Our girls explore a more traditional version of “normal” after helping Xena’s childhood friend Flora defeat a tyrant in the Season One episode THE BLACK WOLF.
“You have to have faith in yourself, Flora. Otherwise, you spend the rest of your life waiting for other people to offer their hand to you.” -- Xena
Gabrielle took in the scene with more than the usual curiosity. Their routine trip to town had so far followed a typical pattern – bad guys, a brush with death, Xena coming to the rescue, bad guys dying. Oh, and meeting folks from Xena’s past. Except, not the usual delinquents turned warlord.
Like that short, white-haired merchant howling his sales pitch for mementoes to celebrate the Wolf Pack’s liberation of Argos. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She’d been as shocked to learn he once traveled with the Warrior Princess, as he was to hear Gabrielle currently did so on a regular basis. Salmoneus ran from his own shadow, spewed more words with one breath than Gabrielle could in an hour. It was a miracle he survived Xena’s chakram this time around, let alone when he’d encountered the warrior during her darker stage.
Across the way, Flora stood arm in arm with Hermia. True, Flora had become a rebel, yet did not exhibit the blood lust Gabrielle assumed in others from Xena’s youth. Nor did Hermia quite fit the picture. Certainly not cut from the same cloth as Xena’s mother, who’d embraced her daughter’s “walk on the wild side” a lot more reluctantly than Hermia did Flora’s.
Gabrielle shrugged. Despite these oddities, the day would no doubt conclude typically – expressions of gratitude from those saved, Xena taking it all in stride, the two of them bidding farewell to one adventure as they trotted off for another. As if on cue, the warrior headed that way.
“Hi there.” Gabrielle smiled up at her tall companion. She shouldered her bag. “Finish your goodbyes?”
“That’s important, Xena.” Gabrielle glanced at the expectantly waiting mother and daughter. “They haven’t seen you in quite awhile. Probably hard letting you go so soon.”
“Hermia asked us to stay longer.”
“Of course. Tell you what. Why don’t I get Argo? I have a few choice words for that horse. Her needing new shoes got us into this mess. Of course, if she hadn’t we might not’ve saved – .”
“I said it wouldn’t hurt.”
“It’ll give you more time to – .”
“At least for dinner.”
“Dinner?” Gabrielle frowned. “Come again?”
“You got other plans?”
“Uh … noooo.”
“Any reason we shouldn’t?”
Gabrielle squinted at the warrior. “Not that I can think of. You neither?”
Xena sucked in her cheeks. “Evidently.”
“Um, okay then. Where you go, I ….” Gabrielle found herself talking to air, as the warrior was already striding back to her old friends.
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Rectangular, with a hinged section for more expansiveness, the table would comfortably accommodate six. The two extra plates should mix well enough with those used only on special occasions. Hermia made a mental note to set the odd ones for herself and daughter. She would seat Flora on the side to the right of Diomedes’ chair, at the end facing the fireplace. Xena would be in the place of honor on the right side nearest the opposite end, with Gabrielle across from her and next to Salmoneus. Normally he, an older man, should be seated at the head. Today Hermia reserved that place for herself – a discrete way to re-establish herself as matriarch.
Hermia had run her home alone since her only surviving child’s abrupt disappearances began some months ago. Now Flora intended to wed Diomedes. From what Hermia recently witnessed in the village square, all her guests could use a proper dose of civility. Admittedly, their behavior since defeating “Emperor Lord” Xerxes had come as a welcome surprise. Xena especially. Hermia had prepared herself for a more hardened version of the girl determined to play by her own rules. Yet this grown version exhibited courtesies even Hermia couldn’t fault.
“Is this the right tablecloth?”
“It’s not too musty I hope. I haven’t used it in awhile.”
“Smells fresh enough. It’s lovely.”
“Would you believe that was little Flora’s handiwork? She popped in with it one day, stunned me to no end. She never expressed much interest in sewing when I tried to show her. Maybe she paid attention after all.”
“Ah. Maybe she did.”
Hermia noted Xena’s pleased response. Perhaps the warrior too had a hidden appreciation for the finer things? She certainly handled the tablecloth with care. Had admired the pottery and figurines displayed in the cupboard. Hermia wondered what else she might discover about the now legendary woman who, like her own daughter, she’d feared lost to a world that had brought such pain and violence to her doorstep.
