Early in their journeys, Gabrielle bumps into reminders of the life she left behind, as had Xena during the second episode CHARIOTS OF WAR.
“Uh huh. Those will do nicely.” Elysia told the vendor where to deliver the floral arrangements she’d approved. Having completed most of her tasks, she started back to the inn. Two females strolling into town caught her eye – one quite striking. Tall, dark-haired, dressed to kill and leading a golden horse. But Elysia focused on the other. Could it be?
“Gabrielle?!” At sign of recognition from the redhead, Elysia waved her hands. “Gabrielle! Over here!”
“Yes, yes. It’s me!”
The two ran toward each other, embracing when they met.
“I’m so happy you could make it.”
“I didn’t expect you. Mother said ….” Elysia’s attention drifted to the woman who’d come up behind Gabrielle. “Um, Gabrielle?” Elysia indicated with her eyes Gabrielle should turn around.
“Oh, sorry. This is Xena. Xena, I’d like you to meet Elysia. We grew up together in Poteidaia.”
“What a wonderful surprise. Who would’ve thought we’d run into each other in Portus? Such a long way from home.”
“Same old Gabrielle.” Elysia swatted her friend’s arm. “Always such a kidder.” She looked at Xena. “Are you her … guest? I’m not surprised Perdicus didn’t come. Never much into romantic stuff. Leave it to Gabrielle to corral some poor unsuspecting stranger. Well, I welcome you. Wherever she snatched you from.”
“Um, Elysia? I’m traveling with Xena. We came to Portus for supplies. Exactly why are you here?”
Elysia’s mouth dropped. “You don’t know? About the wedding?”
“Yep. Same old Gabrielle. More likely to listen to clouds than gossip.” Elysia crossed her arms. “I’m getting married day after tomorrow. Most of the old gang will be there. I was hoping you would too.”
“I’ll see to the supplies.” Xena patted her friend’s shoulder. “Take whatever time you need.” She inclined her head toward Elysia and began leading Argo toward a hitching post.
“Elysia,” Gabrielle said, watching Xena stroll off, “I…. I don’t know what to say. I’m happy for you, of course. I just ….”
“Didn’t know.” Elysia studied her childhood buddy. “So it’s true? You ran away for who knows where? Mother says it’s a bit of a mystery. Your folks won’t talk about it. Except Lila.” She snorted. “Her version sounded more like one of your stories.” She raised a brow. “Especially that warrior woman.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I imagine so.” She’d seen Xena enter a dry goods store and decided the warrior didn’t intend to sneak off. “Do you have a moment? To chat?”
“I’ve been staying at the inn awhile. I have to be back there. Can you walk with me?”
Gabrielle inserted her arm in Elysia’s. “I’d love to.”
Gabrielle exited the inn, relieved to see Xena lounging outside. “Wow. You’re really here!”
“Evidently.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “So, how long is ‘here?’”
“Um ….” Gabrielle pointed to a couple of chairs a few doors down. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep it brief.” She snickered. “For me, anyway.”
The two got comfortable. Gabrielle explained Elysia had been visiting relatives near Portus. She’d ended up staying after meeting Mathieu and accepting his marriage proposal. She’d sent word to Poteidaia a few weeks ago, whereupon she learned Gabrielle had left home. Off on some adventure, according to Lila, trailing after an ex-warlord who’d saved the village from another warlord.
“Mm. The ‘unsuspecting stranger’ you … corralled.”
“She knows now we’re friends. I filled her in on your … um … back story. Told her about the good we’ve dedicated ourselves to.” Gabrielle raised her chin. “And that I go where you go.”
Xena observed a wagon arriving with several youngish passengers. “More folks from your home village?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Some of us used to hang out together.” She watched them disembark and carry gaily wrapped packages to the inn. “Heh, bet most have never set foot beyond the fields of Poteidaia.”
“Weddings are a big deal. And funerals.” Xena stretched out her legs. “Either way, folks usually ended up at my mom’s place.”
“Good for business, huh?”
Xena shrugged. “Sometimes they’d bring their own food. Wine. She’d let `em. Said it was more an opportunity for them. Talk to people they’d snubbed the day before. Enjoy friends they might not see again.” She cocked her head. “Memories to fill in what they might miss later.”
“Hmmm. Is there a message in your recollections?”
“You’re the talker. You tell me.”
Gabrielle glanced at the inn, but found her attention drawn to the tethered Palomino. “Argo’s getting restless. Poor thing’s more used to get in, get out.” She cut her eyes at Xena. “Like her mistress.”
“She’s fine. Used to minding her own business.” Xena pursed her lips. “Might wanna try it sometime.”
“My business?” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “As in, ‘Gabrielle, stay here. I’ll be back for you’ kinda business?”
“As in, ‘Gabrielle, make up you mind’ kinda business.”
