B L Miller
Disclaimer 1: MCA/Universal owns the rights to Xena, Gabrielle, etc. I only borrowed them once again for my own warped purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.
Authors Note: This story is dedicated to my mother.
Cyrene was polishing the counter of the bar when the Amazon walked in. The gray haired woman put the cloth down and smiled. "What can I do for you, my dear?"
The blond Amazon looked down at the old woman. "I'm looking for a woman named Cyrene. Would you be that woman?" This was going to be far too easy, she thought to herself.
"Yes, I'm Cyrene." The friendly smile on the innkeeper's face disappeared when she saw the knife being pulled from its sheath. "What do you want? There isn't much money." She was terrified. Never had she ever heard of Amazons stealing from people. The Amazon moved closer.
"Gabrielle." The Amazon said, disgust and hatred clear in her voice as her lips curled into a sneer.
Toris was tending to a broken fence when a portly man came running up, his face red from the exertion. "Toris! Toris!" The man waved his hand frantically.
"What is it, Uncle Ariss?" He asked as he met the upset man halfway. Ariss put his hands on his knees as he bent over, trying to catch his breath. Toris put his arms on his uncle's shoulders to support him.
"Your mother..." Ariss gasped. "There's...a note...knife." Toris' eyes went wide and he bolted at a dead run to the inn, his uncle's words reverberating in his mind.
Entering the inn, Toris quickly noticed that there had been a battle. Broken glass was everywhere around the bar. Cyrene's polishing cloth was spattered with drops of blood. A parchment note was impaled on the bar with a dagger. He moved toward the bar slowly, afraid of the possible words on the note. With shaking hands, he wiggled the deeply imbedded knife free and picked up the note.
Ariss was halfway back when he saw his nephew riding toward him on his horse. "Uncle, take care of the inn. I have to find Xena." Before Ariss could protest, the black stallion roared past him, the gentle farmer urging him on. Toris didn't think about his lack of weapons, save the dagger he took from the inn. He ignored the fact that he didn't have traveling equipment of any kind, not even a waterskin. He only thought about the note, his dear mother, and finding his sister before it was too late.
The blond Amazon watched the dark haired girl brush down a pony. Well, not really a girl, she thought to herself. She had to be at least sixteen summers, certainly not much more. This girl wasn't who she was looking for. Another figure appeared from the large house. This had to be her. A thin woman of at least forty five summers, her hair greying slightly, but still rich with deep honey tones. This had to be Hecuba. The Amazon's eyes narrowed as she stalked her prey.
Lila spoke quietly with her mother for a few moments before handing the brush over and heading inside. Hecuba tugged the reins of the horse and led it back to the stable.
Lila became concerned when her mother didn't return from taking care of Nicoli, her small but trusty horse. "Mother?" No answer. She tried again, with the same results. Entering the stable, she was surprised to see Nicoli out of her stall. Lila walked over and patted the mare's neck as she led her to the stall. Once the horse was safely fastened in, she turned to look for her mother again. Her eyes fell upon a dagger holding a note against the far wall.
"Lila! Lila!" She heard her father yelling as she saddled Nicoli. She grabbed two waterskins from a hook. Stuffing some of her father's hunting gear into a saddlebag, she thought about the safest route to take. She tied a rolled up blanket to the back of the saddle, then led the horse from the stable. Her father reached her just as she mounted. "Where are you going? It's dark out there." He yelled, pointing at the night sky.
"Someone's kidnapped Mother!" She yelled. "I've got to find Gabrielle! Yah!" The horse startled slightly at the unusual demand from her gentle owner, then took off into the night. Whatever happened, Lila knew that it somehow was Xena's fault.
Toris looked around at the unfamiliar road. He knew which road led where, but he had never really traveled in this direction before. He shivered slightly at the cool night air, regretting the hasty leave from Amphipolis. A quick mental inventory told him just how stupid that decision was. Spotting a small path, he turned the horse to follow it. Surely it must lead to water, or civilization. The ground was not where he wanted to sleep if he could avoid it. It may be fine for Xena, the mighty warrior sister, but not once in his life had he ever slept on the ground. But Toris knew he couldn't afford to waste time finding villages to sleep in. A small brook appeared in front of a small clearing. He looked up at the night sky, judging the time of night. The full moon illuminated the sky, giving quite a few hours more of traveling light. "Come on, Lunac, let's get some water and then get going. He led the black horse to the edge of the brook and released the reins. Lunac licked the water greedily. Toris knelt down and cupped as much water as he could to his lips. Not happy with the results, especially the now soaked shirt, he dunked his face in the water and drank directly. He gave Lunac a few minutes to eat some grass before mounting and heading back to the road.
Lila took a few sips of her water as she looked around for a likely spot to start the campfire. From the location of the moon, she knew that there were only a few hours left before Apollo began his morning ascent into the sky. She decided on the perfect spot and set off to get a fire started. As she picked up light pieces of wood, she said a small prayer to Artemis to look after her mother and her through the night. She knew that Artemis was the moon goddess and caretaker of the Amazons, of which her sister was now Queen.
She also knew that Artemis watched over Gabrielle, which was a good thing, since her gentle sister traveled with that fearsome warlord, Xena. If there was one person she disliked, possibly even hated, it was her. Xena was the one that took her sister away from her. The last time Gabrielle had visited, she and her sister had done nothing but bicker and fight.
Lying there with the blanket curled around her, Lila thought about the changes in her sister during the past two years. For one thing, there was a marked increase in the scars on Gabrielle, which Lila blamed on Xena. That started the second fight. The first fight had been over Gabrielle's insistence that she be nice to Xena. The last thing the young woman wanted to be with the warrior was nice. That tall, menacing looking woman with all the weapons was the one that took Gabrielle away from her. She wouldn't be nice to her and told Gabrielle just that. As she drifted off to sleep, Lila smiled as she remembered her sister and her playing in the fields as little children. It was a dream she had often when Gabrielle first left. It was the only way she could sleep. As time went on, the dream left. Tonight was the first time in a full cycle of seasons that the dream returned to Lila.
Rapidly approaching the edge of the Amazon Territory, Toris failed to heed the warning markers that were posted. An arrow shot out, impaling him in the leg. Another one struck just below the first. "Wait, I'm unarmed!" He yelled, holding his empty hands up.
"This area is forbidden to men. Leave now." An unseen Amazon answered.
"I need your help. I need to find Xena." He was beginning to feel slightly faint at the sight of his blood pouring from the arrow wounds and down his leg. Exhausted from the long ride and dizzy from the sight of his own blood, Toris slid down from his saddle and slumped down on the ground, both hands holding his wounded thigh. A pair of swords appeared at his throat. He looked up to see two angry looking Amazons staring down at him.
"Leave." The sentry ordered. "Xena is not here." Several other warriors appeared from behind and within the trees. Eponin moved to the front of the group and addressed the frightened man on the ground.
"What is your business with Xena?" She spoke in her most authoritative tone.
"I'm her brother." The scared man answered, his eyes never leaving the sharp points that were so close to his throat. "Our mother has been taken. I have to find Xena."
"She's not here." Eponin answered, maintaining an angry and sharp tone. He did look like the warrior, though.
"I have a note." He started to move his hand to his shirt, but one of the blades moved, slicing into his cheek. Eponin frowned, but said nothing. He should have known not to move.
"Where is the note?"
"In my shirt." One of the sentries laid down her bow and moved over to pull open his shirt. She pulled out the folded piece of parchment, and noticing the dagger, pulled that out as well. She held both up for Eponin to see.
"Well, I see you weren't so unarmed after all." The Amazon's eyes narrowed when she noted the distinctive markings on the handle. "Where did you get this dagger, man?"
"It was stabbed through the note and into the counter." He answered. "Please, I'm bleeding very badly here." Eponin motioned for the note. The sentry handed it to her and another held a torch so she could read it. Her eyes closed as she folded the note and tucked it away. She took a deep breath, then opened her eyes and looked down at Toris.
"Xena is not here, that is true. It is also true that you cannot stay on these grounds." She whispered something into the sentry's ear, then the young warrior headed back to the village. "We have sent for someone to come and tend to your wounds. It was very foolish of you to enter our land."
"I had to find my sister. I didn't know where else to turn."
"Nevertheless, you can't stay here and you're in no condition to ride. I'll arrange for you to be transported to the Centaurs' land. We are currently under a peace treaty with them and no harm will come to you."
"Will you help me find Xena?"
"I will send some warriors out to look for her first thing in the morning."
The warriors left at first light, spreading out in different directions. The last contact with Xena and Gabrielle was almost four moons ago, when they were helping to protect the village from raiders in the infamous "Battle of the South Wall". The attack had taken many of their finest warriors and women. The entire royal guard had died, as had several civilian women who had taken up arms to protect the city from a trap. After the battle, many Amazons who had been traveling the country returned home to take the place of their fallen sisters in supporting the village. Still, Ephiny could only spare six warriors to look for them. The acting queen prayed that they would be found soon.
Lila approached the edge of the territory and pulled her horse to a stop. "Help! Help!" She watched, but no one showed. She dismounted and walked into the forest. "I'm Lila. Queen Gabrielle's sister. Please show yourself."
"What's wrong, child?" Eponin said as she moved from behind a tree.
"Someone's kidnapped my mother."
The campfire was banked for a long burn through the night. Xena and Gabrielle were quietly resting, their bedrolls side by side. A small sound disturbed the warrior's rest. Xena's head jerked up, her eyes searching. "Xena, what's.." Gabrielle mumbled as the sudden movement woke her. She was cut off by the warrior's hand over her mouth.
