Disclaimer: I own the ideas. The characters are a gift we share. Contains spoilers for Seasons 1 through 6, but nothing major. If you've seen the episodes you will recognize them, if not you'll want to see them soon. Perception is the ability to fill in mentally what the eye cannot see physically. I believe friendship is a powerful force. I believe it exists for all time but only once in a lifetime does one find a true friend.
Perceive what you will.*******************************************************************************************************************************
The return trip to Poteidia was long, but uneventful, as each party seemed withdrawn into their reflections of the events in Gurkan's palace. Lila's reunion with her daughter was bittersweet and clumsy. The older woman's recollection of a carefree youngster, bright and smiling, mixed with Sara's vague memories of a mother long forgotten. Their embrace was tentative at best. The smiles they exchanged were questioning and timid. Xena swallowed hard and turned away, memories of her own recent tumultuous discovery of her own progeny still burning in her heart and soul. The warrior could not help feel the knot in her stomach or stop the tear that rolled slowly over her cheek. Time would help heal some of the wounds left by this horrible tragedy, but the scars would forever remind them of what they had experienced.
Gabrielle seemed aloof as well, spending more and more time studying the odds and ends that lay strewn in the hovel that was once her home. The creaking wood of the old barn, sorely in need of repair matched the rest of the neglected farm. Lila, a widowed woman reaching her fiftieth season was less than capable of running such an enterprise, even if she did have any will to do so. She had sold much of what her parents had collected over the years in order to keep what she could of her family's land and her home, but she was tired, and loneliness had made her old beyond her years. Gabrielle, once the elder sibling, winced at her sister's slow movements and wrinkled countenance. Lila, who had once been big for her age and could easily take her older sister in a friendly scuffle, now smiled grandmotherly at the young girl who stood strong and healthy in Amazon brilliance. Gabrielle could not help feel guilty over the situation, avoiding her sister of blood as well as her sister of heart.
Eve did her best to bring comfort to the group, quietly moving from one to the other suggesting ways to bring closure to events that could not be changed. She could not help but notice the look on her own mother's face as Xena watched the awkward relationship between the newly united mother and daughter. It brought a deep sadness to her she had never experience, a pain no amount of Eli's teaching could relieve.
It was Virgil who suggested it might be better for Lila and Sara to consider moving to the larger city of Athens. For Lila it would be a chance to start again, away from all of the memories this farm seemed to hold. For Sara it would be the same, a new start away from a place where she could never hope to be what she had once been. The young man smiled widely, suggesting that they considering staying with his mother for a time. Meg had opened a new tavern in a quiet part of the city and could use the help in return for room and board. He was more than certain that his mother would agree with his plan to help these new friends of these old friends.
Gabrielle and her sister had taken a walk, disappearing until well after dark and worrying their family, as they discussed and decided the fate of their homestead. In the end the farm had been sold to a merchant in town that had sought after it for quite some time. He smiled as he handed a considerably heavy sack of dinars over the to the woman. She failed to see the wink he exchanged with the tall warrior who stood at her back. Lila and Sara deserved that much.
So, it was Joxer's son's suggestion that had brought the silent weary group to their task on this bright spring morning. Virgil had used his well-honed blacksmith skills to repair the old wagon found buried under years of debris in one of the barn's stalls. With pieces of discarded wood and scraps of metal and nail he had made it safe for the long trip. Gabrielle smiled a sad smile as she patted his strong shoulder, appreciating his hard work. Even Xena could see Joxer's eyes smiling back at the girl. Lila had given him a handful of dinars and sent him and her daughter to the town's smithy. They would need a strong team to make their journey. Both she and Gabrielle turned away teary eyed as Sara walked next to the strong young man. The girl had scrubbed away the paint of a harem's queen and found that she fit perfectly into clothing left in an old chest. No one could remember whether it had belonged to Hecuba, Gabrielle or Lila, but with a few patches and a bit of fine stitching, it was fit to wear. No one spoke as the woman who would never be number one wife again tossed her gilded gown into the fire and watched silently as it sparkled into smoke and ash.