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“Me too.” Salmoneus had come up beside Hermia at the threshold to the kitchen area. He’d noticed that, like himself, she observed Xena with a hint of disbelief. “Far cry from the warlord I first met,” he whispered. “Definitely wouldn’t’ve fit in here.” He snorted. “Unless the house was on fire.”
Hermia nudged him further into the kitchen. “You knew her? Back when …. We’d heard she ….” She clasped her hands to her chest. “It’s true? The … killing? Attacks on innocent villages?”
“Uh huh.” Salmoneus slashed a finger across his throat. “Almost didn’t make it myself.”
“Oh,” Hermia gasped. She glanced around for something to cover their conversation, finally settling on a broom. “Look at this mess I’ve made,” she said loudly. “Salmoneus, can you give me a hand clearing it?”
Salmoneus winked. “Be glad to,” he responded in an equally loud voice. “In fact, I may have some cleaning items that could do just the trick.”
“Maybe later?” Sweeping, Hermia continued in a hushed voice, “It’s not entirely unexpected, you know. She was always a handful.”
“Heh. With those looks, I bet.”
“Well, she did have her share of suitors. Too much even for them. Many of us believed her mother a bit too liberal. Cyrene was so busy with her inn, I guess it wasn’t easy.”
Salmoneus snuck a peek at their subject, who was setting the table per Hermia’s instructions. “Hard picturing her with a mother. Maybe in a cave, fending for herself.”
Hermia led Salmoneus to the room’s window. “She wasn’t a savage. Perhaps not how I raised Flora, but certainly well behaved when she was in my home.” She gazed thoughtfully into the main room. “Very much as she is now.”
“Huh. Guess I saw a glimmer of her better side when her men wanted to kill a baby.” At Hermia’s horrified expression, Salmoneus quickly added, “She wouldn’t let them. So they tried to kill her. Uh huh.” He shrugged. “Ended up giving the push she needed away from her old life.”
Hermia let out a long breath. “Perhaps I was too critical of her. In her youth. When she mobilized Amphipolis against those awful men who kept attacking?” She shivered, feeling the fear again. As she had the other day when Xerxes arrested and almost beheaded Flora. “Our family fled to Argos, hoping to escape all that. My husband and son died at a warlord’s hands anyway. No Xena to stop them. My daughter grew to take her place.” Hermia smiled sadly. “Not what I wanted for her, anymore than Cyrene did for Xena. Yet our girls saved us. Something to be proud of, yes?”
Salmoneus scratched his beard. “As good as my cleaning products are? I gotta admit, not as great at getting rid of dirt like your girls.”
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The bright afternoon sun highlighted the various hues and textures of Hermia’s garden. Flora had intended to pick some vegetables for their supper. Instead, she found herself tending weeds, watering dry spots, pruning dead leaves and stems. She’d forgotten how much she preferred such tasks to those associated with maintaining weapons. She relaxed back on her heels, her mind drifting to a day some months ago, when a routine trip to the market changed her life.
Xerxes had come with his men to Argos about a year before. Residents grumbled among themselves, but believed resistance futile. Flora suppressed her own resentment largely in deference to her mother’s wishes. “You know what happened to Xena,” Hermia would warn. “I can’t afford to lose you to a lost cause.”
And then Flora saw a man dragged away from his family over a few dinars in late payment. Something in her snapped. She remembered Xena, all right, as someone who stood up for herself, for others against bullies. “Causes are only lost when people give up,” she’d say. Regardless whether she’d turned into a “lost cause” herself, Xena first made sure Amphipolis did not.
Flora realized someone stood at the garden’s edge, facing her. “Oh. Hi. I didn’t see you. Sorry, what was that?”
“My mom has a green thumb. I loved watching everything grow.” Gabrielle gestured to the rows of colorful flowers. “I don’t mean to intrude. You seemed to be enjoying the view.”
Flora smiled. “I have missed this. Please, join me.” Gabrielle came over to kneel beside her. “Actually, I was lost somewhere less pleasant. More in the line of weapons and fighting.”
