by JS Stephens
Copyright © 1998, revised 2013. All Rights Reserved
(Xena & Gabrielle, Mythical Babes series - 5)
Part 1: The Rest of our Lives
Part 2: The Temple Incident
Part 3: Gabrielle
Disclaimer: Xena and her family belong to MCA/Universal/USA Networks or whoever runs the network these days. (At least it isn't the Dark Tower of Thomson Reuters/Westlaw.) Anyhoo, I am merely borrowing the characters and will return them no worse for the wear. The other characters are the product of my vivid, over-active imagination. Oh, there might be some interaction between women, so if you don't like women who love women, please take yourself elsewhere.
Diedra kissed Rebecka long and hard, then finally let go to kiss their daughter, Diana, good-bye. "I'm off for my month with the Amazons. Diana, behave and listen to your mama. Rebecka, don't overwork yourself." She looked around, then swung up on her horse. "I'll miss you two. See you in a month."
"Bye Mom. Be careful, Lyceus says that there are more warlords around than ever," Diana called out.
"I'll be careful, Diana. Just don't go anywhere without telling Rebecka." With that, Diana swung her horse around and trotted out of town. Diana and Rebecka watched Diedra until she was out of sight, then turned to walk back to the store. Ever since Diana could remember, her mom had left once a year to fight with the Amazons, or at least to drill with them. Diedra had started teaching her how to handle a staff several years ago and promised to teach her how to use a sword when she got back this year. Diana didn't mind her mom being gone too much since her mama would let her help in the store. Finally, she turned and went inside, where Rebecka had already gone.
Rebecka looked up from what she was doing when Diana walked into the store. Gods, our daughter is growing more beautiful by the day, she thought. Diana's hair was darkening from gold to honey brown these days, and her eyes were deep brown. She was on the point of bursting into her final growth, but was still shorter than the rest of the children her age now. Diedra had said that she was a late bloomer, so maybe her daughter was as well. By her people's standards, Diana would be a woman soon, she mused as she deftly sorted produce. "Mama," Diana said, interrupting her thoughts, "are we going to buy more acres this year?"
"Why do you ask?" Rebecka asked, bringing her attention to the present.
"Because I want to grow my own garden this year. I know that you have most of the acres leased out this year to provide for the store, but I really want to try my hand at starting a garden," Diana explained.
Rebecka looked at her daughter with pride. So, Diana wanted to test out her green thumb. "We'll just have to see. I've offered to buy the next lot next to ours, but the man won't consent to sell so far. It may be next year before you can have your own garden."
Diana nodded, then suddenly asked, "So how did you and Mom meet? You don't really look like any of the folks around here, you are darker and have blacker hair than anyone I know. I've heard rumors that Mom ran away from the Amazons during battle, but if that was true, why would they let her come back every year?" Diana stopped abruptly, waiting to see if she would get any answers.
This was exactly the series of questions that Rebecka and Diedra had both dreaded. Why choose now to ask, she wondered. Rebecka answered, "Daughter, I will answer everything if you can wait until supper, I promise," Rebecka said, "but for now, we need to attend to the shipment that just came in." Diana agreed and started helping her mother put out the rest of the day's produce.
After the supper dishes were cleaned, Rebecka sat on the bed next to Diana in Diana's room. She made herself comfortable, then started off. "You were asking how I met your mother. Well, Diana, she just appeared one day, needing a job, and I had just lost my helper and needed to hire someone. Cyrene brought her over and I offered her the job. She took it, had you later, then we got married."
Diana shook her head. "Mama, I know all that, but you have still left out the important parts. Like, who is my father? Why doesn't Mom ever mention him? When exactly did you fall in love? I've always known when you married, you two still get so gushy when your anniversary rolls around. So tell me!"
Rebecka fought the urge to pull her daughter into her arms and rock her, as she did when Diana was younger. She sensed that Diana was hitting that independent age and would not appreciate it. She drew in a deep breath, then said, "Diana, your mother was in a battle with her Amazon unit when she was wounded. You've seen the scar on her side?" Diana nodded. "Well, she was wounded and losing lots of blood when she was taken prisoner. Her captor raped her and she escaped. I don't even know all the details, she won't talk about it much. All I know is that he was a high ranking soldier, possibly some type of officer. Diedra came here and worked for me. I watched her carefully at first because I had been a midwife back in Israel, then more with love."
She smiled at the memory of a younger Diedra, then continued. "How did we know we were in love? We had been to Solstice dinner at Cyrene's, then came home late that night. We were talking around the table, then something changed. It was like our eyes were opened and we realized that we loved each other. After you were born, I decided to formally adopt you and to marry your mother. Is that enough?"
