by JS Stephens
Copyright © 1997, revised 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Usual tedious disclaimer:
MCA/Universal owns the rights to the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Joxer, Ephiny & Cyrene. Any other characters are my creation and merely interact with MCA/Universal's characters. There will be relationships between two consenting women and/or a consenting woman and a consenting man.
Xena stretched as she stood up. After years of wandering and fighting, she and Gabrielle had come back to Amphipolis to live. Cyrene had sent word that she needed their help running the inn/tavern. When they arrived a month ago, they found that although the inn was doing good business, Cyrene had not been able to keep up with minor repairs on the property. Gabrielle promptly volunteered Xena to start repairs, which Xena thought would take just a few weeks. Instead, she was still fixing things and had just finished re-roofing the entire complex. After all these years, she was letting Gabrielle talk her into more and more that had to do less and less with fighting.
As she descended the ladder, Xena tried to remember how old her mother was. She guessed that her mother was in her mid-twenties when she was born, which would make her in her mid-sixties now, a very advanced age. Cyrene seemed to be in good health, but she did move more slowly and had more trouble staying on her feet all day. Gabrielle had also noted these things and insisted that she and Xena stay for an extended period, not just a few weeks. Xena had agreed, which had surprised her partner, who was prepared to argue it out behind closed doors. Xena did not want to admit to Gabrielle she was aching more on cold mornings than she used to. Besides, she still had not figured out what to do about their anniversary, which was coming up in a few days.
Xena gather up her tools and materials, carting them back to the work shed when bundle of energy launched herself. Xena caught the girl and lifted her up. "Good morning, Rebecka. Do your parents know you are here?" The girl laughed and buried her face in Xena's neck, wrapping her arms tightly around her godmother. Xena smiled as she hugged the child back before lowering her to the ground. "If you will help me with the rest of the tools, I'll get Gramma Cyrene to give us some apples." The girl nodded enthusiastically, then raced off to pick up tools. Xena walked behind the girl, then saw her father, Joxer, walking up the path.
Joxer smiled as he approached Xena. "Good morning, Xena. I see that Rebecka has wandered over here again. Diana said that Rebecka had mentioned your name, so we figured that she was here. Is she bothering you?"
"No, not at all. I'm putting her to work to earn a bite of apple." Xena watched the six year old carefully walking back to the shed, carrying a hammer and a bag of nails. "So how's business? I heard that Diana is buying out Zeb's fruit stand."
Joxer grinned. "Yes, she is. I'm going to buy out the delivery contracts for the stand. I think my delivery business can get the fruit here faster than who Zeb was using. But, I'm still going to be picking up from the same sources. Diana is also thinking of buying another hundred acres to farm, so we stay pretty busy. How is your mother, Xena? Still plugging along?"
Xena took Joxer's arm and steered him to a bench on the patio. "She is still going strong, just a bit slower than before. She is teaching Gabrielle how to manage the inn and tavern and, of course, is letting Gabrielle provide entertainment on the weekends. Business is picking up." Xena flexed her aching fingers, then added, "Joxer, we may settle here. Mother hasn't asked, but I think she would like for us to take over the business."
Joxer looked at Xena in amazement. "But you and Gabrielle have traveled for so long! How will Gabrielle come up with material for her tales? How will you not go stir crazy?"
Xena looked steadily at her friend. "Joxer, Mother is in her sixties. Most people don't even see their fiftieth birthday, let alone more. It's my duty as her daughter to come home and take over. Besides, the ground is starting to get harder every year. Gabrielle doesn't feel it as much yet since she is nearly ten years younger than I am. Plus, I don't want to be on the road for this anniversary."
"Oh, right, you and Gabrielle got married ten years ago next week. Time sure does fly--next month will Diana's and mine ninth anniversary. Do you have any plans in mind?" Joxer asked.
"No, not really," Xena admitted as she toyed with her pendant. She had commissioned a Celtic knot pendent for them both when they were married--each woman had half of the knot on a leather necklace. Over the years, they had replaced the leather strips several times, but had always kept the pendents on their person. Suddenly, Xena stood up. "I have an idea, Joxer. I'm tired of replacing the leather strip--why not buy silver necklaces to replace the leather strips?"
"Good idea, Xena. Gabrielle will like that," he replied. Just then Rebecka came up and announced that the tools and materials were put away. Xena and Joxer each took one of Rebecka's hands and walked into the dining area of the inn for the promised apples.
Cyrene listened as Gabrielle placed the daily food order at Diana's store. "Did I leave anything out, Mother?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, dear, you did perfectly," Cyrene said as she reached for her bag to pay. Cyrene tucked her hand in the crook of Gabrielle's arm as they turned to leave, leaning on her slightly, as if she was slightly unsteady. But, the pressure was gone almost immediately and Gabrielle told herself that her mother-in-law was just being friendly.
Gabrielle and Cyrene entered the inn, where they saw Xena, Rebecka, and Joxer sitting at a table, with Rebecka animatedly talking to her father and godmother. "Xena is really fond of Rebecka," Gabrielle noted.
Cyrene smiled at her daughter-in-law. "Yes, she is. I'm sure Rebecka reminds her of Diana when Diana was a girl. Diana was tough but was smaller than everyone else her age until she was about fifteen. Xena always looked out for her until she ran away." Cyrene's face darkened momentarily as she remembered Xena allowing herself to become a warlord. "I'm still surprised that Diana didn't wind up hating Xena, but Diana was depressed for a while. She eventually left for the Amazon village before Xena came back for the first time."
Xena saw the women enter and crossed the room to greet them. She kissed them both on the cheek, then walked over to the table where Rebecka was demolishing an apple as Joxer busily cut away the core and seeds. Cyrene suppressed a grin as she watched Xena slip an arm around Gabrielle's waist and squeeze her slightly. To think that she had lived long enough to see her daughter so happy in love, and with such a wonderful woman. Too bad that Gabrielle's family had refused to see her after the women got married. They refused to see that Xena had turned out so loving, so caring. And who would have thought that Joxer would have turned out to be such a good businessman! And Rebecka, what a wonderful child. "Cyrene, you are letting your thoughts wander too much," she chided herself.
Her reverie was broken by Joxer, who was saying, "I'd better take Rebecka home. I have a new contract to look over, and Diana will kill me if I don't get it--it will be worth many dinars." As he spoke, he cleaned up the slight apple mess, and checked his daughter for any signs of messiness. She was clean. "Thanks for the apple, Xena. My little pig appreciated it."
"Daddy, I'm not a little pig!" Rebecka scolded him. Joxer just smiled, then told her to make her farewells. The girl ran around the table, giving each woman a tight hug and resounding kiss. She then skipped over to the door and took Joxer's hand, tugging him through.
Xena grinned as the door closed. "That child is so wonderful," she exclaimed. "But who would have pictured Joxer as the patient father? I think she spends more time with him than with Diana."
Cyrene countered, "At least she has a father. Plus, she spends enough time with Diana. She's just a daddy's girl, that's all. Diana hung around you like that, Xena. I mean like Rebecka hangs around you. Diana was more partial to her other mother than to Diedra. Ah, listen to me prattle. Come on, Gabrielle, you get to run the kitchen for the noon crowd today." Cyrene stood up and started to walk off, then said, "Don't spend too long at the table."
Gabrielle looked after the retreating figure, saying, "Who, me?" She leaned up and kissed Xena briefly, then sighed. "I'd better scat, Xena. Mother is as strictly regimented as you are. How are the repairs going?"
Xena looked at her partner for a long moment, then answered, "Good. I finally finished around the back window today, which completes the list. Mom has kept you pretty busy, teaching you around managing the inn. Has she said why?"
Gabrielle sat quietly for a moment, then answered, "I think she wants us to take over." Before she could elaborate, Cyrene called out "enough, lovebirds! Work waits!" She laughed, then kissed Xena's cheek. "You heard the woman."
Rebecka raced into the store, launching herself at Diana. Diana scooped the child up, asking, "So where were you, little one?" Joxer followed their daughter, reaching over her to kiss Diana. "She was visiting Xena over at Cyrene's," he answered. Rebecka just giggled and wiggled, slipping from her mother's arms to race to the storeroom. Diana just shook her head, then asked Joxer, "Did you get to talk to Cyrene about the party?"