“Ah. The Wolf Pack?” Gabrielle studied Flora’s slight frame, delicate features and peaceful demeanor. “I have to say, I would’ve pictured you more in a setting like this.”
Flora gave Gabrielle a wry once over. “Same here.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You and my mother both. She blames Xena that I’m not.”
“Hmm. Something else we have in common.”
“Xena said you were friends back in Amphipolis. But when she left, you couldn’t have been more than ….”
“Almost 12. About five when my grandpa died. My parents left me with Xena’s mom while they went to take care of things. Cyrene made Xena look after me.” Flora absently packed dirt over some exposed roots. “I was shy, quiet, used to playing by myself. Probably a little bore for poor Xena. Before I knew it, she had me outside, doing all sorts of things with other kids. ” She gazed into the distance. “Looking back, that was the best time of my young life.”
Gabrielle propped her elbows on her knees. “You know, all the months I’ve traveled with her, it’s been one adventure after another. Warlords, kings, Amazons, Centaurs. Even gods and beings or places from other realms.”
“Sounds exciting. Our most interesting days never came close to that.”
“Ha, more like a normal day for us. It’s been nice, seeing her here. I mean, I went to her home village and all. Met her mother. Funny though, I haven’t thought much about her childhood. Having friends.” Gabrielle snickered. “Being a ‘good girl’ for somebody’s mom. Not a Warrior Princess. Just another member of the family.”
Flora plucked a tomato and rolled it in her hands. “Perhaps now. She was such a free spirit. ‘Head strong,’ many called her. You know about the attacks on Amphipolis? How she got people to fight back?”
Gabrielle nodded. “And not all happy about it, I discovered. Even Cyrene.”
“One of the reasons we moved to Argos. Mother feared retribution from other warlords. At the time probably thought Xena would return.” Flora sighed. “I love my mother, but she’s prone to ‘airs.’ Cyrene ran a business. Rubbed shoulders with all sorts. She didn’t have time for frills. ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ Mother would say. I’m pretty sure she judged Xena a bad influence.”
“Heh, I suspect many mothers would. I imagine she didn’t fit the ‘good little future wife’ mold.”
“She could have, if she’d wanted.” Flora flashed a mischievous grin. “I’m sure Mother’s using a tablecloth I made for her. She’d say I suffered from delusions, if I told her I learned the embroidery stitches from Xena.”
“Really? Xena? My Xena? The one in leathers? Usually bristling with weapons?”
Flora laughed. “She liked weapons back then too. But yes, my Xena was just as good with quite a few domestic arts.”
Gabrielle had seen Xena mending leather and flesh. She tried to imagine the warrior’s needle gliding through lace instead. “She’s always declaring she has ‘many skills.’ I just hadn’t thought about that being one of them.”
Flora rubbed her thighs. “Mind if we walk and talk? We can pick the vegetables on our way back.” She stood and led Gabrielle to a path behind the house. “I’m not sure how Xena got good at fighting. She had even the youngest of us practicing parries and thrusts with sticks. Mother was beside herself when I came home one day all mussed. Xena would straighten my clothes, brush me off and fix my hair, so I didn’t get caught again.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle pondered this information. “I’m about Xena’s age when she left home. She acts like I’m a babe in the woods. Well, I suppose I am, considering the kind of woods she plays in. And she’s been better about that lately. I’m getting pretty good with my staff. But anything with a blade? You’d think I’d poke my eye out or something.”
“Quite honestly, I was a bit surprised at how she treats you.”
“See? That’s what I was – .”
“More like an equal. Sharing her plans. Trusting you’ll do your part. When she first saw me again in that dungeon? I was still ‘little’ Flora to her. Took awhile to accept me as a warrior. Even after realizing I was the Black Wolf.” Flora stopped in front of a large oak. “I was usually the smallest kid. Following Xena like a puppy dog. They’d climb a big tree. I’d be too short to make it. Xena urged me to try anyway. She’d lean down and stick out her hand. ‘Ya gotta have faith!’ she’d yell. I’d reach up, and she’d snatch her hand back.”
“Xena did that? I knew she had a dark side, but with a kid?!”
