When Gabrielle accepts a mission Xena hates, they learn how quickly a middle-aged hero can slide to the level of a 10 year old. Dedicated to G’ail.
“Let me finish, Xena. This may not be as –.”
“What? Bad as crucifixion? Being a pincushion for 50 arrows?”
Gabrielle took measured steps to her desk chair. She maintained a forced smile, trying to rein in her rising irritation. It didn’t help that her soulmate bumped back and forth in their rocking chair, arms crossed, exuding the petulant stubbornness of a child.
“A bit over the top, don’t you think? You could at least grow past tossing out examples that lost their steam decades ago.”
“They still work well enough. Answer’s the same – no, no, no.”
“You haven’t heard the whole story. Once you know the details –.”
“Details. Pfft. Like they say, that’s where the devil is.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I should know. I’ve lived with one long enough.”
“Say what you want. I am not being unreasonable. You forget, I’ve dealt with this before. You, on the other hand, found some stupid meeting to attend in Pylous. Conveniently left me to handle the situation all by myself. You have no idea – .”
“It couldn’t possibly be worse than Najara.”
“Right. All sweetness and light on the surface. Underneath, nothin’ but trouble. Just your mug of tea.”
“Be that as it may, things were just fine when I returned. And I’ll be with you this time.”
“Even better, you won’t need me at all.”
“Hmmm.” Gabrielle relaxed back, studying her partner with a knowing look. “Maybe you’re right. I should be more sensitive about your …. It has been awhile.”
Xena narrowed her eyes. “What’re you driving at?”
“You know – facing a real challenge? Probably why you refer to the past so much. I do tend to overestimate ….” Gabrielle waved a dismissive hand. “I’m sorry. It’s probably best you don’t –.”
“It’s not that important. I’ll send a message to Pelimius, begging off –.”
“Grrrabrielllle. Over … estimate … what?”
“Well, if you’re sure ….” Gabrielle chewed her lip, as though pondering how best to proceed. “That fire in your belly? The itch you’d get, sizing up an opponent? Figuring the best way to scratch it? Always got your juices going.”
“Maybe ….” Gabrielle ducked her head. “Maybe the fire, the itch, the juices aren’t as … potent … anymore? You know, without much lately to fuel them?”
Xena gaped at her partner. “You tryin’ to say I’ve lost my edge? Everything’s all dried up?” Her eyes began to smolder. “Like me?”
“Now, Xena. Nothing wrong with getting older. I mean, it’s not like I’m still as –.”
“The age card? Pfft. You dare try playing that? After lecturing me about what’s gotten too moldy to mention?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “So it’s plain old fear? I can respect that.”
“Fear?!” Xena’s mouth dropped. “Are you nuts?! I don’t want our life turned upside down, okay? And, yeah, I’m old enough not to prove I still got all that fire and stuff.” She stood, planted with her trademark sneer. “But I could, if I wanted. Don’t you ever forget it.”
“Ah. There’s my girl. Still in there after all.”
Xena maintained her stance, even as she realized she’d been outfoxed once again. The trick was to turn defeat into a semblance of willing surrender. She dropped down into the rocking chair. “Lucky for you, I’ve actually gained something with age,” she said, inspecting her fingernails. “Comes in handy right about now.”
“Mmhm. Sensitivity. You know, to … problems … of aging partners.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “What exactly are you suggesting?”
“Eh, nothing you need worry about.” Xena waved a dismissive hand. “I go along with it best I can.”
“Xeena. Go along with what?”
“You sure? I mean, I wouldn’t want you to –.”
“Um, your hearing?”
“My what?” Gabrielle gaped at Xena. “My hearing?”
“Uh huh.” Xena raised a brow. “Like, when I say ‘no,’ what do you hear?”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. She raised a brow. “Wrong question.”
“Mm. Lemme guess: What do I really mean to say?”
“There ya go.”
“Humpf. Well, you’re right about one thing.”
“Let me guess. You didn’t have that problem way back, when I hung on your every word?”
“I still do, dear.” Gabrielle smirked. “You have my word on it.”
I I I I I
The wagon wheel struck a large rock. Gabrielle lurched forward. She didn’t need to look sideways to know Xena was doing so. Instead she continued to focus on her knitting. She’d found it a surprisingly satisfactory way to pass the time. In her youth, she’d wile away the hours dreaming about what she could do in the world if she ever escaped Poteidaia. That opportunity came in the form of a dark-haired warrior resigned to traveling alone. Who obviously had no idea of the role she’d play in Gabrielle’s as yet unwritten script for the future.
Gabrielle had soon discovered a fondness for physical pursuits, which rivaled her active imagination. Now that she’d returned to a more settled life, she liked the feel of her hands constantly moving, her eyes searching for something off kilter, mind strategizing ways to smooth out imperfections, to design something both beautiful and useful.
There was also another reason – relaxing with a touch of devilment that bordered on payback. Xena would be sulking about something or another. Behave in some manner designed to irritate. Like driving over that rock she could’ve easily avoided. She’d pretend it was an accident. Check to see what response it got, aware she wasn’t fooling anybody. Gabrielle would simply smile and execute another stitch. It drove her dear partner nuts.
“Careful, Xena. You know what it’s like – doing wagon repairs on the road. Aren’t those your favorite breeches? Be a shame to dirty them.”
The warrior growled under her breath. Bad enough Gabrielle had gotten her way, as usual. Set them on a course down this stupid road for a stupid mission that was basically child’s play. Why couldn’t she leave well enough alone? Let somebody else be saddled with good deeds for a change? But noooo. She refused to even acknowledge the ridiculousness. Took it in stride like that boulder. Acted as if her sunny disposition would dissipate the dark cloud right next to her. Xena gripped the reins tighter, tempted to snatch those knitting needles and let the storm loose. But that would give Gabrielle too much satisfaction. Prove she could beat Xena at the warrior’s own game.
“You’re the one needs to be careful. A busted wagon’s nothing compared to what you’ve got us headed for. And don’t think I’ll let you wiggle off the hook this time.”
“I don’t worry about the little things like some people.” Gabrielle glanced up from her knitting. “I can take just about anything folks dish out.” She smiled brightly. “Don’t you know that by now?”
I I I I I
Pelimius hopped off the porch swing and began pacing again. He checked up the road for the 100th time, squinting into the sun at some movement that caught his eye. The shape of it gradually became clearer. A wagon! He held his breath, willing the wagon to come faster, deciding it would if he ran to meet it.
“Please, please, please,” he prayed as he got closer. “Let it be …. Yes! Gabrielle! Xena!” he shouted, nearly spooking the horses.
“Whoooaaaa.” The larger woman reined in the wagon team. “What’re you tryin’ to do? Get yourself killed?” She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Wonder why,” she muttered.
“Pelimius.” The smaller woman greeted him, completely ignoring her companion. “In a rush, I take it?”
“Yeah, we gotta get to the dock. I was s’posed to be there this mornin’. I’ll get my bag. Meet me in front,” he ordered, turning and racing back to his house.
“This is starting out well.” Xena snapped the reins. “`Only a few more miles, Xena, and we’ll be there. Rest, get cleaned up. We’ll feel like new.’ Riiiight.”
“The docks aren’t that far. We’ll drop him off and ….”
“Um ….” Gabrielle winced. “Take it from there.”
“`It,’” Xena spat out. “Pelimius isn’t slow as he looks. He dumps ‘it’ in our laps, while he goes sailing off to freedom.”
“Xeenaaa.” They’d arrived at the house. Gabrielle was relieved to see Pelimius loping down the steps, a large duffle slung over his shoulder. “Hush. He’ll hear you.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Pelimius hopped up on Gabrielle’s side. “Sorry about the rush,” he said, once the wagon had started forward. “Got my times mixed up.”
“What about – .”
“At the inn. S’okay.” He patted Gabrielle’s knee. “Everything’s taken care of. Paid for food in advance at the market. Just ask for Rollos. He’ll take care a ya.”
They rode along in silence awhile before Gabrielle asked, “So, how have you been?”
“Not bad. Work’s been slow, `cause of all the storms.” Pelimius dropped his chin. “Guess you noticed the house’s kinda fallin’ apart. Never been much of a farmer. Been doin’ odd jobs in town. Fixin’ boats. Not much money in it, but promises to let me crew.”