Gabrielle sighed. “We’ve finally gotten a kind of rhythm going, you know? An idea what to expect?” She ducked her head. “I mean, before and after the unexpected. I like where we are. I don’t know. This could ….”
unexpected. Either we deal with it or
“We?” Gabrielle swallowed. “You’ll stay?”
“That’s up to you.” Xena raised a brow. “How I stay is up to me.”
Xena’s idea of “stay” happened to be a campsite in the forest bordering Portus. Argo could roam to her liking. Gabrielle could return to town for a celebration dinner at the inn that evening, with the option of sleeping in one of the reserved rooms. To her surprise, the warrior agreed to accompany her, “to make sure nobody snatches you on the way there. Or back.”
Xena hadn’t intended to go inside. Once at the door, she decided it wouldn’t hurt to have a drink, get a feel for the wedding party. “G’won,” she said, nudging Gabrielle forward before sequestering herself in the shadows. She ordered port and settled in. It seemed ages ago since she’d relaxed in a tavern without her army, no particular purpose in mind – scoping out a potential opponent, keeping an eye on her men’s leisure activities, conveying to villagers she had the power to take over a lot more space for whatever and as long as she wished. Maybe she could use the break.
Gabrielle continued a bit shyly toward Elysia’s table. She’d recognized some of the faces from only a few weeks ago, though it seemed to her like years and worlds away. She prepared herself for whatever reception awaited, as heads turned her way.
“Gabrielle! We’d heard you came. Get on over here and give us a hug.”
Her former neighbors hurried to greet her. Some commented on how well she looked. Others acknowledged how much they missed her. Many competed with “you wouldn’t believe” incidents that had occurred during her absence. When it dawned on them how little they’d heard from their habitually chatty friend, Elysia gathered them together conspiratorially. She searched the room, ultimately crooking her head toward a dark figure in back.
“Really?” a young man said. “The Warrior Princess? That’s her?”
“Shhhh. Not so loud.” Elysia glanced apologetically at the woman in question. “Gabrielle says she’s really a regular person. But likes her space. Respect her privacy, okay?”
The others attempted to observe some discretion. For about 10 minutes. After that they peppered Gabrielle with questions about why she’d left, what she’d been doing, what it was like traveling with an infamous legend. When she’d return home. “Okay, okay,” she relented, laughing. “Don’t blame me, if you’re bored.” They snorted in derision. “Seriously, it’ll sound pretty fantastical. ‘Awww, that’s just one of Gabrielle’s tall tales.’”
People got up all right – to push tables together and move closer to hear Gabrielle. Though seated next to the popular storyteller, Elysia felt invisible, as if the celebration of her nuptials had turned into a homecoming for the one person there by accident. Until a familiar voice came to her rescue.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” Mathieu pushed his way through those huddled around his fiancée. “Cassius, I’m gone a few minutes, and you hi-jack my future bride? I won her fair and square. Deal with it.” Smirking, he shooed away the fellow sitting beside Elysia. “What about the rest a ya? You’d better of saved some fun for me.”
The others fell quiet, some looking sheepish, others disappointed. Like Gabrielle, many glanced surreptitiously in the direction of the dark figure who had dominated much of the conversation, only to discover her gone.
“Mathieu?” Gabrielle reached behind Elysia to squeeze the young man’s arm. “I’m so glad to meet you. And I couldn’t agree more.” She raised a goblet. “I’d be honored to start off the wishes for a beautiful wedding day.”
One of Mathieu’s friends told a funny story about the couple sneaking a kiss behind a market wagon, totally unaware when the vendor pulled off and exposed the romantic moment to everyone in sight. Others joined in with similar anecdotes, punctuated with more toasts to matrimonial bliss. Laughter and congenial conversation continued as food was served.
Suddenly a matron rushed in to whisper in Elysia’s ear.
“We’ve looked everywhere.”
“Elysia?” Mathieu noted his betrothed’s suddenly pale face. “What’s up?”
Elysia slumped with an expression of disbelief. “Our gifts. They’re … gone.”
Those at the far ends heard gasps and excited murmurs. “What’s going on?”
Mathieu stood. “Everyone? Don’t be alarmed. A little … wrinkle … we have to deal with.”
“Their gifts!” someone blurted out. “They’ve been stolen!”
“Shhh. Quiet down.” Mathieu put an arm around Elysia’s shoulders. “Could be misplaced, is all.”
“I noticed a stranger lurking about,” reported one of the latecomers. “Big, mean-looking woman with weapons. I’d wager she knows – .”
“Hold on.” Gabrielle stood. “That’s Xena. She’s waiting for – .”
“Xena?! The warlord? Oooo. You’re right. Could be waiting for her army. Better be careful how we – .”
“She’s not a warlord anymore. No army either.” Gabrielle straightened her shoulders. “But probably our best bet for dealing with this … wrinkle.”