"Get dressed." Xena rolled over, grabbed her sword, then creeped into the shadow of the trees. The bard pulled grabbed her staff, readying it to a defensive position. Silence. A soft dove call filtered through the air. Gabrielle quickly answered with one of her own. Xena remained quiet and stayed in the shadows. An Amazon stepped through the trees, her hands out wide and empty.
"I mean you no harm, my Queen." The Amazon said. "I have an urgent message for Xena."
"What is it?" Xena stepped out from the shadow of the trees and her long strides brought her quickly to the Amazon's side.
"Your mother has been taken. Your brother is injured." She decided not to tell the warrior princess that it was Amazons that hurt her brother. No sense getting the messenger killed. Xena moved away quickly and started to pack up the gear, needing something to do with her hands. Gabrielle was already rolling up the blankets.
All three women packed up the gear in record time. Without a word, Xena vaulted onto Argo and held her arm out. Gabrielle quickly climbed in behind her. "Yah!" Xena urged Argo into a full gallop, her eyes blinking rapidly the entire time. The Amazon turned her horse in another direction to catch up to the other searchers.
Gabrielle held on tight, partly for fear of falling off, and partly for concern over Xena, who wasn't saying one word and made no effort to slow down. Only when Argo protested did the worried warrior ease up and slow the horse down to a trot. "You're not going to get there if you kill Argo." Gabrielle prodded gently. Her arms ached from holding on and her butt ached for another reason. Her stomach was making itself known as well, but the bard chose to ignore it.
"Sorry." She pulled Argo to a stop and Gabrielle slid off. Xena dismounted and led them into the woods, looking for a small clearing. It was too dark to make any real progress now anyway. They decided against a fire, it was too much effort for such a short amount of time. Unpacking the bedrolls and a waterskin, they settled down for a few fitful hours of sleep. Xena's dreams were full of guilt over once again putting her mother in danger, and now her bother as well. Gabrielle's dreams were full of worry for her companion.
A small cry woke Gabrielle up. Instinctively knowing that Xena needed comfort, she rolled over and wrapped her arm around the warrior's waist. Xena was staring up at the night sky. She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, pulling her closer.
"Xena, she'll be all right. We'll find her." Xena didn't answer, but acknowledge the remarks with a gentle squeeze. "I know, Xena. I know."
Lila's pacing was driving Ephiny crazy. "Girl, can't you sit down?"
"I'm not a girl, I'm a woman." She growled back. The Amazon rolled her eyes as she remembered those words being said by the queen.
"Please, you're making me dizzy."
"What's taking them so long?" Lila stopped pacing and glared at the acting queen.
"They will be here as soon as possible. I'm sure Xena.."
"Xena? This is all her fault! If she hadn't taken Gabrielle away, this wouldn't have happened! Our mother is missing and it's all her fault!" Lila pounded on the table in anger.
"Now see here, young lady!" Ephiny had enough of this. "Queen's sister or not, I will not let you stand here and have a temper tantrum! Xena's mother is missing too, you know. They'll be here as soon as they can. Now until then, either sit down and shut up, or go somewhere else and we'll let you know when they arrive." A thought passed through Ephiny's mind. She wondered if Gabrielle would be upset if her sister received a good old fashioned spanking. Maybe that would curb the sharp tongue. Must run in the family, she mused. Lila quieted down and sat in a chair, glaring at the Amazon.
A soft knock at the door woke Toris. "Come in." A small boy with blond hair and the same blue eyes as his own came in, carrying a tray with a pitcher of water on it.
"Good morning, sir. I trust you slept well?" The boy set the tray on the inn table.
"Yes, I, well except for the pain in my leg." He replied.
"My name is Solon. You are here in my uncle's house." The boy held out his hand.
"I'm Toris. Is your uncle here?"
"Yes, he's talking to some men now. He asked me to bring you the water. Are you really Xena's brother?"
"You look like her. She very beautiful."
"You've met her?" Toris sat up and looked at the boy again. "How do you know her?"
"I met her last year. Her and Gabrielle. She's a friend of my mother's." Solon's eyes dropped slightly as his face saddened. "She died long ago, back when I was born. Xena brought me here to live with Uncle Kaleipus." The man's eyes opened with a question that didn't dare be spoken. But wasn't the truth staring him in the face?
"Solon, I'd like to meet with your uncle as soon as possible, can you tell him that for me?" It had to be. If the boy's mother truly died during childbirth, surely Xena could have found relatives to leave the child with. If it was true, how could she keep that a secret? Did Mother know? His mind circled with questions and possibilities as he tried to remember his sister's past. This boy looked no more than ten or eleven summers old. What was Xena doing then? She was a warlord, of course. He couldn't remember what part of the country she was in around that time. But she was a warlord, bloodthirsty, ruthless, destroyer of nations. How could she possibly have had a child? It couldn't be. Or could it?
By the time they reached the gate, Ephiny and Lila were there to meet them. Gabrielle's eye lit up at the sight of her beloved sister.
"LILA!" She yelled, sliding down from Argo and running over to her. They gripped each other in a strong hug. "How are you? What are you doing here?"
"Gabrielle." Ephiny's hand appeared on her shoulder. Gabrielle saw that Lila had tears in her eyes. The Amazon spoke again. "Let's go inside." The bard looked at her sister again.
"Mother?" Lila nodded sadly. Her face changed from sadness to anger when the tall warrior came up from behind and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.
"Lila." Ephiny's voice was stern and demanding, conveying her silent warning to behave. The young woman scowled. Ephiny ignored her. "Let's go inside. There's much we have to discuss."
Once inside the throne room, everyone took a seat. The throne stayed empty, neither woman wanting to offend the other by using it. All sat on chairs around a small table. Ephiny pulled out a folded up note. There was a slice through the parchment in the middle of the document. "This note was found stuck to your mother's bar. All it says is that your mother will die if you interfere."
"No name? No other explanations?" The note was too cryptic.
"No. It was held down by this." Ephiny pulled out one of the daggers. Xena turned it over in her hand, studying the handle.
"Amazon." She said quietly. Gabrielle looked. There was no mistaking the design.
"This note was found in your barn." Ephiny said as she pulled out the other note. It had the same type of hole in it.
"It wasn't the barn, it was the stable." Lila corrected with a touch of irritation in her voice. Gabrielle gave her 'the look'.
"The stable." Ephiny growled. "This is the real reason for the attacks." She handed the note to Gabrielle.
"You do not belong here, impostor! I now challenge you to prove your worth. I have your mother and I will not hesitate to kill her if you do not show. I also have Xena's mother. If she shows up, I will kill them both without hesitation. Then I'll go after the rest of your families. Go to the ancient ruins on the eve of the full moon to meet your fate. Only a true Amazon should rule Artemis' children.
"Who is she?" Gabrielle asked quietly as she felt her stomach turning.
"The markings on the daggers indicate that she's from the northern villages. There aren't many of them left. It's a fact that they are quite vocal in their opposition to your ascendancy to the throne. It could be any one of them." Ephiny looked at the sad faces of the sisters and the stoic face of the warrior.
"Where's my brother? I was told he was hurt." Ephiny swallowed and looked at the table, studying the grain of the wood. "Ephiny?"
"He's with the Centaurs. It's not serious. A few arrow wounds and a sword cut." The Amazon took a step back as she spoke. Xena stared at the table now.
"Where did he get them, Ephiny?" Xena's face showed no emotion.
"He crossed over the border. They didn't know who he was, Xena. After all that happened at the South Wall, how can we..." Xena held her hand up to silence the Amazon.
"I know. How is he?" She changed the topic slightly. This was not the time to be angry over what was most likely her brother's own foolishness.
"He required stitches, but there shouldn't be any complications. He's staying with Kaleipus."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances at the name of Solon's guardian. The friends were thinking the same thoughts. If Toris sees Solon...
The cooks were more than a little surprised to discover the Queen's younger sister had just as good an appetite as the bard herself. One cook made a comment to the other about not being able to have both women from Poteidaia in the village at the same time, lest the hunters work double shifts. They were mortified when they saw both women enter the food hut together. Mass pandemonium broke out in the kitchen as they put more food on to cook.
Cyrene opened her eyes to see a woman not much younger than herself, with honey hair starting to turn silver. The woman was kneeling next to her, obviously relieved to see her awake.
"Good morning. How are you feeling?"
"My head hurts. Who are you?"
"My name is Hecuba."
"Cyrene." She offered. Hecuba's eyes lit up.
"Are you Xena's mother? I'm Gabrielle's." Cyrene's eyes achieved the same brightness at the name of the bubbly young woman who was helping her only daughter on her quest for redemption.
"I am pleased to meet you, Hecuba. You have a wonderful daughter."
"Thank you." Hecuba did not return the compliment. "Do you have any idea where we are?"
"No. I was working at my inn when an Amazon came in and attacked me." Cyrene touched her head where the Amazon had hit her with a stein.
"She attacked me in our stable." Hecuba nodded in agreement. "What do you think she wants?"
"Our daughters." Cyrene answered.
There were still three days before the next full moon. Apparently the nameless Amazon had confidence in the village's ability to find the travelers. Knowing there was nothing that could be done at the moment, they agreed to stay in the village. Xena made no mention of going to see her brother. Dinner had been filled with the two sisters talking over each other. Gabrielle was trying to talk about her adventures with Xena and Lila was trying to tell her about life in Poteidaia. Xena sat there, enduring occasional glares from the younger sister, and enjoying special smiles from the older one. The cooks breathed a sigh of relief when the Queen and her sister left the hut.