Flora chuckled. “Did feel a bit cruel at the time. Only the other day, I realized what she meant. It wasn’t about having faith in her. She wanted me to have faith in myself. Neither of us imagined the ‘runt’ of her playmates might lead a band of rebels years later.”
Gabrielle gazed up through the branches. “I’m not big on heights. Xena’s horse being a good example. When I met up with her in Amphipolis? Hard to believe I actually made her pull me up behind her on Argo.” At the confusion on Flora’s face, she explained, “She was still ‘I travel alone Transitional Xena.’”
“Transitional Xena?” Flora doubled over laughing. “Oh, my. You do have a way with words.”
Gabrielle grinned. “I try. Anyway, finally she reached down and grabbed my arm. It’s like she’s been pulling me up ever since. Convincing me I can do things that would make any mother’s hair stand on end. Xena’d probably say I have too much ‘can do’ spirit for my own good. But without her, I couldn’t do half of what I can now.”
“Hmmm. Quite an achievement.” Flora smiled wryly. “For someone Xena pampers.”
“Um …. Okay, ya got me again.” Gabrielle recalled times she’d disobeyed Xena – sometimes with good results, more often as a prelude to trouble and needing rescue. “I have to admit, she’s surprisingly tolerant of my mistakes. Except for making myself a target if I pick up a sword.”
“When we were kids?” Flora mimicked an adoring child. “’Ooo, if Xena said it, it must be true!’”
“Uh huh. Been there too.” Gabrielle snorted. “I have lost some of my Warrior Princess ‘haze.’ As wise as she is, I sometimes wonder how much it has do with that pigheadedness she apparently developed at an early age.”
“Oh, do I have another story for you. Ask her about the spring day she was ‘absolutely, positively, without any doubt certain’ that a stretch of mud she told us we could cross safely wasn’t in fact a sinkhole four feet deep.”
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“Hermia? We could use some more firewood. Anything else you want me to do, before I go out?”
Hermia joined Xena at the kitchen doorway. “My,” she said, surveying the main room, “you’ve done a wonderful job with the settings. So Precise. Everything gleaming like new.” She bestowed on Xena a slightly smug smile. “Cyrene’s influence? Helping her at the inn?”
“Mm.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “And command of armies. Not that different from maintaining a proper house.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “`Cept maybe the punishment for failure.”
“Mm.” Lips pursed, Hermia considered a comeback to wipe the “whatcha gotta say about that” expression from Xena’s face. She’d seen it before, when she didn’t have to tilt her head up so far to glimpse the mischief in those self-assured blue eyes. Even then, the best she’d win was a surrender they both knew came more from politeness than defeat. “Yes, good home-training benefits many pursuits. I’m glad to hear yours served you well.” She squeezed Xena’s hand. “Well enough to bring you back to us healthy, with honor and in time to save my child.”
Xena blinked. She searched the older woman’s face for “So there!” but saw only genuine affection, suddenly feeling like a teenager both victorious and vanquished by this unexpected approval. She bit her lip and quickly bent to hug Hermia ahead of the blush creeping into her cheeks. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Me too.”
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“Hey, girl.” Xena stroked her Palomino’s head, gladly accepting the nuzzle she received in return. “Yeah, I missed you too. Not that I’m lacking for attention from humans, mind you. Wouldn’t be surprised if even the flies’re checkin` me out.” She inhaled a deep breath of the great outdoors. “You have no idea how lucky you are. Once a horse, always a horse. Nobody wondering what you’ll turn into next.”
The warrior made sure Argo had sufficient water before heading toward the shed where logs were stored. She found Diomedes already there, a small pile of cut firewood stacked nearby.
“Interested in some help?”
Diomedes turned, obviously not expecting this particular assistant. He wiped his brow. “Sure. Only one ax though.”
“S’okay.” Xena held up her sword. “Brought my own.” She rolled a log out, cut off a section with a few swings, set it on end and split it in half.
“Flora said you were pretty good with a sword. I thought it was childish imagination. Guess I was wrong about that too.”
“You aren’t so bad yourself.” Xena paused in her chopping. “You teach the others in the Wolf Pack?”