Xena relaxed in a rickety rocking chair across from the inn. She swirled the port in her mug, gazing at the night sky, wryly wondering whether it was as peaceful as it looked. The twinkling stars could fool you. Draw focus away from threatening signs. Lull you into thinking a light spring breeze meant the end of freezing rain. Like delusions her environment had changed because it now included Gabrielle. Or that Gabrielle’s wouldn’t worsen with the Warrior Princess.
Yes, it was good seeing her young companion as the center of fond attention. In the midst of youthful gaiety, the recapturing of carefree times. Cherished for the flights of fancy and innocence that might mean trouble on the road. Too bad that hadn’t warded off the chill emanating from a certain dark presence in the room. Probably no amount of sunnyness would. She’d felt it in the wedding party’s furtive glances, despite Gabrielle’s presumably charitable explanations. Hated to see the light around Gabrielle dim. Be reminded of why.
She’d eased out into the darkness, reminded how recently she’d had the chance to experience the life she’d given up. A home. Children’s faces beaming up at her. Silky softness, rather than blood, covering her hands. But she couldn’t keep what she hadn’t earned. Too much to make up for first. Gabrielle, however, deserved better. Hadn’t traveled enough yet to fathom the illusory benefits of “adventure.” Perhaps this reunion with childhood friends and dreams presented the opportunity to seek the right environment before it was too late.
“Xena?” Gabrielle squinted at the copper swirls she could barely make out in the torchlight. “Is that you?”
“I didn’t know you’d left until ….” Gabrielle plopped down on a crate beside the rocking chair. “You’ve been out here the whole time?” She surveyed the closed shops and empty street. “Doing what?”
“Entertaining myself.” Xena drained her cup. “Like I did before I had … other options.”
“Oh, Xena, I’m sorry.” Gabrielle ducked her head. “I didn’t mean …. I should’ve known you’d get sucked in anyway. A topic of curiosity. Guess I wasn’t really sure what to expect.”
“S’okay. You’ve been around plenty of my … acquaintances. Only fair I tolerate yours.” Xena snickered. “Least they don’t wanna kill us. Beyond talking me to death.”
“Um, about that….”
“Seems there may have been a robbery. The wedding gifts.”
“Peachy. Let me guess. I happen to be the primary suspect?”
“Um, you’re name did come up.” Gabrielle rubbed her nose. “Not so much as the criminal. More the crime solver.”
“Mm. After testimonials from my parole officer, no doubt.”
“Xeenaaa.” Gabrielle spanked the warrior’s arm. “Personally, I’d question the guy who mentioned you. He came late. Before the theft was discovered. He could’ve had enough time to – .”
“Nah. He passed me when he rode in. Went straight to the inn.” She cocked her head. “I did see something odd. Somebody in a cloak. Came from behind the inn. Dragging a couple sacks.”
“Ooo. Sounds suspicious all right.” Gabrielle clasped her hands. “Did you see where he went? Any distinguishing marks? A limp maybe? Height? Weight? Maybe looking around like he wasn’t familiar with – .”
“Would you like his name too?” Xena chuckled at Gabrielle’s huff. “Hard to tell much. From the way the cloak fell, I’d say tallish. Thin. Probably young. He disappeared behind that row of stores.”
“Peachy. So we don’t know where he went.”
“Didn’t say that.” Xena stood. “Hand me that torch over there.”
“You have an idea?” Gabrielle handed Xena the torch. She smacked her forehead. “What’m I saying? Of course you do.”
“We’ll see.” Xena led the way to an area behind the inn. “Careful,” she warned, holding Gabrielle at bay and shining the torch on the trampled dirt. “Ah.” She pointed to wide marks side by side. “Stay behind me.” She followed the tracks to the back door of a store. It was locked.
“Huh. That’s curious. Somebody who lives here? Probably knows Mathieu? Why would they want to steal –.”
“Won’t know from guessing.” Xena surveyed the area. “I’ll hang out over there. Good spot for surveillance.”
Xena begin clearing a spot of twigs and pebbles. “You’re sleeping there?”
“Dozing. Culprit may plan on moving the goods before daybreak.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Xena spread fir branches on the ground. “Such as?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms. “That’s only space for one.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder. “No room for you at the inn?”
“What if I wanna stay here?”
“Gabriellle. Somebody needs to monitor the guests.” Xena smirked. “It’ll mean getting up early. Think you can handle that?”
“Funny. Of course I can.” Gabrielle frowned. “Wait a minute. Why would the thief stay there? If he lives here.”
Xena blew out a breath. She knelt to face the redhead. “Look. You’ve been around cutthroats for weeks. Idiots whose idea of fun is burning down villages. Spend time with good people while you can. Besides, Elysia could probably use someone like you. Levelheaded. Calm in a crisis.” She offered a lopsided grin. “Compared to the others, anyway.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, searching for “she’s trying to get rid of me again” evidence. She found sincerity. And a hint of regret. “We’re leaving together. You understand that, right?”
“I told you, it’s up to you.”
“And you keep your promises.”
“In this case, yes.”
“You’ll come for breakfast?”
“Not sure yet. If I don’t, hang around there until I do.”