Diana frowned for a moment, then asked, "But what made you fall in love with Mom?"
Rebecka shrugged, saying, "Oh, child, I can't explain it really. I liked her before I fell I love with her. Why do you ask all these questions?"
Diana explained, "Because Xena is now engaged to Petracles, but she doesn't act like you and Mom do. She's never excited to see him, never gushes over how much she loves him, and doesn't talk about him incessantly. So I wondered how you and Mom knew you were in love. Do you suppose that Xena and Petracles don't love each other like you do Mom?" Diana asked.
Ah, thought Rebecka, now we know the source of the questions. Xena and Diana had always been good friends, despite their age difference, although with Diana it was more like hero worship. Xena had taken lessons from Diedra for years as well as working with her brothers Lyceus and Toris, and learned anything to do with weapons quickly and gracefully. "Maybe Xena just doesn't show it. She is one to keep her feelings out of sight, you know," Rebecka offered as explanation.
Diana shook her head, still seeking answers. "No, it's like she is expected to marry him. You and Mom kiss each other good morning and good night and and always looking at each other during the day. Xena said she has never kissed Petracles."
"Oh, did you ask her? How rude!" Rebecka said, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Diana blushed as she stammered, "Well, I was curious. Xena just seemed amused, not mad. I think her brothers are pressuring her to get married, like it will take the pressure off of them. But if Xena doesn't love Petracles, should she really marry him?"
Rebecka looked at her daughter for a long time, then asked, "Do you have a crush on Xena? Is that why you are asking all these questions?"
"Oh, Mama, I'm only twelve! I'm not old enough to have a crush on anyone! No, Xena is like an older sister to me, I doubt she would even think of me that way anyway," Diana said protectively.
"Okay. Diana, we have to be up early you know. We should get some sleep now." Rebecka stood up and started to leave when Diana stopped her, asking, "What? No goodnight kiss?"
Rebecka bent down and kissed her daughter on the cheek, then said, "Get some sleep, baby. Sweet dreams." She left and went to her own room, staring dejectedly at the empty bed. At least it was empty only once a year.
The next morning, Diana asked if she could go play with her friends at the town square after breakfast. Rebecka reluctantly agreed, loath to let the girl out of her sight. Diana raced through breakfast and her chores, then dashed out to meet her friends.
Things were going well until they had set up a mock Olympic track with hurdles. Diana caught Xena and Lyceus watching as they children raced around, so she redoubled her efforts to win the next race. She was doing fine until she glanced to see if Xena was still watching her and misjudged the next hurtle. She came crashing down, falling on her knees and scraping her legs badly.
Tears sprang to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, much as she tried to stop them. Pain shot through her legs as she tried to stand back up. The other children started laughing and jeering at her, calling out, "Crybaby, crybaby, it's just a little fall."
Xena stopped what she was doing and walked into the middle of the group, towering over the group, angry scowl on her face. "Can't you see that she's hurt?" Xena growled. "Don't laugh at someone else's pain, it isn't polite." The children melted away as Xena strode over and picked Diana up and carried her back to the store.
Diana hid her face in Xena's shoulder, trying to hold back more tears as Xena walked to the store. She strode in, brushing past Rebecka and into their living quarters, gently setting Diana down at the table. "Xena, what in the world happened?" Rebecka cried out.
"Diana fell and the other kids laughed." Xena snapped angrily. Rebecka knew that she wouldn't get any more out of Xena, so she concentrated on cleaning and bandaging Diana's knees. When she finished, Xena asked softly, "Is she hurt badly?"
"No, just scraped up pretty raw. Thanks for bringing her home." Rebecka said as she finished bandaging Diana's leg.
Xena looked from mother to daughter, then said to Diana, "Don't let them get to you, you'll probably whip them this time next year. Remember to be prepared."
"Okay Xena," Diana sniffed. The pain was turning into a bearable ache, but her embarrassment was growing. Xena gripped Rebecka's shoulder briefly, then leaned over and hugged Diana, whispering in her ear, "hey, you raced well before you fell. Keep it up." She stood back up and left the store.
After leaving Diana's, Xena wandered back home to do her afternoon chores. When she arrived, the tavern was full of angry townspeople, all shouting at once. Xena made her way to the bar where her brother Lyceus was trying to quiet the crowd. She waited a moment, then finally let out a piercing whistle that blasted through the babble of the crowd. The crowd grew silent and Xena asked, "What is going on here?"