Only when it was late and they were heading to the bedrooms did either woman think about the sleeping arrangements. Gabrielle didn't want to spend the evening listening to her sister jabber on about how she shouldn't be running around Greece with a former warlord. "Uh, you can sleep in that room over there, Lila. I'll sleep in here with Xena."
"No, that's okay, Gabrielle. She can have the other room. It'll be like when we were kids." Lila shot another glare at the warrior, who was getting tired of them and glared back. Gabrielle looked at both of them and frowned.
"Lila, you know how you toss and turn. Please take the other room."
"Fine." She gave Xena one more glare before she entered the guest room.
"What do you think the girls are doing now?" Cyrene asked.
"Probably looking for us." Hecuba answered. "I hope they're careful."
"I'm sure they will be. Xena is always thinking ahead. She doesn't like to take chances." There was a touch of pride in the old woman's voice.
"My Gabrielle is a good thinker. I'm sure she'll find a way to save us. After all, she is Queen of the Amazons." There was no mistaking the pride in Hecuba's voice.
"She has been good for Xena. I don't know where my daughter would be without that child of yours. I think of her as my own. She's such a sweet girl, always caring for others."
"She was like that as a child. Gabrielle found an injured squirrel and insisted on caring for it until it was healthy. After that, we couldn't get rid of it."
"Xena wasn't ever that good with pets. We had a dog once, but Xena was very little then, maybe eight summers or so. She tried to take this behemoth of a dog out for a walk and it ending up taking her for a walk. What a sight! This little sprite of a girl being dragged all over town by this huge black dog." Both women chuckled at the image. "But she never let go of the leash. She's nothing if not determined."
"Gabrielle is just as stubborn. You should hear her and Lila get into some of their fights. When they were growing up, sometimes I'd swear they got into fights just so they could hurl colorful insults at each other." Hecuba smiled as she remembered her daughters as children, playing in the summer sun. She moved until she was sitting next to Cyrene. "So tell me about your other children. Gabrielle says you have a son?"
Ephiny and Xena watched as the two sisters from Poteidaia gave tribute to the morning cooks. "How can they eat so much?" The Amazon asked quietly as they watched another plate of food being brought over to the sisters.
"Hollow legs. Must be a family trait." Xena answered, her eyes never leaving her friend. "I'm going to have to volunteer for the hunting party just to make sure the village doesn't starve."
"Stop picking on us." Gabrielle looked up at them. "Don't think I didn't hear you two."
"Yeah." Lila added. "We do not have hollow legs, we just have healthy appetites." She turned her attention back to the almost empty plate of food. "Gabrielle! You took the last fig."
"Yup." Gabrielle said smugly as she tossed the fruit into her mouth. "Tastes pretty good too."
"Hello, Toris." Kaleipus said as he entered the room. "I understand you wish to speak to me."
"Yes." Toris pulled himself up into a sitting position on the bed. "Tell me about Solon."
"Solon." The Centaur's eyes betrayed his concern. "What is it that you want to know, Toris? I am his guardian."
"Who's his mother?" Toris watched as Kaleipus fought over an answer.
"Why do you ask?"
"Don't skirt the issue. Is he my nephew?" Kaleipus moved over and looked out a window.
"You mustn't say anything to him, Toris. He believes that his mother is dead."
"Why do you keep the truth from him?"
"It is in the best interests of Solon not to know the truth."
"He has a right to know his family, Kaleipus. I don't know how you ended up with him and I don't care. When I leave, I'm taking my sister's son with me. He deserves to live with his family."
"I AM HIS FAMILY!" Kaleipus roared as he spun back to face the dark haired man. "He has been with me since he was less than a quarter-moon old. Despite the fact that he calls me 'uncle', in my heart, he's my son." His poignant words deflated some of the man's anger.
"I'm his family too, Kaleipus. He deserves to know that."
"I can't allow you to tell him, Toris. I swore to Xena that he would never know of his parentage."
"I never made such a promise, Kaleipus. Xena may be heartless about matters involving family, but I'm not." Toris' voice rose in tune with his anger at his sister.
"She wasn't being heartless, Toris. She sent him here to protect him. Do you know what could happen to him if word got out that he was the son of Xena?"
"Uncle?" The small boy appeared in the doorway, shock and confusion evident on the youthful face. Both men turned to see him.
"Solon, how long have you been standing there?" Kaleipus walked over to the boy and put his hand on his shoulder.
"Uncle, is it true? Is Xena my mother?" Tears started to fill his blue eyes. The Centaur glared at Toris. There was no going back now.
"There's no way to talk you out of this, is there?" Gabrielle said as Xena mounted Argo and held out her hand.
"No. That's my mother. I have to go." She helped the bard climb up behind her.
"But she said she'd kill her if you interfered." The bard protested.
"Gabrielle, she might kill her anyway. You know you can't trust the words of a madwoman. Besides, she wants to kill you. The two most important people in my life are in trouble, what do you think I'm going to do?"
"I guess you're going to try and save us, huh?" Gabrielle squeezed her friend's waist affectionately.
"I'm going to save all of you, including your mother."
"I know you wouldn't let anything happen to her, Xena, despite her feelings toward you."
"It doesn't matter what she thinks of me. It matters what you think of me." It was only partially true. What Gabrielle thought of her mattered most in the world, but the warrior privately wished that someday the bard's family would accept her. Although she never revealed much of her feelings about Gabrielle's family to her, Xena always felt hurt when they went for a visit. The hostility directed at her was palpable, especially from the bard's younger sister.
"Well, I love you, Xena. If my family can't accept that, then so be it. I'm not leaving you and you're not leaving me."
"Let's get moving here. I want to get into position before nightfall. Yah!" She spurred Argo into a full gallop, leaving the village behind. She had no way of knowing that Lila was saddling up her mount, determined to follow them.
The ruins were a collection of buildings, part of a small city, that died long ago. The buildings, now crumbling and unsafe, were the only reminders of a previous civilization. The ruins were nestled among a clump of mountains. Long ago, tunnels and caverns had been carved into the rock, creating almost another city within the mountains. The area had once belonged to a harsh dictator, who pleasured himself with some of the more inventive ways of death and torture. It didn't take long for Maka to find the hidden tunnels and execution chambers hidden within the cave walls. The Amazon looked up at the sky. Only a few more candlemarks and the crown would belong to Amazons again. She busied herself with her plans. The first thing was to set up the trap. Heading down the long hallway to the dungeons, she heard an odd sound. The two women were laughing. Maka quickened her pace.
"...as a jaybird, running down the street, waving her pretend sword." Cyrene finished up her turn telling embarrassing stories.
"Well, let me tell you about the time Gabrielle and Lila got it in their heads to get some honey right from the hive." Hecuba was about to launch into her tale when she heard the footsteps. Both women quieted down as the Amazon approached. Maka unbolted the door and stepped in.
"It sounded like hens cackling in here." The Amazon looked down at the women, pleased to see the fear in their faces. She unsheathed her sword. "It's time to bait the trap. You..." She pointed at Cyrene. "Come with me."
"Please, don't do this." Cyrene pleaded. Maka moved over and grabbed the old woman roughly by the arm, hauling her to her feet.
"Do you want your daughter to see you alive or dead?" She threatened, moving the sword up against Cyrene's belly. "I don't care either way."
Maka dragged Cyrene out of the ruined building and into the center of the dead village. A tall wooden apparatus sat there. The deck was held above the ground by thick tree trunks, keeping it at least a grown man's height off the ground. Two beams rose upwards almost twice that distance, supporting a third beam laid on top of them. A noose was draped over it, dangling ominously. Below the noose lay a small platform, held in a horizontal position by a rope that snaked over a small beam setup and was tied off against the platform. A large hole lay beneath the platform and rope. Cyrene immediately understood. One cut on the rope would lower the platform, hanging her. She began to cry and shake. "Please, please no." Her pleas were ignored as Maka dragged her into position to place the noose around her neck. Cyrene reached her hands up to protect herself. Maka cursed and struck the woman with enough force to send her sprawling against the platform.
"I should kill you now, old woman." She threatened as she hauled Cyrene to her feet and bound her hands behind her back. "Don't test me, woman. You'll be just as good to me either way." Cyrene sobbed silently but did not fight again. She sent a silent prayer to Artemis to protect her daughters and their mothers.
After positioning Cyrene, Maka went to take care of her other problem. This woman would not live. She had given birth to the impostor queen. She had to die. Maka thought of taking the woman's life herself, but decided that a more inventive way was necessary. In her exploration of the mountain tunnels, Maka had found a river that ran under the rock. Several searches finally revealed a hidden cave, accessible only by going into the river and entering it from beneath. When the moon was at its highest point, the river rose and filled the small cave. Yes, this death would much more painful than a sword, Maka thought to herself. Gabrielle's mother would have the horror of knowing what it was like to drown, a most unpleasant death indeed.
After dismounting from Argo and sending the horse back to a safer place to wait for them, Xena and Gabrielle began their long walk into the ruins. Neither woman spoke of their fears as they worked their way past scenes of long ago battles and long dead skeletons. Twice the sights had been too much for the young queen and she turned to Xena's strong arms for support. The warrior had long, long ago been desensitized to scenes of death and carnage, although if asked she would be forced to admit that the battle of the South Gate had caused her several nightmares in the recent moons. The scenes she looked upon now had no effect on her, except sadness that Gabrielle was affected by them.