Xena watched as Eve carried items to the wagon. She turned and smiled at her mother before returning to her task. The warrior shook her head as the younger ex-warlord returned to the small house, passing the sisters as she entered. Gabrielle and Lila seemed involved in some deep thought, speaking quietly to each other, and nodding sadly as they packed the wagon with the few things Lila felt she had to take from her home. The warrior's task was monotonous; pulling crates and boxes from the dusty corners of the ramshackle barn. Lila had pushed them as far from her sight as she had the memories of her family's demise. Xena had promised the merchant who had purchased the farm that it would be left clear of any rubble that he would have to dispose. What she could not salvage would make fuel for the campfires the travelers would need over the next few weeks. Spring had brought the promise of new life to Greece, but winter still held a firm grip on the darkness between dusk and dawn.
She tugged one last tug on a large oak chest that for the last few moments had put up a valiant battle to stay put under a similar wooden shelf. With one deep breath she grabbed the iron handle with two hands, set her feet, bent her knees, groaned and yanked with all her might. The handle popped with a dusty click, sending the warrior flat on her backside a few feet from her previous position. For a moment she stared at the rusty grip with its nails and clamps still in place, let out a string of her best (or perhaps worst) curses and flung the item across the barn. It landed on end in the shape of a smug smile, almost daring her to continue her chore. Xena sneered at the inanimate object, angry about the entire situation and her inability to fix it. She scrambled back to the chest and with one mighty pull and a few added 'colorful' words to encourage it, it came free almost as if it had been given a push from the other side. The warrior sat back with a satisfied grin, brushing the dust from her hands. The mere sound of that action was enough to cause the weathered aged and insect eaten box to slowly crumble before her eyes.
"Gr-reat " the warrior growled through clenched teeth as she picked up a handful of dust that was seconds before a very obstinate trunk. A strange creaking noise caught her attention giving her just enough time to leap to her feet and out of the way before the entire shelf pulled away from the wall and crashed to the ground in a dusty crumble of wood, dust and rusty nails. Xena fanned the silty air in front of her face and coughed away the musty smell that permeated every inch of the place. Slowly the air cleared, revealing very little of what was once a place reserved for Hecuba's preserved treats and dried fruits. There was little left in this shanty that would be of any use to anyone. Xena considered giving the place one good kick and watching it crumble into a pile of tinder. The sunlight filtering in through the many openings in the building glinted off something far back in the corner where the shelf had just stood. The warrior pushed aside cobwebs and brittle aged slats to retrieve the object a plain dark wooden box engraved with large childish scrawl across its top. It was no bigger than the span of the warrior's hands, end to end, and just as deep as one palm. The lid was sealed tightly with a large rusty lock that had long ago broken in two, but remained firmly attached to its shackle. She smiled sadly, remembering an innocence lost as she traced the deep jagged 'G' that began the name on the lid.
The warrior sat back on a large bench that managed to remain intact and set the box on her lap. She looked once over her shoulder as if about to open a chest of Sumarian treasure and spied the others still making trips to and from the house. She turned back and gently lifted the top from the small box. Most of what the chest had contained had long turned to dust. Specks of color still lingered in the fine powder that covered what remained intact. The treasures included a smooth white rock, a harness buckle, two nails, a faded and fragile pale ribbon, a long piece of thin leather threaded through a soft blue amulet things a child would find priceless, stored away for half a century. All things a girl who dreamed of being a bard would find fascinating. Yet, the warrior found the small pieces of scroll tied with dark twine more interesting. She picked one and pulled the twine free. It unwound revealing immediately the neat familiar handwriting of her young friend. She could not help reading .
