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