“You’ll be okay? Out here by yourself?”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“Oh. Right. Dumb question.” Gabrielle hesitated, watching the warrior’s preparations. It struck her she’d never seen Xena alone. And wouldn’t, as long as they traveled together. Now, even picturing it, felt a little weird. Sad.
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here.” Xena’s eyes trailed her young friend. It occurred to her how rarely she’d spent the night alone the past few weeks. How strange it seemed, given her solitude before Gabrielle, which she had once expected to feel …normal. She shook her head. Disconcerted at how used she’d become to another presence. How much harder it would be with only herself for company again.
Gabrielle moved quietly so as not to disturb two other young women bunking in Elysia’s room and already asleep.
“You’re sure this isn’t any trouble?”
“Silly. Not at all. In fact, I feel safer with you here.”
“You’ve been out in the world. Survived who knows what.” Elysia studied her old friend. “I could always talk to you. About anything. You always listened. Another way you made me feel safe. This grown-up version isn’t as ditzy, but I like her too.”
Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the bed across from Elysia’s. “Thanks for saying that.” She stared absently at the ceiling. “I sometimes feel I’m slogging between two worlds. I try to keep a lot of the ‘old’ me. I think it’s a good balance for Xena.” She smiled at Elysia. “Nice to know it had its purpose before then.”
“You do seem night and day. You and Xena. She’s so … powerful. Somber. Must be hard, not losing yourself.”
“See, that’s the other part. I don’t mind being more like her. A warrior. Maybe softer.” Gabrielle grinned. “Less somber. Use my head to help people, more than weapons. Though I want to get good with those too. What about you?” She chuckled. “You were always so cooperative about acting out my crazy stories. I pictured you on a stage one day. In Athens, singing and thrilling crowds.”
giggled. “I was quite the performer,
wasn’t I? That’s how Mathieu and I met,
you know. I’d volunteered for this
little festival play. Here in
Portus. Mainly to satisfy my aunt. Mathieu swears it was love at first
sight.” She laughed. “Even though I was playing an old hag.”
“My. That says something about him. Seeing the you beneath.”
“Heh. Truth is, I was the only young person on stage. Probably the contrast made him give me a second look.”
“He seems very
nice. Devoted to you.”
”Uh huh.” Elysia chewed her lip. “Same with Xena?”
“The way she watched you at the inn. No jealousy. Just … happy you seemed happy.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle thought about this. “She’s very protective, for sure. And patient. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I get us in. But yeah, she cares about me being happy. Worries I’ll lose my wide-eyed wonder, being with her.”
“Don’t get to mess around with folks like us much, huh.”
“Um, no. I’ve enjoyed it. Being with you guys again, I mean.” Gabrielle scooted closer to take Elysia’s hand. “I’m so glad I bumped into you.”
“Me too.” Elysia squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “And I have a favor to ask.”
Gabrielle squeezed back. “However I can help.”
“Stand with me at the wedding? My maid of honor?”
“Nooo.” Gabrielle rocked back, for a moment speechless. “I mean, really? You don’t have …. B-but what about Mimi or … or ….”
“I didn’t ask anybody else.” Elysia enjoyed her friend’s shock. “I admit, drama was one reason.” She mimicked an outraged expression. “`How could you ask her? I thought I was your best friend.’ So I asked all four of them to be maids. All equal. No weeping and moaning.”
“And they won’t mind me? Pffft. I wasn’t exactly in their inner circle.”
“Uh huh. So not real competition either. Perfect.” Elysia grew serious. “What you and I had was special. Soon as I saw you, I knew who I wanted by my side.” She shrugged. “They’ll probably think I’m being charitable. My way of making our little runaway feel like she belongs again. Whatever, I don’t really care. It’s what I want.”
Gabrielle blew out a breath. “Wow. I’m …. That’s some honor all right. No one’s asked me before.” She pictured herself with a bouquet, dressed in …. “Elysia! What would I wear? I don’t have anything –.”
“Not to worry. We’re about the same size. I have something that’ll do just fine. Whaddya say?”
“I … um …. I’d like to talk it over with Xena first. As a courtesy?”
“Of course. We still have tomorrow. Think you’ll know by midday? It’ll give us time for any minor alterations. And the last rehearsal.”
“Okay. And Elysia? It means a lot that you asked.”
Elysia leaned forward to hug her friend. “No more than it means to have you here. With me on the biggest day of my life.”
Xena stretched, alert from her latest catnap. The night had passed uneventfully. She heard the usual sounds of early risers getting a jump on the new day. With any luck, the owner of the target shop would arrive soon. She fastened on her armor and scoped out a spot to position herself for a good view of both entries. But first she stopped by a nearby well, ladled out water for drinking and splashed some on her face.
“Mornin’. Headin’ in to work?”
“Yep. Lots of visitors. Extra dinars. Might as well take advantage while I can.”
“I hear ya.”
