, Xena. I'm glad to see you didn't disappoint me."
"What in Hades were those birds?"
"Just some little pets of mine, Xena. They're called Ornithes Areos. I borrowed them from my shrine in the Black Sea."
"Hope you enjoyed the show," she mumbled before closing her eyes in exhaustion.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle could not put off any longer the long talk she knew was coming with Xena's mother. Leaving Marina in easy slumber in their room, she sought out Cyrene.
"Are you rested now, my dear?"
"Yes, thank you. The bath was wonderful."
Cyrene steered her to a quiet corner of the inn, away from prying eyes and ears. Over herb tea, Gabrielle filled in Xena's mother with what she had been told herself, leaving out the more unsavoury aspects of the history for Xena to tell herself if she felt the need.
"So, how does she look?" Cyrene's memory held an image of a fifteen summer-old adolescent, all arms and legs, with a fiery disposition and an impetuous nature.
"Good. Very good." Gabrielle's eyes held a hidden glow that was not missed by the older woman. So...
"She has grown into a very beautiful woman, Cyrene. She's very determined when she needs to be, but she is also very generous and loving. Despite her checkered history, she has a noble spirit, which all of Rome can attest to. She was the beloved Champion of Rome, the people's choice. She fought with great honour and was respected by all, including the Roman Senate."
Cyrene listened with pride, glad that despite the anger she had left home with, Xena had found herself again. She studied the young woman in front of her, seeing age beyond her physical years in those pale green eyes.
"And what's your tale, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle hadn't wanted to answer at first, but she knew this would be the first of many requests for her story. A bard, didn't the seer say?
"I come from a small farming community near here – Potadeia." Cyrene nodded. "About two summers ago, the warlord Draco swept through and took some of us as slaves. After a while, I ended up in Rome."
Her mind relived those months of horror, especially at the beginning. She was inexperienced and untouched and her first time was memorable for all the wrong reasons, in the service of a man who used her and left her alone, broken by shattered dreams and harsh realities.
She had eventually managed to flee from his clutches but was soon again on the block, marked as a troublemaker for escaping, to be sold to a more amenable master. But inside she had shrivelled up, no longer the bright, lively youngster who had a joy for life envied by all her friends. She had died inside – until Xena. If nothing else, she would be forever grateful to the gods for sending Xena to her. It was like she had been born again.
"I was on the slave trader's block, when this woman came up to inspect me. She was so tall I had to strain my neck to look up. I looked into those blue eyes and..." How much do I reveal? She saw the quiet look of understanding in those familiar blue eyes. "And I was lost. It was like she touched something deep within my soul."
"I think she felt the same way because the next thing I knew I had been bought. That brought me into the service of a wealthy patrician named Antillia Maxima. She was Xena's mistress. I had to admit I thought it was a little strange that a woman had bought me, because..." Gabrielle blushed. Admitting to a stranger what she had been was hard. She hung her head. "I'm usually bought by men."
An aged hand enveloped her own, giving it a gentle squeeze. Tear-filled eyes lifted to meet her partner's mother. "I was a body slave, Cyrene." She was mortified at finally voicing her deepest shame. A hand held her chin, forcing her eyes up.
"You have nothing to hang your head about, Gabrielle. You had no say in what was going on and had to do what you had to do to survive."
"I hope my parents are as understanding as you are."
"Well, if they're not, then they should be ashamed of themselves." A warm hand came up and patted her cheek, a smile appearing on Cyrene's thoughtful face. She gave Cyrene an answering smile, releasing a breath she didn't know she was holding.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena opened her eyes some time later. It was late afternoon and she would need to find shelter soon. Looking down at her hands, she saw that they had already begun to heal. Ares' power was still helping her. She hated using his gifts, but perversely she hoped it would be permanent. Quick healing would be a big advantage in the warrior business. She quietly chuckled. She was already thinking of herself in the terms of the seer. A warrior. A warrior and her bard, wasn't that what the seer had said?
It sounded really appealing. Maybe she should encourage Gabrielle to start telling stories, perhaps to Marina to start with... Marina. What is to happen to her? A warrior and her bard was one thing but a warrior, her bard, and her child was another dangerous thing altogether.
While munching her dried dinner, Xena contemplated her future. Six moons ago, she didn't think she had a future. Now she had a family - her partner and her child. Would she be content to make her home in Amphipolis or would the road call to her? Would Gabrielle go with her? What to do about Marina? So many questions with so few answers.
First things first though. She had to take Gabrielle home to her parents, if they were still alive. What if she wanted to stay? She felt a twisting in her guts at the thought of her partner staying in Potadeia. Her soul let out a lonely howl, looking for an answering call from its other half.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Back in her room, Gabrielle lay quietly waiting for Marina to wake. She felt a tugging in her heart and her thoughts turned to her missing partner. What are you up to, Xena? She closed her eyes and her mind's eye painted a picture of her brave warrior, alone and unguarded against the God of War. You can't have her Ares, she's mine!
She could feel her anger rise at the thought of her being at the mercy of Ares. Xena was there alone to fend off his immortal advances... Ares would use every godly trick in the book to sway her partner back to his fold. Gabrielle knew Xena needed her help, but first she had to get back to the island.
Her only hope of getting back to Xena was to plead her case to a god. But the caprices of the gods were well known, so finding one that would answer her prayers, let alone agree to help her, would be nearly non-existent, but she had to try.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Before leaving, Xena salvaged some more feathers from the dead birds, not wanting to waste the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of getting a supply of something of such high value. Storing them in her bag would slice it to bits, so she resorted to tying one of Gabrielle's bowstrings around the quills, hanging them off a pole to avoid the deadly sharp edges. It was awkward to carry but she would manage for this rare prize.
After another hour of travel, Xena decided to camp in a small, secluded glade off the main track. Ares had left her alone and she felt a deep loneliness, wishing for the company of the one person her heart wanted. She tried playing the star game but it was not the same any more, not without her little blonde. Wrapped in a weather-beaten blanket, Xena could nearly hear the soft burr of her partner's voice arguing over what a constellation looked like as she drifted off to sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle tried to be polite during dinner but a quiet depression had set over her since her afternoon rest. She wanted nothing more than to be wrapped up in the loving warmth of her warrior; to feel that steady heartbeat under her cheek and hear the low rumbling of that voice that flowed over her like warm honey.
She looked up into the concerned eyes of Cyrene. "I'm going to bed. Marina, honey, you can stay up for a while to get to know your grandma. Good night."
Cyrene followed her up the stairs to her room.
"Gabrielle, are you alright?"
"Yeah. Just worried I guess. I have a bit of a headache."
"Well, get some rest then, child. I'll put Marina to bed in a little while."
"Thank you Cyrene, for everything. For taking us in and accepting Marina. Xena will appreciate the effort you have taken."
"No effort at all, my dear. I can see she is my grandchild. It's like seeing Xena all over again."
"She looks like Xena?"
"The spitting image. Not as rambunctious as my little scamp, but she's Xena's daughter alright."
"Hmmm," Gabrielle couldn't help but manage a small smile at the thought of Xena as a child. "You can tell me all about it another day."
"Good night then, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Cyrene."
The room was warm with a cheery fire blazing in the fireplace, but despite the warmth of the fire, Gabrielle felt a chill in her bones. As she slowly relaxed, her thoughts turned to Xena...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter 8
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