“You luck up on a merchant ship?” Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Destined for the seven seas?”
“Aw, not as lucky as that.” Pelimius grinned sheepishly. “Close, though. Prob’ly more months than I figured. That okay with you?” he asked, peering around at Xena.
“Not a problem,” Gabrielle assured quickly. “We hadn’t planned on staying long anyway. Our place’ll be more comfortable all the way around.”
“Whew! I wouldn’t impose on ya, if it wasn’t such a crunch. When a chance this good comes along …. I did ask around. Got a few offers of help. Only for a day or two. Besides,” Pelimius said, patting Gabrielle’s knee, “nobody else I trust as much.”
“Pelimius? You do realize I don’t kill on a regular basis anymore.”
Pelimius frowned in puzzlement at the warrior, before a tentative grin appeared. “Aw, she’s just kiddin’ around.” He winked. “Don’t worry, I been workin’ on it. Shouldn’t come ta nothin’ like your sword.” He ducked his head. “This time, anyway.”
“Mm.” Xena rolled her eyes. “Talk about ‘kiddin’ around,’ you and Gabrielle got me beat.”
“Oh, look.” Gabrielle kicked Xena’s foot. “We’re here. Is that your boat? The big one there?”
“Yup. From the look a things, got here just in time. Pull over to the inn.” When they’d done so, Pelimius jumped down. “Give me a sec? Shouldn’t be too long. Everybody knows the plan.” He hurried inside.
“Right again. Somethin’ ya want dumped? Call Gabrielle. No matter how big, small or long, she’ll – .”
“Shush! Here he comes.” Gabrielle noted the man’s flushed face. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Good as it’s gonna get. Leavin’ never gets any easier.” Pelimius glanced at the ship. Sailors were filing up the gangplank. “Gotta go. I’d thank you again, but it wouldn’t be enough. You’re life savers, is all I can say.” He hopped up on the wagon step to kiss Gabrielle’s cheek, then reached over to shake Xena’s hand. “Pray for a good trip, will ya?”
“We will.” Gabrielle hugged Pelimius.
“You do the same for us.” Xena begrudged a thin smile. “We’ll give it our best shot. You just worry about getting back safe.” She raised a brow. “Preferably before age kills us. Otherwise, I might fall back on old habits.”
Pelimius chuckled. “Gotcha. See ya … when I see ya.” Yelling, “Hold up, I’m comin’!” he ran to catch his latest gig.
“Why don’t you take the inn?”
“Mighty generous of you. And what, pray tell, will you be doing?”
“Stopping by the market. That way we can leave quicker.” Gabrielle smiled sweetly. “More efficient, dontcha think?”
“More chicken, is what I think.”
“Xena. You prefer the direct method, correct? Get it over with, move on to the next step? You know this drill better than I.” Gabrielle smirked. “Surely there’s nobody less chicken than you.”
Xena scowled at the love of her life a long moment. “I’m letting you win. You know that, right?”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle drew Xena in for a quick peck. “We chickens couldn’t live without it.”
I I I I I
Xena slid through the swinging doors and strolled as unobtrusively as possible to a dimly lit table by the back wall. A dozen or so men sat lounging at the bar, most likely sailors waiting for ships to arrive or depart. Her mood began to lift when she didn’t see the target of her surveillance, then dipped when a female figure emerged from the kitchen area. Bigger than a few years ago. More assured in attitude and movement. Few would guess the danger behind that innocent façade.
“Um, what can I get for you?”
“Not sure yet. I’m waiting for someone.”
“Maybe some cider until then?”
“Sure.” Xena glanced up at the server who’d come to take her order. “Mix in something strong while you’re at it. Doesn’t matter what.”
The server grinned. “Coming right up.”
Xena turned to resume observing her nemesis, only to discover brown eyes across the room regarding her as one might a visitor who’d been expected but tracked mud in the house. Xena relaxed against the back of her chair, brow raised. Her adversary straightened in her chair, chin raised. Neither looked away when the server brought Xena’s cider. Nor as Xena took a sip and exhaled a satisfied, “Ahhh.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle came up behind the warrior and set her sack of produce on the floor. “Where’s ….” She tracked the blue gaze, evidently in a silent duel with someone across …. “Oh, for the love of ….”
Xena watched her partner weave between tables to the other side of the room, maintaining contact with the brown eyes, which – like her own – did not blink until Gabrielle came between them. A few moments later, two individuals headed the warrior’s way.
“Xena?” Gabrielle chewed the insides of her cheeks until she had her partner’s attention. “I’m gonna let the innkeeper know we’ve come for Isobel.” She narrowed her eyes for emphasis. “You two get reacquainted while I’m gone.” She waited for Isobel to sit across from Xena before leaving for the kitchen.
“Hi.” Isobel cocked her head. “What’s that you’re drinking?”
“Cider. Mostly.” Xena grinned evilly. “Want some?”
Isobel leaned over to sniff the mug. “No, thank you.” She pulled something from a small sack and offered it to Xena, grinning evilly. “Wanna play with my dollie?”
I I I I I
They’d positioned Isobel between them. Not that this stimulated conversation to Gabrielle’s liking. So she knitted. She didn’t need to pretend obliviousness to ruts and bumps, preoccupied as she was trying to fathom why Xena and Isobel mixed like oil and water. Isobel’s behavior she could understand. It was actually quite natural for the age the two opponents displayed. What could possibly sour her chronologically mature partner sufficiently to regress her to the level of a 10 year old?
One of Pelimius’ relatives had introduced them all a couple years before, believing father and motherless daughter could use the guidance of strong women. He’d met his future wife on a passenger ship where he worked repairing equipment. Despite – and possibly a little because – of their different social status, they felt an immediate attraction. When they docked at a particularly bustling port, Pelimius gallantly offered to be her protector and guide. They wandered through shops hand in hand, completely at ease with each other. A chance encounter with a man who turned out to be a magistrate convinced them they were meant to be with one another. And so they wed.
Elizabeth’s father responded to the news by coldly banishing her with the belongings she’d brought on the trip. The reality of the situation didn’t really hit Pelimius until the couple stood on the wharf watching her old life of luxury sail away. But when he turned to Elizabeth to apologize for his brashness, she presented him with a small pouch her mother had slipped her when they embraced for the last time. The unexpected dowry proved more than sufficient to purchase the land and materials Pelimius needed for a little home and modest furnishings. Elizabeth never complained about their simple life. She loved gardening and the small lute she always traveled with. She gave music lessons to supplement Pelimius’ meager income, but mainly to barter for fine material or objects to decorate their home.
They doted on their first child – a girl with Elizabeth’s features and tawny hair, Pelimius’ brown eyes and sturdy frame. To Elizabeth, she was “Isobel,” a little lady who knew soon after she began toddling the proper way to behave in adult company. Pelimius nicknamed her “Izzy.” Father and daughter kept to themselves what she learned accompanying him to town, where she became the darling of the rough characters in some of the places Pelimius frequented. The girl realized early on she had the best of all worlds – like the princess in the stories she heard at her mother’s knee.
Her fairy tale existence took a dark turn the day her mother’s linen handkerchief turned red. Elizabeth had begun to cough – rather daintily at first, then with body shaking force. Neighbors began filing through. They’d disappear behind the closed door to the master bedroom where Elizabeth was confined or sit at the dining table talking quietly with Pelimius. It was as if Isobel had ceased to exist. Part of her wanted to tear through them and that door, shouting at the top of her lungs. Another part knew that would disappoint her mother.
One night her father woke her. “Come, Izzy. Your mama wants to see ya.” She’d thrown back her covers, rushed past him and climbed up beside her mother, certain a kiss would bring the ashen face back to life. It did.
“Mama! I missed you soooo much!”
“Yes, Mama?” She’d lain with her ear close to her mother’s mouth.
“Remember that castle in the sky?”
“The one with good food and people and music? Where everyone is happy?”
“Mmhm. I must go there soon.”
“Me too? Oh, we’ll have so much –.”
“Isobel, I am too sick to … play …here anymore.”
“No, Mama, you’ll get better. I’ll – .”
“Isobel, I love you more than anything. More than any castle. I am going only because my season is ending. Like the leaves when it’s their time to fall. That’s nature, my child. Your nature is to grow and blossom. Here.”