He leaned against the counter, sighing. "Nope, Xena and Gabrielle were both there. I did find out that Xena is still scratching her head for a good gift for Gabrielle. She is considering silver chains to replace the leather necklaces for their wedding pendants. After all these years, Xena is still the practical one. I haven't talked to Gabrielle yet to see what she is getting for Xena."
"But remember, Joxer, Xena is the one who managed to talk some of the Amazons into setting up that bed and food supplies for their honeymoon spot. A cave, wasn't it?" Diana asked.
"I had forgotten that, Diana. Still, that was more practical than romantic. Should I offer my services?" he asked, still thinking about the party and presents.
Diana laughed at her husband. "Dear, Xena would look very strange dressed as Cupid, although you looked quite handsome that year. Here I was, swollen with Rebecka, and you dressed as Cupid." She reached over and stroked Joxer's arm. "You could tell Xena that just flowers aren't enough, that it should be something spectacular. Like a long honeymoon or a new gown, something like that."
Joxer looked at his wife for a long time, then glanced around to make sure that no one else was in the store. "Diana, I think that a long honeymoon is out of the question. Xena and Gabrielle may be taking over the inn from Cyrene." He quickly summarized the rest of his morning conversation with Xena, ending with, "I think it would be good. Xena's not getting any younger, either."
"No, I guess not. It would be nice to have them in town on a permanent basis. Rebecka would sure like that, she idolizes Xena as much as I did when I was a child. Still, I hadn't thought about Cyrene being that old. I guess she's stayed so healthy that I didn't even consider her giving up the inn. But, speaking of business, you had better get to work on that contract so we can expand our businesses." Joxer made a face, but obediently went back to the desk in the storeroom and took out the contract to re-read.
After lunch, Xena went to the marketplace to look for Gabrielle's gift. She claimed that she needed to order some more wood for additional repairs, knowing that Gabrielle was usually bored around the lumber yard. Satisfied with her subterfuge, she nevertheless glanced around before heading into the jeweler's shop. She strode up to the counter as the jeweler greeted her. "Good afternoon, Xena, what can I do for you today?"
"Tiberious, my anniversary is in three days and I don't have a gift for Gabrielle yet. I was thinking of replacing the leather necklaces that we always wear with silver ones. What do you think?" Xena quickly pulled her pendant off, holding it out to him.
Tiberious took the pendant, turning it over in the light. "I see that my predecessor, Janas, made these. He was a master jeweler, wonderful with intricate designs." He bent down for a moment, pulling a soft bag from a drawer. "These chains might work."
Xena pulled out the chains. They repeated the knot design, but were thin enough to fit through the loop at the top of the pendants. She looked up at Tiberious suspiciously. "These look like they belong with the pendants. What's the story?"
The jeweler smiled, answering, "Janas made them before selling the shop to me. He made me promise to keep them in case you even wanted them to complete the necklaces, and to sell them to you at a low price--just the cost of the silver."
Xena stared in amazement. "But why?"
"He said that he owed you his life. You and Gabrielle apparently kept him from being robbed on the road once, so he decided to pay you back. You wouldn't let him just give you the original pendants, so he made the matching chains later. Oh, but I also have this that I designed." He went to the back of his shop, then re-emerged with two small cloth bags. He opened them, carefully spilling their contents onto a black cloth. Xena smiled as she looked at them--two sets of long earrings, each with the knot design repeated, but with tiny gemstones nestled in the loops. She shook her head, smile fading. "I can't afford these."
"Sure you can--I need some repairs made to my roof and I understand that you have become quite the carpenter of late. At least, that's what Cyrene tells me and we all know that mothers never lie about their daughters," he said, winking.
Xena threw up her hands, "Mothers!" she exclaimed. "If I don't help, Mom will make me wish I had. All right, I'll repair the roof."
"Cyrene also says that you two may stay home for a while, so you will need something to dress up with for the harvest festival next month."
Xena groaned. "I hate dancing in public," she said. "But if I don't, then I'm in trouble with Gabrielle!"
Tiberious laughed, enjoying Xena's reactions. "I'll put these away for now. Come pick them up in a few days--just don't forget the roof." Xena nodded, then walked out of the shop, turning for the lumber yard. She might as well order some wood for new tables for the inn and new shingles for the jeweler's shop. It seemed that a warrior carpenter's work was never done.
Gabrielle inspected the kitchen, making sure that it was properly cleaned up from the lunch crowd. Satisfied, she stepped back for Cyrene to double-check. Cyrene quickly looked over everything, then told the crew that it was fine, that they could take a short break before preparing for the supper rush. She motioned for Gabrielle to follow her into her office, then shut the door. After the two women sat down, Cyrene asked, "What do you think about an innkeeper's life?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment, then answered, "There's a lot more detail than I imagined. But, you've done a great job of building up the business over the years. You should be proud of the inn."
Cyrene looked steadily into Gabrielle's eyes as she asked, "Would you and Xena like to own the inn? It would be my anniversary present to you, free and clear."
Gabrielle was speechless for once. While she had suspected that Cyrene was intending to make such an offer, she didn't dream that it would be so soon. Before she could answer, Cyrene continued, "Talk it over with Xena tonight. I know that both of you are restless travelers, but the fact of the matter is that I'm getting older and don't want to sell the inn to just anyone. Oh, have you decided what to give Xena?"
Gabrielle answered, "Nothing quite as surprising as an entire inn and tavern! I had the feeling that we might be here for a while, so I went the practical route and am having work clothes made for her at the tailor's shop. I couldn't think of anything else. She's not much for fancy clothes or jewelry, I gave her a new saddle and bridle for Argo last year, so I'm just stumped."
"You will figure it out. Besides, the best gift is yourself, Gabrielle. Sometimes I'm still amazed at the transformation that Xena went through, and the love that she feels for you. I'm proud of both of you, you are wonderful daughters." Cyrene squeezed Gabrielle's hand as she spoke, then dropped it, saying, "Time to get back out. I need to do some paperwork, so why don't you make sure we have enough supplies for dinner?"
After Gabrielle left the room, Diana snuck in. "Good afternoon, Cyrene. Joxer and I were wondering if we could rent the tavern for Xena and Gabrielle's anniversary. You see, we want to throw them a surprise party..."
"Good morning, sleepy head," Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear. She hovered over the bard, waiting for her to open one eye and moan. She was not disappointed. Gabrielle slowly opened one eye, then the other, then groaned loudly as she tried to sit up, only to be blocked by her warrior. After a long kiss, she was very awake, but so was her bladder. "Um," she started. Xena just laughed, rolling to the other side of the bed. As she waited for Gabrielle to come back to the room, she opened the shutters to check the weather. It was shaping up to be a fine day, she decided. She heard Gabrielle come back into the room and grinned to herself. Time to make sure the bard was fully awake.
Later, as they were soaking in the tub, Gabrielle asked, "So, what do you think about taking over the inn? You never gave me an answer last night."
Xena considered the question for a long moment, then finally answered, "I guess I knew it was coming, but I have tried to resist answering so far. For me to say yes reminds me how old Mother is, when then reminds me that I'm not getting any younger. I must admit that sleeping in a bed is much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground every night. Maybe it is time to settle down, especially since we have been wandering around for twelve years."
Gabrielle stroked her lover's arm for a moment, then finally said, "It's kinda scary too, you know. We've always been responsible for ourselves and each other, but taking over the inn would mean being responsible for the other workers and the guests, not just ourselves. Still, you and your mother are the only family I have now," she added, her face darkening slightly.
Xena stepped out of the tub, picking up her towel. "It still hurts you that your family rejected you when we married."
"Yes." Gabrielle followed Xena out of the tub, picking up her own towel. "I guess though, that Diana and Joxer are part of our family."
"Don't forget Rebecka," Xena added as she started drying off.
"How could I?" Gabrielle leaned forward to claim a kiss, then started dressing. Xena could still dress faster, and this morning was no exception. Xena had just finished tying her boot laces when they heard a child screaming in the courtyard. Without a word, both women ran out the door and down the stairs, only to see the back of a raider carrying Rebecka on his shoulder. Xena didn't stop running, dashing to the stable and leaping on Argo, chasing after the man on bareback. Gabrielle whirled around, intending to go back for her staff and boots when Joxer ran up.
