Set between and after the second season’s first two episodes ORPHAN OF WAR and REMEMBER NOTHING, the following was inspired by Lucy Lawless during her participation in Celebrity Duets.
"Ooo, Xena, listen!" Gabrielle ran ahead of the warrior in pursuit of the warbling coming from trees on the left side of the road. "I think it’s there," she said leaning against a trunk. She peered up, standing on her tiptoes as if that would help her stretch close enough to the branches high above. "It’s so beautiful! What kind of bird do you think it is? Can you see it?"
Lips pursed, Xena pulled up on Argo’s reins, even though they both knew her height and sitting atop the Palomino wouldn’t improve her view much. "Since when did a robin sound exotic?"
"A robin? You think?" Gabrielle frowned, still staring up. "But it sounds so … so happy." She turned to Xena with an innocent expression. "You know, happier than … usual. More … robiny."
As little as the warrior felt like talking about birds, she couldn’t dampen Gabrielle’s attempt to lighten things up a bit. No need for both of them to feel like Centaur poop. Sighing, she focused her acute hearing in the direction Gabrielle’s finger pointed.
"Maybe because it’s a she."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior. She knew Xena was good, but that good? "You can tell the difference?"
The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched. "Chirps. Maybe two, three babies."
"Really?" Gabrielle looked up again. "A mother? Singing to her birdlings? Oh, how cute!"
"Mm." Xena’s mind momentarily drifted to darker thoughts. She shook her head free of them. "Or she could be scolding them for fighting over a worm."
"Xeenaa." Gabrielle turned to scold the warrior. She caught a fleeting look of pain, quickly replaced by a wry smile. "Um, yeah, that could be it, Warrior Curmudgeon." She held the older woman’s eyes. "So what if she’s fussing? She cares. Whatever, it’s beautiful. Humph." The young woman started back up the road. She threw a look over her shoulder before blowing puffs of air through puckered lips.
Xena brought Argo beside their determinedly cheery companion. "Maybe she’ll take you under her wing too."
"That bird. Hard to believe you’d ever need any help with chirping."
"You have a problem with my whistle?"
"Oh, is that what it is? Thought maybe you had something stuck in your teeth."
"Funny. My mouth’s dry. If some people had more patience, they’d hear improvement in a minute or two."
"S’okay. Volume isn’t everything."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the warrior. "Like what?"
Xena smirked. "It’s so … cute."
Having exhausted all her ideas for keeping Xena’s mood out the dumps, Gabrielle stared absently into the soup she stirred over their campfire. She’d seen the warrior go through a lot during their year or so together. Rejection and disdain from even her family. A stoning and near execution for things she hadn’t done. The death of an old comrade and near-death of Gabrielle herself. A deranged victim from the warrior’s past, determined to destroy her, to remind her every living moment of the evil she’d been and vowed to fight. Countless brushes with death as she aided strangers encountered along the way.
Whatever anyone else’s judgment, Xena forgave herself least of all. Gabrielle marveled at the warrior’s ability to carry the crushing weight of her deeds, especially on the uphill climb in front of her. For her part, the young runaway refused to accept such a load. Yes, she wanted to help Xena bear it, to play a role in her mission of atonement, but not at the price of accepting the heaviness as eternal.
Xena seemed to appreciate another shoulder, even as she feared harm to Gabrielle from the physical and emotional toll that could take on her – on both of them. The warrior did her best to go along with her optimistic young companion’s sunny view of almost everything, her ceaseless attempts to make the present and future outshine the past. Despite the difficulty of shaking old specters and new doubts, Xena was adapting remarkably well to re-creating herself once again. Until a couple days ago. Since then, the warrior seemed more burdened than ever by what she believed couldn’t or shouldn’t be changed.
Gabrielle had noticed a particular tension in Xena when they’d entered Centaur territory – a bit surprising given the warrior’s recent alliance with that old enemy against a greedy warlord. Gabrielle soon learned the source was a painful secret – the son Xena had given as a newborn to the Centaurs nearly 10 winters ago. Solan thought his mother dead and Xena the murderer of his father, Borias. He learned of the true killer only after Xena helped the Centaurs defeat one of her former lieutenants.
"Solan said he didn’t hate you anymore," Gabrielle had reminded Xena as they prepared to move on. "Even before Dagnine boasted about killing Borias."