"It's Cortese, Xena, we have reports that he is on his way here to storm Amphipolis. We need to defend ourselves, so where is our resident soldier? Off playing army with the rest of the Amazons!" one of the villagers told her.
Lyceus noticed that his sister's face grew cold and tight at the mention of the warlord, colder than he had ever seen it. He shivered slightly, then turned his attention back to what Xena was saying. "So what if Diedra isn't here, she's paying her annual dues to the Amazon nation! But, she taught us to fight, so I say we pull ourselves together and start fighting! Let's draw up plans to defend Amphipolis and meet Cortese head on!"
The crowd murmured approval, then a young man came bursting into the tavern. "It's Cortese!" he gasped. "His army is just an hour away!"
The meeting broke up in a hurry as the villagers raced home to get assorted weapons and to form ranks around the perimeters just in time to meet the first wave of Cortese's army. With a scream of anger, they rushed to meet the warriors, slashing their way though the ranks. Lyceus watched out of the corner of his eye as his sister fought fiercely, parrying gracefully and never gathering as much as a scratch. Damn, he thought, Xena is a natural at this! He caught her eye and motioned for her to follow him to a detached group about to shoot flaming arrows. Xena nodded and slipped around behind them, cutting their bow strings just as they were about to shoot.
No matter how well they fought, though, the villagers were slowly pushed back into town. Xena and Lyceus chased a couple of men into their mother's tavern, fighting on top of the tables as their mother started beating men with pots and pans. Xena and Lyceus fought back to back for protection until she heard him cry out.
He had been fatally stabbed. Xena watched him sink down without a word.
With sudden white-hot anger, she rammed her sword through the man's heart, screaming, "Die, you pig, die!" She yanked the sword back out and started frenzied fighting, killing as many men as possible.
After many hours of battle, Xena managed to whip the villagers together into a line to surround the army and to pound it into submission. Cortese escaped, but Amphipolis had been saved. The town's streets were filled with the wounded and the dead. As the sun started its descent, the town pulled together one last time to tie up the prisoners and to take care of burying the dead and caring for the wounded. Xena helped wash her brother for his burial, then disappeared into the woods.
Days passed with no sight of Xena. Even though Rebecka tried to keep it from her, Diana heard from other townspeople of the brave and crazy way that Xena fought beside her brother, then how she ran off before he was buried. Diana cried when she heard that Xena was gone; just a short time ago Xena was carrying her home from her fall at the races. She finally asked Rebecka, "Why did Xena run away?"
Rebecka gathered the young girl in her arms, rocking her, saying, "I don't know, Diana. I heard that she saw Lyceus being killed, maybe that had something to do with it. I know that you miss her, but maybe your mother knows more of how Xena feels right now."
"Mama, when will Mom be home?" Diana asked, worried now about her mother.
Rebecka counted in her head, then answered, "She should be home next week, unless her unit is called to chase after the remainders of Cortese's army. Let's hope that she comes home safe and sound to us." Rebecka said a silent prayer for her sweetheart as she held their daughter in her arms. Finally, she said, "Let's close early and go see Cyrene. She probably needs some company about now. She has lost a son and a daughter, we should offer our comfort."
Diana nodded, but didn't let go for several more minutes. Rebecka slowly stroked Diana's hair, thinking how much she was starting to look and feel like Diedra. The baby fat was already starting to melt away, with strong muscles in its place. Soon, she would be filling out and they would have to watch the men who came into the store...maybe Diana wouldn't marry for several more years, until she found the right one.
They finally walked over to Cyrene's to offer their condolences. There had been a mass funeral the night before, but Rebecka and Diana had not been able to get to Cyrene and Toris, only to wave at them. They walked into the tavern and sat down at an empty table and were immediately greeted by the serving girl. "I'll tell Cyrene that you two are here. Would you like cider?" They nodded yes and waited for Cyrene.
Cyrene had aged several years overnight, Rebecka decided. She sat down heavily, then said, "Thank you for coming over Rebecka, Diana." She paused, swallowing hard, then continued, "And thank you for coming to the funeral. I had heard about how cruel Cortese and his men were, but I never thought that one of my babies would be killed by his men. I still haven't heard from Xena--I'm pretty worried about her."
Diana said loyally, "Xena can take care of herself, Cyrene. She's tough."
Cyrene allowed herself a small smile at the child's statement. "Diana, I know that Xena is tough. But, I'm her mother, and I'm worried about her. Even if she had been out of my house for years, I would still worry about her. Not to change the subject, but when is Diedra supposed to get home?" she asked, trying to distract herself.