One of the two men passing the well proceeded to the shop and unlocked the front door. Before he could close it, his first customer appeared.
“Uh, morning. You’re kinda early. Haven’t had a chance to set up yet.”
“S’all right. I can browse until you’re ready.”
“Well …. Sure. Lookin’ for anything in particular?”
“Mm.” Xena noted the young man’s lanky frame. “I’ll know if I see it.”
“Yeah?” He went behind his counter. “You don’t strike me as the browsin’ type. Not that I mind.” He chuckled. “They usually find more than they came for.”
“I get that a lot,” Xena drawled, sauntering around the shop. “Must be the leather. I may be a warrior, but I’m a woman too.”
The man appraised his statuesque customer. “Uh huh. No mistaking that.”
“This your place?”
“Family business. Pretty much fallen on me since my brother left.”
responsibility. Nobody else to help
“Huh. Then it had to be you I saw? Last night?” Xena casually examined a bolt of fabric. “Using a key to the back door?”
The shopkeep turned from straightening out a shelf. “What?”
“Bringing in bags of inventory?”
His face froze. “Listen, lady. Whatever you’re talkin’ about, you got the wrong place. Maybe you best try next door.”
Xena sauntered toward the back. “That your storeroom? Maybe it’s in there? What I’m looking for?”
“That’s far enough.” The man picked up a broom.
“Seriously?” Xena raised a wry brow. “You gonna sweep me out?”
“W-who are you?”
“A woman.” Xena bared her teeth. “Who happens to be a warrior.” She pulled out her breast dagger and began picking the lock to the storeroom. “I wouldn’t,” she growled, as she heard him coming up behind. He didn’t listen. A minute later, he sat propped against his counter, hands and feet bound. A knock on the door startled them.
“He’s not open yet!”
“Xena? Is that you? It’s me. Gabrielle.”
Xena rolled her eyes. She cracked open the door. “I’m kinda busy here. Thought I told you to wait.”
“Gabrielle! I’ve been attacked by a madwoman! Quick! Get help!”
“Xena? What the ….” Gabrielle pushed through. “By the gods! Why did you –.”
“You would’ve known. If you’d done like I said.” Xena headed toward the back again. “Think I’ve caught our wedding thief.”
“Xeenaa. Why would he? You don’t know? That’s Mathieu. He’s the one getting married.”
Mathieu sat behind his counter, eyes darting between the warrior who’d tied him up and the woman who’d insisted on freeing him. His explanations to them had colored his cheeks with shame, despite what he’d believed to be pure motives and harmless execution. If only he hadn’t led Elysia to believe him more prosperous than the truth. Yes, the shop provided a decent living for him, but not the luxuries he’d imagined for his wife and children. The extra hours he’d put in barely filled the gap between reality and his dreams. Nor would the gifts he’d stupidly “borrowed” to sell and finish paying for the gold ring he couldn’t afford to place on Elysia’s finger.
The first stage of his “trial” had concluded better than he feared. His judges took into consideration he’d basically stolen what would’ve been his anyway. Neither seemed inclined to drag him to jail. Unfortunately, his ultimate sentence might be worse – what Elysia and/or his kinsmen might learn of his crime. Xena had thus far expressed little beyond, “It was wrong. People have gotten leniency for much worse. Can’t say I’m the best to pass judgment on what he deserves.” Since then he’d had to consult her deadpan expression during Gabrielle’s monologue about his fate.
“This isn’t easy for me either. We’re talking one of my best friends. It’s hard getting past the shock. And anger. How could he do such a thing? To the woman he professed to love? Just before her wedding, for Gaia’s’ sake. It’s supposed to be a joyous occasion. A ritual celebrating commitment. Honesty. Loyalty. What does that say about respect for his betrothed? His concept of what union between two people means?” Gabrielle paused to scowl at Mathieu. “His character?” She resumed pacing.
“He claims he wanted to do right by her. Didn’t want to disappoint her. Sounds more like ego to me. Somebody stuck on appearances. Not willing to work at substance. Maybe a sign of weak morals. Who knows if he’s done something like this before? Will he take the easy way out again?” She stopped in front of Xena. “You haven’t. You’ve admitted your faults. Sucked it up. Let the chips fall where they may. Well, yes, after Hercules. A second chance.” Gabrielle perceived confirmation in a twitch at the corner of Xena’s mouth.
“What’re you saying? We should go easy on him? Don’t forget, you meant to protect your home. It got twisted. You made mistakes. It’s not like you set out to ….” Gabrielle noted Xena’s raised brow. “Could be Mathieu didn’t either?” She studied the forlorn accused. “Okay. I concede your point. Doesn’t have to mean he’s bad through and through. Or might not benefit from a reprieve. But everybody knows what you did. You face them every day. That hasn’t made you stronger? More motivated to do better?” She nodded at Xena’s shrug. “Of course it has.”