"It doesn’t change anything else, Gabrielle. The Centaurs are the only family he knows. Who raised and cared for him. Give him happiness and security I can’t. I’m not robbing him of that too. It doesn’t change that his mother is still a murderer. Or that she caused the loss of family he should’ve had."
"Solan’s a good boy, Xena. He’ll forgive you. Is it better to leave him still believing his mother’s dead?"
"I don’t know. I’m gonna say goodbye to him. We’ll see how it goes."
Xena had returned radiating grief even her most stoic mask couldn’t hide. Climbed aboard Argo without a word. Some miles from the Centaur village, Gabrielle couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
"Did you tell him?"
They hadn’t spoken of it since, but it seemed the Solan who couldn’t be was with them anyway.
Xena gazed at the embers of their fire, as she’d done since Gabrielle turned in. Finally she got up to put on some more wood. The blaze did little to ward off the chill she felt in her very soul.
The warrior smiled wryly as Gabrielle snuggled into her sleeping furs. At least one of them was warm. Indeed, the young redhead could feel light from even the coldest places. Like in a certain ex-warlord. Xena appreciated that ability, Gabrielle’s determination to make her world-weary friend feel it too. Usually it worked. Not this time. Not when the only good of her worst days had slipped away. Again.
She returned to sit cross-legged on her furs, staring once more at the light that couldn’t push the darkness away from her heart. Remembering the miracle she’d pushed from her womb, that the only reason it happened was because she hadn’t believed it possible. She’d been so careful when she and Borias first hooked up. Keeping track of her cycle. Using herbs just in case. The last thing she wanted was a brat coming between her and her new mentor, distracting her from her focus on his lessons, derailing her acquisition of more power than she’d ever dreamed.
She’d always been a quick study. Soon she judged herself Borias’ equal in battle. Her initial infatuation turned to disdain, and all she judged him good for was his prowess in bed. Naturally she’d refused to deny herself anything she desired, no matter how inconvenient or unwise. Gave their couplings little thought – merely one of the quicker ways to take the edge off after battles, or during the boring moments in between. She began seeing herself as invincible, confident she could control her body as she did troops or frightened villagers. And when death became her way of life, it never occurred that life could take root inside her. She became careless in every sense of the word.
The pregnancy surprised her, irritated her, but didn’t produce all those maternal feelings she’d heard about. She went about business as usual. Figured this was simply another annoyance she’d deal with in its time. Maybe have one of the captives take care of it, or drop it off on somebody’s doorstep. When it came after hours of pain, she wasn’t prepared for the surge of protectiveness she felt. Perhaps even love. For a strange bundle of trouble with no practical value, that threatened to throw the world she’d become accustomed to out of whack.
She’d held her son long enough to hear his first cries, to know he didn’t deserve being with her. Only a few days ago, years later, did she first hear his laugh. His name. See him walk and play. Know the smell of his hair. The beat of his heart. The feel of his skin, his muscles and bones. The blue of his eyes that reflected her own. His decency and courage. That he’d grown into someone any mother would be proud to claim as hers. Except the woman who’d been his begrudging "home" for nine months. Abandoning him mere hours after she’d pushed him out. A lost cause herself, accepting it somehow more natural to live without him than trade an existence with little potential for such purity or growth. No, not much to be proud of in even that one attempt at selflessness.
A tear slipped through Xena’s clenched eyes. All that time loving the child in her mind. Wishing him the best. Hoping he’d be better off without her. Imagining her arms around him one day. Now that it had become true, real, she felt torn. So full at giving this wonderful stranger to the world, yet so empty of the son she’d finally come to know. She could live with darkness inside her, the guilt and shame that coated her like armor. The nightmares of her deeds. All of it drove what kind of warrior she’d have to be, to avenge who’d she’d been. But what kind of mother would give up her child? Twice? Gabrielle had asked her about that. She still didn’t know the answer.
With a deep sigh, Xena lay back on her furs. Not to sleep. Not when – of all the questions, all the ghosts – nothing haunted her more than the child whose mother she refused to be. Everything she could fight with a sword paled in comparison, draining the motivation that propelled her to face another day. "I think Mother would’ve liked you, Xena," her son had said in their last conversation. The warrior gazed at the night sky, feeling like one of the logs she’d thrown on the fire. "I wish you were right, Solan. Gods, I wish you were right."
