Disclaimers: Xena et. Al are not my creations. Violence, subtext and various spoilers ensue. Enjoy!
Lupercalia. Xena groaned, as she watched the women lining up along the narrow street which ran through the centre of the village. Roman influence spreading to Amphipolis I hate it!
It did not help that Joxer was running about with the boys, dressed in a loincloth and laurel crown reminiscent of his stint as "Attis". It had taken Gabrielle's bardly oration of the tale of Cybele and Attis and Attis's sacrifice of his manhood to his devotion to said goddess to snap Joxer out of that particular delusion. In the end, Joxer was just as goofy as ever, though. Still mooning after Gabrielle, even though he knew that was a lost cause. Xena felt for the guy.
Boy, do I, she thought, her eyes following the little blonde through the various vendors stalls. One of the boys ran past and slapped her bottom with the leather strips tied to a hazel stick.
"Hey!" cried Gabrielle, whirling around as Xena stepped forward.
The boy, a lad of no more than thirteen blushed, then shrugged and ran off, tapping every woman within his reach, earning himself an indulgent smile and wave from Gabrielle. Joxer skipped (Xena had to blink and look twice yes, he actually skipped) over to the Bard and raised his leather bound wand to do the same when Gabrielle wacked him in the wrist with her staff, causing him to drop the offending stick and yowl. Xena sauntered over to try and diffuse the situation.
"Joxer, you're too old for this," said Xena. "The luperci are supposed to be under fifteen."
Joxer dropped his head and looked crestfallen.
"Oh, okay, Xena," he said. "I just wanted to, you know, join in and everything."
He walked with his head down and his shoulders slumped towards Cyrene's inn, presumably to get dressed and start drinking. The posture earned even an annoyed Gabrielle's sympathy.
"It's not like he's really doing any harm, Xena," she said.
"Hey, you're the one who smacked him, not me," said the Warrior, one eyebrow raised.
"Yeah, I know hey, Joxer!" Gabrielle called out, jogging over to him.
Xena saw the Bard talking earnestly to Joxer for a moment, then point him in the direction of a group of matrons who were huddled together under an awning, giggling at the antics of the luperci . Joxer grinned, sketched a sloppy salute and loped over to the women, playfully waving the stick. Gabrielle watched for a moment, then rejoined Xena.
"There, that should make them all happy," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah," Xena said, laughing. "Especially Joxer that's the brothel."
"Oh, gosh I mean, they don't look like Meg and her girls," said Gabrielle. "They look more refined, I guess."
"They're hetairai, " said Xena.
"In Thrace?" asked Gabrielle, her little nose wrinkled. "I would have thought that "
"What, that the sheep farmers in Amphipolis would prefer mindless sex over thoughtful, educated sex?" said Xena, wryly.
"Uh, well, no not exactly no, I wouldn't put it like that at all, it's just a Roman holiday and Athenian prostitutes?" said Gabrielle. "Your hometown is becoming so cosmopolitan."
Xena chuckled and wrapped her arm around the Bard's bare shoulders, the skin to skin contact causing tingles along her forearm to travel to her heart. The Warrior Princess felt her face start to burn and she dropped her arm quickly. She was feeling more physical towards Gabrielle these days and she wasn't entirely sure that those feelings were mutual. Before the situation with Aphrodite and the diamond, she thought that she and Gabrielle were moving in that direction together, but now she wasn't so certain.
Certainly, after Hope and Solan we're lucky to have what we do. I have no right to even hope for her to feel anything for me, but I thought after she almost died during the battle with the Persians at Tripolis we made our feelings clear for one another, Xena thought.
"Hey, I'm telling stories tonight in your mother's common room," said Gabrielle. "I think I'll go up to our room and look over my scrolls to see which ones will be good for this festival."
"Anything that does not feature me as the star sounds good," said Xena.
"But you are my star, Xena," said Gabrielle, grinning back at the warrior as she walked away.
The warrior startled, then frowned and watched the Bard retreat.
"Whoa, Warrior Babe, what's up?" asked Aphrodite, materializing next to Xena with a whirl of pink sparkles.