"Where's Rebecka?" he panted. Gabrielle just pointed after the departing figures of Xena and Argo as Joxer's face paled and he sank to the ground. "My baby," he whispered, "my baby girl." He sat there, shocked, until Gabrielle touched his shoulder, saying, "Xena will bring her back."
Argo thundered down the road, quickly overtaking the raider. Just as Xena was about to make a grab for Rebecka, Argo sank down to the ground, pitching Xena into the underbrush. The raider turned around, sword pointing at Xena's throat. "Okay, boys, come out." he said. "It looks like we finally have the mighty Xena at our mercy." Ten men came out of the forest, surrounding her. "Make sure the horse is dead," the raider said as he handed Rebecka to Xena. Xena held the trembling child, shielding her eyes as one of the raiders sliced Argo's throat, watching her horse bleed to death. "Not a pretty sight, eh Xena?" The man laughed coarsely, then grabbed her by the arm. "Come, you must join us at camp while we wait for your friends to arrive."
They started walking down the road, Rebecka silent and trembling in Xena's arms, Xena herself in silent shock. She wasn't sure how long they walked before they turned off the road into a small clearing with a grouping of huts. "Xena, you and the child will stay in that hut," the raider said. "You will be heavily guarded, so none of your usual tricks. There are fresh blankets on the bed and food in the cabinets. Just don't try to escape or we will be forced to kill you and the child. Just pray that your friends arrive soon."
Xena's mind finally snapped back to attention. "Why do you want to see my friends so bad?" she asked.
"Because, my dear," he explained, "Diana killed my brother Nicholas. I have waited for years to extract my revenge and I have the perfect bait now--her daughter and her best friend." With that, he opened the door of the hut and shoved them in.
Diana's face darkened with anger as Joxer and Gabrielle told her about the kidnapping. Without a word, she walked out of the store and into their house. Gabrielle started to say something, but Joxer stopped her. "Um, I don't ever disturb Diana when she is that mad. She should be back in a few minutes. Why don't you make a sign saying 'Closed for the day' or something?" Gabrielle agreed and went to work.
Just as Gabrielle was posting the sign, Diana came back in her full Amazon fighting gear. She looked at her husband and friend, then announce grimly, "Let's go kick butt." She took off without waiting for them to respond. Gabrielle ran to catch up while Joxer finished closing up the shop and their house.
"Xena, what did that man do to Argo?" Rebecka asked, still holding tight to her godmother.
Xena sighed, trying to figure out what to say, finally answering, "Rebecka, he killed my horse to prevent us from escaping. You see, a very long time ago, his brother kidnapped your father, but your father defeated him in battle. Nicholas, the brother, then kidnapped your mother to set a trap for your father. They battled again, but this time your mother managed to kill Nicholas."
"My mother? Kill someone?" Rebecka said, half in shock, half in awe.
Xena nodded. "Yes, Rebecka. Your mother trained with the Amazons as a warrior, but left the village after she killed Nicholas. She was very skilled in the warrior arts, but wanted to farm and run the store instead. Your father decided to settle in Amphipilas in order to marry your mother."
Rebecka leaned back so she could see Xena's face better. "But you kept being a warrior. Then, you came back to Cyrene's inn. Are you going to leave again?"
Xena's face softened as she answered, "No, I am not going to leave again, Rebecka. I will go wherever Gabrielle goes, and since Mother wants Gabrielle to run inn, I will stay. Besides, I enjoy being chief carpenter and having time to spend with you."
The child thought about this, then snuggled closer to Xena, falling asleep. Xena waited until she was sure that the child was sound asleep, then gently laid her on the bed. She then carefully checked the door and window, but they were too well guarded--no easy chance of escape. Oh, she could have escaped by herself, but not with Rebecka. She walked around the hut for a moment, then finally laid down on the bed, pulling the child into her arms, then fell asleep.
Gabrielle paled as she looked at Argo's body. "Whoever did this is brutal," she observed quietly. "Shot in the leg with a dart, then had her throat slit. At least she could not have lived very long after that." She reached out and closed Argo's eyes, then stated, "We will need to come back for her body. Xena will want to bury her properly."
Meanwhile, Diana was studying the ground, piecing together what had happened. She finally stood up, saying, "Xena was ambushed here. Either she didn't have a chance to fight or they used Rebecka to keep her from fighting." Her brown eyes narrowed as she continued. "They went that way, you can tell by the broken tree limbs. The question is, why did they leave such a clear trail? It is almost too clear, like they are wanting us to follow them."
Joxer frowned as he listened to his wife. "Diana, I agree, but why were they so obvious? It's like they knew our schedules, and struck to make sure that we followed. Except for poor Argo, it appears that no one was hurt. In fact, Xena's footprints along the trail are deeper, like she was carrying something, hopefully our daughter." The two women nodded in agreement. Joxer continued, "I think that they assume that we will come charging in without looking, knowing how much Rebecka means to us, that our fear and concern will make us less cautious."
Gabrielle concurred, then Diana said slowly, "I agree, Joxer. I say we should go back and gather more forces. Since it appears that both Xena and Rebecka are unhurt right now, we should have time to go back home and get the militia and the Amazons. Joxer, you can get your fastest runners to go to the Amazon village while Gabrielle and I meet with the militia. Thank the gods that Xena insisted that we start a militia when you two visited last year, Gabrielle." With one last look towards the trail, Diana said fiercely, "They are holding my baby and I want her back."
Rebecka woke up, feeling Xena's breath on her neck. She yawned and stretched, sitting up as Xena sat up beside her. "Xena, I'm hungry," she complained. Xena quietly got up and went to the food supplies, assembling a tray of fruit, cheese and bread, then grabbed the water jug. She sat next to the small child, holding the tray while the girl ate her fill. The girl had dark brown hair and eyes like Joxer, but the sturdy build and dark skin like Diana. She still remembered coming home to see the child after Joxer's courier caught up with her and Gabrielle, falling in love with the child immediately. She and Gabrielle were named Rebecka's godmothers, and her own mother Cyrene was named her foster grandmother.
Rebecka was only six now, but was already showing signs of being muscular like her mother, rather than slim like her father. Diana had recovered quickly from childbirth, going back to work in a week, but Joxer was a changed man. Xena had never picked Joxer for being the parental type, but he was an excellent father. He doted on the child, but was also firm with her, refusing to let her become too spoiled. Rebecka was starting to ask about Amazon warrior training, which Diana and Joxer were hoping to avoid facing altogether.
Her reverie was interrupted by Rebecka asking, "Xena, Daddy says that you are the best warrior he has ever seen. Why don't you rescue us?"
Xena looked at the child for a long moment as she figured out how to answer so that the child could understand. At least this would be a good lesson for the child. "Consider the evidence, Rebecka," she said. "We are locked in here without any weapons or tools. There are guards at the doors and windows, which means that even if we got them open, they would catch us immediately. They mean to keep us alive since they have supplied us with food, water, and a bucket for nature's call so they won't have to take us to an outhouse. They left a very clear trail for our rescuers to follow, which means we are being held for a specific reason. The best thing we can do is to make sure we are ready for action whenever something happens."
The child thought this over for a long moment, then pointed to the firewood stacked in the corner. "Can't we make weapons out of the firewood?" she asked plaintively. Xena looked at the child for a long moment, then stood up and walked across the room to the firewood. She hefted a few pieces, thinking about the possibilities.
Finally, she smiled. "Maybe not conventional weapons, Rebecka, but we can do something. If I know your mother, she will have a plan. We just have to be prepared to work with her plan. Come here and help me sort this wood." Xena grinned wickedly.
Zercus was listening to the latest report. Finally, he said, "So, no sign of the parents or Gabrielle. Damn, I thought that they would be here already, we left a clear enough trail for a blind man to follow!" Although he was mad enough to throw something, he mastered his temper, remembering that it was Nicholas' temper that killed him, just as much as Diana throwing Joxer's knife. He stroked his short beard thoughtfully, mentally shaking off his rising temper, considering what went wrong with his plan.