The sounds of early morning complemented Gabrielle’s dream of lying in bed at her family home, in a world between sleep and waking filled with beauty, excitement and mystery. She’d hold on to it as long as she could before opening her eyes to the real one marred by cow pies, chickens and chores she’d just as soon forget. But the cool dampness around and under her, on her skin, reminded her she’d left those comforts of boredom behind. She smiled to herself. Now she had all the beauty, excitement and mystery she could ever want. With any luck, its tall form would be sitting before their fire, gutting fish for breakfast.
She cracked open an eye, rolled her head ever so slightly, testing her companion’s uncanny ability to hear just about anything that moved. Instead of the usual, "Hey, time to get going," she heard only the crickets, rustling leaves and birdcalls. Not even the crackling of wood. Xena sat cross-legged on her sleeping furs, chin propped on her fists, her sight on something far beyond the blades of grass before her.
"Up all night?"
Xena’s head jerked at the soft intrusion. "What?"
Gabrielle sat up. "Doesn’t look like you slept much."
The warrior gazed at her young friend. She intended to get up, do something purposeful. Smile, make an offhand remark, as usual diverting attention away when it got too close. For once her body wouldn’t cooperate. Couldn’t. She just didn’t have the energy. But something inside did. It wrenched from her heart and forced its way through her teeth.
"I wanted to sing for him."
Gabrielle’s breath caught at the naked pain in the quiet voice. She leaned forward. "Solan?"
Xena looked up, seeming to search branches above. "Like that robin. Like any mother for her child." Her eyes closed. "But I’m not any mother, am I?"
Gabrielle moved to sit in front of Xena. "No, you’re not. Most mothers wouldn’t have the strength. I was wrong, Xena, to question you. You didn’t do what was easy. You did what you thought best for Solan."
"He told me about his mother. That first time we talked by the lake. Said she was nothing like me. That she had a beautiful voice."
Gabrielle reached across to squeeze Xena’s hand. "She does."
Xena shrugged. "Not much good, if I do." She snorted softly. "Except maybe for the dead."
"Nuh uh. I’ve heard you. Not just dirges either. Remember that lullaby? When Ares pretended to be your father?" Gabrielle patted Xena’s knee. "You hum a lot when you’re in a good mood."
"Mm." Xena allowed a small smile. "I told him his father and I used to sing together." She felt again that visceral need to gather her child in, to reveal his mother stood right there. "‘I could sing for you.’"
Xena swallowed back the memory of Solan’s rejection. "Maybe he would’ve let me later. As his friend. Mmm, the trust in his eyes. If only …."
"I’ve been lucky with second chances. Sometimes it’s too late. You have to let go and move on."
Gabrielle scooted over to put her arm around the warrior’s shoulder. "He’s your blood, Xena. You’ll be inside each other no matter what. Wherever you are."
Xena was quiet a moment. "Like with my brother Lyceus."
"Lyceus?" Gabrielle frowned. "The one who … um …."
"Died following me into battle. I usually honor him around this time. At a temple of the Fates." Xena finally felt a surge of life, of direction. She began putting on her armor. "We’re about a day from one. I’m thinking of heading there next."
"It won’t … you know … remind you of … another loss?"
"It’s something I have to do." Xena rose, stoic demeanor restored. "Don’t worry. Shouldn’t make me worse company than I already am."
The warrior threw Gabrielle a wry smile. Actually, she did feel a little better. Connecting with Lyceus might bring her some comfort. Remind her of a more innocent time, before a child would rather run from her than hear her sing.
"I must say, your mood certainly has improved." Gabrielle grinned at the woman walking beside her. "Didn’t figure you for the type to be soothed by lighting candles. Sure you didn’t chug some wine in that temple too?"
"Tsk tsk tsk. I have a spiritual side, you know. Not just brawling."
Gabrielle winced. "I meant, before – ."
"The Fates appreciated we’d defended their temple. They gifted me with a bit of … insight … in return."
"I thought the world would be better off without the Warrior Princess. My home village, family. You. They helped me see how things might be worse if I hadn’t tried to stand up to evil. If I hadn’t dedicated myself to fighting it with a sword."
"Wow." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "And you believed them?"
"They were very persuasive."