"I suppose I should not be at all surprised by the appearance of the goddess of love with the fertility rituals going on and all," said Xena.
"Psh please, whacking with sticks and rutting and drinking has very little to do with love," said Aphrodite, glumly.
"So what are you doing here, then?" asked Xena.
"Cupie and I have a bet," said Aphrodite.
"Yeah, that worked out so well for everyone involved the last time," said Xena, rolling her eyes. "And of course you have to pick on my hometown when Gabrielle and I are here to help my mother in her tavern during this stupid Roman festival. Is this payback for the diamond thing?"
"Oh, please! Get over yourself, Xena. Like I don't have way cooler gemstones with color and everything now! No I heard that Gabrielle was going to be doing the Bard thing and I was hoping I could get her to tell something mushy and romantic," said Aphrodite. "Better yet, I was hoping that I could, like, get you to get her to tell a nice romantic story."
"Oh, right!" said Xena, laughing.
"Xena there are at least three people here who know how you feel about Gabrielle and not one of us is the one who should," said Aphrodite.
"Aphrodite, does this bet with Cupid have anything to do with Gabrielle and me?" asked Xena.
"Not directly, but you two could like, really, help me out," said Aphrodite. "Which in turn, would really help you two as well."
"Thanks but no thanks," said Xena, her hands in warding gesture.
"Aw, come on Xena!" said Aphrodite, pouting.
"Aphrodite, why on earth would I ever do anything to help you?" asked Xena.
"'Cause then I'll owe you," said the goddess very quietly; only the Warrior Princess's exceptional hearing could pick up her words.
Xena stopped for a moment and thought about that.
"Nah, it's not worth all the headaches that will bring," she said.
"Alright, Warrior Babe, I know where I can find a more receptive audience," said Aphrodite with a gleam in her eye. She disappeared in a cascade of pink sparkles.
Xena sneezed and waved the glittery stuff from in front of her face. She shook her head and started back towards her mother's tavern for a mug of ale.
Cyrene greeted her daughter with a cheery wave in between serving patrons.
"Gabrielle's upstairs," she called to Xena.
"I'm not looking for "
She was interrupted by a serving maid bumping into her with a tray full of mugs of ale.
"Oh, no, I am so sorry!" the girl cried, dabbing at Xena's breastplate with her apron. Xena grabbed both of the maid's hands in one of hers and effectively stopped the dabbing.
"It's okay I've got a spare upstairs," she told the maid.
"Oh are you staying for the festival?" asked the maid, smiling and deepening a dimple in her left cheek.
"Yeah, sort of," said Xena, grabbing an unspilled mug from the tray and draining it.
"Oh, wait! Cyrene said everyone has to pay first!" said the girl.
"That's alright, Valentyna," said Cyrene in passing. "That one drinks free and so does Gabrielle."
"Oh oh ! You're Xena!" said Valentyna.
"Yeah, 'scuse me, willya?" said the Warrior, heading upstairs to change her clothes.
Xena climbed the stairs and got to the door of the room she and Gabrielle shared whenever they visited Cyrene. It was the room in which she had grown up, but Cyrene had replaced the little cot with a larger bed. Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed, scrolls and parchment strewn over the coverlet, the saddlebags opened at the bard's feet and she moved her lips, eyes scanning the page in front of her.
What happened to you? asked the Bard, barely glancing up. You smell like ale.
Mom's new wench, said Xena.
Yeah, she's something, huh? asked Gabrielle, absently and Xena knew that the Bard was off in storyland.
Xena shrugged and stripped to her linen shift, then cursed.
"Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"The ale soaked through. I'll have to take these leathers to the tannery to have them cleaned and oiled properly," said Xena.
"Hm, your spares are already there," said Gabrielle, absently.
"Oh, that's right. Son of a Bacchae! Now what am I going to do?" said the warrior, pulling her shift over her head.
"Well there's a clean shift in the bags, but you'll have to ask Cyrene for something to wear," said Gabrielle, packing up her scrolls. "Here, I'll do it. Can't have you walking about the Tavern in nothing but a shift with all this Lupercalia going on. Someone might get the wrong idea."