"She will be home in next week, I hope," answered Rebecka.
"Maybe," mused Cyrene, "if she had been here, Xena would not have run off. I keep asking all the travelers if they have seen her, but no one has. I just pray that she is all right."
Just then the door opened and Diedra strolled into the room. Rebecka and Diana jumped up to greet her, hugging and kissing her, nearly knocking her off her feet. "Hey sweeties!" she said. "Let me sit down, I'm starving." The serving girl quickly brought over a mug of cider and took Diedra's order. "So," Diana said after a long swig of cider, "I heard about the botched raid, so I persuaded my commander to let me go early. Is the town okay?"
Cyrene said softly, "The town is fine, but Lyceus is dead and Xena has run off."
"Damn," Diedra swore. A silence descended on the group, not even broken when the serving girl brought Diedra's plate over. Diedra looked around the table, then asked, "Mind if I eat?" The others said, no, go ahead, so Diedra quickly ate her dinner. Cyrene started staring off in the distance, so Rebecka pulled Diedra aside and suggested that she take Cyrene for a walk. "Cyrene, do you want to take a walk?" Diedra inquired. Cyrene pulled herself back with an effort, nodding in agreement. Diedra kissed her wife and daughter, then left with her best friend.
Diedra and Cyrene walked slowly along the river, not speaking until they came to their favorite picnic spot. They sat down, staring at the moonlight on the river, each lost in her own thoughts. Finally, Diedra put her arm around Cyrene, asking quietly, "What happened to Xena, Cyrene?"
Cyrene laid her head on Diedra's shoulder, still not speaking for a long moment. She finally lifted her head and answered, "I saw part of it, Diedra. Lyceus and Xena were fighting back to back, then one of the men stabbed Lyceus. Xena turned just in time to see it, then killed the man. Xena has always had a temper, but she rarely has shown it. She killed in rage, Diedra, she let go her temper and then really started killing. Before Lyceus was stabbed, she was only trying to fight off the men and defend herself and the town."
She paused, gathering her thoughts, remembering her daughter's face as her son died. "I saw a look of pure hatred across her face, the face of a killer. She chased the raiders after the death of Lyceus, managing to whip the villagers into an offensive line, pushing Cortese's men out of Amphipolis. She came back to help me prepare Lyceus for his burial, then she ran off into the woods and hasn't been seen since. I'm afraid for my daughter, not afraid that she will be hurt, but that she will do the hurting to avenge her brother's death. She and Lyceus were always close and I'm afraid she snapped." Cyrene started choking up, tears starting to stream from her eyes. Diedra pulled Cyrene into her arms, letting the other woman weep for her children.
Finally, Cyrene pulled away, wiping her eyes on her apron. She started to apologize, but Diedra cut her off, saying, "Remember, I have a daughter myself. I know how much this must hurt you. My friend, I will go look for Xena tomorrow morning, see if I can bring her home. Would you like for me to do that?" Cyrene nodded, not trusting her voice. "Then I will search for her. You helped me find my place here in Amphipolis, introduced me to my beloved. It is the least that I can do to try to repay you for all the good you have done for me." She squeezed the other woman, then stood up, pulling Cyrene with her. "We should be getting back. My family will help take care of you, I promise." Cyrene leaned against the Amazon for a moment longer, then whispered, "Thank you." Diedra smiled at her friend, then took her hand and started walking back to town.
Diedra did find Xena after several weeks of searching, but didn't like what she found. Xena had used her original group of several people from Amphipolis to help drive Cortese from several neighboring villages. Somewhere along the way, Xena started taking supplies from the villagers to feed her men. Then, according to one man she interrogated, Xena made a pact with Ares, the god of war. If he would keep Cortese from raiding Amphipolis, she would fight for him. When Diedra finally caught up with Xena herself, the girl had changed into a hard woman suited in leather and armor, changed from defender to raider.
When Diedra asked, "Why?" Xena replied with a snarl, "Why not? Being good isn't going to bring Lyceus back! Ares will protect me, so leave me alone."
Diedra sadly went home and reported this to Cyrene, who then proclaimed bitterly, "Then I no longer have a daughter. She reached a turning point and turned the wrong way."
Diana, upon hearing the news, locked herself in her room for the rest of the day, weeping inconsolably. When Diedra and Rebecka finally convinced her to come out, she said, "But Xena will come back, I know she will. She has good in her!" Her mothers just shook their heads sadly. No hope, their eyes proclaimed to each other, no hope for Xena.