"Yes!" Gabrielle clapped her hands. "See, that’s what I’ve been telling you! Take me. What would’ve become of me if you hadn’t come along when you did? Or if you hadn’t been around to help the Amazons? Or …."
Xena’s mind drifted as Gabrielle launched into a recounting of all the people she’d seen Xena help during their time together. The warrior recalled killing one of the masked men who’d attacked the temple, only to discover he was no more than a boy. She’d gone back into the temple and told the Fates she wished she’d never become the Warrior Princess. They’d granted her wish, sending her to an alternate life where she refused to spill blood. Lyceus was still alive, but her mother, the Amazons, Gabrielle, and many others had suffered under the hands of warlords. Lyceus had urged her to accept her destiny as their champion. She’d finally done so, knowing she’d have to resume the life burdened with deeds that preceded her reformation.
"… And what about just yesterday? That kid who charged you? Lucky for him it was somebody with the skills and will to give him another chance."
Xena snorted wryly. The Fates had done her another favor. Returned her to the moment before the boy attacked. This time she tripped him, warned him to give up that life and sent him on his way, apparently chastened into heeding her words. In the span of a few days, she’d gotten to experience the other side of a destiny she held responsible for the loss of a brother, a child, Gabrielle’s innocence, and a young marauder. Lyceus had been proud to die fighting at her side. Solan had grown well among the Centaurs and come to love her as a friend. Instead of slavery, Gabrielle could fulfill her dream of adventure. And that boy she spared might also achieve something good one day.
"Yes, lucky for both of us."
"Xena?" Gabrielle noted the warrior had gone from pensiveness to high alert. "What is it?"
"Think my luck’s about to change. At least this peaceful spell for sensitive chatting."
The warrior pointed ahead. "Around that bend."
Xena vaulted aboard Argo and pulled Gabrielle up behind. They rode on to discover a ragtag group of riders surrounding a wagon train. Frightened families were tossing out whatever valuables they had. Xena pulled up some feet away and instructed Gabrielle to dismount.
"Hey there. Did we miss the sale?"
The robbers turned their horses in Xena’s direction. One of them rode a little ways toward her. He studied her weapons and battledress.
"What’s it to ya? If you’re smart, you’ll find pickins elsewhere."
"Hmmm." Xena rubbed her chin. "Seems I got easy enough ‘pickins’ right here."
Muttering, the other men rode up beside their leader. He held up his hand. "You Xena?"
"Uh huh. Which means, if you’re smart, you’ll find pickins elsewhere."
"Word has it you’ve gone soft."
"Never can tell about rumors."
"Heard it from some guys who went up against ya. In the old days, ya wouldn’t’ve left anybody to tell tales." The man smiled evilly. "Least, not about bein’ soft."
Xena surveyed the families huddled anxiously beside their wagons. Her gaze raked the dozen riders, most of whom looked like they were there by necessity rather than preference.
"Tell you what. Anybody wants to test the rumors, I’ll be happy to oblige."
The man snickered. "By yourself? Or you gonna sic the little peasant girl on us too?"
Xena smiled down at Gabrielle. "I have her more for brains than brawn. Not that she couldn’t whip most of ya with one swing of her staff. But that wouldn’t leave much fun for me, would it?"
"Funny." The man sneered. "We’ll see if you’re laughin’ after –."
"I’m not finished." Xena stared down the ones who seemed most eager for a fight. "Those who stay put, I’ll give the chance to ride off when this is over."
"And if we don’t?"
"You’ll meet Hades sooner than you had to."
"Come on, men!" The leader raised his sword and started forward. "Let’s get `er!" Halfway across the distance, he realized none of the others had come with him. He stopped and whirled. "I said, come on! You gonna let that ‘has been’ stand between us and our loot?"
"Whaddya need us for? If she’s gone so soft."
The leader glowered at his main rival, realizing he’d painted himself into a corner he couldn’t escape without losing either blood or reputation. "Cowards!" He whirled again, this time heading for the Warrior Princess. She sat without moving, not even drawing her sword, like she didn’t believe he’d attack. The puzzlement in his eyes changed to hope, then a flash of horror as her blade appeared like magic, aiming for his neck. His men would say later they saw a touch of awe on the face that rolled their way.
"Clean that up," Xena ordered, indicating the man’s body and head.
"What about the rest of us?"