Gabrielle left, carefully closing the door behind her.
"What idea might that be?" Xena mused, pulling the clean shift over her head. "The only bad idea right now is to let my mother and Gabrielle pick out clothing for me. Maybe Toris has something I can borrow."
She went to her older brother's room in search of some clean clothing. Xena knocked on the door, then when there was no answer, she opened it and began rummaging through the wardrobe.
"My brother wearing these?" she said, pulling out some dressy ruffled shirts. Xena shook her head and put everything back into the wardrobe.
Finally she went to the trunk at the foot of Toris's bed and opened it. She pulled out an old work shirt and some pants. A small wooden box fell to the floor, having been apparently wrapped in the clothing. Xena opened the box to find a matched pair of wedding bracelets inside.
"Xena! What are doing in here?" Toris yelled, grabbing the box from her hand.
"I just needed to borrow some clothes Mom's new wench is a klutz," said Xena. "What's that all about?"
Xena nodded towards the box.
"None of your business," Toris muttered, stuffing the box in the pocket of his pants which Xena noted were made of an expensive soft leather.
"What's up with all the fancy clothes?" she asked, teasingly. "What's her name?"
"Daphne," said Toris. "And you stay away from her I don't want you scaring her off."
"What do you mean?" asked Xena. "How could I scare her off?"
"Go ahead and keep those," said Toris, nodding towards the shirt and pants in Xena's hands. "I won't be needing those any more. When Daphne and I are married, her father will set me up with a store in Athens, so I have to dress as a shopkeeper and not a sheep farmer."
"So is Daphne buying your clothes for you now? Because I know Mother can't afford to pay you enough to buy that stuff," said Xena.
"Mother does alright, which you would know if you came around more often," said Toris.
Xena's eyes narrowed. Something didn't smell right and it wasn't just her brother, awash in some musky cologne.
"Does Mom know about your plans?" she asked him.
"Not yet, but one thing I know I can trust is your discretion, right, Sis?" said Toris, smiling weakly.
"Yeah, just don't leave her in the lurch," said Xena, turning to leave.
"What, like you did?" Toris called after her. Xena winced at the truth in those words, but kept walking.
She returned to her room and dressed, feeling agitated after the encounter with not only her brother, but the earlier conversation with Aphrodite. She went out the field behind the Tavern and tried to practice some sword moves. She hadn't anticipated gathering an audience, but it happened. With a sigh of frustration, Xena went back inside accompanied by the applause of the revelers who believed that her "performance" was another festival event.
"I will be so glad when this week is over," she muttered.
"Oh, there you are, Xena," said Cyrene. "I see you found something to wear."
"Yeah," said Xena, glumly.
"Valentyna is a good girl, although she does have her little accidents," said Cyrene. "Still, she needed a job."
"Where'd she come from, Mom?" asked Xena.
"Oh, she's just in town for the festival," said Cyrene. "She had some bad luck on her way here, though. Lost all her money, so she needed a job to make enough to get back home."
"Have you noticed anything strange since she's been here?" asked Xena.
"Strange? Like what, Dear?" asked Cyrene.
"Anything out of the ordinary, you know strange," said Xena.
"No, not really," said Cyrene. "There does seem to be a lot of activity upstairs, if you know what I mean."
Cyrene raised her eyes to the rooms upstairs.
"But it is a fertility festival, after all," she finished with a smile.
"Yeah," said Xena with a sigh. "I just have a feeling that she's not who she says she is."
And I know there are gods about, trouble-making gods, she finished silently.
"Oh, Xena, don't worry," said Cyrene, patting her daughter's arm. "It will all be over soon. I know what a strain all this is to your iron clad self-control. "
"What do you mean?" asked the warrior.
"You may to want to act soon, though," said her mother walking away. "Love is in the air and if you don't make your feelings known, someone else might."
Stunned, Xena remembered that Aphrodite had said three people knew her secret. The warrior Princess groaned.
"Well, maybe she'll stop trying to play matchmaker now," she muttered to herself.
"Don't count on it," Cyrene called from the other room.