He finally looked up his lieutenant, saying, "Have our scouts look further out. Diana or Gabrielle may have alerted the Amazons, who may be on their way here now. If so, have a detail meet them and distract them. Don't kill them, just distract them. I don't want to have a blood quarrel with the Amazons. And be very careful if you have to send anyone into Xena's hut--she is very unpredictable and could make a weapon out of anything. Did you make sure that there were no sharp object left behind?"
His lieutenant nodded, answering, "I personally checked the hut. There was only food, water, and furniture. The hut had not been used since last spring, so there should not be anything else there. I even took out the flint so that they could not start a fire."
"Very good. You are dismissed." The man saluted, then left the hut. Zercus sighed, then stood up and walked over to his trunk. He took his brother's sword out, carefully testing its edge with his thumb. As he watched the thin line of blood well against his thumb, he said softly, "Nicholas, I will avenge your death. Joxer and Diana must die to avenge your death."
He reverently kissed the sword, remembering when Nicholas's troops brought it home. He was still a youngster then, only fourteen, but Nicholas had already filled his head with tales of glory. Zercus had managed to convince his father let him join the militia after Nicholas's death. He had learned quickly, but was filled with thoughts of revenge, so he deserted the militia after a few years and joined up with the remainders of his brother's army, fighting for the right to lead them. He managed to train the rag-tag army into a disciplined unit of over two hundred men, with the sole ambition of bringing Joxer and Diana to their death.
Ephiny re-read the concisely worded message from Gabrielle, frowning, then told the courier, "Wait here while I write a reply." She sat down at her table, trying to decide how to reply. She glanced up at the wall map of the area, determining the location of where Xena was taken and her horse killed. She remembered a recent report of men camping nearby, maybe they were the ones who had kidnapped Rebecka and had killed Argo.
She closed her gray green eyes in pain for a moment, remembering how Diana was kidnapped by Nicholas over ten years ago, and how she would up killing Nicholas, then leaving the Amazon nation to go back home. Ephiny had seen Rebecka several times over the last few years, the latest time was last winter when Diana, Joxer, Rebecka, Xena, Gabrielle and Cyrene had come for the open memorial service for her son, who had died of a fever. She ran a hand through her rapidly graying dark blonde hair, trying to decide how to reply. Finally, she wrote,
We will coordinate with the others near the camp. Consider these to be armed and very well trained--intelligence reports indicate large settlement. Give room and make sure others are hidden behind my troops.
She thought a moment, then added,
Did Nicholas have a brother? Just wondering if you had heard. Consider the options.
She quickly rolled the parchment, then heated the wax while she found her royal seal. Thinking again, she put away her royal seal and pulled out her personal seal, thinking the message would be safer. She dripped the wax on the rolled parchment, then lightly pressed her personal seal into the wax. As soon as it hardened, she gave the roll back to the courier, instructing him to take it back directly to Gabrielle. As he left, she rubbed her temple, thinking about Nicholas. Interesting that the men were camped in the same spot that Nicholas's army had camped. Was she right in assuming that there a connection?
The courier slid off his horse, handing the roll to Gabrielle, who quickly broke the seal and read the message. She showed it to Diana and Joxer, who read the message:
We will coordinate with the others near the camp. Consider these to be armed and very well trained--intelligence reports indicate large settlement. Give room and make sure others are hidden behind my troops.
Did Nicholas have a brother? Just wondering if you had heard. Consider the options."
Diana immediately understood what Ephiny was saying, to make sure that the militia was an invisible backup. She pondered the question about Nicholas having a brother, then finally asked Gabrielle if she had heard. Gabrielle thought for a long time, then finally answered, "I honestly don't remember, Diana, but if he did, it sounds like he has a better trained army than Nicholas did. If so, then this brother has much to be avenged and may have been watching us for a long time. How else would he know when to strike? But, he seems to be counting on us reacting quickly, not thoughtfully. All the more reason to strike carefully, or to try to trap him."
Diana gritted her teeth as she replied, "We will sneak up behind the Amazons, but I want to kill the bastard myself."
Joxer said softly, "Dear, that is what this man is counting on. We should bring him to justice, not mete out justice. As much as I want my daughter and friend back safely, we must not give anyone else reason for revenge or we will be hounded for the rest of our days."
"That's right," chimed in Gabrielle. "Xena and I have lived with this for years, people wanting revenge. We must not create any more reasons for revenge. We must be careful."
Diana stared at her husband and friend, then reluctantly agreed with them. The trio then walked over to the town hall where the militia was gathering, waiting for their orders.
Xena and Rebecka finished sorting the wood into piles. Xena carefully moved the pile of smaller logs under the window and kept the pile of larger logs by the door. She hefted one log and swung it, pleased at its swoosh through the air. She smiled at Rebecka, saying, "I can hit any guards that come in with this stick and the others over there. If anyone comes in through the window, they will trip over the smaller sticks."
Rebecka looked puzzled. "If we are being kept in here, why would any guards try to come in after us?"
Xena answered, "I doubt that the would, but I like to be prepared. I-wait, what's that I hear?" she asked as she went to the window. Stepping carefully over the stack of wood, she peered between the curtains to find a troop of Amazons boldly riding into camp. She watched with fascination as Queen Ephiny dismounted and walked towards the amazed guards. She couldn't quite hear what was being said, but she gathered that Ephiny was asking for the leader of the camp. She turned back to the child and said, "Now we must both wait and be ready for whatever comes our way." The girl nodded determinedly, knowing that Xena would keep them safe.
As Ephiny waited for the guards to get their leader, she looked over the campsite. It was heavily guarded and she knew that at any moment her troop could be easily surrounded and destroyed. She was counting on this bold move to disrupt whoever was commanding this army. Her patience was soon rewarded as a tall, bearded man walked toward her, greeting her with ironic courtesy.
"My dear queen, welcome to my little camp. My name is Zercus and I believe that you are Ephiny, Queen of the Amazons. I am honored and delighted that you would come all this way to rescue your friends." As he spoke, he bowed deeply over her hand. She allowed him to, but remained on guard against any tricks. However, he straightened up and stepped back, asking, "So, when are you planning to attack?"
Ephiny smiled coldly, stating, "We are not attacking. We are peacefully riding in to ask you to release Xena and Rebecka and to allow us to ride out with them, unmolested."
"How trusting you are, my queen! Do you really think I would just give them up so easily?" he sneered.
Ephiny held her ground, summoning the will power not to draw her sword and slice his throat. Instead, she merely replied, "I had hopes. Maybe you should tell me why you kidnapped Rebecka and why you are holding Xena with her. Something to do with Nicholas, perhaps?" She said the last sentence with a sweet smile, hoping to unnerve him.
But Zercus merely laughed at her. "I have my own reasons, which I will reveal in due time."
The Amazon queen thought, He could be related to Nicholas, just a cleaner and more polished version. His troops are neatly arranged--but they forgot the back door. Aloud, she commented, "You resemble Nicholas, down to the mean eyes and dark hair. However, you are much cleaner--Nicholas looked like he had not bathed in years when he fought Joxer."
Zercus' smile was a little tighter now. "You have a good memory, Ephiny. Yes, Nicholas was my brother. But, please, satisfy my curiosity--why are the Amazons here instead of Joxer, Diana and Gabrielle?"
Ephiny stood silently for a long time before answering, then finally said, "Maybe the shock killed them. Or maybe your little troop sent to delay us missed their turn and met up with them and was captured. Maybe they are here. Or maybe they just left the rescue up to the professionals." She smiled sweetly as she watched him process her multiple answers.
The militia circled around the camp, camouflaged by the Amazons and by the trees. Diana finally called a halt, noting that one hut was guarded by four men, one on each side. Even though the Amazon army had the attention of the rest of Zercus' men, these were sticking to their duties. This would make it harder, since at least part of the army could make it back to the hut in minutes, if not seconds. She crept back to where Joxer and Gabrielle were quietly waiting with the rest of the militia, saying, "Even with their attention divided, I'm not sure about this plan. I don't know if we can pull it off."