Gabrielle was unable to stifle a gasp when she saw Cyrene tied to a hangman's noose. A tall, muscle-bound Amazon stood in front of her, sword pressed up against a thin rope. "Xena..." The bard whispered.
"I see it." She answered grimly. There was no way she could reach the Amazon before the rope could be cut. Even her chakram would be useless in this situation. Even if she cut the noose, the Amazon could still reach her mother and run her through before Xena could get there. There was just too much open space between them for the warrior to be able to surprise the Amazon. "I don't see your mother anywhere."
"No, I don't either." Gabrielle answered quietly. Xena understood the fear and placed a gentle hand on the bard's knee. "Xena, you have to stay here. If she sees you..."
"I know. I'll wait until you distract her, then I'll rescue mother. Be careful, please?" Xena brought her hand up to touch the storyteller's cheek.
"I will, you too." Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle adjusted her grip on the staff and stepped out from the protection of the trees.
"Ah, so you did have the nerve to show up, after all. I was beginning to wonder if you were a coward as well as a thief." Maka yelled out as she watched the honey haired woman approach.
"I am not a thief. Who are you?" Gabrielle yelled back, her eyes darting around, looking for signs of traps. Another one of the many skills that Xena had that she was teaching her young companion.
"I am Maka, born of Amazon blood. You have no right to carry the title of Queen." She moved her sword slightly, pointing it more at the approaching woman with the staff than at the helpless old woman behind her.
"I have the right to the title of Queen by Right-Of-Caste given to me by Terreis on her deathbed."
"YOU ARE NOT AN AMAZON, WOMAN!!" Maka's fury was evident in her words. "And now you will die for stealing the crown." She moved quickly forward, startling the bard for a split-second before she recovered and brought her staff up to block a crushing blow aimed at her head. The battle was on.
Maka made certain to keep within easy reach of the rope that supported the platform that Cyrene was standing on. The Amazon was certain that Xena was out in the woods somewhere. "Your mother should have taught you better manners than to steal, woman." Maka taunted as the exchanged blows and blocks.
"And your mother should have given you some courage." Gabrielle shot back. "Only a coward kidnaps people's mothers." She blocked another blow aimed at her midsection. "Where is my mother?" Wood banged against metal. They were still too close to the rope for Xena to make any kind of move. Gabrielle started to back up, away from both the rope and Xena's hiding place, trying to draw Maka. "If you've hurt her, I swear I'll kill you."
Xena's eyebrows went up when she heard the threat. It was against everything that Gabrielle believed in to take a life, yet here she was, promising to do just that.
"I've done nothing to her...yet." Maka taunted. "She's in an underground cave near the edge of the river. Do you want to know what will happen to her when the river rises?"
A look of pure rage came over Gabrielle as she swung at the Amazon with all her might. Maka dodged the blow and brought her sword up, grazing the bard's arm. "First blood, woman. It won't be long before you're both dead." She swung again, only to be blocked by the bard's staff. In her quest to kill the queen, Maka paid little attention to the distance being put between her and the rope.
Lila followed the footprints that led from the biggest building. They led to a tunnel hidden within the mountain. It would have been impossible to find the opening had it not been for the footprints. Once inside, she followed the sound of rushing water until she found the river. Now all she had to do was find the cave. Looking around, she saw a spot where the ground was wet from someone exiting the river. Lila jumped in and started to feel along the river edge, uncertain of which side the cave was on or even if she was in the right area.
Xena watched as Maka advanced on Gabrielle. The Amazon landed blow after blow against Gabrielle's staff. She knew the bard couldn't last much longer. Just a few more steps...
Gabrielle saw Xena out of the corner of her eye and realized what she had to do. She started to back up even more, eventually drawing the Amazon out of reach of the ropes. Xena fired off the chakram and bolted into the clearing, drawing Maka's attention away from Gabrielle. The bard wasted no time in bringing her staff down on the Amazon's head. Maka howled with pain and brought her sword back in a vicious arc, catching Gabrielle on the bottom swell of her right breast. The Amazon took off to intercept the warrior.
The chakram sliced neatly through the rope above Cyrene's neck. The innkeeper's face lit up at the sight of her daughter running toward her. Xena was closer than Maka, but the Amazon threw her sword with all her might at the rope. From the platform to the ground below, the height was enough to seriously injure, if not kill, the old woman. Her hands were still tied behind her back, there would be no way for her to break the fall.
As the sword tore through the rope, Xena vaulted herself forward, spreading herself across the hole. The small platform collapsed, sending Cyrene down onto her daughter's back. "Urgmph." Xena used her forearms and shins to move sideways until they were clear of the hole. She rolled to get her mother, literally, off her back, then jerked into a standing position and took off after the Amazon, who had retrieved her weapon and taken off after Gabrielle.
Her arms felt as heavy as tree limbs from battling Maka. The right side of her shirt was now a bright crimson below the breast. Xena was on them in a flash, sending her sword right through the Amazon's back, stopping only when the hilt finally pressed against flesh. Gabrielle rolled out of the way as Maka fell lifelessly to the ground. Xena saw the blood and immediately moved to Gabrielle's side.
"Don't get up." She pushed on the bard's shoulders, forcing her back down. Tearing open the top at the point where the sword sliced through it, the warrior saw the deep gash. "It's in a fleshy area, you'll be fine. Just lie still." She looked at the graze on the bard's arm. "Not bad at all, just a scratch. It's the other one that needs stitches."
"Hades of a place to get hurt, huh?" Gabrielle's attempt at humor was not lost on her friend. Xena smiled gently at her.
"I have to go check on Mother and get something to put on that wound. Stay put." She turned to head toward Cyrene, who had worked herself into a sitting position.
"Find my mother. I'll be all right." Xena heard the words just as she reached her own mother.
"Mother, I need something to put against Gabrielle's wound."
"Use my apron." Xena nodded in agreement and untied her mother's hands.
"Go see to Gabrielle. I'll go look for her mother. Do you have any idea where the hidden cave could be?"
"All I know is that it has to be behind the building. She brought me out first, then I didn't see her again, so it must be somewhere back there. I'm afraid I don't know any more than that." Xena frowned as she thought about the situation. It was almost completely dark out and the river would be rising soon.
"Mother, go see to Gabrielle." Xena took off around the building. Cyrene moved slowly, letting her back and legs adjust to moving again, as she made her way over to the young queen.
"You're mother will be fine, Gabrielle. Xena will find her, don't worry." Cyrene said soothingly as she pressed a clean part of the apron against the wound. The bard nodded, but said nothing, fear that her voice would betray the fear running though her. The tears in her eyes didn't listen to her head, instead they started to roll down the side of her face. Unable to control it anymore, she started sobbing. "Oh, you poor dear, come here." Cyrene put her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and let her cry against her. "Shh, it's all right now, child. Hecuba is going to be fine. Xena will find her, shh, don't worry." The innkeeper rocked her gently as she continued to comfort her.
Xena immediately picked up the sets of tracks that led to the hidden opening. She saw several different passageways ahead of her. Uncertain, she listened. Running water. She took off after the sound, only dimly aware of the encroaching darkness. Soon she was in complete blackness, feeling her way along the walls as she moved forward. Her ears picked up on gentle crying. "Lila? Lila, are you in here?"
"Over here." The soft voice answered. Xena followed the voice until she reached the edge of the river. "I can't find it. I've looked and looked." The young woman was crying softly. Xena grabbed her arm to get her attention.
"Lila, get some torches and light the way. After that, get a fire started in here." Xena said as she removed her armor and weapons, save her breast dagger. Lila stared at the river, trying to see through the depths for the elusive tunnel. The warrior shook her arm, hard. "Lila! Go!"
"Torches...fire." The farm girl was snapped out of her slight trance. Xena dove into the river. Lila headed back toward the cave entrance.
Toris thought his heart would break when he saw the tears well up in the young boy's eyes. Kaleipus moved quickly to take Solon into his arms. The boy lost his resolve and cried the heavy, sobbing cries of a child overwhelmed with emotions. The Centaur held the boy in his arms, rocking him gently as he waited for the precocious boy to regain his composure. Toris watched the scene silently, fully aware of the burning eyes of the Centaur upon him.
Since Maka had brought Gabrielle's mother in during the low tide, Xena knew the entrance had to be deep along the rocky side. It wasn't long before the warrior's hand reached out and was treated to the feeling of more water instead of solid rock. She quickly rose to the surface to relieve her burning lungs and mark her position. Rising out of the water, she took several gulps of air as she removed her dagger and tossed it onto the ground, far enough away from the rising water that it wouldn't get submerged as the water rose.
The tunnel was not the easiest to navigate through. Xena couldn't even be sure if this was the right tunnel. She mentally checked her calculations as to how long she could stay down before she would have to turn back for air. When she reached the point of no return, she made the split second decision whether to continue or not. Pushing forward, she pressed even harder, trying to cover as much area as possible before her air ran out.
Lila grabbed as many torches as she could find and lit the path from the cave entrance to the river edge, where she had a small fire going. Standing at the edge, she looked up and down as far as she could see in the dim firelight. No sign of her mother or the warrior. Her thoughts raced between her mother and her sister. Xena made no mention of her sister. Lila wanted to go check on her sister, but didn't dare move from her vigil.