"I've got to get out of here," Xena said through gritted teeth. She ran up to her room, grabbed her chakram, then took off for the river.
Once there, Xena decided a bracing swim in the chill February air was in order. She stripped naked and dove into the river. Bracing was right. Shivering and blue, Xena pulled herself out of the frigid water several yards downstream from where her borrowed clothes lay on the bank. Rolling her eyes, Xena trotted, crouched against the wind, over to where she had left the clothing. She pulled it on, then sat hunched over, her wet hair hanging over her face so that only her blue lips were visible.
"What if she doesn't feel the same way? Everything will change and I'll lose her," she whispered to herself.
"But what if she does?"
Xena whirled, her wet hair whipping, to see Valentyna, standing there with Xena's cleaned leathers and shift as well as a thick towel. Xena took the towel with a muttered thanks.
"I'm sorry about earlier I'm not usually so clumsy," said Valentyna.
"S'okay," said Xena, wrapping the towel around herself. "Guess I'll head back."
"Did it help?" asked Valentyna.
"What?" asked Xena.
"The cold swim did it help?"
"No, not really," said Xena, stalking off.
"Xena what happened to you?" asked a wide-eyed Cyrene as her dripping daughter stomped through the common room.
"Needed to clear my head, Mom," was the terse reply.
"Cyrene have you seen Xe- Oh!" said Gabrielle coming into the room. "What -- ?"
Valentyna came in after the wet warrior.
"She was in the river," said Valentyna. "What a strange thing to do in this cold."
"Not for Xena," said Gabrielle and Cyrene at the same time.
Cyrene looked sharply at the bard and then glanced in the direction her daughter had gone, then shook her head and continued on in to the kitchen. Gabrielle followed Xena upstairs.
"Here, let me help," said the Bard, rubbing Xena's long black hair with one end of the towel. "I know the situation isn't too comfortable for you right now. It'll be over soon, though. Lupercalia ends day after tomorrow."
Yeah, but that's not what's making me so uncomfortable, Xena thought, pulling gently away from Gabrielle.
"Thanks. I can take it from here," said Xena, with a small smile.
"Right of course," said Gabrielle, rising from the bed and picking up her scroll case. "I'll just right, I'll be over here, working on a story for tonight."
"Hey, Gabrielle?" said Xena, softly.
"Yeah, Xena?" said the Bard.
"Why don't you tell a romance you know, in honor of Lupercalia," said Xena. "It'll really please uh, the audience. Lots of tips for you that way, you know."
"Yeah, okay, thanks for the tip, Xena," said Gabrielle, smiling broadly. "Okay, you know, usually you don't take much interest in what stories I tell. Except of course to protest stories about yourself. What's up with you, Xena?"
"I don't know Gabrielle. Maybe the atmosphere is getting to me," said Xena with a shrug. "I just thought it might be nice to throw a little class into this festival, a little romance to temper the lust."
" I like that idea. Thanks, Xena," said Gabrielle. "I think I know just the story. I'm going to try and find a quiet place to practice."
Xena lay back against the pillows and closed her eyes.
"Yeah, good luck with that," she said.
I wonder which story she's doing? Xena thought.
Suddenly, she was aware of a presence in the room. She sat up, grabbing the chakram from under her pillow and just stopped herself from flinging it at the winged entity who stood glowering at her from the foot of the bed.
"Can I help you, Cupid?" asked the warrior.
"I can't believe you, Xena," he said. "You're helping her ."
"This is about that bet with your mother, isn't it?' said Xena. "What is the bet, anyway?"
"Oh, like you didn't know," said Cupid, rolling his blue eyes.
"Pretend that I don't," said Xena. "What's your side of it?"
"Come on, Xena, you of all people know that desire, that lust, doesn't have to have anything to do with love," said Cupid. "Remember Draco?"
"Yeah, I remember him," said Xena, sitting up. "I think you're right, Cupid. Gabrielle would probably disagree, though."
Xena looked thoughtful.
"So tell me, what was the bet?" said Xena.
"You mean you really didn't know?" asked Cupid.
"All I know is that Aphrodite came to me and asked if I could get Gabrielle to tell a romantic story tonight to help her win some bet with you," replied Xena.