Gabrielle folded her arms. “And what about Elysia? It’s only fair he face her. Like you did your mother and village. For the pain you’d caused. The years of shame they suffered through. Knowing what you’d done to others reflected back on ….” Gabrielle chewed her lip. “Punishment for them too, huh? Mm. You’re right. Hadn’t thought about that.” She brightened. “But they forgave you. Accepted you again as one of their own. With pride for your quest of atonement.” Sighing, she shook her head. “I don’t know, Xena. I’m still not convinced.”
The warrior lifted her hands in defeat. “Sorry. Not much else to say.” She rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Nothing you don’t already know.”
Gabrielle stared at Xena. “The great warrior of worldly experience and many skills? For once out of ideas? You’re leaving it up to me? The tagalong who can’t tell a budding warlord from a cute date?”
“She’s your friend.”
“Humph. We know how yours show loyalty and affection. Whose definition – .”
“The one who corrals poor unsuspecting strangers. Should work well enough.” Xena pursed her lips. “Assuming you stop talking long enough.”
Gabrielle stood in the doorway wistfully observing her former playmates. Struck by how little they seemed to have aged. Bigger replicas, personalities virtually unchanged. Would they say the same about her? Notice edges sharpened by the deaths she’d shaken off? Shields in eyes that had witnessed the horrors of greed and corruption? A heart callused from defending innocence gone awry? Or see a familiar village girl none the wiser for choosing the thorny path away from home? Not quite sure yet which version she preferred, she began winding her way through the tables as unobtrusively as she could.
“Gabrielle! Wondered where you’d gotten to.”
“Yeah, you’re missing the fun. Over here. Cletus fancies himself a teller of tall tales.”
“Hah, bet not as good as Gabby.”
“Sorry, I can’t win that bet for you. I don’t have time.” Gabrielle searched the room. “I need to see Elysia. Know where she is?”
“Eh, she upstairs. Fussin’ with wedding doodads. Borrrring. Stay with us. Don’t ya have more monsters and warlords roamin’ around in that brain of yours?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “If so, they’re quiet. Anxious to check out those … wedding doodads.” With an airy wave, she headed for the stairs. “Elysia?” She knocked on the door. “It’s Gabrielle. Can I come in?”
Gabrielle entered to find Elysia in her bridal gown. “Oh, Elysia, you look beautiful.”
“Thank you. It was my mother’s. She was smaller than me.” Elysia smiled down at the seamstress kneeling at her hem. “Fortunately all the pastries I’ve eaten didn’t do too much damage.”
Gabrielle managed a return smile. “Um, Elysia? Can we talk in private a moment? I don’t mean to delay you. It’s just …. I need to –.”
“Of course. Lela, would you mind? Finishing a little later?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. I’m almost done. A break wouldn’t hurt.” Lela grinned. “Especially with a mug of port for company.” She nodded to the visitor and left.
“So.” Elysia lowered herself carefully to the edge of the bed. She indicated for Gabrielle to join her. “What last words of wisdom do you have for me?”
Gabrielle snorted softly. “Actually, it’s more like news. We found your gifts.”
Elysia’s breath caught. “We?”
“Xena and I.”
Elysia studied her friend. “That’s good, right? Shouldn’t you be dancing with joy?”
Gabrielle rubbed her cheek, carefully considering her response. “I guess it’s finally hitting me. You’re all grown up. Taking a big step into adulthood. New responsibilities. Relationships. Selfish I guess, but it feels … strange.” She looked at her hands. “Not sure where the old Gabrielle fits in.”
“Oh, Gabby.” Elysia squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “This doesn’t change our bond. I’ll be right here.” She chuckled. “You’re who we need to worry about. Leaving me behind. Knowing where to find you.”
“Oooo.” Gabrielle winced. “I sure walked into that one, didn’t I?”
“Uh huh. No wonder Xena’s so protective.”
“Yeah. ‘Adventure’ has more pitfalls than I imagined.” Gabrielle smiled. “But as satisfying as I ever dreamed.” She fiddled with the fringe of the bedspread. “Out of curiosity, have you thought about what you’d be doing? If you hadn’t met Mathieu?”
“Would I be on a stage in Athens? Acting and singing? As opposed to earning my keep entertaining at different functions around Portus?” Elysia snickered. “Not all of us dreamed as big as you. Truly, I pictured tomorrow. Life at someone like Mathieu’s side. Knitting baby clothes. Tending my garden. Know what I didn’t picture?” she asked, tweaking Gabrielle’s nose. “Knitting with my mind wandering alongside a friend who’s actually out there somewhere. As usual, following her own mind. The courage to take risks the rest of us talked about but never did like you.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Not many risks bigger than marriage. Do you really know what you’ll find? Any more than you would being on the road?”
Elysia smoothed the fabric covering her knees. When she looked up, it was with the maturity Gabrielle had wondered if others saw in her.