“I showed them hand-to-hand techniques I learned from my father.” Diomedes snorted, recalling his stupidity in trying to use them on Xena. “Flora taught the sword play. Which apparently she learned from you.”
“Mm. I taught her a lot of things. Didn’t figure that would be the one to come in so handy.”
“She’s something all right.” Diomedes brushed the dust from his hands and sat on one of the logs. “Flora’s family pretty much stayed to themselves. My folks had a little business in town. One day her mother came in, said she was having a few people over for supper. My parents and some other ‘people of substance.’”
“Ah.” Xena eased down on a stump and stretched out her legs. “Sounds like the Hermia I knew and kept my distance from.”
Diomedes chuckled. “I expected no more or less from her prim and proper daughter.” He ducked his head. “But she was cute. Seemed smart, more mature than other girls. Hermia considered me a decent enough sort. When we got older, I escorted Flora into town. I tried to shield her from the Xerxes mess. But after she saw it for herself …. It’s like she turned into a different person.” Diomedes studied Xena a moment. “That’s when she told me about you. Why we should prepare ourselves to defend Argos. ‘The times change people. And people change the times.’”
“Another of my pearls of wisdom.” Xena snorted. “I was full `em, for somebody who didn’t listen to herself.”
“Made sense to us. The way she talked – her certainty, her determination – nobody questioned when I proposed she lead us.”
“You work well together. Not many men treat women as equals, let alone submit to their command. Even I had to knock a lot of `em around first, despite my reputation.” Xena noted Diomedes looking at her like the others. “What? You too? Waiting to see if I’ll grow another head?”
Diomedes dropped his eyes. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to …. Um, I can see why Flora …. You’re easy to talk to. Care more than many about what’s important to somebody. Down to earth. I thought ….” He smiled sheepishly. “I expected it would be more a lecture. You know, ‘pearls of wisdom’ from a great warrior who knows and nearly conquered the world?”
“Heh. Gabrielle might wonder which Xena you’ve been talking to. Pfft. Which Xena was talking at all.”
“According to Flora, you have a knack for ‘reading’ people, knowing what they need. She’d tell that tree story, how you always urged her to have faith. I thought she was a little …. Let’s just say you sounded more like the person I didn’t trust too much, when you conveniently popped up in that dungeon.”
“She and Gabrielle have that in common – giving credit because they see the positive in it.” Xena sighed. “Sure, I wanted her to have confidence in herself. Not sure I was concerned so much about my ‘lesson.’ Whether it hurt her feelings. Too busy testing what I could do. Being the best.”
“You were a leader. Showing her how to be one.”
“I didn’t have much patience – waiting around because others were scared or inept. Had enough arrogance to think I could do just about anything.” Xena shrugged. “Didn’t really ask anybody to follow. They just did.” She stretched and got to her feet, preparing to resume her task. Diomedes remained as he was, face pensive. “Something else on your mind?”
“I asked her to marry me.”
“Um, I already pronounced you a good pair. Weren’t you paying attention? Thought you gave my ‘pearls of wisdom’ high marks.”
Diomedes’ head jerked up. “Oh, yes, yes. I heard. I’m not saying …. I mean, I believe we’ll ….” He picked up his ax. “It’s not really …. You’re right, we need to get back to –.”
“Finish it.” Xena dropped back on the stump. “Chatting like this is more rare than you might think. According to Gabrielle anyway. Better catch me while I’m still in the mood.”
Diomedes checked the warrior’s eyes. Despite the twinkle – maybe because of it – he decided to take her offer seriously. “I …. I’m not sure how to – .”
“What’re you afraid of? That’s usually a good place to start.”
Diomedes gaped. “How did you know – .”
“Not the topic under discussion.” Xena crossed her arms and cocked her head. “You know she loves you. That can’t be it. The only other question is ….” She raised a brow. “Ahhh. Does she need you.”
Diomedes’ chin dropped. “You saw for yourself. She’s tasted power, freedom to be whatever she wants. She can do most anything now.”
Diomedes raised his head. His eyes answered Xena’s question. “We’re rid of Xerxes, but not the need for defense. We may re-form into a type of militia. Flora agrees.”
“With her still the leader?”