"The prize is this festival gets dedicated to the winner. The bet is that Aphrodite can make you fall in love with Gabrielle without using her magic," said Cupid. "I told her it would take one of my golden arrows to make that happen, but she's "
"You bet on Gabrielle -- and me?" said Xena, seething. Suddenly she was on her feet, chakram in hand.
"It was an easy win, Xena," said Cupid, crossing his arms. "I know you. You might lust after the little blonde and let's face it, who wouldn't? But love ? I don't see it."
"Yeah. Who would?" said the warrior, quietly.
"Beats me," said Cupid with a shrug. "Well, except for Mom, but you know how flaky "
"Yeah, later, huh, Cupid?" said Xena, leaving the winged god with a perplexed frown on his perfect face.
Xena left the Tavern and went to look for Gabrielle. Cupid stood on the roof, watching the warrior as he knocked a lead arrow. Beside him, Aphrodite appeared.
"Cupie, you are so busted!" she said, hands on hips. "We said no magical interference remember?"
"So what are you doing here?" said Cupid, lowering the bow.
"Catching you messing up the best thing that ever happened to both of those two," said the goddess of love.
"Hey, I was just trying to help the warrior. She's got it bad. Since when are you so the romantic, anyway?" asked Cupid.
"I dunno," said Aphrodite. "The little Bardling kinda gets under the skin. I mean, she actually believes that 'love can conquer all' stuff she spews. That kind of publicity could be good for both of our images."
"Hm, you do have a point," said Cupid. "So how can we resolve this without losing face or the holiday?"
"I'd be willing to share the proceeds of the offerings for this festival if you would?" said Aphrodite.
"In the spirit of love?" said Cupid, holding out his hand to shake.
Aphrodite squealed and hugged him.
"Hey, hey, watch the wings!" yelled Cupid just before they both disappeared in a puff of pink and red heart sparkles. Neither saw Valentyna watching them with a wistful smile from the back yard of the tavern.
Xena found Gabrielle sitting in Argo's stall in the Tavern stable, scribbling furiously upon a piece of parchment.
"Hey, Gabrielle, how's it going?" she asked, softly.
"It's great, Xena," said the Bard, her eyes shining as she looked up at Xena. "Valentyna set me up with a blanket and a pitcher of cider and I've been on a roll out here. It's not my own story, but my version of it oh, Xena, I hope everyone likes it."
"I'm sure they will," she said, leaning against one wooden wall and crossing her arms across her breastplate and craning her long neck to get a peek at the parchment on Gabrielle's lap. "So, what's it about?"
"Oh, no, Warrior Princess," said Gabrielle, rising to her feet and pushing Xena out of the stall. "You'll just have to wait like everyone else."
Xena chuckled and walked back into the main room of the tavern for a mug of ale. Valentyna greeted her shyly and carefully placed the mug of ale on the table in front of the warrior. Xena slid a couple of coins toward her.
"Oh, no Cyrene said you drink free," said Valentyna.
"That's for you," said Xena. "Mom said you lost all your money."
"Oh," said Valentyna, tears coming to her eyes. She swallowed hard and smiled before she dared speak. "Thank you. I will try to make my service worthy of your kind tip. Not like earlier."
"Oh, good, 'cause I'm on my last clean undershift," said Xena, grinning at her.
"I am sorry," said Valentyna.
"It's forgotten," said Xena, waving her away, though the maid had a feeling the dark woman before her forgot nothing, ever.
"Xena, may I ask you something?" said Valentyna.
"Yeah?" responded the warrior, one eyebrow raised.
"What did you mean by the river when you said that everything would change?"
The warrior's deep blue eyes narrowed.
"No one was supposed to hear that," she said.
"I know, and I am sorry that I did, but I can't unhear it," said Valentyna.
Suddenly, the serving maid looked alarmed, hastily excused herself, then ran out of the Tavern. Xena's sharp hearing caught the sound of a children's quarrel mere moments later and followed her out to the yard. A snarling puppy snapped at the feet of a little boy of about seven or eight. Xena looked closer and saw that the puppy was a wolf cub. Valentyna advanced on the child, almost snarling. She grabbed him by the back of his neck.