"I keep my word. He’s with Hades. You can go be with your families or to a tavern for all I care. Maybe find an honest living." Xena shrugged. "Or fight me another day."
The gang murmured among themselves. A couple dismounted and gathered up the remains of their leader. After one more cautious glance at Xena, they thundered off.
Their wagons restored, the families decided they’d had enough excitement for the day. They began setting up camp, insisting Xena and Gabrielle stay for supper. The former spent some time instructing able-bodied folks on defense. The latter tried calming those still reeling from their first bad encounter since setting out a couple weeks before. She’d entertained them with stories – humorous, of course. A handful of children continued to cry and cling to their parents.
"What’s all the ruckus?" Xena sauntered up beside her partner.
Gabrielle gestured toward a mother shushing her little girl. "The kids’re still scared. I’ve tried everything."
"You tell `em about chanting the Titans out of stone?"
"Yep. Scared `em more."
"The time you ate that tainted nutbread? Directed an invisible ‘choir’?"
"Yessss." Gabrielle cocked her at head the warrior. "Why don’t you give it shot?"
"Do some of those fancy drills. Make the chakram bounce off 50 things." Gabrielle winced as the crying little girl let out a particularly loud wail. "Give `em the old evil eye? Scare `em into silence?"
"Mm." Xena straightened her shoulders and assumed a stern expression. She marshaled the children over to the campfire, many accompanied by nervous parents. "Okay, listen up. I want all of your little butts on the ground."
A few sat immediately, while others stared at the imposing women with bulging eyes.
The remaining children dropped down, too stunned to cry. Xena gestured for Gabrielle to bring over a crate.
"You gonna chop off her head?" a boy asked hopefully, pointing at the sniffling girl he blamed for their punishment.
Xena raised a brow as though considering this idea. She walked over to the girl, winked at her and her mother before leading her away. She pulled out her sword, smirking at the gasps this evoked.
"No, I save that for bad people who don’t listen. Really, really bad people." She sat on the crate and lay her sword next to it, then gently pulled the girl into her lap. "For you," she said, throwing a smug glance at Gabrielle, "I’m gonna sing."
She gazed icily around the group until she’d silenced the murmurs of surprise, after which she smiled as though each child there might be her own. Wrapping her arms around the girl, she began quietly with the lullaby her father had taught her. She followed with warrior songs, substituting children as the heroes who battled dangerous foes. Her audience listened mesmerized. The low, soothing voice enveloped them protectively, replacing images of violence with the power of love and good deeds.
Gabrielle watched her friend with the usual mixture of amazement and affection. As much as she believed in the warrior, she secretly worried about Xena’s most formidable opponent – herself. Yet just when her internal demons seemed on the verge of bringing her down, Xena dug down into her equally formidable potential for self-healing.
"Who would’ve thought? Doesn’t sound bad! Not bad at all."
Gabrielle grinned at a woman standing beside her. "Warrior Nanny has many skills."
"Could do better on eye contact with the other kids, though. Seems like it’s only for little Celia."
"Nothing wrong with that," countered a fastidiously groomed older man. "Makes it more personal. If I close my eyes, she could be singing to me." He shivered. "Mmph! Kinda makes my big toe shoot up in my boot."
"Yeah, well, I can’t take my eyes off her." Another man gazed at the warrior as though a golden Athena had appeared in their midst. "Whatever she’s singin’, all I’m thinkin’ is how somebody that fearsome could look soooo good."
Xena threw the commentators a withering glare. "Everyone’s a critic." She smiled thinly before addressing the children. "Any of you know some songs? I’m kinda new at this." She beckoned a girl who’d nodded shyly. "C’mere and take my other knee. You can help me with the next round."
"My," the woman next to Gabrielle whispered as the second girl approached the warrior. "She hears better than my cat when I’m sneaking up to clip her claws."
"Um, yeah," Gabrielle agreed, chuckling at the comparison. Her grin grew when the children burst into peals of glee as Xena joined the second girl in a playful duet of a popular ditty. At the end, the warrior stood, bowed with a flourish and led the applause for her singing partner.
"Xena sang for me!" little Celia exclaimed, looking pointedly at the boy who’d wanted her head to roll.
"Oh, my gods!" The other girl froze as if suddenly struck by lightning. "I sang with Xena!"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Yup, more skills than a cat," she concluded, beaming proudly at her unpredictable companion. "And at least as many lives."
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