Xena's head came up, her lungs burning painfully. The floor of the small cave was already underwater. A quick check around in the darkness told her that no one was in this particular cave. The water was up to her knees. Xena hoped that Hecuba's cave was higher than this one. She took a moment to restore her breathing to a manageable level, then filled her lungs and dove back in, heading further down the tunnel. She mentally cursed herself for having no knowledge of her enemy's mind. There was no way of knowing how many of these small pockets existed within the mountain. There wasn't enough time to explore them all, either.
Xena moved up into yet another empty, dark, pocket. To her lungs dismay and actual panic, the water had completely filled the cave. She forced her way out and made her way back to the previous cavern nearby to replenish her air. She was running out of time.
Hecuba watched in terror as the water continued to rise. With her hands still bound, there was no way she could try to navigate her way out. She was now standing up straight, the water to her chin. Her lip was quivering in personal fear as her teeth chattered from the onset of hypothermia. She had seen nothing but darkness for candlemarks now, almost mad with the absence of light. She heard the sound of splashing, followed by someone fighting for breath. "H-Help!" Her chattering teeth did little to help carry her voice, but it was enough for Xena to hear.
"Keep talking. I'll come to you." She moved toward the sounds.
"Xena? Oh praise the Gods. Xena." Hecuba said her name almost reverently. She felt the warrior's strong hand reach out and make contact with her shoulder.
"We don't have much time, the caves are filling with water quickly. We have to leave, now! Grab hold of my skirt and don't let go. I'll pull you along. Hold your breath as long as you can." Xena couldn't afford to take a rest now to catch her breath. Taking gulps of air, both women moved back under the water.
Lila was in complete tears by the time Cyrene found her. "Who are you?" The innkeeper asked as she reached her.
"Where are they, child?" Xena's mother decided not to ask how the child got here, for all she knew the sister had come with her daughter and Gabrielle.
"I don't know. Xena told me to light torches and make the fire. That was at least three candlemarks ago." Lila tore her eyes away from the rising river to look for the first time at Xena's mother. "Where's Gabrielle?"
The older woman lowered her gaze as she chose her words carefully. "She's been hurt." Lila now noticed the blood on Cyrene's top. "She's safe right now. I came to see if Xena needed my help."
The time passed with Cyrene alternating between checking Gabrielle and her sister. All three women waited quietly, none choosing to express their fears or concerns. Cyrene had informed Gabrielle of Lila's presence, and reluctantly, the continued missing status of the loved ones. The bard's sobs of pain and fear caused her wound to continue to weep blood. Cyrene did the best she could to calm the two sisters down while struggling to keep her own tears in check. Several times she failed, moving somewhere away from both sisters and crying softly in private. These girls needed her to be strong in front of them. Her time for grieving, if necessary, would have to come later.
Kaleipus stoked the fire as Solon sat with Toris on the bed. The man was answering as many of the boy's questions as possible. After the initial tears, the Centaur had discovered that Solon had suspected the truth ever since he had met Xena the previous year. At the moment, he seemed more interested in finding out all he could from his new-found uncle than he was in discussing the hows and whys of how he came to live the Centaurs.
Gabrielle heard dove calls in the distance. Her weakened calls for help were only heard by the weeping Cyrene, who was leaning against a nearby building, out of the queen's sight. As fast as her tired legs could take her, Cyrene was at the bard's side. "Gabrielle, what is it?"
"Run that way." She pointed toward the forest. "Yell for help, there's Amazons out there. Go!" Gabrielle watched as the old woman moved toward the trees, waving her arms in the dark and yelling as best she could for help. Soon several Amazons appeared from the trees, weapons drawn, looking for a trap. Eponin moved forward and realized that this small woman had to be one of the mothers. Motioning for the warriors to lower their weapons, she approached the woman.
"Where are they?"
"Gabrielle's hurt." Cyrene pointed over to the fallen queen, noting that several Amazons were already heading that way. "Xena's..." She stopped speaking and took unexpected comfort in the arms of the strong Amazon. "A cave behind the main building. There's torches." The tears of a mother in pain soaked into Eponin's tunic. The Amazon motioned for some warriors to go to the cave. She sent another pair back to get Saras the Healer and some litters. Unbidden tears came to Eponin's eyes as she held the grieving mother. She made a mental note to go see her mother as soon as they returned to the village and tell her how much she loved her. Taking small steps, she escorted Cyrene back to the small fire near Gabrielle. Two warriors had gone off in search of wood to increase the size of the fire. It was obvious that they weren't going anywhere until sunrise.
The last cave was filled, giving no chance for the women to alleviate the agonizing pain in their lungs. Xena grimly noted just how far away the river was. She knew she didn't have enough air to make it, much less the poor woman holding on to her. Twice Hecuba had run out of air and choked on water, forcing Xena to retreat to the nearest cave to let her regain her breath. It may have proven to be a fatal mistake. The warrior's mind focused on her blue-green eyed friend. Xena pushed on with all of her energy, dragging Gabrielle's mother with her.
Hecuba started to choke a few strokes from the river edge. Xena forced herself to ignore the woman's terrified thrashing and moved her hand up the smooth side of the riverbed, feeling for an handhold to propel them up with. She was blessed to find such a grip spot. Wrenching her arm painfully, she jerked their bodies upward.
Never had a breath of air felt so good to Xena. She held Hecuba's head above water as two Amazons swam over to them. Hecuba coughed up water as she forced air back in her lungs. In the distance, Xena could hear Lila screaming, but her mind wasn't on this particular woman from Poteidaia. Allowing a warrior to help her, Xena made her way to shore. As desperately as she wanted to check on Gabrielle, the energy left her body the moment she reached dry ground. Xena was too weak to protest when an incredibly strong Amazon picked her up and, cradling her, carried her out of the cavern. Realizing that she was being taken to Gabrielle, Xena relaxed and succumbed to exhaustion.
Lila cradled her mother in her arms, rocking her gently. "It's okay, you're safe now, Mother. It's all over...shhh." She stroked her mother's greying hair gently. They were covered with blankets to dry off and warm up the mother. More logs were added to the fire to generate heat.
In all the excitement, Cyrene had completely forgotten about the blow to her head, which was now throbbing painfully. Reaching up, she felt the heat of infection. Eponin noticed and brought her over to get some immediate attention.
The makeshift camp was broken up into two three sections. One was inside the cavern, keeping watch over Lila and Hecuba. The daughter refused to move her mother, who was now sleeping deeply in her arms. The warriors who also had healing skills were tending to the numerous wounds on the women, including stitching Gabrielle's gash. As the warrior did the stitching, she silently prayed that they would be small, neat, and even. She didn't want to leave any unnecessary scars on her beloved queen. The third section was made up of the rest of the warriors, waiting to escort the group back to the village at first light.
Saras and the litters arrived just before daybreak. Lila was the only one able to ride. She took Argo's reins and gratefully accepted an Amazon's hand in getting up into the saddle. Looking downward, she understood why Gabrielle walked all the time. The others were all carried, even the mighty warrior princess, who only acquiesced after she tried to walk and found the effort too straining. Every muscle ached from swimming for so long or from holding her breath. She still couldn't take a deep breath without protest from her chest muscles. Gabrielle was alert and responsive, chatting away with the women that carried her litter, telling them what happened and checking on the condition of all of her loved ones. Both mothers said little, they needed rest after their ordeal. Unlike their traveling daughters, neither woman was used to such physical exertion. It would be a quarter moon or more before they would have the strength to travel back to their homes.
Every woman in the village awaited their arrival. They were met with cheers for their heroism. As exhausted as she was, Xena still found herself deeply embarrassed to have been carried into the village instead of by the power of her own feet. Gabrielle smiled and waved, telling them that she wasn't as injured as she looked. She didn't have to look down to know that the right side of her shirt was completely covered with blood. Clean bandages had been put over the wound, but there was nothing else she could cover herself with, so she put her crimson stained shirt back on.
Gabrielle, Hecuba, and Cyrene were taken to Saras' hut. Xena and Lila went to the palace and went to their rooms, falling asleep the moment they each hit their beds. A messenger was sent to advise Toris of the good news. Two others were each sent to Amphipolis and Poteidaia to tell the families.
Gabrielle entered her room quietly, trying hard not to disturb Xena. Quickly undressing, she slipped under the covers. "Hey, you okay?" Xena asked quietly as she rolled over to face her friend.
"Yeah, fine. I just needed a few stitches. Oh, good news. My shirt's ruined." Xena smiled at that news. Oh, how she hated that ugly green thing.
"Maybe I can help you make the next one." Her eyebrow rising slightly.
"I guess you're feeling better." Gabrielle responded as she playfully swatted the warrior's arm.
"Mmm." Xena answered. "How's my mother? How's your mother?"
"Cyrene's fine. She needed a couple of stitches for her head, but other than a few bumps and bruises, she came out of it okay. Mother's tired, but she'll be okay." Gabrielle looked deep into the blue eyes. "Thank you."
"Shh, you would have done the same thing for Cyrene." Gabrielle nodded in agreement. She loved Xena's mother almost as much as her own. Feeling the tiredness settle in, Gabrielle snuggled up against Xena and sighed contentedly. Xena wrapped her arms around her and closed her eyes, a serene smile playing about her lips.
"How are you feeling, Mother?" Xena asked as she entered Saras' hut and moved over to stand beside her bed.
"I'm fine, dear. Just a little worn out from all the excitement." Cyrene tried to sit up, but her daughter's gentle hands pushed her back down.