"So anyway, I thought I could join the great Warrior Princess, seeing as how we hail from the same town," the young man said. Xena looked him up and down critically, noting his small frame but fiery eyes. She reclined on her bed in her tent, idly toying with a dagger while the young man tried to persuade her to let him join her army. Finally, she spoke. "So, how is Amphipolis these days?"
"Pretty good, Xena. Your mother's inn and tavern are doing great business--thought you might want to know that. Let's see, Toris, your brother, has not been seen lately. I think he ran away or something. Rumor has it that he is hunting an army to join."
He thought for a moment, then continued his report with, " The harvest should be excellent this year. Diedra and Rebecka have expanded their business, but Rebecka is very ill. She seems to have the lung disease and is not expected to live much longer. Diana, their daughter, is planning to join the Amazon nation soon. She's beautiful, Xena, I tried asking her out but she turned me down."
"Enough." Xena looked up at the young man, narrowing her eyes dangerously. "You don't touch Diana. She was my friend." She re-sheathed her dagger, then stood up. "You may join us if you can cook. I had to kill the last cook; he tried to poison me. Can you handle it?"
The young man nodded, suddenly nervous. Xena waved him out of her tent, then sat back down on her bed. Rebecka, ill? For a moment, she allowed herself to think about the people she had loved at home. Her mother and brothers, Lyceus and Toris, Rebacka and Diedra and their daughter, Diana, Lis, and others.
Xena had turned to fighting to save them when Cortese attacked years ago, then later found that she enjoyed killing and raiding. Bah, she chided herself, remembering was not good, it was a sign of weakness. The great Warrior Princess could not show weakness, ever.
Yet, if Rebecka was truly dying, Xena wanted to know for sure. Her only weakness had been to make sure that no one attacked Amphipolis--armies that had tried had been swiftly slaughtered. But, as long as she could remember, she had taken the daily list to Rebecka and Diedra for food supplies for the inn, at least until she left Amphipolis. While Diedra had taught her the basics of swordplay and staff work, Rebecka had taught her the basics of healing as Rebecka had been a healer and midwife before she came to Amphipolis. Should she go check on Rebecka? Xena knew that she was not welcome in her own village, that even her mother did not speak her name. She had loved Diedra and Rebecka as if they were part of her family. She stared at the ceiling of the tent, trying to make up her mind when she heard a noise.
Xena rolled off the bed and grabbed her sword in one smooth movement. Darfus, her new captain, entered her tent, but stopped when he saw the sword. "My apologies, Xena, I thought you heard me call you," he said. She relaxed her stance, asking what he wanted. "I just wanted to confirm the plans to intercept the caravan that will be coming by this afternoon. Are there any changes to our plans?"
"No." Xena sheathed her sword and walked over to her table, consulting her map. "Make sure that the men are deployed according to our plans. If the scouts are correct, there are not many guards and much gold and merchandise--it should make an excellent haul. Oh, we have a new cook by the name of Palios. Make sure he feeds the men several hours before the raid. Now, leave me and don't disturb me until it is time to eat."
Darfus bowed and left the tent with the map. Xena sat back down on her bed, staring at nothing, wondering, Why am I so concerned about Rebecka? She probably hates me as much as anyone else. so why bother? Xena finally decided to roll over and take a nap before lunch. She was pretty tired after working on the raid plans and that boy who shared her bed last night...What he lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm. She smiled as she thought about last night, but her smile faded quickly. Sure, the sex was good, but something was missing. Was she starting to get too soft in her old age? No, she decided, she just needed a nap.
The raid went better than expected. Xena's army made off with a great haul, so she allowed them to celebrate that night. She watched bemusedly as they drank, fought, danced and had fun. The young boy who had shared her bed the night before offered his services again, but she refused him. For some reason she just wasn't in the mood for sex.
Even though she didn't show it to her men, she felt restless and agitated, still mulling over the news about Rebecka's illness. She had taken off for a few days before, usually when breaking in a new captain to see how he handled things. Maybe she should use this ploy. The men who had been with her for years would understand and give Darfus a challenge. Yes, she would sneak back and spy on Rebecka. This decided, she left her chair and joined the ring of dancers, losing herself in the movement of bodies around the fire.
"Darfus!" Xena bellowed across the compound. Darfus scrambled out of his tent, squinting against the morning sun as he walked quickly to her tent. She ushered him inside and pointed at a chair. He sat, waiting for her command. "I'm taking off for a few days," Xena started, "so I will leave the command to you. You will pick the next raid, any village within this area," she pointed to a circle on the map, "and conduct is successfully within the next week. Remember: your every action will be faithfully reported to me, so don't hold back any gains. Understood?"