“Um, no. She suggested me. Professes she’d be happy making a home, gardening, raising children.”
“I see. So either she’s her own woman, saying exactly what she means. Or she’s already ‘your’ woman, saying what she thinks’ll please you?”
Diomedes stared at Xena. “Well, when you put it that way ….”
“She’s not me, Diomedes. She learned something important a long time ago. I’ve needed years to get it through my thick skull.” Xena stood and walked over to peer up through the branches of a large oak. “I was so busy climbing on my own, I rarely looked for a helping hand. I did take pride in giving one. Somewhere along the line, I stopped valuing even that.” She leaned against the trunk.
“Truth is, there’s a price in being too self-reliant. Loneliness. Grasping for the wrong thing because there’s nobody to give options. Clinging to something too long for the sake of security or greed. Bragging rights.”
Diomedes nodded. “My pride means little, compared to Flora. I won’t let that get in the way.”
Xena came over to lay a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I have no doubt.” She picked up her sword and tested the sharpness of its blade. Her mind wandered back to that day in Amphipolis when Gabrielle appeared uninvited – first to save her from a stoning, then to guilt her into a ride aboard Argo.
“I didn’t ask for a hand when I needed it. Got lucky. Bumped into one that grabbed on and refused to let go. At the time, thought I was the one doing a favor. Didn’t fully appreciate the double edge.”
“Struck me as odd at first. You partnering with someone … so different. Then I saw her in action. May look sweet on the outside, but she swings a pretty mean stick.”
“Big mistake, underestimating Gabrielle. Not just her fighting skills. She’s always reaching out to people. Showing faith they may not have in themselves. In ideals deemed too far-fetched. I rely on that as a warrior.” Xena balanced the weapon in her hand. “Reminds me every day I’d better have good reason to reach for a sword.”
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Hermia hummed as she cleared away the dishes. Dinner had exceeded her hopes. Well, once she’d gotten past her guests ending up where she hadn’t mentally assigned them. No sooner had she walked to the head of the table, than Salmoneus rather ceremoniously stationed himself at the opposite end. Flora positioned herself to Hermia’s right, Diomedes next to Flora, with Xena across from him and beside Gabrielle.
Still, there’d been copious compliments on her food and hospitality. Light conversation and laughter, much of it about Xena’s youthful mishaps, which the warrior endured with grace. The touching toast Diomedes made to “the gentle warrior who won my love and faith.” Flora’s toast to heroism and friendship, which she dedicated to Xena and Gabrielle. Salmoneus toasting everyone, especially for their role in saving his most precious asset – his hide.
Hermia credited herself for establishing the proper tone, ideally girding the others with sufficient civility to withstand the assaults of a crude, cruel world. Yet she’d also gained a better understanding of how they’d managed to survive so well in their own ways. Earlier in the day, she’d gone out to see why Xena was taking so long with the firewood. She’d pressed herself against the house when she saw the tall woman showing Diomedes some fancy sword strikes, using sticks. Flora and Gabrielle soon joined the two. Sometimes they would be a blur of whirling and leaping bodies. Then, led by their mentor, they would do something silly and burst into laughter.
Hermia had shaken her head at the “play” violence and rambunctiousness. Who would believe this group had led a successful rebellion against a powerful enemy? She couldn’t help smiling though, glad they had retained some of their youthful zest despite what they’d been through. More than that, she realized this was not the simple “rough housing in the dirt” she’d always believed – particularly in the controlled grace of Xena’s slow-motion demonstrations.
When everyone headed back to the house, Hermia had pulled Xena aside. “I think I understand now how being a warrior requires many skills. That they can be applied to other fields.”
“I have strong values, Xena, but I can see beyond the missteps you’ve made. You’ve overcome them to grow into a fine young woman. I would like to acknowledge that in some way. To try learning from it, the way others have.”
“I appreciate that. If I’m in the area again, I’d be happy to – .”
“No, after supper.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I would like you to show us more of what you can do, after supper. It will keep everyone together a bit longer. Give me the opportunity to enjoy my children. As I could not before.”