"Rest." Xena said as she took her mother's hand in hers and sat down on the bed next to her. Since Gabrielle opened her heart, the normally reluctantly affectionate warrior found it a little easier to give her mother a tender gesture. Part of her also still felt guilty for her mother being in this predicament in the first place. Only Gabrielle knew how much it tore at the warrior's heart to see the ones she loved getting hurt because of her.
Cyrene was both surprised and pleased with her daughter's action. She brought her other hand over and clasped it with Xena's. "How are you? I was worried to death waiting for you."
"Sore." She stretched her aching back.
"How's Toris? Gabrielle said he was injured." Xena's face went stoic at the mention of her brother. She was trying hard not to think about him being with the Centaurs and what he might have learned.
"He's fine. He should have known not to cross over into Amazon land. He's lucky to be alive."
"He was trying to save my life. And warn you, I might add." Cyrene chastised her daughter. "I know you two don't get along as well as I would like you to, but he is still your brother and he put his life in danger to help us." Cyrene settled back on her pillow, satisfied that her point was made. Xena took a deep breath and counted to five before speaking.
"I know that, Mother. He just should have been more careful."
"He's a farmer, not a warrior, Xena. He wasn't worried about his safety, all he was concerned about was finding you."
"It's about time Toris did something to help his family." She mumbled, forgetting that her mother's hearing was almost as good as hers.
"Xena! That's not fair. How can you sit there and judge his decisions? After Cortese, he returned home and took up farming. His land feeds half the village. You have no room to judge him. He was all I had left after you left."
"Xena! Stop upsetting her!" Hecuba's voice piped over from behind a privacy screen. The warrior's head turned in the direction of the sound and her eyebrow arched above the hairline.
"Thank you, Hecuba." Cyrene said. "Xena, I know how you two feel about each other, but he is family. As soon as you're able, I expect you to go see him, do you understand?" Xena nodded slightly, just enough to be noticeable.
"Gabrielle and I will go see him tomorrow, if she's up to it." Xena felt the urge to visit the training grounds and take her frustration out on some sparring partners. "I have to go check on her. I'll come see you later."
"Bring Gabrielle with you, I'd love to see her."
"Okay." She rose to leave.
"Xena." Hecuba called out. "Lila was in here first thing this morning to see me. You tell Gabrielle that I don't care if she is the Queen, she had better get over here to see me soon if she knows what's good for her."
"I'll give her the message." Xena's hand was on the door.
"And I expect YOU to come back later and see your mother for more than just a few moments, young lady." Xena counted to ten, then left to find Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was in the throne room, talking over some recent issues with Ephiny, when Xena stormed in. "We need to talk." She said as she grabbed the queen's arm and pulled her out of the room.
"Calm down, you look like you're going to explode." Gabrielle watched as Xena paced back in forth, muttering to herself as she tried to regain control.
"Do you know what she said to me? To ME?"
"Your mother, that's who! She yelled at me like I was a child!" Xena's arms waved about in the air in disbelief that someone would dare to speak to her like that.
"Were you acting like a child, Xena?" Gabrielle teased.
"Don't think you're not in trouble too, my little queen. Your mother sent me a message for you, too." Xena grinned as she saw Gabrielle's eyes roll.
"Uh oh. I'm not gonna like it, am I?" The bard put her hands over her face and shook her head. Xena's grin became wider and she stopped pacing.
"Oh, I don't think you will. She said that queen or no queen, she expected you to go see her immediately." She chuckled at the groan let out by Gabrielle.
"I bet Lila's already been to see her."
"First thing this morning." Xena chirped. Gabrielle groaned again before looking at her. A horrid thought crossed the bard's mind. "Xena..."
Xena's look went from almost playful to concerned when she saw Gabrielle's expression of dread. "What?"
"You don't suppose they talked..." Gabrielle was already standing and heading for the door. Xena's eyes went wide as she thought of the implications of both women talking to each other.
"They were alone in a cell together for a long time." Xena said as she followed Gabrielle out the door.
"If she tells Cyrene about the time I..." Gabrielle stopped and looked at Xena, who was also thinking of embarrassing parts of her childhood.
"Oh gods." They said in unison.
Fortunately, Cyrene was resting when they arrived. Xena checked on her quickly, then took advantage of the escape offered and went back to the palace. Gabrielle shot her a look as she left, but Xena only shrugged her shoulders. The bard's eyes narrowed as she thought of the different ways she was going to get back at that traitorous warrior for leaving her alone with her fuming mother. "Gabrielle! Get over here!"
"Yes, mother?" She said as sweetly as possible as she turned to face her mother. They had exchanged fierce hugs the night before, but had not really spoken. This time they hugged gently. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm much better, Gabrielle. It's you I'm worried about. You shouldn't be up and about just yet." Hecuba was not happy with the increases of scars on her daughter.
"I'm fine mother, I really am." She giggled. "Besides, I got hit where I had the most padding." She smiled sweetly, trying to draw out her mother's playful side. Hecuba smiled back and patted a spot on the bed for Gabrielle to join her. They had a brief talk before Lila returned to visit her mother. Gabrielle excused herself, citing Queenly duties. Surely there was something the Queen of the Amazons was needed for, even if it was to inspect the kitchen and sample the dinner menu.
Xena and Gabrielle left early the next morning to check on Toris. Xena was not interested in talking or sharing her feelings, despite Gabrielle's efforts to coax them out of her. Her worst fears were realized when she saw Kaleipus and Toris standing outside the Centaur's hut, talking to each other. Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Gabrielle saw the men as well and positioned herself between them and the warrior. "Xena..." She waited until she had the warrior's gaze. "I'm here for you, no matter what."
"I know." Xena met her gaze, drawing strength and courage from what she saw. A few breaths, then a slight nod to indicate that she was ready. Gabrielle stepped back and let Xena lead the way.
Toris saw Xena striding toward him, her face devoid of any emotion. He looked at Kaleipus, then turned and headed toward his sister.
"You were told that Mother is well?" She said as they reached each other, embracing briefly. No matter what, they were still family, and she was glad that he wasn't seriously injured by the Amazons.
"Yes, I got the message a few candlemarks ago. I'm glad to see that you're all right as well.." Toris replied. They looked at each other for a moment, reading eyes they had known since childhood. He broke the gaze and stared off into the nearby trees, seemingly oblivious to Gabrielle's presence. "We need to talk, Xena."
"You know." She said quietly, her gaze never leaving a different tree. Gabrielle moved over and put her hand on the warrior's forearm and squeezed. Xena smiled gently at the contact.
"Yes." His voice revealed his barely controlled anger. Gabrielle quickly decided that the middle of town was not a good place for these two to start this discussion.
"Why don't we go somewhere...private for this discussion?" She suggested as she stepped in-between the siblings.
Toris paced in the large sitting room. Xena leaned against the wall in a decidedly relaxed position. Gabrielle stood between them, her mind rapidly trying to figure out what to say to keep the situation calm. Kaleipus had taken Solon over to a friend's house, going out the back door to avoid running into the women. "Why?" Both women were startled out of their thoughts by the man's gentle question.
"I did what I had to do." Her tone betrayed none of the guilt she felt every day for that decision. Toris' hand smashed against the pedestal he was standing near.
"How can you be so cold about it, Xena? He's your son!"
"I know who he is." She said through clenched teeth.
"Then how could you leave him behind?" Toris temporarily forgot the physical threat his sister posed as he advanced on her. "He's family, Xena. He belongs with us!"
"He was safer here, Toris!"
"Safer?" He yelled, his tone incredulous. "Are you sure it wasn't just easier to drop your bastard son..." He didn't get to finish his sentence as Xena lunged forward, brushing past Gabrielle to seize her older brother by the throat and knock his legs out from under him, pinning him to the ground.
"Don't you ever...ever...talk about him that way!" Xena was using all her energy not to crush her brother's windpipe. She ignored the impatient tugging on her shoulder by Gabrielle. Xena only faintly heard the bard's impassioned pleas. Her focus was on her brother's face, now turning bright red. Forcing herself to relax her grip, she spoke evenly and firmly as her gaze bore into her brother's eyes. "I had no choice, Toris. It was too dangerous for him to stay with me." The pain of her own statement cut through her. Releasing the grip on Toris, Xena rose and walked over to a far corner, Gabrielle right behind her.
Toris slowly sat up and looked over at his sister. To his surprise, Gabrielle's arms were around Xena, gently stroking her back while the bard spoke softly. He rose to his feet, rubbing his neck, and moved closer to them. "Xena..." The fight was gone from him now, his preconceived notions about Xena's intentions shattered. The women continued to ignore him, both wrapped up in Xena's pain. He moved within reach and spoke again. "I didn't know. I assumed..."
Gabrielle spun around and glared at him, her blue-green eyes flashing with fury. "That's right, you assumed!" She spat. "You weren't there, Toris. You don't know how hard a decision it was for Xena to make." Gabrielle's hand never stopped rubbing Xena's back as she continued to give Toris a verbal lashing. "You said he belonged with his family. Who would have protected him when the warlords went looking for the son of Xena? You?" She snorted, reminding him of the way he had run away when Cortese's troops attacked Amphipolis. "Here, he was protected by a nation of Centaurs. Could you have provided him with a safer home?" Gabrielle watched as the muscles in Toris' face slackened in defeat. Another victim to her way with words. Xena stiffened, having regained her composure. Gabrielle pulled her hand away, pausing to give a gentle squeeze to Xena's forearm.