"Yes ma'am. Where will you be?" he asked, surprised that she left him in charge. It was very unlike her to give up any authority.
She stared at Darfus as if he were a very interesting insect. "That is none of your business. I have chosen you as my new captain, but you won't be a captain for long if you keep asking such questions. I will be leaving in the next hour, so pass the word that Argo is to be fed and saddled. Dismissed." Darfus waited a moment, then left. He was confused, but he already knew better than to question Xena about anything, her temper was very well known. After all, she had killed the cook last week after his food made many in the army too sick to travel. He stumbled in the daylight, cursing under his breath, regretting the many skins of wine that he had consumed the night before during the victory party.
Xena watched as Darfus left her tent, then packed a small bag of dried food, her cloak, a spare dagger, her medical kit and other necessities. As she finished packing, Palios brought her breakfast to her, tasting each item as she watched. Satisfied, she motioned for him to leave then gulped the food and drink, uncharacteristically impatient to be off. She still wasn't sure why she decided to go, but something in her said that she must. She looked around her tent one last time, then grabbed her bag and walked over to the stable to retrieve Argo.
Xena arrived at the outskirts of Amphipolis at dusk. She led Argo to a hidden cave and unpacked, eating a cold dinner, waiting for the sun to go down. Xena remembered the cave well, she and Lyceus had found it when they were children, then used it as a hideout from the mother and other brother, Toris. As far as she knew they had been the only two who knew about the cave. With Lyceus dead, she was the only one who knew about it.
When night had fallen completely, Xena wrapped herself in her cloak and draped the hood over her head. She stole into town, slipping along the familiar side streets until she reached her mother's place. She waited in the alley behind the tavern part of the inn, knowing that sooner or later someone would come out to relieve himself. Her vigil was short, a stranger stumbled out on his way to the outhouse. Xena grabbed him and slung him against the wall, hissing, "Are you from this town?" Frightened, he nodded yes. "Rebecka the grocer--how is she?"
He gulped, trying to focus on the face of his assailant. Failing, he whispered, "She is very ill. Why? Are you planning to rob the store?"
"No. You did not see me." She let go of his shirt and let him fall to the ground, melting into the shadows. He stared after her, then noticed that he had wet himself in fear. His wife would kill him for pissing in his pants again! But, who would believe that a shadowy figure had accosted him and had not stolen his money? He had seen a ghost, he decided. Maybe it was time to stop drinking.
Xena arrived at the house of Diedra and Rebecka, unsure of what she planned to do. She finally opted to listen under the window of their bedroom, remembering how they usually left it open until winter as Diedra was a firm believer in fresh air. She crept into position, glad that Ares had gifted her with many skills, listening intently to the sounds within. She could hear labored breathing, then Diedra's voice saying, "Rebecka, I can't leave, not with you so ill."
Rebecka replied, "Diedra, I will live for several more days. You must go tomorrow morning to sign that contract. Diana will be here after school and Cyrene will check on me in the afternoon. Agathon will run the store, he has done a great job so far." Long silence, then, "Diedra, my love, I will survive a few more days. Without that contract, you can't bring in those delicacies that have been selling so well. You will have to support yourself and Diana after I am gone. Please do it for me."
"Okay, if you insist. But I will be back the day after." Long pause. "Rebecka, are you really dying?"
"Yes, love. I can't breathe well and from experience, I know that it will only become more difficult to breathe until I die. You must be strong for our daughter, Diedra. Go ahead, drop that strong warrior face and cry. Just promise me that you will allow yourself time to grieve and will not shut Diana out of your grieving." The voices became indistinct, then trailed off. Xena crept away, then slipped back to her cave. She would go see Rebecka in the morning, she decided.
Fortunately for Xena, the next morning dawned overcast and foggy, making it easier for her to hide in daytime. She ate a cold breakfast, took Argo for a short run, then left her horse tethered as she went back to Amphipolis. She stopped near Diedra and Rebecka's house, checking the barn first for Diedra's horse. No horse, but signs that a horse had been there recently. She crept up to the house, going to each window and listening carefully until she determined that Rebecka was alone in the house.
Xena went around front, standing before the front door, almost turning around and leaving. She finally gripped her cloak more firmly around her, then slowly opened the door and went in. "Who's there?" she heard Rebecka call out. Xena froze, not moving for a long time. She finally crept through the house and peeked into Diana's room. Empty. She then crept to the door of Rebecka and Diedra's room, summoning her courage. She opened the door and stood, waiting for Rebecka to look at her.