“I don’t care about nature! I want to be with you! In the sky!”
“You will. Always see yourself in my arms. Hear my voice. I … I’m so sorry, Isobel. My body needs to sleep. First, I want you to promise me something.”
“To be a lady?”
“More. Remember our times together. It’s all right to miss me. I want to hear your laughter too.”
“You’ll hear it?”
“Yes, my princess. I’m your mother. I’ll know everything about you forever. Promise?”
“Ahhh. Give me a kiss, then off to bed with you.”
The next morning Isobel got up to find her father sitting on an empty bed. Crying. She’d run out of the house, calling for her mother. Her father finally came out, took her hand and led her to a mound of dirt near the forest behind their house. He said Elizabeth’s tired body rested beneath, but that she lived now in a better place. Isobel had dropped down, her first instinct to claw at the dirt. And then, tears streaming down her face, she heard her mother’s last words. Her own last words. She’d taken a deep breath, looked up and smiled. She was seven years old.
“Well, we’re here,” Gabrielle said brightly as they drew up in front of Pelimius’ house. She pretended not to hear Xena’s snort. “Isobel, mind grabbing that bag for me? No doubt Xena wants to take care of the horses.” She scowled at her partner. “Considering the workout she gave them.”
“Yup. Gotta keep `em shape.” Xena raised a sardonic brow. “Make sure they can handle emergency runs. Never can tell what might sneak up on you.”
Isobel paused in reaching for a sack of produce. She surveyed the quiet landscape. “You don’t have to be afraid. We haven’t had robbers or anything around here.”
“Mm. Trouble comes in many forms.” Xena began unhitching the wagon team, though her eyes stayed on Gabrielle. “We couldn’t’ve survived this long without being prepared for any and everything.”
“Ooo, more adventures?” Isobel grinned at Gabrielle. “You’ll tell me about them, won’t you? Like you did the last time?”
“Of course.” Gabrielle waited for Isobel to step down. “Don’t get too excited. Unless you’ve developed an interest in old people yakking, baby sitting and fishing.”
“Oh, Gabrielle, you’re not old.” As the two walked toward the house, Isobel threw a look over her shoulder at Xena before continuing, “You’re as nice and fun as I remember.” She ran ahead, pushed open the door and began showing Gabrielle where to put various items.
“Well, Isobel, you’ve certainly become quite the big girl.”
Gabrielle watched Isobel separate the produce into piles for immediate cooking, storage or placement on the windowsill for further ripening. “I bet your father depends on you a lot.”
“I guess.” Isobel had stooped to pull a large pan from the floor cabinet. “How about stew? I’m pretty good at that.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “See what I mean? Excellent choice.” She opened a drawer, searching for a cutting knife. “Mind if I help?”
Isobel beamed. “That would be great!” Assuming a more serious expression, she bustled about, retrieving aprons and utensils, laying them out on the table. “There. All ready for after we wash up.” She picked up a large bowl and headed for the back door. “Wanna come with me to the well? We use this for our hands and face. We have a big tub in a room Papa built. It’s on a grate so you can build a fire under it and ….” She ducked her head. “Oh, you probably remember that, huh?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle put her arm around the girl. “That’s very thoughtful of you. I’d love a bath later. Xena too.”
“Um … because she needs it?”
Gabrielle laughed. “Well, that too.” She cocked her head. “You don’t think she’d like one?”
Isobel shrugged. “She always called herself ‘a lake person.’ You know, getting clean swimming.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle followed Isobel to the back yard. “We did do a lot of that during our days on the road. It was nice.” She chuckled. “And often fun.”
“Fun? Like how?”
“Oh, water games. Splashing around. Silly stuff.”
They’d reached the well. Gabrielle began lowering the bucket into it.
“Could we do that?”
“Hmm? Do what?”
“Play in a lake. Could we? You and me?”
Gabrielle glanced over at the girl and caught a mixture of eagerness and vulnerability. She smiled. “Sure, we can put that on our list of things to do.”
“Great!” Isobel held out the washbowl to fill. “And Gabrielle? I am a bigger girl now, but if you want, you can call me Izzy.”
I I I I I
The horses had no idea how lucky they were. In exchange for transporting humans and their belongings, the four-legged creatures got food, boarding, grooming, and exercise in the great outdoors. The little consideration required of them – following directions, not biting the hand that tended them – was nothing compared to the physical and emotional responsibilities of humans. At least, that was Xena’s opinion, muttered during her prolonged tasks in the small stable.
“Yeah, yeah, I love you too.” Xena rubbed the large head that nuzzled her in acknowledgement of her efforts. “If only all my relationships were this simple.” She treated the horses to apples. “We know what makes each other tick, don’t we? Can tell each other’s moods. Know when to hang around or fly away like Banshees. How to smell a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She snorted. “Even a baby one.”
Sighing, she plopped down on a crate, wishing she could sleep on the hay there rather than face the menace waiting for her in the house. She chuckled darkly, recalling Gabrielle’s confident, “But, Xena, you’re so good with kids,” when she’d left her with Izzy that first time. In truth, she’d thought so herself. Youngsters usually saw past her gruff exterior, recognizing she had their best interests at heart. Accepted her discipline as one of the many skills that could protect them. Intuited the playful side to the way she smirked at and toyed with opponents, anticipating she could have fun with them too if they were good, once she’d vanquished bad adults.
Of course, Izzy hadn’t seen her in action before they met. The two women who suddenly appeared on her doorstep not long after her mother died could’ve been two bats out of Tartarus, far as Izzy knew. She’d been a little wary, but polite. Her mood improved after a few of Gabrielle’s stories. She’d sit with eyes glued to Gabrielle, occasionally glancing at Xena as if to better visualize the heroic warrior described as saving potential victims large and small. Xena graciously let her hold her sword and touch her chakram.
Though Xena spent much of their initial visit running errands with Pelimius, she felt comfortable enough with Izzy not to mind when Gabrielle volunteered they baby sit during a short fishing boat job offered Pelimius. A couple of days into their assignment, Gabrielle said she’d run into some councilors from Pylous, who asked if she could help them with an important negotiation. She assured Xena everything would be fine while she was gone, that Xena and Isobel had a lot more in common than met the eye.
“She asks me about you all the time. I showed her some simple moves you taught me early on. Xena, she really seems to have a knack for physical stuff. She’s curious and loves when I joke around with her. You’ll have fun. You’ll see.”
After some grumbling, Xena had agreed. She actually looked forward to taking Izzy outside, broadening her horizons beyond the domestic drudgery she seemed destined for. Their first morning alone did not bode well.
“She left at sunrise.”
“You mean, she’s … gone?”
“Only for a little while. I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”
The girl had run to the window, but not before Xena noticed tears in her eyes. She’d stood there for a long time – shoulders slumped, hands pressed against the open shutters. Then, as if attached to twine pulling her up, her small body straightened. When she turned, it was with the prim bearing of a miniature lady, regarding Xena as one might a misbehaved child. “I’ll fix us something to eat,” she’d stated. “Be sure to wash your hands.”
Dumbstruck, Xena had watched Izzy lay kindling on the hearth, start a fire, go out back and return with some eggs. The warrior had dutifully filled a bowl with water for them to wash their hands and set the table while Izzy prepared breakfast. Neither spoke until they’d finished eating and cleaning the dishes. Xena finally decided her gray hairs probably meant she should be the one to make the first move.
“So, what would you like to do today?”
“Besides that. I’ll help, so we can have some fun quicker.”
“Well, Gabrielle says she showed you some defensive moves. I could teach you a few more.”
“I’ll get sweaty. And dirty.”
“S’okay. We’ll ride out to the lake. Do you swim? I like getting clean that way. Do you fish? I’ll show you how to make a good pole, find the best bait.”
“I have my own way of playing.”
“Yeah? Bring it on. I’m game.”
“Now? What about the chores?”
“Eh, the dust isn’t going anywhere. Whatever else there is can wait awhile longer.”
Izzy had smiled with a hint of mischief, which Xena took as a good sign. The girl went to her room and returned with a box.
“Oooo, whatcha got there?”
“My favorite toys.”
Izzy opened the box and proceeded to arrange the contents on the table.
“Um, what’re we gonna do with those?”