"Xena, I..." He was silenced by her upraised hand.
"Forget it, Toris. The main thing is to keep this a secret from Solon." Toris' gaze immediately settled on one of the floorboards. Gabrielle's eyes widened, then closed in understanding. Xena closed her eyes quickly at the thought. There was an eerie silence to the room for a moment before she spoke. "He knows." It was a statement, not a question.
"He overheard Kaleipus and I talking." He said in an apologetic tone.
"Mother mustn't know." She said quietly, her gaze focused on a painting on the wall. Xena didn't dare look into the bard's all-knowing eyes. Toris stared at her in surprise.
"How can you continue to keep this from her? It's her grandson, Xena. Her only grandchild. You can't keep something like that from her."
"I've done it for almost eleven summers." She said matter-of-factly.
"But I know now. Xena, you're not what you used to be. Let him come home with me. He deserves to know his family."
"His family is here, with the Centaurs. This is the only life he's ever known. It's better this way, Toris. Leave it at that." She turned to leave, Gabrielle right behind her.
"Xena," Toris called as she reached the doorway. She paused, hand on the latch. "Before I leave here, I'm going to ask Solon to come with me. I'll leave the decision up to him. Kaleipus and I have already talked about it."
Xena's grip on the latch was so strong that Gabrielle thought the wood would splinter under the pressure. She instinctively stepped back a bit. "You had no right to interfere with this, Toris." Xena's voice conveyed her barely-controlled anger. "You have no idea how much danger you expose him to if you take him from the safety of the Centaurs. You can't leave a decision like that up to a boy to make." Unable to resist the jibe, she added "Be a man for once, Toris." Xena jerked the door open and stormed off.
"Do you have any idea how much pain you've caused her?" Gabrielle said quietly as she watched her walk off toward the trees. She knew that Xena would stop somewhere out of sight and wait for her. "She loves him, you know."
"I do now." Toris said quietly. "Solon still deserves to be with his family."
"Family?" Gabrielle turned to face him. "Let me tell you some things I've learned about family. A family is not just people related by marriage or blood, it's people related by love. When I first left Poteidaia, I thought that would always be my only family. Then I learned to be a family with Xena, then with the Amazons. Solon has a family, Toris. That family is this village of Centaurs that have loved him and cared for him since he was born. Your only claim to him is the blood that runs through your veins. How does that compare to the claim that Kaleipus has on him?" Toris stayed quiet. "Should we brace Cyrene for the news?"
Toris quietly battled with the question for several heartbeats before answering. "Say nothing for now. If necessary, I'll explain it to her later."
Gabrielle caught up with Xena and explained what happened. They took their time on the way back to Amazonia, giving Xena time to digest the new turn of events. By the time they returned to the village, it was nightfall. A quick stop at Saras' hut revealed that both mothers had felt well enough to be released and were at the palace with Lila.
Entering their room, both women were surprised to see an extra bed had been brought in. Lila and Hecuba were sitting there, chatting away. Gabrielle went to give them each a hug. Xena stood in the doorway, trying to think of a way to gracefully disappear. She wasn't in the mood to make small talk with Gabrielle's family. The bard looked at Lila. "Why is there a second bed in my room?"
"Well, we had to find someplace to sleep. Cyrene and Xena can sleep in the next room. Mother and I will keep you company." The duo looked at each other, their thoughts plain on their faces.
"I can check with the guard and see if we can get another room somewhere for you two." Xena offered.
"Oh, don't bother yourself like that, Xena. We'll be fine. Gabrielle and Lila used to sleep together when they were children. It'll be fine. Why don't you go see your mother? I'm sure she misses you." Hecuba responded.
"Mother, I don't think..." Gabrielle started but was interrupted by her mother.
"Gabrielle, all the arrangements have been taken care of. Now, I'm sure you didn't have dinner. Why don't we all go over to the food hut and get something to eat?" The friends looked at each other and agreed that food was definitely a good idea. Anything to take their minds off of the current sleeping arrangements. Xena went next door to collect Cyrene.
Trasis, the head cook, was busy making out the list for the morning meal when a nervous serving girl came up to her. "Trasis, I have good news and bad news."
"What's the good news?" She asked.
"The good news is that Queen Gabrielle and her sister are on their way here to eat dinner." Trasis' eyes went wide as she mentally took inventory on the foodstuffs.
"That's the good news? What's the bad news?"
"Their mother is with them." The serving girl answered, taking a healthy step back from the Amazon, who was quickly turning red.
"There's THREE of them?" Frantic activity began in the kitchen as Trasis silently apologized to Artemis for whatever wrongs she had done to deserve this fate.
Xena sat in a chair, listening to her mother sleep. Voices through the wall told her that the three women from Poteidaia were still awake and chatting away. She tried to make herself comfortable in the chair, giving up only after trying every possible position. Sighing, she stood up and looked out the window. Spotting Eponin heading into her own hut, Xena got an idea. Dressing quickly, she stepped out of the room and knocked on the Queen's door.
Gabrielle had listened politely to the third telling of the spring planting, wishing she was anywhere but here. She practically sprung from the bed when she heard the knock at the door. "Come in."
Xena opened the door and stuck her head in. "My Queen, there's a matter of great importance that requires your attention."
A grateful bard grabbed her robe and boots as she headed for the door. Without looking back, she called out over her shoulder. "This must be very important. Don't bother to wait up for me. This will probably take all night." She shut the door behind her before either woman could speak. Grabbing Xena's hand, she strode quickly down the hallway, making certain that they were out of earshot before speaking. "Thank the Gods you rescued me. Lila was about to go into the list of possible suitors that were available."
Eponin had just crawled onto her pallet when she heard the forceful knocking at her door. Cursing whoever had the nerve to bother her at such a late candlemark, she stomped over to the door and opened it. "What the hades do you, oh, hi Xena, Gabrielle. Is there something that I can do for you?" The Amazon looked at the two women, still dressed in their sleeping shifts.
"Is Ephiny's old room still available?" Xena asked as they entered.
"Well, yes, but..."
"Great." Gabrielle said. "We're borrowing it for the night." Noting the confused look on her friend's face, the young queen simply replied. "Mothers."
"Oh." Eponin understood immediately. "Second room is hers. I think the pallet's already made up."
"Thanks Ep." Xena said as they quickly headed to the room. Both women were exhausted.
"Maybe they've already finished their breakfast and gone back to the palace." Gabrielle suggested hopefully. Xena stopped and looked at her, arching her eyebrow for effect. The bard's face reddened slightly as she realized her mistake. "Oops, I forgot we were talking about MY family, heh heh." She turned to face the foot hut, taking a deep breath and straightening herself. "Well, what's the worst they can do? After all, I am Queen." She lost her nerve and looked to Xena for support, her last words indicating little hope that her rank would prevent the flurry of questions that would be facing her when Hecuba found her. Xena leaned over and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"I'm sure you'll think of the right thing to say." Although Xena wasn't quite so certain. Gabrielle looked so nervous that the warrior doubted she could string more than three words together. Mothers had a way of doing that.
"And where do you think you're going?" Gabrielle stopped and grabbed her upper arm. "You're not leaving me to face them all alone." The guilty look and sheepish grin told Gabrielle that was exactly what the warrior had in mind. Gabrielle frowned. "Don't even think about it."
"Gabrielle, you know I'm no good at that kind of stuff." Xena's voice was almost whining in her attempt to avoid the imminent confrontation. She was saved from a verbal lashing from the bard by Eponin calling her name. Both women turned to see a very unamused look on the Amazon's face.
"I've been looking for you two. I've got to warn you."
"Warn us?" Gabrielle said nervously.
"Well, it's just that your mothers, well, you see..."
"For Gaia's sake, out with it." Xena growled.
"They're waiting for you both in the throne room. They're not happy with either of you right now." Eponin thought that perhaps sparring with three warriors at once was preferable to being the victim of the look that Xena was giving her right at that moment.
Eponin left them alone and headed back to the training grounds, grateful that it wasn't her that had to face the mothers waiting for them.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Xena asked gently as they approached the door to the throne room.
"No, but let's get it over with." She said with no authority to her voice. Her hand hovered above the latch. "Ready?"
They walked in to see Hecuba and Cyrene sitting comfortably on overstuffed chairs in the far corner, chatting away as if old friends. The friends exchanged confused glances as they walked closer. The sounds of the conversation were filtering in to them.
"...didn't come and talk to me when it happened. She thought she hurt herself somehow and was going to bleed to death."
"Tell me about it. That girl never listened to me. Why, sometimes I wish I could just take her over my knee and..."
"Mother!" Xena yelped. The mothers stopped their conversation and looked up at their daughters, both of whom were showing tinges of red in their cheeks.
"Oh, I'm sorry dear. Hecuba and I were just talking about..."
"I know what you were talking about, that's why I interrupted."
"Mother, did you tell Cyrene all my most embarrassing moments or were you saving some for later?"
"Actually, Gabrielle, we were saving some for later. What's the idea of not meeting us for breakfast? I haven't seen you in moons and what do you do? It wouldn't have killed you to spend the night talking to your sister and I."
"Sorry, Mother. I was just tired, that's all." Gabrielle hung her head like the scolded child she was at the moment. Xena barely suppressed a chuckle at the young bard's predicament.
"And the same goes for you, Xena." Cyrene spoke, turning the attention to the warrior. "I can't believe you helped sneak her out."
"Sorry, Mother." Xena's tone imitated the earlier apology from Gabrielle.