Joxer ran his hand through his dark hair, saying, "We must--our daughter and our friend are trapped in there. I would do anything for either one of them." He sighed heavily, then mused, "Of course, that is what this man is counting on, I'm sure." Gabrielle patted his shoulder and he smiled sadly at her. "I'm sure that Xena is taking good care of Rebecka. Amazing to think that Xena would turn out to be so patient with a child. I thought that she never was the maternal type."
Diana snorted in disgust. "Joxer, of course she's taking good care of Rebecka. She took me under her wing for years, sticking up for me when the other kids were mean to me." She watched the scene before her for a few more seconds, then said, "Joxer, I think it's time."
Zercus was struggling to keep his temper in check as the Queen of the Amazons continued to bait him with taunts. Finally, he said dangerously, "Maybe I'm not willing to wait for Xena's friends to come rescue her and the child. Perhaps I should kill them now and get them out of my hair."
Ephiny shook her head. "Zercus, you are not going to do that, it would make you too much like Nicholas. He would do something stupid like kill his captives while waiting for their rescuers." She snorted with disgust. "No wonder Joxer defeated him twice."
Zercus was trembling with the effort to keep from drawing his sword to attack the Amazon queen. With an effort, he replied, "Joxer and Diana will come to rescue their daughter, and Gabrielle will come to rescue her precious Xena. Of course, the Amazons had to come to help too. What a mess!" He glared at Ephiny while she continued to smile at him. He started pacing, then stopped with an effort. "Where are they?" he demanded.
Ephiny shrugged her well-tanned shoulders. "I don't know. We were on a stroll when we met up with your little force and played with them. Too bad they can't come along, we left them all tied up."
Zercus had resumed his pacing as Ephiny spoke, but he whirled around to face her at this revelation. "You what?" he screeched. "You left my advance unit tied up?"
Ephiny studied her fingernails nonchalantly as she answered, "Well, of course. We don't kill without good reason, you know. They were in our way, so we decided to get them out of our way. Zercus, I'm growing mighty bored, so why don't you bring out Xena and the child. Unless you dare to face the wrath of the Amazon Nation, of course." She looked up, then added, "We'll be nearby. Make your decision within one hour or we will be forced to subdue your pitiful little army." She turned away, signaling her troops to melt into the brush.
Zercus stared after her, trying to decide what to do. Gods know, he really did not want to mess with the Amazons, they were just too unpredictable. Maybe he should just wait for Joxer, Diana and Gabrielle. He stroked his beard, trying to decide what to do. As he thought, his second-in-command asked, "What are we going to do?"
He finally growled, "Just keep a tight watch."
While Ephiny and Zercus were talking, Joxer walked up to the hut and started talking to the guards. "Hey, I know where you can find some excellent wine and women--interested?" They grunted and laughed at him. "What, not interested? How about joining my outfit?" They laughed more--joining with this skinny old man? Why leave Zercus, who paid them handsomely! "Oh, and here are two of the women!" Joxer proclaimed as Gabrielle and Diana sashayed up to the guards. "Geez," muttered one of the guards, rolling his eyes.
"Hi boys," trilled Gabrielle as she minced around. The guards gathered around, laughing at this obviously older woman who was trying to act like a young woman. As Gabrielle flirted with them, Joxer quietly slipped behind them and opened the door to the hut. He stepped in, putting a finger to his lips to warn Xena and Rebecka to stay quiet. Several of the militia slipped out of the woods and escorted Xena and Rebecka away from the hut as Joxer slowly closed the door and put the bar back over it.
Joxer strolled back to the guards as they were telling Gabrielle and Diana that they preferred young, nubile women. Diana pouted, then slapped one across the face, flouncing off. Joxer just grinned sheepishly, apologizing, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, I thought they would behave better than that." He then scurried off to catch up with Diana. Gabrielle shrugged and smiled at the guards, then ran to catch up with the other two.
Zercus waited impatiently for Ephiny and her honor guard to reappear. When they did, he growled, "Where are your friends? Don't they care about their only child and their warlord?"
Ephiny just smiled, then stepped back, allowing Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Diana and Rebecka to step forth. "Why, yes, they care a great deal," Ephiny said sweetly.
Zercus' jaw dropped when he saw his prisoners in front of him. "How-where-why-" he started spluttering.
Xena walked up to him, answering, "I'm glad that they didn't take us back by force. You treated us well, even though we were imprisoned. You gave us food and shelter." She shook her head in bemusement, adding, "Although I never thought I would see the day that Ephiny did the talking instead of Gabrielle. Now, please tell me why we were kidnapped."
Zercus tried glaring at the warrior princess, but he couldn't for some reason. Maybe it was the way she stood so calmly, unarmed, in reach of his sword. Maybe it was the way that Gabrielle looked at her so lovingly. Maybe he had just carried a grudge too long for a brother who was no good to begin with. He finally answered her, "You and your cohorts outwitted Nicholas and killed him."
Diana snorted angrily. "Of all the stupid things! Nicholas was a stupid man who could barely keep his army together and did so by intimidation, not by discipline. I had to kill him, he was trying to kill Joxer. He was trying to kill Joxer to get back at Xena, who had tangled with him when she was still a warlord. By Zeus, why did you wait so long for your revenge? You must not have been much older than twelve or so when Nicholas died. Didn't you know what he was?"
She abruptly pulled her top off her shoulder, showing him the scar. "I was tied up with a nasty cut in my shoulder. I'm lucky that infection didn't set in. You are better than that--look at how well your army stays together! You could hire out to guard a village, yet you try to get revenge for someone who doesn't deserve it!" She glared at him, then spat at the dirt in front of his feet. "Get over it!"
Zercus stared at the group, remembering Nicholas. Was his brother really that cruel? Unwillingly, he remembered a time when he was eight, with Nicholas home from another raid, teasing him cruelly about his pet rabbit. Nicholas told him that a real man did not have pets, especially soft furry ones. He then proceeded to grab the rabbit by the ears and cut its head off, laughing as Zercus ran to the house, crying. Maybe they were right. Zercus finally pulled out his sword, tossing it on the ground. "Take me back and I will face my punishment," he said softly.
That night after supper, Xena excused herself and went to hers and Gabrielle's room, telling her mother that she was tired and wanted to get to sleep early. Gabrielle was still telling the enchanted audience how Xena and Rebecka were rescued without any bloodshed. Diana watched Xena, then followed her up the stairs and into the room.
Diana looked around the spacious room, noting how spare and neat it was. "So, this is where you and Gabrielle live now. It sure doesn't look like the room of someone who is settling down." Xena did not reply. "What is it, Xena? Are you upset because you could not rescue Rebecka all by yourself? Or that you led Argo to her death? Or are you embarrassed that it was a whole bunch of people who came to your rescue?"
Xena eyed the other woman as she continued to unlace her boots. She dropped each boot on the floor loudly, then stood up and walked behind the changing screen. She changed into a long, sky blue shift, then came back out. She picked up a dark blue robe from a hook near the screen, then motioned for Diana to sit on the bench near the fireplace. She sat down by Diana, not speaking for a long moment. Finally, she said, "Diana, I am weary. Bone tired. This last escapade has convinced me that I am not able to keep up the life of a crusading warrior any longer. Yes, it hurts that Argo is dead and that someone had to rescue me. Zercus obviously knew that I could usually get out of anything when he placed us in that hut, then surrounded it by four guards. I probably could have rescued myself by bashing the window or door out, then fighting the guards, but I could not do that and keep Rebecka safe. So yes, it is embarrassing in a way."
Diana looked into the blue eyes, dulled by fatigue, also noting the silver strands in Xena's dark hair. It seemed strange to see visible signs of age in the woman she had admired for so long. Gathering her thoughts, she said, "Xena, I think you will always answer cries for help. Maybe you should make plans, though, to help me drill the militia. You can keep an edge on your skills and help us keep the village safe."
"I will consider it," Xena muttered.
Diana continued, "And Xena, you should hear Rebecka. She has admired you since she was a baby, but before we put her to bed tonight, she could only talk about how brave you were, how she felt safe with you, how you took good care of her."
Xena perked up slightly. "Rebecka said all that?"