“Mathieu isn’t perfect. I know that. It’s rare we’re amused by the same things. He can be reckless. Overbearing. I have my faults too. Belittle without intending, so caught up in comparisons to everyone else. But there’s something ….” She searched Gabrielle’s eyes, a plea in her own. “We ‘get’ each other, you know? Would do anything to overcome the imperfections. To make each other happy. If there’s something better out there, I don’t care. If it’s ‘settling,’ I’m content with my choice. Can you understand that?”
Gabrielle nodded. “My folks think I’m nuts. Xena probably thinks I’m nuts. Everybody who sees us together thinks it’s a mistake. Or a joke.” She shrugged. “In our own ways, we ‘get’ each other. At least in ways that matter. Who knows for how long. If these early days aren’t a real test. I follow along. She let’s me. Must be worth it to both of us to risk whatever the future brings.” She gazed at her friend, as though weighing the worth of something else. She swallowed. “What matters is, you’re sure in your heart. Who’m I not to support whatever the risk?”
Elysia leaned over to hug Gabrielle. “See? Words of wisdom, my friend. Thank you.”
Gabrielle lowered her head. “Time’ll tell if I deserve thanks.” Sighing, she squared her shoulders. “Well, I’ve ‘hi-jacked’ you long enough. I’m glad we had the chance to – .”
“I want to show you something.” Elysia opened a drawer to the nightstand. She took out a small box and removed the lid.
Gabrielle peered inside, puzzled by the contents. “Are those …. Why …. I mean, shouldn’t Mathieu …um ….”
“I came across the one he got. In his jacket pocket.”
“Does he know? That you’ve seen it?”
Elysia nodded. “I told him it was beautiful, but much too expensive.”
“W-what did he say?”
“The usual. ‘Nothing’s too good for my girl.’ Not to worry whether we could afford it. He’d find a way.”
Gabrielle fiddled with the fringe again. “His shop? Maybe business – .”
“It hasn’t been that good for awhile.” Elysia smiled ruefully. “I know how generous my friends are. And competitive. Mathieu’s bachelor quarters above the store are what you’d expect. The gifts would no doubt be a good start for a couple to make a home.”
“Well, they’ve been found. That’s good, right?”
“Mathieu took the possible theft surprisingly well. I asked him why. He said nothing was more important than our wedding day. After that, we’d make the best of whatever we had.” Elysia snorted softly. “Like I said, he can be impetuous. Bad at thinking things through. Fortunately, not much talent for deceit either.” She held Gabrielle’s eyes. “Kinda like a good-hearted friend of mine.”
Gabrielle’s shoulders slumped. “Elysia, I am so sorry. I should’ve – .”
“You did. It was the best gift of all.” Elysia wiped away a tear. “The chance to begin our journey clean.”
“Really.” Elysia took a deep breath. “Will you be seeing Mathieu soon?”
“Um, I expect so.”
“Then I have another favor to ask. Something I didn’t take the chance to do myself.” Elysia indicated the woven copper rings in the box she’d brought out. “Mathieu made these. To seal our engagement. He assured me they were temporary. That I’d have gold on the ‘official’ day.” She handed the box to Gabrielle. “Please tell him I said these will always be good enough for me. The gold one is tarnished and should be returned. That this is what’s most important for our wedding day. After, we can make do with whatever came before.”
The sun was setting when villagers came across the bags of gifts hidden behind trees near the road in. Amidst the celebration, folks heatedly conjectured about the mysterious disappearance. Most figured some stranger was the culprit, somehow stymied before he could make his getaway. A few whispers involved a certain ex-warlord, conveniently around when the gifts arrived, whereabouts unknown about the time they went missing. That particular suspect lounged outside the inn, her presumed innocent companion having rushed inside for another chat with Elysia.
“I’m going as I am,” Xena declared when Gabrielle finally breezed out.
“No armor or weapons. Other than that, you’re on your own.”
“Xena, what are you talking about?”
“The maid of honor.” Tongue in cheek, Xena narrowed her eyes at the garland of flowers perched on Gabrielle’s head. “She has to wear some fancy get up. Bystanders along the back wall can get away with murder.” She grinned evilly. “Fashion-wise, in this case.”
“You mean this?” Gabrielle asked, reaching up to pat the garland. “Yep, it’s for the maid of honor. Nice, huh?”
“Lovely.” Xena sauntered over to where she’d hitched Argo. “Figured I’d stay at our campsite tonight. Seeing as we went to the trouble of making one. Don’t worry. I’ll be on time for the wedding tomorrow.” She snickered. “If only to appreciate your costume.”
Gabrielle gaped at the warrior. “Wait up.” She walked up beside Argo and crooked her head. “Seems to be missing something. Hmmm.” She placed the garland between the mare’s ears. “What do you think?” Argo expressed her opinion by bucking her head. “Too girly?” Gabrielle guessed, catching the garland. “Well, you are a warhorse.”
Xena glowered at her companion. “Don’t you have somebody else to practice on? One of Elysia’s buddies? That blonde with the attitude. Bet she pictures herself with a crown.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Probably. But it’s mine. Only mine. Elysia insisted I keep it.”