"Were you teasing this pup?" she asked the boy.
"I was just playin'!" the child protested.
Xena recognized the lad as a boy known for harmless mischief about the village and he probably had indeed been teasing the animal. Valentyna's reaction seemed overly harsh, however, even to the Warrior Princess. Xena grabbed Valentyna's upper arm and squeezed a pressure point located there to make the woman lose her grip on the child.
"Hey, I'm sure Lukas meant no harm right Luke?" said Xena, releasing Valentyna's arm. The child nodded furiously, his long hair bobbing with the movements of his head.
Valentyna's heartbeat was visible through her blouse and she took several deep breaths trying to calm herself before she spoke.
"I am sorry I I apologize if I overreacted," she said, shaking. "I just cannot bear for animals to be abused."
"Yeah, animals and kids," said Xena, frowning after the women as she ran back inside the tavern. "Luke, you remember when I caught you trying to put lizards in Gabrielle's scroll case?"
"Who, me?" said Lukas, eyes widening in feigned innocence.
"Yeah, we made a deal I wouldn't tell Gabrielle if you didn't play any more pranks around the Tavern," said Xena.
"I wasn't prankin', I swear," said Lukas. "I was just trying to see if that was a real wolf pup."
"It is," said Xena, eyeing the animal which lay down, its chin resting in its paws in the far corner of the yard, watching the group of children warily. "Which means you need to stay away from it. It is a wild animal and it could be dangerous, even if it is still a baby."
"It's not wild," said a young girl. "Valentyna brought it with her when she arrived. It's her pet."
"Yeah, well, still, leave it alone," said Xena.
She left the children to find Valentyna.
"Hey, that's your pup?" she asked.
"Ye well, no, he followed me on the road, so I've been feeding him," said Valentyna. "He's a wild animal. People don't 'own' them."
"Yeah, good point," said the Warrior Princess. "Listen about Lukas, I know he's a little well, you were a little rough. I don't know about where you come from, but here, we don't grab kids by the scruff of the neck like that."
"I'm sorry," said Valentyna, though Xena suspected by her tone that she was anything bit remorseful. "I heard Re- I heard the pup crying and I guess my instincts just kicked in."
"Yeah, I get it," said Xena. "Just don't do it again."
Valentyna nodded and went back to her work in the Tavern. Xena's eyes narrowed as she watched the woman walk away. The warrior looked thoughtful for a moment, then sighed and left to get her leather armor back from cleaning. She was security for the Tavern tonight. Toris was supposed to be helping, but had bowed out, just as he had skipped out on helping their mother spit the side of venison for last night's meal or heft the barrels of ale behind the bar this afternoon. That was fine, Xena thought. He'd probably just get in her way if she did have to "bounce" someone out, but the warrior had a feeling she knew why her brother was being so scarce around the Tavern.
"I just can't wait to meet this 'Daphne'," Xena muttered on her way back to the Tavern.
Dusk fell and Xena, dressed in clean leather armor, her shining polished chakram at her side, stood at the back of the room, arms folded across her breastplate, blue eyes scanning the room for potential troublemakers. She caught a glimpse of her brother, sitting in the shadows with a young woman.
Daphne, Xena thought and considered introducing herself. Her brother's girlfriend looked quite young with large, brown doe eyes and long brown hair, plait into a single braid. Xena thought the girl resembled Gabrielle a bit despite the different coloring. She decided to wait until she wasn't in intimidation mode. Then she snorted.
Yeah like that's ever going to happen! she thought, shaking her head. Suddenly the room grew quiet and the lights dimmed as Cyrene and Valentyna went about, putting out all the lamps except those surrounding the makeshift dais opposite the entrance to the tavern. Gabrielle stepped up on the stage to the applause of the packed Tavern. Xena had to smile. She knew Gabrielle could not see her in the back of the darkened room and her blue eyes glowed with pride.
My bard, thought the warrior, then shook it off with the guilt that accompanied that thought. No, not mine
"She could be," came a whisper to Xena's left.