“You don’t know? I use these for furniture. We’ll pretend the walls are here. I like being the mama. You wanna play with the daddy doll?”
Thus began Xena’s least favorite “fun” episode with a child. The “highlights” involved teaching the dolls manners, changing their few outfits over and over, moving them inches from one “room” to another, gossiping about the neighbors. The daddy doll became restless. As he was leaving the table “to tend the fields,” the mommy doll said it was time to eat. When he picked up a toothpick to practice sparring, the mommy doll professed a fear of weapons. He suggested they all take a trip somewhere nice, but the mommy doll pouted because he didn’t appreciate how comfortable she’d tried to make their home.
Xena soon began to wonder exactly what little girl Gabrielle had met. The one Xena was stuck with alternated between boring her out of her skull or getting on her last nerve. Nothing she suggested topped messing around with those damned dolls. Everything she did was not quite right – from the way she smelled after a morning ride, her preference for breeches, even the noise her boots made on the wooden floors. The only time Xena glimpsed the barest smile was when she was ready to tear her own – or Izzy’s – hair from the roots.
When Gabrielle finally came breezing in from her trip, Xena had stalked out with a clenched teeth, “Your turn,” in acknowledgement. She’d ridden to the lake, spent the day swimming and fishing. She returned with no pretense whatsoever of a desire to be part of any shared activities beyond eating and cleaning up. Gabrielle, of course, couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie.
“Xena, what in Tartarus is wrong with you? You haven’t said two words to that poor girl since I came back. To me either, I might add.”
“Guess I’m all ‘played out.’ No words left that could possibly convey how much ‘fun’ we’ve had.”
“Is that sarcasm? Surely you don’t mean things went – .”
“As bad as Baby Bliss on the loose, shooting random arrows? Noooo. Worse. Much worse.”
“Xena, I don’t understand. Isobel seems fine. Well, she did ask if you were used to children. I figured she just meant – .”
“Oh, so I’m the bad guy? Cranky old, ‘but you’re so good with kids’ Xena suddenly lost her touch? Regressed to her juvenile delinquent days?”
“You needn’t be so defensive. I simply can’t imagine what that lovely girl could’ve done to – .”
“Leave it, okay? You’re back. Everything’s hunky dory. Just don’t give me any grief if I make myself scarce until Pelimius returns.”
A couple days later, Pelimius did return. He seemed much less surprised than Gabrielle at Xena’s lack of enthusiasm when he asked how things had gone. Except, Xena was a bit puzzled when he’d winked and whispered, “Izzy has a lot of me in `er. But from what I hear, bet you were quite a devilish tyke yourself.”
I I I I I
Gabrielle and Isobel were setting the table for a noon meal when Xena eventually decided she’d better make an appearance, lest she awaken a certain petite green-eyed monster. Still, she had her pride. She sauntered in casually wiping a grubby hand across her forehead. She wore the dark streak it left with no remorse, her eyes daring the others to voice their disapproval. Isobel followed Gabrielle’s example and continued with her tasks. They ate with minimal conversation – mostly along the lines of “Pass the bread, please” or “These berries are really sweet” – before Gabrielle initiated another course.
“I think we should stay a little longer than we planned.”
Two heads jerked up, one in disbelief, the other with mild curiosity.
“Isobel … um, Izzy … has been telling me how hard it’s been for Pelimius lately. The odds jobs he strings together leave him so tired when he makes it home. There’s a lot needs fixing, and Izzy can only do so much.”
“You suggesting we should do it?”
“Uh huh. Most of the repairs would be a piece of cake for you.” Gabrielle batted her eyes. “You’re so good with your hands.”
Xena rolled her tongue in cheek. “According to you, I’m good at a lot of things you tend to overestimate.”
“Only because you have such high standards.” Gabrielle smiled sweetly. “You and Izzy are alike in that way.”
The so-called perfectionists cut their eyes at each other, neither convinced they shared much of anything, except the suspicion Gabrielle had intentions of making it so.
Isobel shifted in her chair. “Gee, Gabrielle …. That would be nice for Papa. But he wanted so much for me to go away with you.” She scrunched her face, trying to recall the words that had initially sent her into a hissy fit. “`It’ll be good for you, seeing how they live,’ he said. ‘Their village has a school and lots of things that are better for a little girl to do.’”
“Yeah, Gabrielle. What about ‘she’ll be more comfortable’ at our place? And our responsibilities? Your council meetings. My militia training. We’ve already been gone longer than – .”
“Xena, our world won’t stop because we’re gone. It hasn’t before. As for Izzy ….” Gabrielle winked at the girl. “You’ve done well enough where you are. We’ll simply add touches here and there.”
Isobel brightened. “You’ll be like my teacher? With your stories? Showing me stuff?”
“Not just me. Xena too.”
“Oh.” Isobel glanced at Xena again and caught the blue eyes reflecting equal skepticism.
“We can start tomorrow.” Gabrielle rubbed her hands together. “You two can work on the house. I’ll take the garden. It’s in pretty good shape, thanks to Izzy.” She beamed at the two sullen faces as if they shared her enthusiasm. “Yes?”
Isobel forced a smile. “Whatever you say, Gabrielle.” She gave Xena a look before adding with a trace of smugness, “You always have such good ideas.”
Xena knew a challenge when she heard one. She’d be darned if she’d let that pint-sized butt-kisser show her up. “Sure, I’m with ya.” She returned Isobel’s look, with equal smugness. “Like I was way before some people were in diapers.”
I I I I I
“Whatever happened to talking things out first?” Xena unpacked her bag in the master bedroom. She paused to glower at her partner. “Or did you already guess my answer? You know – the one you have trouble hearing?”
Gabrielle smirked. “We do know each other too well.” She plopped down on the bed. “I’m sorry. Truth is, you’re the reason I thought of it.”
“You took so long with the horses.”
Xena’s mouth dropped. “So this is my punishment?”
“No, silly.” Gabrielle ran her hand across the covers, contemplating what had gotten into her this time around. “I realized how much you dreaded coming in. How little that surprised Isobel.”
“Pfft. Why should it? You’re the only one thinks she’s less likely to kick me in the teeth than the horses.”
“Xena, she’s a little girl. I haven’t seen that side of her.”
Xena eased down beside her partner. “Some things aren’t meant to be, Gabrielle.” She bumped shoulders. “In case you haven’t noticed, not everybody loves me the way you do. That’s her right, even if she is a child.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Something’s getting in the way.” She took Xena’s hand. “She could learn so much from you. I believe she knows that. I believe she truly admires you. I get that from her. Why would she be different with you, of all people?”
“Because I’m not you?” Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “You bring out the best in folks. Maybe she talks nice about me because of you.” She chuckled. “Sort of like Tara. In reverse.”
“Isobel hasn’t tried to impress me by biting off your ear.”
“True. And Tara did come around, far as you were concerned.”
“See?” Gabrielle put her arm around Xena. “There’s always hope. I’m afraid we’ll lose that, if we go home now. We’ll all get caught up in village life until Pelimius gets back. The two of you might not get to know each other better. My heart tells me Izzy would miss out on something she needs. Something you can give her.”
Xena blew out a resigned breath. “Exactly how nice would I have to be?” She brightened. “Can it include ‘tough love?’ Like you gave Tara with your staff? Ooo, I could let her throw my chakram.” An evil snicker escaped. “And catch it.”
“Xeenaa. Just spend time with her, okay? Pretend you want to?” Gabrielle batted her eyes. “There’s a reward in it, if you do.”
“Yeah? How often we talkin’? Who gets to choose when, where, how?”
“That depends on the effort. The results.” Gabrielle reclined, the picture of sultry enticement. “Will a sample seal the deal?”
“Sample?” Xena casually surveyed the room. “Of my favorite pie? I don’t see any here.” Eyes glinting, she gazed at Gabrielle. “You got some other dessert in mind?”
“Let me put it this way….” Gabrielle unbuttoned her top. “If you fail to see it now, could be a long time before I set it out again.”
Xena wiped at the sweat on her brow, butt wedged against the stone side of the rickety steps up to the landing, where she’d decided to start her repairs. The small “helper” across from her more interested in adjusting her bonnet than paying attention to instructions. Her larger nemesis lounging in the shade on the porch, blithely knitting as though unaware of the potential battlefield a few feet away.