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Xena wasn’t sure what had gotten into her, but she suspected her mother. Naturally Cyrene had prepared her daughter for a future more “proper” than her own rather unorthodox life as an innkeeper and single parent. In fact, Xena admired Cyrene’s independence, tolerance and strength. It irked her to suspect women like Hermia thought themselves “above” relying on such traits. And so she derived a certain satisfaction from Hermia’s acknowledgement years later that Cyrene’s “bad seed” hadn’t turned out so badly after all. In having the chance to show off talents seldom praised during the period many adults dismissed her as merely rebellious.
She also couldn’t help recalling her initial rejection upon returning to Amphipolis. The tension that continued even after Cyrene’s forgiveness. So far her experience in Argos more closely approximated the type of homecoming to warm her heart cold nights on the road. Could be a long time before she had that again. She intended to make the most of it. And do Cyrene proud.
“This means a lot to me, Xena – your asking me to help you. Gabrielle won’t mind? Feel left out?”
“Nah. She’ll understand it’s for old time’s sake. Besides, you’re a lot more proficient ‘sidekick’ for this demonstration.”
“All right.” Flora shook her head. “Mother has no idea what she’s in for.”
“All the more reason.” Xena flashed an evil grin. “G`won in and have them move the table out, set up each station. I should have everything lined up by then.”
When Xena finally leaned against the doorway to the main room, the perplexed faces before her were almost enough alone to make her crazy idea worth putting into action. “I see I already have your attention. You can blame Hermia for whatever happens next.” Xena grinned at the suddenly nervous older woman. “Her open-mindedness in allowing me to demonstrate some of what I’ve learned. Her faith it won’t entail getting bloodied and bruised.” She snickered. “At least, not intentionally.”
“Um, Xena, might I ask – .”
“Not now, Gabrielle. There’ll be a Q&A period after my brief introduction.” Xena stepped into the room, pulling a small cart behind her. “In the meantime, my assistant will allocate everything you need.” She nodded to Flora, who began distributing various items.
“As Hermia said when she invited you to this after-dinner activity, it doesn’t hurt to prepare ourselves for eventualities we might not have entertained before.” Xena sauntered over to the fireplace. In front was a chair, on top of which lay a small sack and her sword. “This,” she said, brandishing the weapon, “is not just for fighting. Gabrielle can attest to that.” She grinned at her partner. “Perhaps she’ll enlighten us with some examples?”
“I can talk now?”
Gabrielle took a moment to push down what she really wanted to say, curiosity as usual persuading her to go along. “Chopping wood. Cutting chains and rope. Skewering nature’s creatures for food. Propping up or securing any number of things. Digging. Getting to places out of reach.” She grinned evilly. “Like an itch on your –.”
“Ahem. That’ll do, thank you.” Xena set the sword down. “Sometimes you need equipment for closer quarters.” She retrieved something from the sack and walked forward to give everyone a better view of it. “Despite it’s size, this can draw blood, if not handled with care. Do serious damage to an opponent if handled with the right expertise.”
“Uh, Xena, this is all well’n good, but –.”
“I’m not taking interruptions yet either. Unless you got somethin` to say more important than letting me finish?” Xena glowered at Salmoneus, who shook his head. “Good answer. Moving on …. Troops need this in their arsenal to take on more than the enemy: boots, uniforms, wounds, sails. That’s why I’ve chosen this multi-purpose item for today’s lesson.” She walked back to her chair, sat and dumped the rest of the sack’s contents into her lap. “Questions?”
Xena’s “students” gaped at her, then at the others seated in a circle, before focusing on the tray each had received.
“Uh ….” Diomedes picked up two wooden rings stretching and securing a piece of cloth. “What ….”
“Think of it as your battleground.”
Salmoneus tossed and caught balls of colored yarn. “Hey, I could use these for – .”
“Ooo, me! Let me!” Gabrielle rolled an object between her thumb and forefinger. “We make our … assault … with this sharp instrument? That also has the power to bring peace and beauty to the … um … battleground?”
“It’s a needle. Neeeee-dle. ‘N’- double ‘e’ – . ”
“I know what it is, Xena. And how to spell it, thank you very much.”
“Excellent. No need for remedial lessons then.” Xena bit her lip to keep from laughing at Gabrielle’s murderous expression. “But, yes, you are definitely correct on its purpose. Everyone, give our star pupil a hand!” She led the others in applause, which Gabrielle felt compelled to accept with more good humor than a certain party deserved.