Xena looked over, startled to see two men whispering back and forth. She walked over to stand closer, just in case.
"Hey, Xena," hissed one of the men. Xena turned her head in response.
"Yeah, it's her," said the other one.
"Can you two shut up?" asked the warrior, irritated.
She returned her attention back to the bard on the stage. Gabrielle began her story. Xena hated that she could not allow herself to be transported as the other people in the room were. She had to stay focused, though, in case trouble arose. Still that didn't mean she couldn't appreciate the spell Gabrielle cast over an audience.
"Lupercalia," the bard began. "Festival of the Wolves, Fertility, Love but what is love?"
Xena waited for the lustful atmosphere to cause hecklers, but the room was almost silent except for the crackling of the fire and the sound of breathing. The warrior cast another glance around the packed room and caught a glimpse of Valentyna out of the corner of her eye. Quickly, Xena turned her head to make sure she had seen what she thought she had, then the warrior nodded.
So much for Cupid and Aphrodite's bet, she thought with a smirk.
Gabrielle continued, "There are many kinds of love, but the story I am going to tell you is about then most precious love of all. We've all experienced it, well, at least one side of it, anyway. After this festival, I suspect many more will. I mean, well, that's sort of the whole point of this celebration, isn't it? I am talking about the love a mother has for her children. I'm not going to tell you about just any mother, though. My story tonight is about the mother of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were born to a great destiny. But they started out like babies, just like everyone else. And all babies have a mother we don't hear a lot about the mother who gave birth to them. We know that a she-wolf suckled them and raised them until they were found by a shepherd and brought up to be warriors and kings."
Gabrielle told the story with such skill that Xena hardly noticed Gabrielle's restraint in describing the "splendor" of Rome. She knew that it was for her benefit and she warmed to the bard even more. According to Gabrielle, the human mother of Rome's founding fathers was a virgin priestess who was made pregnant by Ares, whom the Romans called Mars. Suddenly, Xena realized that she was seeing the wall behind the bard change scenes as the story progressed. What's more, Gabrielle's clothing changed with the story as it progressed. The warrior blinked and rubbed her eyes. The others did not seem to notice, they were so captivated by the story. Xena wasn't sure what to make of it all. She started towards the dais, only to be prevented by Valentyna.
"It's okay," she said. "Gabrielle is safe."
"Are you doing this?" asked Xena.
"It is a gift of gratitude," said Valentyna.
"For telling your story," said the Warrior Princess.
"Yes," said Valentyna. "I am grateful to the she-wolf who saved my children's lives, but no one really knows my story or why I was forced to give up my boys."
"And that wolf pup is ?" asked the warrior.
"My son, Remus," said Valentyna. "Zeus was kind enough to intervene when Romulus killed his brother, but even the king of the gods could not bring him back completely as he was."
Xena nodded and turned to listen to the rest of Gabrielle's tale.
"So Valentyna knew that in order to save her children, she had to give them to the care of the gods," said the bard. "It is a dilemma faced by many mothers who, for whatever reasons, cannot have their children with them."
Gabrielle's eyes sought Xena's and found them. Both warrior and bard were one in their thoughts, Solan and Hope Illusia had brought them forgiveness, but understanding had still eluded them. Xena could not think of Hope as anything but the demon-spawned monster who had killed Solan. Hearing Gabrielle's story tonight, Xena asked herself, had she failed to see Gabrielle's grief over the loss of her own child? No, she had seen it; it had angered her so she ignored it.
Things have already changed between Gabrielle and me, Xena realized. I never told Solan he was mine or that I loved him. I will regret that always. What if I lose Gabrielle before she knows how I feel? I can't live with that, too. The life we lead, it's a valid concern.
"So tonight, I would like honour the priestess Valentyna, a mother whose sacrifice often goes unheralded," said Gabrielle, turning to Valentyna and beckoning her to the stage. "I propose we name this festival 'Valentyna's Day' in her honour and that we remember to hold all forms of love, whether it be the love a mother has for her child or the love between friends and sisters or that between lovers to be sacred on this day."
"How did you know it was me?" asked Valentyna.