“You two ready for a break? I know I am.” Gabrielle stretched. “Wanna come inside for a snack? Or I could bring it out to you.”
“Whew! Good idea.” Isobel fanned herself. “Think I’ll go inside. Unless ….” She checked with Xena. “Is that okay? Can we stop for awhile?”
Xena ground her teeth. She pointed her chin at the wood to replace the three remaining steps. “Go on. I wanna finish this first.”
“You sure? You’re wringing wet. No sense doing this by yourself. Why not wait until Izzy – .”
“I’ll manage. Some water and I’ll be fine.”
“Izzy, get Xena some water, will you?” When the girl left, Gabrielle crouched at the edge of the porch. “Xena, this isn’t a battle. Relax. The work was supposed to be a means to an end, remember. Not hammering. Bonding.”
“Well, excuse me.” Xena glowered at her partner. “I mistakenly assumed one of the ends was leaving this place better than we found it. For Pelimius, remember?”
“Yes, but we agreed – .”
“Here ya go.” Isobel popped over with a cup. “Oops,” she said as water slushed out. “Sorry. Want me to fill it again?”
Xena grabbed the cup. “This’ll do.” She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “I’ll be in, soon’s I’m through with this board.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Come on, Izzy. We’ll have a nice plate of fruit waiting for her when she joins us.”
The squishing sound emanating from her armpits seemed to echo Xena’s muttered, “Idiot, idiot, idiot!” If only she could’ve learned to control her stubbornness as well as she had her inclination to resolve problems with a sword. This time it meant laboring in the heat a few minutes longer than necessary, just to take a breather from a certain evil child. No matter how hard she tried – and she’d truly given her best shot – the two of them couldn’t connect beyond going through motions sufficient to placate Gabrielle.
That morning Xena had given the house a thorough inspection. She’d purposely chosen the stairs as a task suitable for involving a young assistant.
“Looks like a good day for chores outside. Izzy, how about you and I tackle a few together?”
Isobel had glanced at Gabrielle before answering, “Sure. How can I help?”
“Ever used a hammer?”
“I’ve watched Papa. I think I can do that.”
Heartened, Xena had led the way outside. Things went downhill soon as they were alone.
“My name is Isobel.”
“You called me Izzy. My name is Isobel.”
“But I thought …. Gabrielle calls you Izzy.”
“Did you tell her you don’t like that?”
“Because it’s okay.”
“You just said -- .”
“She can call me that.”
“Mm. I see. Well then … Isobel … we’d better get started. As nice a day as it is, I suspect it’s going to be a long one.”
Xena wanted badly to apprise Gabrielle of Isobel’s split personality, but could imagine her partner’s disbelief that she of many skills couldn’t manage to get along with a 10 year old. Plus there was her stubbornness, which resisted admitting such an ignominious defeat.
The following day Xena dutifully invited Isobel along again. This time progress was impeded because the hammer had disappeared. That evening, Xena made sure to bring all the tools inside. The next morning, they couldn’t find the ladder. Gabrielle and Isobel acted as if Xena must’ve misplaced these items. The warrior suffered in silence. She had her suspicions of course. She simply needed time to catch the culprit red-handed.
I I I I I
“So, how’d it go today?” Gabrielle asked as they prepared to turn in.
“No worse than usual.”
“Don’t tell me you lost something else.”
“I wish,” Xena muttered to herself. To Gabrielle she said, “No, but there’s always tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t be so pessimistic. You’re in a strange place. It’s perfectly understandable you’d forget where you put something.” Gabrielle smirked. “Doesn’t necessarily mean your touch of senility is permanent.”
Xena suppressed a growl. “It hasn’t occurred to you I might’ve had help? A little push?”
“You know I’m just teasing. Like I said – .”
“I meant ‘help’ from my ‘helper.’”
Gabrielle stared at Xena. “Surely you’re not implying Izzy had anything to do with that. With things going missing?” She raised a brow at Xena’s silence. “Why would she? From what I see, she looks forward to working with you.”
“Riiiight. Maybe the rooster did it.” Xena plopped down on the bed, scooted back to rest against the headboard and folded her arms across her chest. “Certainly not a perfect little angel.”
“Nobody’s claiming that.” Gabrielle sat at the small dressing table. “She has her moods, like the rest of us. Perhaps a bit clumsy with tasks she’s not used to. What’s important is that she’s trying.” She narrowed her eyes. “What about you?”
“Hmmm.” Xena rubbed her chin. “Inventing ways she can be useful? Showing her how to do something 50 times? Ignoring her pitiful sighs when she ‘accidentally’ messes up? Remaining patient at taking so long to do something that should ….” Xena realized her stoic resolve had crumbled. And that she no longer cared. “Yeah, guess I do have a ways to go.” She glowered at her partner. “Before I’m the perfect angel.”
Gabrielle blew out a breath. “I’m sorry. I do tend to be overly optimistic.” She snorted wryly. “You’d think I’d grow out of that at some point, huh?”
Xena blew out a breath. “No. And you still cheat too.”
“By pointing out my own flaws?” Gabrielle smiled innocently. They both knew Xena loved her just the way she was. She joined her partner on the bed. “Let’s say you’re right. That Isobel’s got some sabotage in her. Do we give up on the bonding thing? Pack up and head home like we planned?” Glancing at Xena out the corner of her eye, she added, “Let her … win?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “And you accuse me of being incorrigible.” She contemplated the ceiling. “I’m pretty much out of options. Fishing, swimming, hammering – I don’t think it matters what I suggest. I’m the problem. She’d probably wallow in mud, if it was with you.”
“Heh, according to Izzy, so would you. Even by yourself.”
“Pfft. Acts like I’m a slob or somethin’. Little snob. Did you know I’m not to call her Izzy?”
“Really? She said that?”
“Yup. But you can.” Xena’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe it’s your height?”
“Makes it easier to see eye to eye?”
“Funny.” Gabrielle absently glanced around the room. Baby booties hung from the mirror. Elizabeth’s comb and brush still lay on the dressing table, atop an unfinished covering embroidered with the letters “Iso.” A small lute rested upright against the wall, obviously well cared for despite a light coating of dust. “Maybe it’s the house? The memories?”
“You saying it’s best we leave after all?”
“Mmmm. Not necessarily. Not go away, I mean.”
“A trip? I told you, she’s not interested in the lake or anything.”
“Somewhere with other people. Where you don’t have to …um ….” Gabrielle ducked her head.
“Be alone? Stuck looking at each other?”
“You could think of it another way.” Gabrielle pursed her lips. “Less worry about not seeing eye to eye?”
I I I I I
The shopping trip into town the next day did not reflect the promise of Gabrielle’s cheery send off. Those departing smiled pleasantly enough, until they’d gotten sufficiently far to abandon any pretense of camaraderie. Except between Isobel and the couple dolls she’d brought along. They passed the time with continuous, high-pitched “conversations.” Only monumental self-restraint prohibited their driver from interrupting them by rolling over every rut or rock in their path.
“`Have fun.’” Xena silently mocked her partner’s optimism. “Callisto was more fun than this.” The warrior steeled herself for the joys of “playing” with an adversary where slicing or smacking was off limits.
“I wanna stop at the inn first,” Xena said, figuring she’d fortify herself with a stiff drink before lugging Isobel to the blacksmith, building-supply store and market. “We won’t stay – .”
“Sure.” Isobel skipped ahead and through the door.
“Izzy! Where ya been?”
“Yeah, we thought maybe you sailed off with your pa.”
“About time you popped in. Whipped these ‘ne’er do wells’ into shape. Their manners’ve shrunk to less than the foam on day-old brew.”
“Hey, what else we got to do, without our Izzy for company?”
Weather-beaten older men, younger ones in peasant clothes, some of all ages with swords strapped on, women dressed to serve food or themselves – all gravitated to the girl as if to a piece of gold spotted on the ground. Xena lingered near the door with her mouth open. Stunned to witness Little Miss Prissy swagger toward her fan club, greeting them like playmates in a schoolyard – the truant variety who’d cut class.
“Why, that little ….” The corner of the warrior’s mouth twitched. It took some effort for her to command a sterner expression befitting her role as substitute guardian. Not that it mattered much, considering her young charge seemed completely oblivious.
“Same as before?”