“This is ….” Mouth open, Hermia examined her framed cloth. “Why, there’s even an outline of my home on it.”
Xena smirked. “Can’t do proper drills without incorporating patterns.”
“Mine has a heart.”
“Is this a dinar?” Salmoneus grinned. “You know me too well.”
“Awww, a quill.” Gabrielle gave Xena a “you’re not out of the woods yet, but for the moment forgiven” look.
“You can thank Flora for the sketching idea. We wanted to make it as easy as possible. She drew the house.” Xena glanced at Diomedes. “And the heart.”
Diomedes flashed his future wife a smile. He cleared his throat. “I’m still not quite understanding. From what Hermia said …. I though you would share more of your warrior skills.”
“I am.” Xena expertly threaded her needle. “You need patience, a steady hand, eye for detail and accuracy. Gotta learn to relax, if you’re gonna conquer something demanding. Not to mention – per Gabrielle’s insightful contribution – warriors especially should make a little peace and beauty if they can.” She begin filling in her cloth’s chakram design with brown yarn. “See? I’m not preaching anything I don’t practice.”
The others observed long slender fingers, usually wrapped around a sword hilt, flutter under and over the cloth like butterfly wings. Broad shoulders lost some of the ramrod stiffness that came with assuming the weight of the world. The dark head bowed in utter absorption. It was probably the closest most would come to visualizing the Warrior Princess as a child again.
Hermia’s hand pressed against her chest. She tore her eyes from Xena and caught Flora watching her. The daughter nodded in response to the question on her mother’s face. Hermia shook her head, mostly at her own inability – or unwillingness – to grasp what had been right in front of her all those years ago. She’d underestimated Flora’s choices then and come close to doing so again.
“Xena?” Hermia waited for the warrior’s attention. “This isn’t what I expected, but I couldn’t be happier.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Seems you have more experience at this than I thought.” Hermia glanced pointedly between her daughter and Xena. “So you know it could take hours. Even with simple designs.”
“Uh huh. Don’t know about Salmoneus, but Gabrielle and I could hang around a couple more days. Maybe not long enough to finish, but to get a good start.”
“What?!” Salmoneus gawked at the others in the circle for indications he wasn’t the only sane person. “Families reunited. Lovers got closer. Old friends reacquainted. Strangers having nice and … interesting … chitchat. With Show & Tell to boot. I’d say quite a bargain for the time spent. Surely you don’t mean for us to – .”
“That’s up to you. And everybody else.” Xena raised a brow. “It’s voluntary from this point on, if that makes you feel any better.”
“I’m in.” Diomedes regarded his future wife with smoldering eyes. “Although, if Flora helps me, it could take forever.”
“I was always so focused on sewing something practical for the house.” Hermia chuckled. “Or buying something impressive for decoration. It would be nice to display a piece I made myself, just for the pleasure of it.”
“I love it!” Gabrielle practically bubbled with wicked innocence. “Xena and I by the campfire. Our needles flowing in unison. Her, sitting still and content, while I share my reflections on the day. This cloth quill coming alive in my hands, like stories do in my head.”
“Mm.” Xena narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle. “Me, picturing exactly where I want to put my cloth chakram.”
“B-b-but …. I sell stuff like this, not make it.” Salmoneus got a gleam in his eye. “Now, if you wanted me to purvey your work – you know, as examples of what Argos offers ….” He clasped his hands. “Oooo, imagine it as accompaniment to that Wolf Pack line of leather goods I proposed. And with merchandise made by the Warrior Princess herself? I’d … um, we … could –.”
“Salmoneus, have you considered the benefits of understanding more about how something’s constructed? Assessing the true labor involved? Which materials add value?” Gabrielle winked. “Where to cut corners?”
“Hmmm, that last point has merit.” Salmoneus slapped his head. “What’m I saying? I have the artistic skills of a harpy on henbane. Look at these hands. Even if they weren’t stubby and all thumbs, this is waaay too much of a stretch.”
The others exchanged knowing smiles. In unison they responded, “Exactly.”
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