"Well, now that all that is settled, let's sit down and chat." Hecuba said.
The four women sat together for the next few candlemarks, learning more about the members of their families. Xena's tension dissipated as Hecuba took the time to speak privately to her, airing out all the old feelings that had come between them.
"Xena, I know that my husband and I didn't treat you very well the first time we met you. You have to understand where we were coming from. Here comes this warlord, Xena, Destroyer of Nations, to take our daughter away from us. Then you would bring her back, more scars, more muscles, less and less the little girl who left. I thought I was blaming you for ruining our daughter. What I was doing was blaming you for her growing up."
"I would give my life to protect her." Xena reassured.
"I know you would, Xena. I just wish you didn't have to. Let me make one thing clear to you. I am in no way pleased with the idea that you drag my daughter," Hecuba held her hand up to stop the protest that was on the warrior's lips. "I know, she follows you willingly." Xena's lips closed as the words were spoken for her. "I am still not happy that the two of you traipse all over hades half acre putting yourselves in danger. However, since it seems that there is no way to change that fact, I can at least take comfort in the knowledge that my daughter is happy. There was a time when she was younger that I thought she would never find true happiness. She always had a far away look to her eye. To Gabrielle, life in Poteidaia would never have been enough. She needed more, far more than I could ever give her." Hecuba put her hand on Xena's shoulder, albeit tentatively. "I'm glad you were able to give her that happiness, Xena."
Gabrielle's head swung around at the sound of her mother demanding a hug from Xena. Her blue-green eyes caught the incredibly surprised and astonished look in the blue ones. The young bard fought the urge to giggle at her friend's plight. Leaning over to whisper in a conspiratory tone to Cyrene, Gabrielle observed "She looks like a frightened deer." That sent both women into fits of laughter as Xena glared at them before returning the hug.
Xena quickly found out that Lila didn't share quite the same feelings as her mother. Leaving the stable after checking on Argo, she saw Lila standing there, glaring at her. She waited a moment to see if the young woman would talk, but all Lila did was glare at her, building the anger up inside her young body. "Is there something you wanted, Lila?" She asked in a bored tone. Xena really was getting sick of the daggers being thrown at her from her friend's sister's eyes.
"I...don't...like...you!" Her words dripped with anger and hatred. "You took my sister away, you almost got my mother killed, you...hey!" Lila yelped when she was unceremoniously picked up off her feet by a now angry warrior.
"I'm sick of your tantrums, Lila." She carried the kicking and screaming woman over to the long horse trough. "I think you need to cool off." Xena said as she held Lila out over the water and released her grip. The trough was deep enough to totally soak the young woman.
"I can't believe..." Lila sputtered as she came up for air. Seeing the smug look on Xena's face, the young woman's eyes narrowed. Climbing out of the trough, she reached down and grabbed a hefty pile of mud in her hand. Xena twisted her head to avoid the smelly mud, but Lila's throw still caught her on the neck and chest. "Uh oh."
Lila ducked through the fence and took off across the field as Xena wiped the mud, which she was certain was mixed with manure, off of her face. Visions of Lila covered head to toe with the offensive muck danced through Xena's mind as she took off after her. Her powerful legs quickly overtook the smaller ones as she scooped Lila up and tossed her over her shoulder like a sack of flour. "Put me down!" Lila yelled as she pounded on Xena's back. "Where are you taking me?" She demanded. Xena said nothing as she headed over toward the pig pens. Two Amazons who had been tending to the pigs looked up and saw an angry warrior striding toward them, a screaming woman in her arms. They quickly shooed the pigs inside the corral and got out of the way.
With her free hand, Xena opened up the gate to the sty. A quick glance told her that it was deep enough that Lila wouldn't get hurt when she fell. The pounding on her back increased. "I said put...me...down! You can't just...(sniff)...hey! Xena, don't you dare! Come on now, I only got you a little bit, this stuff stinks! Xena? Xena, please, I-aaahh!" She landed in the mud with a generous thwap sound. The normally stoic warrior couldn't help but laugh when she saw the head to toe mess that was Gabrielle's sister.
Digging her hands deep into the muddy water, Lila eyed her mark, then moved her arms as she splayed her fingers out, creating a muddy wave of pig smell that splashed all over the front of Xena. The warrior's eyes narrowed, the fight was on.
"AND JUST WHAT DO THE TWO OF YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING??" Gabrielle bellowed at the two figures thrashing around in the mud, laughing their heads off as they threw mud at each other. The mud-covered women separated and gave each other the 'uh-oh, we're dead now' look. Gabrielle's blue-green eyes were dark with fury. "I'm sitting there, having a pleasant conversation with our mothers and what are you two doing? You're out here acting like children!" Both Xena and Lila had visions of their mothers giving the exact same type of speech to them. Both still had the same fear of the tone. "Lila!" She glared at her mud covered sister. "I am staying with Xena and that's all there is to it. I will continue to live with her and be with her and there's nothing you can do or say about it so you might as well just accept it. Do I make myself clear?" Without waiting for an answer, Gabrielle turned on Xena. "And you! I would have thought you were too mature for this kind of display, splashing about in the mud and, uggh, whatever else is in here." For a girl raised on a farm, Gabrielle still hated the stench of the pig sty and avoided it whenever possible. "You two had better work it out right now." She turned to leave. "And don't even think about entering the palace smelling like that." She yelled back at them. "I'll have clean skirts and tunics waiting for you at the bathhouse."
Xena and Lila sat there for a moment, watching the retreating form. "Boy, she sounds just like Mother."
"Uh, that's not good, huh?" Xena asked. The mud covered girl smiled mischievously.
"Nope. You're in big trouble, Xena. When Mother got mad, boy oh boy, you didn't want to be within twenty leagues of her." A rotten thought popped into the young woman's head. "And Gabrielle knows more words!" She laughed at the anguished groan that came from Xena.
Too nervous to wait with the rest of the women, Xena and Gabrielle rode Argo to intercept Toris on the way to the rendezvous point. Both women breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the wagon was empty, save for her brother. When the horses reached each other, The siblings pulled them to a stop. Blue eyes met equally blue as heartbeats passed without sounds. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "If you will excuse me, I, uh, have to make a trip to the woods." She slid off of the horse and disappeared, recognizing the need for Xena to speak alone with her brother.
"What happened?" She asked quietly.
"Solon chose to stay with Kaleipus. We didn't tell him that you were around, but he did ask if we could get word to you that he wants to see you in the summer." Toris looked down at his boots. "Xena, I won't say anything to Mother."
"You know it's for the best, Toris."
"I know. It would kill her to know that she has a grandson that she can't see. I'm not doing so well with it myself." He blinked rapidly, remembering his reaction to Solon telling him that it was nice to know the truth but that he was happy living with the Centaurs. "I thought I was doing the right thing."
"You are now." She replied softly. "Toris," Xena waited until she had his gaze. "Thank you. For understanding...and for alerting us about Mother. I know that took courage on your part." All the anger she had for her older brother over the loss of Lyceus seemed to fall away from her heart, replaced with an understanding of the tragedies of life. Toris looked startled by his sister's statement.
"I love you, Xena. You're my sister, you always will be. I'll always be there for you, and for Gabrielle."
Pressing against the stirrup with her left foot, Xena dismounted from Argo and into the wagon, giving her brother a stiff armed hug, still not entirely comfortable with the display of affection. Toris took it for what it was, his stoic sister's attempt to express her feelings. He, of course, was much better at expressing his emotions and he wrapped his arms around her in a big bear hug, which she allowed for only a couple of heartbeats before pulling away and vaulting back onto Argo. "Gabrielle." She called out, knowing that she wasn't far. The honey haired beauty came out from behind some trees and took the proffered arm to vault up behind the warrior. Xena turned Argo around and urged her back toward the rendezvous point. She put some distance between herself and Toris, wanting a little privacy with Gabrielle before meeting up with their families.
Once they were out of sight, Xena eased up on the reins, letting Argo set the pace. "You all right?" Gabrielle asked.
"Mm? Oh yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking."
"I know that, silly. What are thinking about?" Xena stopped the horse and turned in her saddle to face the bard. Gabrielle drank in the sight of a happy smile on Xena's face.
"I was just thinking about when I was a child. I wasn't the easiest child in the world, you know. When other girls played with cloth dolls, I played sword fight with Lyceus." Gabrielle giggled at the image of a little Xena swinging a wooden stick and calling it a sword. "Other mothers told Cyrene not to let me play with the boys, but she didn't care what they said. She told them that if I was happy, then that was all that mattered." Xena blinked quickly, then gave Gabrielle a smile. "Let's head back and spend some time with our mothers before they leave." She urged Argo into a trot.
"You know we could escort everyone home instead of sending Amazons." Gabrielle suggested, sensing Xena's need to spend time with her mother.
"No." Xena said quickly, then grinned slightly. "I love my Mother, Gabrielle, I really do. But the idea of spending every waking moment with her for the next four days is beyond my capabilities."
"Good." Gabrielle grinned. "I wasn't looking forward to it either. Mother can be a little...demanding sometimes. But I still love her."
"I know, Gabrielle. That's how mothers are. They love us to death, but also drive us crazy sometimes. I think its a secret skill they teach each other." Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
After the Queen and her family left, Trasis sent a request to Queen Ephiny that she be notified in advance the next time more than one person from Poteidaia was going to be staying with them. Trasis wanted to plan her next vacation.
Back to The Bard's Corner