“I waited on you the last time. Cider?” The server who’d come up glanced at Izzy with a wry smile. “With a good … kick?”
“Mm.” Xena decided she might as well relax while she experienced this “new” Isobel. She nodded to the server and pulled out a chair near the back.
A grizzled man lifted the girl to sit atop a table. “I hear your pa’ll be gone awhile.”
“Lilli’s family take you in?” asked a woman with rouge-covered cheeks.
“Somebody stayin’ at your place?”
“Uh huh.” Aware her audience awaited more detail, Isobel let a few moments pass before somewhat dramatically pointing to the solitary figure seated near the door.
“That’s one of the ladies come and got you when your pa left, right?”
“She a relative?”
“Uh uh. Just one of my baby sitters.” Isobel shrugged. “Xena. You know – the Warrior Princess?”
Isobel’s “baby sitter” couldn’t decide which surprised her more – hearing the girl’s reference to an old legend, or detecting a hint of pride in the way it was mentioned. The general reaction? Not much surprising there.
“Warrior Princess?!” The grizzled man studied the person in question. His face reflected the same amusement as the others’. “Izzy, you been dippin’ into your pa’s ale?”
“Pfft. Not everybody sees the world in a mug, Ardy.” The rouge lady winked at Isobel. “You know our girl likes being creative. If it’s not music, it’s stories. Prob’ly misses Pelimius less, turning her nanny into somebody interesting.”
“Yeah, but the Warrior Princess? Where’d she come up with that, Rosie? Not many of us left to tell those tales.”
Isobel jumped down off the table. “Ask her yourself. I smell something sweet with my name on it.”
The collection of adults watched Isobel stroll toward the kitchen. When she disappeared inside, they once again regarded the woman relaxed back in her chair, long legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, hand cradling her mug. True, most caretakers they knew seldom popped in for a drink with their charges in tow. She certainly seemed more suited to the breeches she wore, than to the typical matronly apron. And the eyes … observing them bemusedly as one might a group of children, yet completely familiar with all the ways they’d grown astray. Not judgmental. A bit playful even. And at the same time … dangerous.
Ardy hitched up his pants and led the way over. “We hear you’re takin’ care of Izzy.”
“If she says so.”
“She says you’re Xena.”
“Once known as the Warrior Princess.”
“Always will be to some folks.”
“Most of `em dead. Like you oughtta be. If you was really her.”
“No argument there.”
Isobel’s fans exchanged looks. Rosie edged closer. “Izzy’s got a special place around here. We don’t take kindly to folks playing games with her. Not if she’ll end up disappointed.”
“Yeah. Pelimius know about your tall tales?”
“Uh, no. That would be Isobel’s other temporary guardian. My partner, Gabrielle.” Xena leaned forward. “Look, I appreciate your concern. Good to know you’re looking out for her. So does Pelimius. He wouldn’t have left her with just anybody. Me being Xena may be interesting, but really neither here nor there.”
Ardy crossed his arms. “If you’re here it is. How come he didn’t tell us?”
Xena shrugged. “Far as he’s concerned, we’re simply friends he trusts with his daughter. Probably didn’t figure I’d need my sword.” She raised a brow. “You know – for Show & Tell? Think maybe he was wrong?”
“Uh ….” Ardy shrunk an inch in the steady blue gaze. “We meant no offense.” He shrugged. “If you’re good enough for Pelimius, not up to us to question.”
“It’s just, we don’t get many … celebrities … around here.” Rosie sucked in her cheeks. “`Specially ones preserved so well.” She swept back her elaborately curled hair. “I’d love to know your secret.”
Xena chuckled. “Good diet, exercise. And ice. Lots and lots of ice.” She saw Isobel on her way over, trying to mask her pleasure at the group clustered around the back table. “Nice chatting with you,” Xena said, pushing her chair back. “Time we got going.”
Isobel popped through the crowd. “Mmmm.” She licked her fingers. “I really miss Cook’s pastries.” As Xena stood, Isobel said, “I hope we come back soon.”
“Yeah, we was just gettin’ better acquainted with Xena here. Quite the inspiration for folks our age.” Ardy tilted his head. “Was a kid when I heard about her army swooping across the land. Now she could be my younger sister.”
“Sure, with those jowls.” Rosie snorted. “Why dontcha try ice, like Xena?”
Isobel fought a smug grin. “She told you about that? How the god Ares put her and Gabrielle in an ice cave?”
“She told us ice helped her look younger.” Rosie narrowed her eyes at Xena. “Lots and lots of ice.”
“They slept frozen for 25 years. Woke up just as they were before.” Isobel scowled at Xena. “How come you didn’t – .”
“Um ….” Xena put up her hand. “Like I said, my partner’s the teller of tales. Shame for her to miss out on all this fun. Trust me, if I had my way, she’d share our story with you. Every detail until her lively little mouth went numb.”
I I I I I
Xena and Isobel continued their errands with minimal conversation but less tension than before. Each aware the other viewed her in a more positive light than previously assumed. Both content to let this new wrinkle in their relationship iron itself out on its own. The ride back certainly began more smoothly. Isobel let her dolls “sleep” and congenially answered Xena’s questions about some of the people they’d met.
About halfway home, the girl requested they stop at a cleared path through the forest. They walked to a large grassy area where several children played.
“Izzy! It’s Izzy!”
Isobel sauntered toward the children, who quickly surrounded her. Once again, Xena simply observed. Gradually she became the object of observation.
“That’s my fr …um … father’s friend. She’s staying with me while he’s gone. Xena.”
“How come she’s here? I mean, with you. Here.”
Isobel glanced around as if to ensure no spies. “She used to be a famous warrior. She can show and tell us a few things. You know, about fighting.”
“She’s kinda old,” a boy mumbled with his hand over his mouth, assuming the woman would have trouble hearing that far.
Xena cupped her ear. “Isobel? You say something?”
Isobel huffed in exasperation. “She’s kidding. She can hear an ant crawl, if she wants. Hold on.” She stalked up to Xena. “You gonna show us something or not?”
Xena crossed her arms. “What’s in it for me?
“Could mean getting all sweaty. And dirty.” Xena smirked. “You know how much I hate that. What do I get for my trouble?”
The girl’s mouth dropped. Eventually she appraised the warrior with a hint of appreciation, one opponent to another. “You’re good.”
“I have my moments.”
“What if I help you with those repairs?” At Xena’s snort, Isobel added, “Really help.”
The warrior inspected her fingernails. “What else ya got?”
Isobel’s scowl didn’t quite conceal the hint of a grin. “I let you drag me to the lake?” She mock shuddered. “Mess around with worms?”
Xena chewed her lip, eyes twinkling. “Those’ll cover the basics. Now, if you want my best performance ….”
“Okay, okay. How about you can call me Izzy, like Gabrielle.”
Xena rubbed her chin. “That’ll work.” She offered her hand. “Deal?”
Isobel shook hands, this time with a grin that wouldn’t be denied. “Deal.”
Part 4 (Conclusion)
Gabrielle was chopping carrots for stew when she heard the wagon and then footsteps. “Well, it’s about time. I started worrying something had – .” She glanced up to catch two figures creeping past the entrance to the kitchen area. “By the gods, what happened?!”
The two figures stopped. They looked down their bodies and then at each other as if just discovering anything amiss.
“Huh.” The larger figure inspected a patch of mud on her tunic. “Will you look at that.”
“Oh, my,” said the smaller figure. “There’s a tear in my best dress.”
Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest. “Something tells me it’s not from fighting off robbers.”
“Um, no.” Xena chewed her lip. “Not exactly.”
“Fish?” Gabrielle scowled at her partner. “Izzy dressed for a trip to town. You would pick today to throw in extracurricular activities.”
“It wasn’t from fishing.” Isobel ducked her head. “We were … playing.”
Gabrielle raised a brow at the dolls Isobel carried. “Oh, so they attacked you?”
The girl moved in front of the warrior. “You mustn’t blame Xena. I asked her to. She showed me and my friends some moves. You know, if we run into bullies?”
“I see.” Gabrielle took her cue from Xena’s smug expression. She feigned disapproval. “My dear partner has many skills. One of them must’ve been where she knocks opponents down by rolling on the ground like a ball.”