Aphrodite and Cupid appeared next to the Bard.
"Oh, of course," said Valentya.
The audience could not see the gods, but applauded Valentyna and Gabrielle's story, standing and calling out accolades. The stage was littered with dinars, lira, and drachma. Cupid started to bend and pick up the coins until a chakram whirred over her his head, ruffling his blonde hair.
Xena raised an eyebrow as she caught the chakram and strode up to the stage. Cyrene and Toris, along with Daphne helping began to light the lamps, but the crowd was reluctant to disperse.
"Tell us another story, Gabrielle!" they shouted.
"Yeah, Gabby," said Aphrodite. "Go ahead, tell the one about when baby Bliss got a hold of the arrow because Cupid wanted a booty call."
"Oh, I have a better one how about when Mom here lost her powers and became a stenchy mortal?" said Cupid.
"Aphrodite, was Cupid born you know, wings and fully grown and all?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, he was such a sweet little baby," said Aphrodite, smiling and gently stroking her son's cheek. "He started to grow his wings when he was about Bliss's age. Aw, Cupie, how about our truce?"
"Alright, Mom, I have to get home to Psyche and the kids anyway," said Cupid.
He disappeared in a flutter of feathers.
"Aw, Gabby, that was such a sweet story," said Aphrodite. "Not quite what I was hoping for, but oh, well!" She looked expectantly at Xena. The warrior sighed, making Aphrodite smile. "You'll get there. Gotta go lust is in the air!"
She, too disappeared in a swirl of pink hearts and sparkles.
"I think Aphrodite sometimes forgets that she's the goddess of all kinds of love, not just carnal lust and " began Gabrielle. She was interrupted by a pair of warrior lips on hers. Gabrielle's eyes widened.
"Xena there's a whole room of people here," said Gabrielle, smiling.
"No, there isn't," said Xena. "Right now, there is only you and me."
"You're right," said Gabrielle. "That's how I tell my stories. I see the room empty of only you and me and then I let the words come from my heart. I didn't know if you had told Cyrene about Solan, but my heart was speaking to yours, one grieving mother to another."
"I know," Xena whispered. "I didn't get it before, but I do now."
"Xena, I know what Hope was," said Gabrielle, her voice breaking. "I just wanted her to be something else."
"Gabrielle, someday you will have a child to love and to raise," said Xena.
"Maybe. When does it stop hurting, Xena?" said Gabrielle, choking back a sob.
"It doesn't," said Xena gathering Gabrielle in her arms. "But with time, you get stronger and more able to bear it."
"I know that when I'm with you, it's easier," said Gabrielle, laying her head on Xena's shoulder.
Not now, not now, I can't take advantage of her when she's feeling like this Xena thought, awkwardly patting Gabrielle.
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, her arms tightening around the warrior.
Unseen, Aphrodite and Cupid observed.
"Still think it's just lust?" said Aphrodite.
"So she's not telling her she loves her like that because she loves her? Mom, mortals are weird," said Cupid.
"You're just now figuring that out?" said Aphrodite with a chuckle.
"I love you, too, Gabrielle," said Xena, warmly returning the embrace. "I wish I had the words to tell you how how much."
So I'll just have to show you, she thought, lowering her lips to Gabrielle's and kissing her tenderly at first, then more urgently as the Bard responded.
"We .. we have a lot to talk about, don't we, Xena?" asked Gabrielle, smiling. "But maybe we could have our chat privately?"
The room exploded in an approving roar and Xena realized the audience had been watching their exchange as raptly as they had Gabrielle's story earlier.
"Uh, yeah, privacy sounds good, just tell me did I make a fool of myself just now?" asked Xena.
"No," said Gabrielle, smiling. "I'm a bard and I've been struggling to find the words to tell you the same thing. I love you, Xena."
"So what do we do now?" asked the Warrior Princess, awkwardly.
"II was hoping you'd know," said Gabrielle.
"Well, why don't we take it slow?" said Xena. "A day or a minute at a time."
"The way we live our lives? Do we have that much time, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"We have forever, Gabrielle," said Xena as Gabrielle smiled and lay her head on the warrior's shoulder.
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