Diana put an arm around Xena's shoulders, squeezing her. "Yes, dear friend, she did. Joxer and I have been teaching her that courage comes in many packages, not just in being able to physically defeat someone. I think she saw a good example in the way you handled your captivity."
Xena thought it over, then laid her head on Diana's shoulder. "It's just so hard, Gabrielle is still young enough to travel, Mother is ready to turn over the inn and tavern to us, and I'm realizing that life is rushing by." Diana put her other arm around the warrior, pulling her closer. Xena hesitantly put her arms around Diana, always awkward with touching any adult but Gabrielle and Cyrene.
Diana kissed the top of Xena's head and just held her for several minutes. In the back of her mind, the child in her was excited about holding her hero, comforting her as she had in childhood daydreams. She then thought about the time when Cortese tried to raid the village and Xena and her brother stood up to him, rallying the villagers against the warlord's army. She remembered Xena's sword flashing in the sun, blue eyes blazing with fierce life, dark hair swinging as she danced from man to man, battling in defense of her people.
Xena finally pulled away. "You have grown into quite a woman, Diana. I still thought of you as a girl, even when you pulled that knife on Nicholas to save Joxer's life." She shook her head in bemusement, saying, "I remember you telling me to be careful when I rode off to take over the surrounding villages. I guess I should have listened to you. In some ways, I did not want to come home after my encounter with Hercules because I knew that you must hate me, hate the warlord that I had become. Yet, the first time I was back you welcomed me with open arms, which my own mother did not do until Gabrielle convinced her otherwise. Joxer and Rebecka are lucky to have you in their lives."
"I suppose, Xena, I suppose. I feel lucky, you watched after me in my childhood, I had my two mothers, you and Gabrielle introduced me to Joxer, and I have a beautiful child. Did you ever regret not having children?" Diana asked.
Xena looked away, staring at the empty fireplace. "I do have a child, although he is a man now," she said hoarsely. "I was too selfish to raise a child properly, so I gave him to the Centaurs. Gabrielle and I ran into them about eleven, twelve years ago and I told him about his father. I was too scared to tell him that I was his mother, so I let him believe that his mother was a friend of mine, quite different from me."
Xena fell silent for a moment, then glanced at Diana and continued her tale. "Gabrielle nearly killed me for not telling her before, but it was before I completely trusted her or myself. I never told Mother that she has a grandson, I never had the nerve. Gabrielle and I did see Solon recently, as our paths crossed. He had just married a girl named Julia and was on his way to Athens to work for a senator there. I finally told him the truth. He was surprised, but Gabrielle pulled him off to the side and explained why I did not tell him before. Gods, this means that I am old enough to be a grandmother, Diana. Seeing you having a child didn't make me feel this old, but my own son, married? I sometimes regret not trying to keep in touch with him, but Gabrielle says that it was for the best, that I could not have raised a child without damaging it. Besides, Rebecka is enough for me." she finished lamely.
Diana sat quietly, absorbing Xena's secret. "So, now that you have seen him again and confessed that you are his mother, will you try to see him again?"
Xena sighed heavily. "I don't know, Diana, I just don't know." She suddenly stood up and went to the door, opening it to admit Gabrielle.
Diana had to laugh. "Xena, your hearing is still better than mine would ever be. Well, I must say goodnight." She stood up, stretching. "Sweet dreams, you two. I'm going to put my husband and child to bed." She walked to the door, where she hugged each woman, then left.
Gabrielle eyed Xena suspiciously as they walked to the bed. "So, what were you two talking about?" she asked.
Xena kissed her partner, then replied, "Children and old age, that's all. Frankly, I'm tired of talking now." She looked down at her wife, grinning as she slipped a hand underneath Gabrielle's shirt. "My mind is on other subjects."
The next morning Xena woke up to find that Gabrielle was already gone. In all their years together, Xena remembered about five times that Gabrielle woke up before her--each time one of them was sick. She hoped that Gabrielle had not come down with something, for tomorrow was their anniversary. She shrugged it off as she washed her face and hands, then quickly dressed her work clothes so she could work on Tiberious' shop roof today. She wandered into the dining room, looking for signs of Gabrielle or her mother. She did not see her wife, but she did see her mother.
"Good morning, daughter. Where are you off to today?" Cyrene asked as she gave Xena a quick hug.
"I'm off to see Tiberious. He needs someone to repair his roof, so I said that I would. Don't worry, he's paying me--in merchandise," Xena answered.
Cyrene cocked an eyebrow at her daughter, wondering when Xena became interested in jewelry. She motioned for one of the serving girls to bring Xena's breakfast as she sat down in the opposite chair. She looked at Xena for a long time before saying anything, noting the network of small lines on Xena's face from years of squinting in the sun, the silver threads showing in her dark hair.
Will Xena really be happy running an inn and tavern? she wondered. No matter, someone had to take over. As she was scrutinizing her daughter, the serving girl brought Xena's breakfast and a cup of water for Cyrene.
"Mother, did I forget to button something?" Xena asked wryly as she endured the scrutiny. Her mother just smiled and shook her head no, so Xena dug into her breakfast. After finishing half the plate, she slowed down and asked, "Have you seen Gabrielle this morning?"
"Yes, she was up early to go to market. I sent her with the list for today's supplies. She drives a harder bargain than I do, which is short of incredible." Cyrene smiled as she thought of Gabrielle talking the merchants into lower prices in exchange for buying larger quantities. "I have the feeling that this inn will be twice as profitable next year as it has been this year. I don't remember her being this organized in the past, she must have learned it from you, dear."
Xena swallowed her bite of fruit, nodding in agreement. "After I taught Gabrielle some organizing techniques, she was off and running. I just wonder if she will have time to continue to write her stories." She fiddled with a hunk of bread, swirling it slowly in the olive oil. "Mother, are you sure you want to retire?" she blurted out.
Her mother smiled. "Yes. Selfishly, I also want you and Gabrielle nearby, since you are the only family I have left. I want to play with Rebecka and pretend that she is my grandchild. I want to go see the Olympics next summer. I want to potter around, planting flowers and tending the vegetable garden out back. I don't want to make decisions about how much grain and rice to buy or who has the best olive oil for sale. But, maybe I should have asked if you and Gabrielle want to take over."
Xena drained her cup before answering. "Mother, I can do just as much good at home as on the road. For twelve years, Gabrielle has followed me around, never putting down any roots. She lost her family and has given up the chance to be a bard at the academy by marrying me. The least I can do is to finally settle down, to give her roots. Besides, even though she is still strong and young, I am stiff nearly every morning now. I have to do more stretching to warm up my muscles. I couldn't even rescue Rebecka without help!"
Cyrene said, "So, you're still upset that you could not play the hero and rescue Rebecka all by yourself? By the gods, you are still so stubborn!" Cyrene laughed. "Scoot, go fix Tiberious' roof. You aren't getting too old, my dear, you are just slowing down a tad." Xena scowled, but her mother just laughed and patted her on the head like she would a small child.
The rest of the day went uneventfully. Xena managed to replace most of the roof over the jewelry shop by nightfall. Rebecka had come by at noon to bring Xena's lunch, but she still had not seen Gabrielle. She was tired, but it not too tired. After supper, she went up to her room to find Gabrielle pouring water for a bath. "Where have you been all day?" Xena asked after she kissed Gabrielle.
"Oh, here and there, round and about," came the bard's reply. Her green eyes danced with delight, causing Xena to stop undressing. "Keep undressing, love, so we can bathe while the water is still hot. I know how hard you worked all day, Rebecka gave me updates."
Xena eased into the large tub, groaning with pleasure. Gabrielle slipped in, motioning for Xena to hand her the soap and sponge. "So, what do you think of being innkeepers? Just think of all the people I can observe for my stories. I've already decided that after we get used to this, we can hire someone to do the day to day management so I can do more of the entertainment in the evenings. Maybe we could start holding contests for the best bards!" She scrubbed enthusiastically, then turned as she handed Xena the soap and sponge. Xena started scrubbing Gabrielle's back as the she continued. "You can help Diana with the militia drills as well as keep up the repairs. Maybe we can start to write up your battle strategies so others can use them in the future. What do you think about that?"
"Bubbling over with ideas, aren't you? We will see what happens. I can't write very well, you know that," Xena protested mildly.