Isobel sniggered. “We started off standing up. Falling was easier. And more fun.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Xena I can understand. Izzy, I expected you at least to be a ‘big girl.’” She resumed chopping carrots. “Both of you go on and get cleaned up.” Izzy started toward the washbowl. “Nuh uh. The bathhouse. There’s plenty of time before supper.”
“Yeah?” Xena smirked at her partner’s back, tilted Isobel’s head back and smirked. “I figure the ‘little girl’ among us can handle that.”
I I I I I
The late afternoon sun glistened off two bodies splashing around in the shallow end of the lake. The smaller one finally emerged to towel off and observe the other swimmer cut a circular path through the water before coming ashore.
“Now that’s what I call a good bath.” Xena plumped down on the blanket. “How about you?”
“Not bad.” Isobel grinned. “Not bad at all.”
Xena hummed while they dried off and began dressing.
“Do you play anything?”
“That wasn’t enough for ya in the lake?”
“Xeenaa. I meant an instrument. You have a nice voice. My mama was very musical.”
“Ah.” Xena used her towel to blot Isobel’s hair. “Miss her, huh.”
Isobel sighed. “Sometimes. She said that was okay, but she didn’t want me to be sad.”
“I think you do okay.”
“I guess. It’s better when Gabrielle ….” Isobel bit her lip. “Um, I mean when you and – .”
“S’okay.” Xena squeezed Isobel’s shoulder. “She makes me feel better too.”
“Uh huh.” Xena’s eyes drifted to the lake. “I had a little brother. Brave, smart, full of life and belief in me. A lot like Gabrielle. He died when he was young. Being around her makes his spirit real to me. I don’t miss him as much.”
Isobel nodded. “She makes me laugh. Makes we wanna be a big girl too. But mostly she ….” The girl looked up wistfully. “She believes in castles in the sky. Where my mama is. It’s like being with her when I’m with Gabrielle.”
Xena nodded. “I’m glad.” She turned the girl to face her. “Izzy, you don’t ever have to worry I’ll come between you. I’m here however you want. Or not at all, if that’s better. Okay?”
Isobel’s head dropped. “I like you too, Xena,” she acknowledged softly. “You tried to be my friend.” She wiped away a tear. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean.”
“Oh, Izzy. C’mere.” Xena gathered the girl in her arms. “I’m who shoulda been more understanding. Gabrielle’s right. I’ve been a big baby.” She snorted. “Some example, huh? Who’d wanna follow in my footsteps?”
Isobel shook her head. “I tried.”
“The Warrior Princess? In Gabrielle’s stories? I wanted to be like that.”
“Uh huh. Gabrielle gets this dreamy look. Like the Warrior Princess was the most wonderful thing on earth? How her hero overcame so much to help and protect? Gabrielle’d be so proud. I thought … maybe if she could see that in me … she’d ….” Isobel swallowed. “Maybe come around more or … or take me with her. But ….”
Isobel peered up at Xena apologetically. “You were there. The real Warrior Princess.”
“Pfft, with as many faults as anybody on earth.” Xena tweaked Isobel’s nose. “In case you didn’t notice.”
“You aren’t that bad.” Isobel grinned guiltily. “Even with my help.” She ducked her head. “I … um … didn’t mind my friends meeting you. Kinda nice being with somebody famous.”
“Mm.” Xena wrapped her arms around her knees. “Gabrielle ever tell you about the day that kept repeating?”
“One of our adventures. I’d wake up in the same barn, no matter what I tried. Same mystery to solve as the day before. Joxer was with us.”
“Funny guy with the funny armor?”
“Yup. He was killed. Three times. My horse, Gabrielle and I died. Others as well. Each morning would start the same – rooster crowing, Joxer coming through the door, everybody alive again. Nobody but me and one other person had any idea it had all happened before.”
“Nope. I tried to explain. She thought I was nuts. Joxer came up with crazy ideas – like maybe it was the rooster starting everything in motion. I … eliminated … that possibility. Nothing changed.”
“Oooo, must’ve been scary. Did you think maybe you were nuts?”
Xena chuckled. “Close to it. Turns out a young couple’s love was the cause. They came from feuding families that forbid them to marry. On the cursed day, Hermia drank poison. Miron prayed to Cupid not to let her die. Cupid’s solution was that the day would never end – unless a hero came who could fix everything.”
Isobel clapped her hands. “The Warrior Princess!”
“Heh. I asked Miron why he didn’t seek my help the first day. Know what he said? He was expecting Hercules or Sinbad.”
Isobel winced. “Ouch.”
“Exactly. Long story short, I pulled off a miracle happy ending. But that’s not my point. See, you can’t always tell what package a hero may come in. You might not know you’re supposed to be one, until or unless you get some weird sign. Even then, you – and everyone around you – could wonder if you’ve lost your mind. Most importantly, you have to believe you’re the one for any of it to matter.”
“Is that why you’re a hero? Because you believe it?”
“I believe I’m who’s supposed to fix things. I don’t worry about what people call it. I do have my own picture of a hero. My brother Lyceus. Gabrielle. You.”
“Your friends’ faces? When they see you? Pretty much like Gabrielle’s when she’s telling those stories about the Warrior Princess.”
“Awww, Xena. Come on.”
“I’ve seen that little swagger.” Xena got up and imitated Isobel’s entrance into the inn. “Like, ‘Here I am. The party can start now.’”
Isobel gaped at Xena. “Pfft, that’s just …. Mama used to say I have a ‘touch of the dramatic.’ Like playing a role.” She shrugged. “Entertainment.”
Xena dropped back down to stretch out on the blanket. “Those folks at the inn? Most have hard lives. They drown their sorrows in ale. Brawl to take out their frustrations. Seek comfort with someone they don’t really care about. When you come, they’re more good natured. Kinda like kids themselves. Escape the bad for awhile in the world you help them create.”
“Really?” Isobel frowned. “I mean, they do that for me. Make me feel special. Like I’m supposed to be there. You know, somebody they’re waiting for? Happy to see?”
“Uh huh. Somebody who brings joy. With the kids, it’s confidence. Encouraging them to take risks. Learn something new.”
“Eh, they can be such fraidy cats sometimes. Always worried what their parents’ll say. My mama told me I could be anybody I wanted.” She snickered. “Pa let me try it.”
“You’re a lucky little girl that way. Whatever the reasons, you change situations for the better. You call it entertaining. I call it fixing things.” Xena cocked her head. “Like I was supposed to do with the bad stuff that kept repeating.”
“You got it. The hero.” Xena exchanged smiles with the girl. She glanced at the sky. “Think we’d better head back. Otherwise, heroes or not, we could be in for a good spanking.”
I I I I I
Gabrielle stirred the simmering stew, then returned to the rocking chair in the main room to continue her knitting. The thaw she’d sensed earlier in a certain relationship suggested her patience would not be in vain. True, she’d discovered the bathhouse unoccupied. She considered this a good sign – that the missing persons would come back clean in more ways than one. When they finally appeared, breathless and suitably chastened, she focused first on their behavior toward each other. She found it quite satisfactory – cats who’d swallowed canaries. Next she inspected their appearance. The clothes hadn’t magically restored themselves, but exposed flesh and hair more than made up the difference.
“I trust your hands are clean?”
The parties under scrutiny displayed evidence of proper hygiene.
“Set the table, please. Supper is ready when you are.”
The other parties wordlessly followed instructions. Soon the three sat eating.
“So. I have some idea of your … physical activities. How about the rest of your day? Izzy, why don’t you go first?”
Isobel glanced at Xena. Xena nodded. The former started off with a rather terse description of the trip to town, soon relaxing into a more vivid account of the friends she’d encountered, concluding with the opinion that bathing in a lake could be quite effective. Xena periodically added details about Isobel’s contributions to their shopping tasks or made teasing comments about the girl’s interactions with various people they’d met. For her part, Gabrielle simply enjoyed the unaccustomed luxury of watching oil blend with water on their own.
“Know what I’ve got a yen for?” Xena asked as they cleared away the dishes.
“Sword drills?” Gabrielle smirked. “You know, to work off those potatoes?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “I’m not the one worried about my hips.” She paused long enough to appreciate her partner’s nonverbal response. “As it happens, Izzy and I had a discussion about music. Couldn’t help thinking about that beautiful harp collecting dust. Be nice to hear if it sounds as good. Gabrielle, you used to mess around with fluty things.”