“Won’t keep the way you’re playin’ with it. What’ll folks say? You standing there with flowers look like they’ve been trampled.”
“Nah. Elysia wanted me to have this as a memento. Dried and pressed.” Gabrielle grinned smugly. “Since I won’t be standing in the wedding.”
Xena raised a brow. “Exactly what’re you saying?”
Gabrielle glanced at the inn. “I’ve had my fill of excitement here.” She chuckled. “Certainly provided my share of it. Maybe the one ‘extra’ too many? For Elysia’s moment as the star anyway.” She untied Argo’s reins and tossed them to Xena. “Even her room was kinda crowded. Think I’d prefer that campsite for two.” She strutted toward the road. “Coming?”
Xena sat on a log, sharpening her sword. Gabrielle lay on her bedroll gazing at the stars.
“Think Mathieu learned his lesson? He’ll do what Elysia asked? Be satisfied accepting she’s not so shallow about appearances? Willing to change himself?”
“He seemed chastened enough. I’d say it’s 50-50.”
Gabrielle rolled to face the warrior. “She’s really perceptive, you know. More than I gave her credit for. Even gave me insights about you.”
“See, a lot of folks might call you a cynic. A pessimist. You know, always on the lookout for the worst. Often expecting it. Which is natural, considering the types you deal with. Pfft. Live for. To defeat, I mean. And you, um, do tend to focus on the worst in yourself. Would you agree?”
“Not something I think about much.” Xena snickered. “Ask Argo. Maybe she has an opinion.”
“Fine. I’ll talk to myself. I can count on an answer that way at least.” Gabrielle flopped to her back. “In my experience, that’s only partly right. I told Elysia how you also look for options. Weaknesses to exploit. Strong points to take advantage of. Alliances when necessary. Creative solutions. Making something out of nothing. She said maybe ‘opportunist’ was a better description. Got me thinking how similar that is to an optimist.”
“Must have me mixed up with you.” Xena pursed her lips. “Only natural, with you doing the talking.”
“Humph. And whose fault is that?” Gabrielle resumed her stargazing. “Pessimists, cynics usually miss opportunities, since they’re not looking for them. Isn’t that what your quest is about? Possibilities? Otherwise it’s for naught. You have to believe you’ve changed. That you can keep getting better.”
“Can’t afford not to.” Sighing, Xena put her pumice stone away. “Look, I take things as they are. Find what I need to survive. Call me a realist and leave it at that.”
“Hmm. I suppose –.”
“You, on the other hand try to make things as they could be. Should be.” Xena began her preparations for turning in. “You thought it right Elysia and Mathieu be honest with each other. You opened up a way they could. You weighed the attention you got, that should’ve been hers.” Xena snorted. “Not to mention an ex-warlord, suspected thief. Your absence allowed a wedding free of drama or conspicuous … guests.”
“Assuming we scared some sense into Mathieu.” Gabrielle was silent a moment. “I can’t remember feeling so knotted up inside. You know, about what was right? She was really grateful for what we did. How we did it. Said some nice things about how she appreciated me more than ever. Even why I thought it best not to stand with her. That’s when she changed her mind about you. Said maybe you were an optimist after all.” She faced Xena again. “Because you saw opportunity in me? For yourself?”
Xena had been taking off her armor. She caught the uncertainty in Gabrielle’s voice. “Mm.” She looked her young companion a moment, finally allowing a wry smile. “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”
“That’s my opinion.”
Beaming, Gabrielle readjusted the carry bag she used as a pillow. “This opportunity stuff? Kinda interesting, huh?”
Xena snorted. “If ya
like knots,” she muttered.
“Hmmm? ‘Nots?’” Gabrielle rolled to her side, intrigued. Happy for an excuse to prolong their chat. “What kind of ‘nots.’ Choices we don’t
make? Actions we probably shouldn't –.”
“Nooo. Not ‘nots.’” Growling under her breath, the warrior stretched out on her bedroll. “Knots. Like you make with rope.”
“Ohhhh. That kind of knot. As in the bonds between friends? Ties that even time or distance can’t break?” Gabrielle grinned, pleasantly surprised. “Why, Xena. Who would’ve thought you’d – .”
“As in used to tie and gag chatterboxes who ought not be keeping me awake.”
“Oh. Right. Okay.” Gabrielle giggled. “My lips are … knotted. Can I say goodnight first?”
“And last. Good night.”
Xena watched Gabrielle snuggle into her furs, then gazed up at the sky. It was true – they did see opportunity in each other. Staked their lives on it every day. Had managed to muddle through so far. Even thrive. Something she’d begun to count on as much as her sword. Like mountains to scale, evil to fight or those stars. An improbable friend to share it all. Aspects of her environment to take as is. The way things were. Smiling, she closed her eyes. Optimist, sloptimist – what difference did it make? The way she saw it, realism seemed to be working for her better than anything else.
Return to the Academy