"No, you would tell me and I would write," Gabrielle pointed out. "You'd love to tell me what to do."
"Oh." Xena put down the sponge, then soaped Gabrielle's hair, washing it gently. "Bend back." She picked up a smaller bucket and carefully poured the rinse water over Gabrielle's hair, running her hands through the golden hair, smiling at the pleasure she derived from this simple act.
Gabrielle turned back around after Xena finished with her. "Your turn!" she announced as she grabbed the soap and sponge. Xena obediently turned around so Gabrielle could reach her back. It took a long time for her to admit to herself that she enjoyed Gabrielle pampering her, the feel of the small, sturdy hands washing her and running through her long, dark hair. After all the years, it was still fun to bathe with Gabrielle, especially when they had some privacy, like now. She sighed, then turned to face Gabrielle, taking the soap and sponge back. As she finished washing, she asked, "So where were you today?"
"You already asked that. Like I said, here and there. Never ask questions before an anniversary, Xena. Haven't you learned anything?" Gabrielle grinned mischievously, then kissed Xena on the nose. "Come on, let's get out of the tub, I'm starting to look like a raisin."
As they dried off and dressed in their nightgowns, Xena mused, "I could grow accustomed to this, sleeping inside all the time, having a bath every night with my sweetheart, plenty of food. Maybe it is time to settle down."
Gabrielle laughed as she bounced on the bed. "The mighty warrior princess, finally settling down!"
Xena slid between the sheets and pulled Gabrielle into her arms. She happily inhaled the scent of the herbs from the soap, slowly stroking Gabrielle's arms. She thought about the past ten years of marriage, the trials and sacrifices. Suddenly, she asked, "Did you ever regret giving up your title to Ephiny? After all, not everyone can claim that they gave up the title of Queen of the Amazons."
Gabrielle turned around in Xena's arms so she could look directly into the warrior's bright blue eyes. "No, not a bit. I would make the same decision today that I did then. Ephiny has been an excellent queen and I got to keep the title of princess. I think one of the Hebrews said it best when speaking of Ruth and Naomi, 'Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.' "
Xena whispered, "That's beautiful." She kissed Gabrielle, then said, "I guess we should get to sleep now.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, with just enough of a breeze to make the morning comfortable. Xena bounced out of bed, calling, "Up, sleepyhead, it's a gorgeous morning!" Gabrielle pulled the covers over her head, but Xena yanked them down and jumped on top of the other woman, tickling her. Gabrielle started laughing and wiggling, trying to get away from the warrior's long fingers. She gave up quickly and was rewarded with a long kiss that took her breath away. "Come on woman, don't you know what today is?"
Gabrielle pretended to ponder the question. "Um, it's not my birthday or your birthday. Joxer and Diana's anniversary is next month, so, oh, I remember! It's our anniversary!" She was rewarded with another long kiss. "Gods, how do you do that?" Gabrielle asked as she came up for air. "After all these years--ah, Xena, don't we have chores?" No answer. "I should help Mother with..." She forgot what she was trying to say as Xena kissed her neck, sliding down to her breasts. "Never mind" she gasped.
After a great start, the rest of the day went quickly. Xena knew that something was up because Cyrene kept sending them on errands, keeping them away from the inn. They ate a light lunch with Diana, Joxer and Rebecka, then went their separate ways for a short while. Xena went to pick up the silver chains and the earrings. Tiberous said, "Janas did a fantastic job, repeating the knot design in the earrings. By the way, what was the inspiration?"
Xena smiled as she felt the lines in the earrings. "I met a woman who was from a far land named M'Lila. She was a slave, but taught me a lot. In her land, this knot was repeated in many designs, including her best tunic. I just liked the complexity of the knot, and the idea of it representing love which flowed together, unending." Xena stopped, a bit embarrassed. "Anyway, I will finish the roof next week. The lumber yard will deliver the rest of the shingles in a few days."
Tiberous smiled at the beautiful warrior. He was young enough that he barely remembered the stories of Xena as an evil warlord, just mostly the stories of how she had done so much good. Most people saw her as tough and unemotional, yet he clearly saw the love she held for Gabrielle shining in her eyes. He took the earrings from her battle scarred hands, sliding them into soft bags. "I will deliver these to the tavern tonight," he promised. Xena thanked him, then left the store.
Xena and Gabrielle descended the stairs, each dressed in soft flowing dresses of deep blue and green, respectively. They entered the tavern's main dining room to cries of "Surprise! Happy Anniversary!" They stopped and stared at the dining room, full of townfolks, lit by many lamps and candles, decorated with olive branches and brightly colored banners. Rebecka ran to them, jumping in Xena's arms, then kissing each woman in turn. "Happy Anniversary!" she cooed.
"Whose idea was this?" asked Xena as she let the child down.
"Mine," Diana said, walking up to the pair. She hugged and kissed each woman on the cheek, then said, "Any excuse for a party, you know."
Gabrielle grinned excitedly, gesturing around the room. "Wow, a party for us! Thank you, Diana." Diana smiled back at the bard, then announced to the crowd, "Let's hear it for Gabrielle and Xena! May you have many more happy years together." As the crowd cheered, Gabrielle took Xena by the hand and led her to the center of the room to a table piled high with food. An impromptu line formed as people congratulated the pair, shaking hands or hugging them. Finally, Joxer called for attention.
"Okay, it is time for these two to open their gifts." he announced. "First, Cyrene has an announcement." He bowed in the direction of Cyrene.
Cyrene cleared her throat, then picked up a pewter goblet of wine. "First, a toast to my wonderful daughter. Xena, you are the light of my life, my only surviving child. Despite a rocky start, you have brought much joy into my life and have provided me with a beautiful and talented daughter-in-law, whom I consider to be my own daughter. Second, I am formally turning over the inn and tavern to you two as of the start of next month." She grinned wickedly. "After all, you don't want to start to work during your honeymoon!"
"What honeymoon?" Xena wondered out loud.
"Daughters, I am sending you on a trip to a seaside resort to enjoy yourselves. After talking to Gabrielle, I realized that you have not had a vacation in three years, which I consider too long. Now, Joxer?"
Joxer handed Gabrielle a scroll. Puzzled, she unrolled it and scanned it quickly, then laughed. "Xena, Joxer and Diana have given us an exclusive contract for vegetables for the inn for the next year! It includes having specialties trucked in at a very good price, and a free cartload of apples!" Rebecka brightened at the mention of her favorite fruit.
Xena smiled at the child, saying, "Rebecka, the apples are for the customers."
"I'm a good customer!" the little girl announced firmly. They all laughed.
Next, the mayor came up and said, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, we can't really give these two a good enough gift, but I am making Xena the captain of the militia and Gabrielle the official city scribe." Xena cocked an eyebrow at this announcement but was pleased. Gabrielle beamed with delight, thinking of the history of Amphipolis and how to write it up. The mayor continued with a glowing speech, praising the two women, then finally sat down. Cyrene announced that the food was ready and Gabrielle (of course) managed to be at the front of the line.
The hours flew by as everyone ate, drank, danced and took turns telling stories of the women's deeds. Finally, Diana stood up and announced that it was time for Xena and Gabrielle to speak. After much prompting, Xena finally stood up, taking the small pouches out of a hidden pocket.
She cleared her throat, then motioned for Gabrielle to join her on the stage. "Gabrielle," she said in her deep throaty voice, "you are the one constant in my life. I love you more than I thought I would ever love anyone. You stuck by me in good times and in bad, then gave up your title as Queen of the Amazons to wander around with me. When we married ten years ago, I gave you a pendent. At the time, I could not afford a good chain, so we strung our pendants on leather strips. I promised you then that I would find something better. Maybe I'm late with this, but Janas had these chains ready for us." She paused as she pulled the intricate silver chains out of their bags. "The knot design is repeated to go with the pendants."
Gabrielle took her chain and looked it over, her whole face shining, but Xena was not finished. "But that is not enough. I also have these earrings." Xena pulled the earrings out of the pouch as Gabrielle gasped with surprise. She held them to the light, noting how the gems in the knots sparkled in the candlelight. "I pray that you will stay with me for another ten years, then another ten after that."