Rebecka had nearly fallen back asleep, but heard the door. She sat back up and stared at the woman. "Xena?" she questioned. "Is that really you?" Xena nodded, still standing in the doorway. "Why are you here?" Rebecka asked, half wondering if her old dream had come true.
Xena looked around the room, then finally came in and sat in the chair next to the bed. She loosened her cloak, crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. "I heard you were dying," she stated flatly, "so I came to see if it were true."
The older woman looked at her for a long moment, noting the harshness of Xena's face and posture. Rebecka had heard the stories of how Xena was now the terror of the Grecian countryside, raiding villages and travelers, killing on a whim, taking whatever she wanted. Through the open folds of the black cloak she could see glimpses of black leather and some sort of armor. Xena's face had taken on the full bloom of womanhood and would be stunning if not for the sneer in her eyes. Yet, she was here, nearly ten years after the fateful battle with Cortese, saying that she came because Rebecka was dying. "How did you know I was dying, Xena?"
Xena airily waved a callused hand. "I have my ways, Rebecka. I also know that Diedra is gone for the day and that Diana is in school. Furthermore, I know that Diana will be going to the Amazon nation soon for her formal introduction into the Amazonian army." Xena's face softened for a moment, then she continued. "I am proud of Diana. I hope she won't take my path."
Rebecka smiled with pride. "Yes, Diana has turned out to be a lovely woman, we are so proud of her. So, my great warrior, are you planning to rob the store, or did you just come to keep an old woman company?" She saw doubt creep into Xena's eyes, so she pressed on. "Aren't you tired of terrorizing people? Don't you need a new challenge?" Xena's mask snapped back into place almost audibly. Rebecka started coughing before she could say anything else. Xena stood up and left the room for several minutes, then came back with a cup of tea.
"Drink this," she ordered, "you will breathe easier for a while." Rebecka obediently drank, then laid the cup down on the nightstand. Xena paced the room as she watched Rebecka, noting how drawn her face was, how gaunt she had become, how her once lustrous blue black hair was now dull shot through with gray. Xena knew the look of death, and saw it on Rebecka's face. Why she was so concerned, she did not know, nor did she care to dwell on it. Unwillingly, she sat back down and stared at the older woman.
Rebecka stared back unflinchingly, with the courage of one who has nothing left to fear. I would be dead already if Xena had come here to harm me, she thought, but why was Xena here? Watching the warlord, she decided that Xena herself wasn't sure why she was here.
They stared at each other for long minutes, then Rebecka reached out and took one of Xena's hands in hers. The warlord lowered her head and gently kissed Rebecka's hand. Xena wanted to be in control, just casually checking, but the older woman's calm in her presence unnerved Xena. Without thinking, she slowly sank to her knees beside the bed, laying her head in Rebecka's lap as tears started to fall for the first time in so many years.
Rebecka gently stroked the raven hair of the warlord, knowing that the dream she had the night before was true. "Xena," she said gently, raising the younger woman's head from her lap, "I dreamed of you last night. I dreamed that you broke ranks with your army and that a young blonde woman stood by your side. I didn't see much more, but I knew that if I saw you in the waking world, that it would come true. Aren't you tired of evil?"
Xena couldn't say anything for fear of weeping again. She struggled to master her emotions but failed. She wrapped her arms around the frail body, sobbing again. Finally, she pulled away, wiping her face with her cloak. "Tell Diana that I love her," Xena said quietly. She kissed Rebecka's cheek, then left as quietly as she had come.
Rebecka died several evenings later, with Diedra, Diana and Cyrene at her deathbed. Just before she died, she motioned for Diana to lean over. "I dreamed of Xena," she whispered, "and she sends her love. I feel we will see a new Xena before the year is out." She let go of Diana's hand, then whispered, "But do not tell anyone."
Diana nodded, kissing her mother before going back to her seat. Diedra paced nervously as her wife spoke to their daughter, then sat down and pulled Rebecka into her arms, holding her tightly. Moments later, Rebecka spoke one last time. "Diedra, take care of Diana and remember that I always love you." She suddenly shifted her attention to the ceiling. "Sarah? Is that you? I'm coming..." Her voice trailed off as her spirit left her body. Diedra gently closed Rebecka's sightless eyes, then eased the body back onto the bed. "It's over," she said hoarsely.