“Mm. ‘Mess around’ being the operative words.”
“What about you, Izzy? That one of your many skills?”
Isobel rolled her eyes. “Sneaky is. Yours too, huh?”
Gabrielle smirked. “Takes one to know one. Some big, old ones can’t fool anybody.”
“Yeah, yeah. You gonna play the thing or not?”
“Since you asked so nicely ….” Isobel skipped off, soon returning with the harp. “I haven’t played since ….” Sighing, she dusted it off. “You sure?”
The adults nodded and took their seats. Isobel flexed and curled her fingers a few times, loosened her shoulders and rolled her head. She tentatively plucked a few strings. Moments later, lush, cascading notes flowed through the room like a waterfall. Xena listened intently before quietly excusing herself to check on the horses. Instead, she eased down on a porch step, smiling when the music stopped and she heard the exchange of voices. She eventually left for the barn, where she took her time seeing to the needs of her four-legged friends. She entered the house awhile later to catch Isobel yawning.
“Looks like somebody’s had a full day. How `bout we turn in? Get an early start on those repairs. Some of us don’t like sweating as much as others of us think.”
Isobel agreed. She hugged her caretakers before heading to her room. Her caretakers went to theirs.
“Well. You certainly progressed to ‘Izzy’ in record time.” Gabrielle shot her partner a smug smile. “The best laid plans do work sometimes.”
“You’re good all right.” Xena blew on her fingernails. “I’m better.”
“And as competitive as ever.” Gabrielle tossed her skirt Xena’s way. It landed on the warrior’s head. “Oops. Hang that on the chair, will you?”
Xena slowly pulled the skirt off and studied it as if she had other ideas, ultimately deciding the other ideas might not be advisable. “Sure,” she muttered, draping the skirt as requested. “That’s me. Warrior Coat Rack.”
“You gonna tell me how you won over our girl?”
Xena gave a wry look at her reflection in the dressing table mirror. “Charm?”
“Mm. Keep going.”
“Huh? Did Tartarus freeze over? Must’ve missed that.”
“You’re the one said I was good with kids.”
Gabrielle folded the bedspread back. “I said you were good at staying alive too. I was wrong about that often enough.”
“Ha ha.” Xena joined Gabrielle under the covers.
“Seriously, did you find out the source of Izzy’s problem with you?”
Xena shrugged. “The usual, like I thought.”
“Please, don’t make me guess. Not enough hours of darkness for that.” Gabrielle bumped shoulders with Xena. “If we’re gonna get any sleep, I mean.”
“Good save.” Xena squirmed in the unfamiliar bed until she got comfortable. “The ‘usual’ is somebody falling for you.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Maybe not in the usual sense. She connected with ways you remind her of her mom. Thing is, seemed your adoration of a certain Warrior Princess might get in the way.” Xena rewarded her partner with a self-satisfied smirk. “Figured she’d have a better chance winning your affections if she stomped on your hero’s clay feet.”
“Ooo, smart girl. Gave herself a lot to work with.” Gabrielle rewarded herself with a self-satisfied grin. “Obviously your better parts prevailed.”
“You prove you really are a hero? Show her how to be one?”
“Eh. More like helped bring out what she already knew.”
I I I I I
Smiling, Isobel rolled to her side. She lay reviewing “yesterday’s” great adventures, looking forward to them repeating today. Certain that, no matter what, everyone she loved would be there too. Alive.
“C’mon, sleepy head. Don’t want those nails to rust.”
She felt a gentle nudge. Must be her father, anxiously squeezing in moments with her before his ship sailed. Unaware his tomorrow wouldn’t dawn.
“You gonna make me work alone? What about our bargain?”
Isobel frowned, trying to recall what bargain fit her recurring-day scenario. Slowly sensing she’d been dreaming and that, in reality, everything she’d pictured could end. She rolled to her back and took a moment before cracking an eye. Well, at least she hadn’t imagined Xena.
“It’s so dark. You sure we’re supposed to be moving yet?”
Xena chuckled. “Can’t say the opinion on that’s unanimous. But the only person I need right now is you.”
Isobel propped up on her elbows. “I said something stupid yesterday, didn’t I. Like promising to help with repairs?”
“Uh huh. Not just help. Really help.”
“I’m a little girl. You don’t feel bad? Taking advantage of me?”
“Nope. Plan to enjoy every moment.”
Sighing, Isobel sat up. “Fine. I’ll put my breeches on.” She scowled out the window. “Guess I won’t need my bonnet for awhile.”
“That’s the plan. Hopefully we’ll have the hard part done before it’s too hot. Go grab a bite to eat. Meet me out front. Should be light enough by then. Gotta come up with another way to the roof. Gabrielle thinks I’m too rickety for the run, leap and flip method.”
Xena was calculating the distance for attempting the unauthorized means to the roof when the sound of something dragging caught her attention.
“Will this help?”
Xena raised a brow at the ladder Isobel was lugging around the corner. “How fortunate that decided to reappear.” She walked over to pick up the other end.
Once they’d leaned the ladder against the house, Isobel dashed off and returned with another item. “Look what else popped up.” She held out a hammer and awaited Xena’s response.
Lips pursed, Xena took the hammer. “Bad tool! Not nice to walk off on me like that.” She patted the head. “Thanks for comin’ back.” She waved it up and down. “No doubt you’ll pay the proper penance.”
I I I I I
“Mmmm.” Gabrielle snuggled deeper into the bed, enjoying the luxury of a late rise. She felt surprisingly good, considering the pounding in her head. Well, not so much in her head but …. She squinted up at the ceiling. “Hammering?” She frowned. “On the roof?” Her teeth ground. “Why that stubborn old ….” She flung back the covers, prepared to give her soulmate a good scolding, when it hit her that – whatever the method – Xena had made it up all right. “Fine. I’ll make sure not to miss how she comes down.”
Voices drifted through the window. Voices?! Gabrielle walked over and leaned out. Izzy?! Up there too? This actually made Gabrielle feel better. Unless the girl had flown up there on Xena’s back, they must’ve found a safer way down as well. Calmer now, Gabrielle dressed and made herself breakfast. A cup of tea soothed her further. Cleared her mind enough to appreciate Xena’s success bonding with Isobel. And so Gabrielle busied herself with activities inside the house. It was a few hours after sunrise before she brought a tray out with cups of water and fruit.
“Hey up there! Ready for a break?”
Isobel’s head appeared above the overhang. “Morning, Gabrielle.” She wiped her brow with a flourish. “You’re a life saver. Xena’s worse than my dad.”
“Got that right,” Xena retorted from the other side. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be doin’ all this patchwork.” She finally peered over the edge. “But, yeah, a little refreshment wouldn’t hurt.” She crawled to the ladder. “C’mon, Izzy. I’ll go down first.” She smirked. “In case I hafta catch ya.”
Soon thereafter, the three sat on the porch.
“So how’s it going?”
“Pretty well. Should be done today.”
“And the rest?”
“Minor stuff. Paint the shutters, and ….” Xena smiled at Isobel, then at the sky. “It’ll look as good as a castle.”
“Hmm.” Gabrielle walked to the front yard. She surveyed the house. “Why not shoot for tomorrow. If it’s finished early enough, we could even head back home.”
Isobel jumped up and clapped her hands. “Yessss!” It occurred to her she was already home. “Um … me too, right?”
Gabrielle returned to the porch. “Of course,” she assured, tousling Isobel’s hair. “Wouldn’t think of leaving without you.”
Beaming, Isobel downed her remaining water. “Hurry up, Xena. We gotta get back to work.” She winked. “Fix it so tomorrow comes real quick.”
“Speaking of which ….” Gabrielle glanced between the short and taller workers. “Good you found that ladder. Or did you borrow it?”
“Uh, no. Same one. Hammer showed up too.”
“Huh. What about the mystery of their disappearance?” Gabrielle smirked at her partner. “Any ideas who done it?”
“Uh huh.” Xena noticed Isobel straighten and take a deep breath, girding herself to accept the consequences of her guilt. The warrior assumed a serious expression. “I’m thinking it’s like I said before.” She gave her young friend a slight wink before pronouncing, “Maybe it was the rooster.”
Return to the Academy