Gabrielle kissed Xena on the cheek, then put on the earrings. Diana came up and helped them switch the leather strips for the chains, then hung the new chains around their necks. "Xena," she whispered, "you did great." She then raised her voice. "Gabrielle has a present for Xena, but we will have to go outside for it. Everyone grab a light and follow Joxer," Diana said as Joxer waved from the doorway.
The crowd followed Joxer out into the common yard, puzzled. Gabrielle led Xena by the hand, then stopped, saying, "Xena, we may be settled, but I don't intent to give up traveling forever. I remembered that Argo had given birth several years ago. We had to sell the colt since we could not afford to keep her at the time. I found the colt's owner, who was willing to sell Argo Jr. for a very fair price. Xena, meet your anniversary gift." At this, a villager led a beautiful palomino horse into the light, complete with the saddle and bridle that Gabrielle had given Xena the year before. Xena gasped in surprise, then dropped Gabrielle's hand and slowly walked over to the horse. She was the very image of Argo, down to the creamy mane and tail. The horse nuzzled Xena's neck, just like Argo used to do.
Xena slowly stroked the horse's neck, unaware that tears were flowing down her face. She had to clear her throat several times before she could speak. "Gabrielle, she is the best present you have ever given me. I know how you hated riding--she means a lot to me." Xena hugged the horse, then turned and gave Gabrielle a long kiss, oblivious to the whistles and cheers of the crowd. "Thank you, love," she whispered when they came up for air.
Joxer waited, then finally said, "Hey, let's go back in and dance some more. Xena, may I have the honor of dancing with you?" Xena nodded, the started back for the tavern. When they got back inside and started dancing, Joxer said, "Xena I would like to thank you once again for all that you have done for me. You and Gabrielle believed in me and taught me many skills. You stood up for me at my wedding, and you helped bring my daughter back home. How can I ever repay you?"
Xena smiled at him. "Don't try, just do what you can for others. Oh, I know that you have to turn a profit, but help out the poor whenever you can. Teach Rebecka to respect all life and not to be caught up in material riches. Stuff like that."
The song finished and Joxer let go of Xena, bowing to her. "Thank you again, Xena, I literally owe you my life and my family's lives."
"What are friends for, if not to help out in times of need?" she asked.
Just then, a tall, blonde man tapped Joxer's shoulder, asking, "May I cut in?" Xena stared at the man, then broke out in a delighted grin. "Solon!" she cried. Solon grabbed her in a bear hug, then stepped back and motioned for his wife to join them. "Mother, do you remember Julia, my wife?" Xena hesitated, then took Julia's hands in hers in greeting.
Julia spoke in low, musical tones. "I am honored to meet you again. Gabrielle invited us to the party. Our apologies for being late."
Just then, Cyrene walked over, puzzled by the unknown guests. "Xena, who are these friends?"
Xena swallowed hard, then said, "Perhaps we should go to the small dining room for a few minutes. Joxer, if you will tell Gabrielle please." Joxer nodded and went off to find Gabrielle as Xena led the other three to the other room. As they sat down, Gabrielle came in, asking what was going on. Xena looked around the table, then finally started explaining.
"Twenty-one years ago, I became pregnant. I was young and still caught up in bloodlust and conquest and did not want to raise a child. Fortunately, the child's father was good friends with the Centaurs and took me to meet them before I gave birth, then died shortly thereafter in a battle. When the child was born, I gave him to the Centaurs for them to raise, saying that I would not be back or interfere. I asked only one thing, that he not be raised as a warrior.
"Nine years later, Gabrielle and I crossed paths with the Centaurs and the child. I told the child of his father, but did not tell him that I was his mother. I probably should have, but the Centaurs were the only family he had known, and would be better off not knowing that his mother had been a vicious warlord. Gabrielle was hurt because I had not told her that I had a child, but I had not thought that we would cross paths."
Xena took a deep breath, then continued. "That child grew up to be a fine man, Solon, whom you see before you. We crossed paths with Solon and his bride, Julia, about a month ago. I finally told him in private that I was his mother. Naturally, he was angry at first, since I had not told him twelve years ago when I saw him. I told him my reasons and he finally agreed that I had done what was best, at least at the time. I hoped that he would forgive me and that someday we would be friends. Solon, can you forgive me?"
Solon's blue eyes twinkled, saying, "Yes, I can. Julia told me that it was better to have one parent than none. But, we came here tonight at Gabrielle's invitation and we wanted to meet the great-grandmother of our child."
Cyrene had been listening quietly, trying to absorb the fact that she was a grandmother, and now was to be a great-grandmother? She looked at Julia, asking, "Then you are with child?"
Julia smiled shyly, her brown eyes lighting up. "Yes, my lady, I am. I should deliver in seven months." She reached for Cyrene's hand and added, "I hope you can come visit us in Athens after the child is born."
"Just try and keep me away! Let's see, it will be about time for the Olympics," Cyrene mused, "and I already had plans to attend. Of course I will come." She squeezed the young woman's hands gently, then turned to Xena. "Been keeping secrets, daughter?"
Xena actually squirmed in her chair, muttering, "I did what I thought was best! Don't be mad, Mother!"
Gabrielle chimed in, "You know how stubborn Xena is."
Cyrene glared at Gabrielle. "You kept the secret too, you know. You aren't as innocent as you seem!"
Solon broke in. "Grandmother, let the past be gone. I want to get to know you, for you to get to know my wife as well. Please, don't be mad at Xena or Gabrielle. Xena is right, she could not raise me on the road and the Centaurs did a good job with me. After meeting Xena and Gabrielle so many years ago, I realized that I was not cut out to be a warrior. I did notice how Gabrielle tried to keep the peace through words, after she got over her shock. I decided that I could do the same, so now I am an assistant to a senator in Athens, studying to be a diplomat. I can defend myself when I have to, I just don't like to."
Cyrene sighed, then broke into a huge grin. "Xena, you continue to amaze and even shock me, but I am pleased with this surprise. Let's find you two a room, then let's rejoin the party. I should celebrate my grandson and granddaughter coming home."
It was nearly dawn before the party broke up. Joxer carried a sleeping Rebecka as he and Diana slowly walked home. After they put Rebecka to bed, they went to their bedroom and started undressing for bed. Diana said, "That was quite a shocker, to find out that Xena had a son. He is so handsome, a blonde version of her. And his wife is pretty, too, so petite."
Joxer agreed. "And to think that Xena will be a grandmother, too! At least she has had practice as a godmother first."
Diana smiled at him, then said, "Yes, and she will get to be a godmother again, too."
Joxer stared at her. "You mean--"
"Yes, Rebecka will have another sister or brother," Diane crowed delightedly.
Joxer stared at his wife, then grabbed her in his arms, swinging her around the room. "I'm going to be a father again!" he crowed delightedly. He set Diana down and kissed her soundly, running his hands up under her top. She moaned with pleasure, the pushed him on their bed, resuming their kiss.
Xena and Gabrielle laid in bed, wrapped up around each other. It had been a draining night, with the wonderful party and the surprise appearance of Solon and Julia. Xena kept thinking about it, then finally asked, "Why did you bring Solon and Julia here tonight?"
"I figured that they would want to be here," Gabrielle answered.
"When did you make the arrangements?" Xena asked, trying to figure out when her wife could have possibly seen Solon and Julia.
Gabrielle grinned mischievously. "When you were talking to Julia about the best road to take to Athens, when we saw them last."
"You kept a secret that long?" Xena asked, floored.
"You kept a secret from your mother for twenty-one years!" Gabrielle retorted.
Xena thought for a long moment, then asked, "Will Mother forgive me?"
Gabrielle traced Xena's face with her fingers, answering, "In time. She had to know sooner or later, Xena. I think she will, especially since she will be a great-grandmother. Which reminds me, how does it feel to know that you will be a grandmother?"
Xena shrugged. "Strange, I think. I never really got to be a mother--it feels like I am skipping directly to being a grandmother. It also makes me feel very old."
Gabrielle kissed Xena, grinning mischievously. "Hmm, I never kissed a grandmother before. I think I might like it." Xena started to reply, but her words turned into a moan of delight by Gabrielle's roaming hands.
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