Xena watched the funeral from her hidden vantage point, noting that Queen Melosa of the Amazon Nation was there, as well as the new priestess, Dorcas. They stood behind Diedra, Diana and Cyrene during the service as an honor guard. The local priestess of Athena's temple presided, telling of Rebecka's life in Amphipolis. Xena noted that Diedra sat without emotion, but Xena suspected that she was riding herd on her emotions. The service concluded and the casket was lowered into the ground, a custom that Xena suspected was Hebrew. Most Greeks she knew had their bodies burned or placed in one of the surrounding caves. She watched as the mourners turned away, going their separate ways.
Diedra slumped miserably over the table, just picking at her food. Cyrene finally said, "Diedra, do you want to go for a walk? Diana will be fine here."
"Sure," Diedra mumbled as she stood up, swaying with fatigue. Cyrene put her arm around her friend, supporting her as they left the inn and turned to the river, walking until they reached a small clearing. Cyrene laid her cloak on the ground, then helped her friend sit down. They stared at the river in silence for a long time until Diedra finally asked softly, "Cyrene, why did she have to die? Why did the gods take her away from me? The business is booming, but I need her and Diana needs her. Why?"
"I don't know, Diedra. We all loved her, Rebecka was very much a part of Amphipolis." Cyrene answered.
Diedra turned grief-stricken eyes to Cyrene. "She is my life, my other half. You sent me to her when I arrived, pregnant and tattered in soul, and she saved me from myself. She loved me and delivered our child. I can't live without her, Cyrene, I just can't!" She broke into sobs, blindly reaching for her best friend.
Cyrene pulled Diedra close, letting her weep until the storm passed, saying, "I know, honey, I know. I've lost a husband and all of my children, I know grief." She stroked the other woman's hair, not sure what else to say. She settled for letting Diedra sob herself exhausted, not knowing that her daughter was watching from nearby. "It's hard enough for a loved one to die, but to prefer that a loved one was dead over how she turned out--" Cyrene stopped herself, literally biting her lip to keep from saying more. Fortunately, Diedra did not hear the last sentence through her sobs.
Finally, Diedra stopped weeping and sat back up. "Thank you," she mumbled. "I guess I am lucky, I have my daughter and to have you." Diedra took a long, shuddering breath. "My daughter needs me, I must see to her before she leaves for the Amazon village tomorrow." Diedra stood up shakily, offering a hand to Cyrene. Cyrene took her hand and pulled herself up, then Diedra grabbed her and held her again for a long time, finally releasing her. "Let's go home, Cyrene." Cyrene nodded, picking up her cloak and shaking the leaves off before she settled it back around her shoulders. Xena watched the two women slowly walk back to the inn, then melted back into the darkness.
Xena wasn't quite the same when she rejoined her army. She was moodier than usual, lashing out at anyone who dared cross her path. In battle, she was frenzied, wounding and killing with a vengeance, seeing the faces of those she left behind in Amphipolis. Through her network of spies, she found out that Diana had made it to the Amazon village and was now in training as a warrior. Diedra had a rough time during the first month of widowhood, facing life without her partner and life without her daughter. Xena dreamed of Rebecka's words to her, and of her mother's support of Diedra.
The warrior princess found herself longing for her mother's arms around her, saying that she forgave her. Yet, she had a reputation to uphold, that of a bloodthirsty warlord bent on riches and terror. Maybe if she did something supremely evil, she would either lose these thoughts or die. The most evil thing she could think of was to kill Hercules, so she set out to trap him.
Darfus, her captain, betrayed her and ran her out of her own army after he disobeyed her commands and killed women and children. Broken in body and spirit, she turned to Hercules for help, then struck out on her own, determined to put her evil ways behind her. She decided that despite her newfound fondness for Hercules, she must seek atonement by herself. Driven by dreams of Rebecka's last words, she found herself near Poteidaia, where she defended villagers against Draco. A young reddish-blonde woman named Gabrielle tagged along afterwards, chattering happily along the way.
Xena barely tolerated the girl, but dreamed of Rebecka's words again, "I dreamed that you broke ranks with your army and that a young blonde woman stood by your side." She woke up, sweating, then looked across the fire to where Gabrielle was sleeping. "I am lonely," Xena thought, "at least Gabrielle can keep me entertained with her chattering, if she doesn't drive me crazy first."
Was this the woman that Rebecka spoke of? Xena shivered, then crawled out of her covers and walked away from the camp. She finally stopped and spoke quietly, saying, "Rebecka, I have often heard that the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. If so, you were right. I am tired of inflicting evil, I have reached my turning point. This tag-a-long, this Gabrielle, is she the one?" The stars were silent, but Xena felt a small measure of peace. She walked back to the campsite and sat on her blankets, not missing the riches that she used to surround herself with, staring at the sleeping figure of the young woman across the way.
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