This makes the tenth time in a fortnight I've tried to write to you. I don't know why I'm having so much trouble. There is so much I want to say, but this is so very difficult and I am so afraid you won't understand. I know you are probably very angry with me and I really don't blame you. I'm sure father is still furious and should I come home now the punishment would be worse than that time I hitched a ride in the peddler's wagon on it's way to Thebes.
It's been more than a full cycle of seasons since I left and I've seen so much since. I've been to many places mother, places you and I always talked about, all the places we dreamed of together. I even got accepted to the Academy in Athens! Oh, mother, Athens is such a wonderful place. You would love the market. I didn't stay there. I guess I missed traveling with Xena too much. She really is a good friend mother, not at all like the monster everyone always told me she was. She is kind and gentle and tries to help people wherever we go. Like the time we happened to end up in this temple with a guy named Hippocrates. There was this argument going on with two groups and lots of people needed her help. She saved lots of lives that day, mother. You would have been impressed.
Xena looked up at the sound of Gabrielle's voice and watched as she pointed directions to Eve on just where to put a large kettle so it would not roll off the wagon. She smiled at the bard's ability to understate the real story and shield her mother from what had actually happened in that temple that horrible day. The warrior still shuddered at the near loss of the young friend on that fateful afternoon. She re-rolled the small scroll, tied it and returned it to the box, then chose another.
I've traveled to so many places and met so many people. You would be so happy to see these things and I wish there were a way to send pieces of them to you. I've been to an Amazon village and met a real Amazon Queen, now that is a job I would never want! I also met centaurs and they are not what people say either, mother. They are very noble and very good friends. Xena managed to stop a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs and I got to be a part of it too. It was great! We even came across some Titans. They aren't very nice and thankfully Xena put them in their place as well
The warrior could not help laugh as she read Gabrielle's comical account of their long ago encounter with the Titans. Conveniently the girl left out her part in the fiasco that could have been a lot worse. Xena finished the short message, returned it and unrolled another time and time again as she went through every scroll in the small box. She could not help notice how the messages changed and the stories grew shorter, less childlike and more informative as Gabrielle's life changed over the years.
This strange young man speaks of 'one true god' and has asked Xena to help defeat the man called Caesar in a place called Brittania. Our ship sets sail in the morning
Xena's breath caught as she quickly rolled that parchment and stowed it in the box. She had little desire to recall the events that followed that ill-fated trip and her thoughtless decision to go against the man that would eventually be their murderer. She tried desperately to swallow the bile that still rose in her throat at the thought of his name and prayed that Gabrielle would never know how much she had wanted to be the one to drive a dagger into his black heart. The fire of battle lust ran its demonic fingers across her skin and she fell for the briefest of moments into the guise of the dark evil warrior she had learned to suppress. She allowed the feeling to pass as it had done thousands of times throughout the years when her need for vengeance had pushed away all the light a small perky pest had brought to her life. The warrior shook her head to clear her thoughts then pulled the twine from yet another scroll.
India is a strange land, mother, with strange gods and customs. I don't know what I would have done if Xena had not believed so strongly in this man's power. His name is Eli and he speaks words that calm the turbulent parts of me. The Hindus believe that every person has their own way and that no one is happy unless they follow that way. I think that Eli believes this too and he has taught me ways to calm my spirit and find peace
The sound of gentle laughter brought her attention once more to the trio loading the wagon. Lila and her 'little' sister seemed to be amused by some bit of carved wood that Eve pulled from a small box of stored items. Each took turns holding and examining what looked to Xena like something a very inexperienced sculpture might have used for practice. It was good to hear this sound, good to know that there was hope of healing, hope that this odd collection of survivors could hold onto their family ties, hope that hope Hope .
I know I should have told you about Hope, but I was ashamed. Xena tried to warn me, tried to help me, tried to stop her, but I was too stubborn and it almost cost me everything and everyone I love. I am so sorry she threatened you and father and Lila. If anything had happened to you I would not have been able to continue although I know Xena would not have let me give up. She never gives up. She saved my life and yours. I wish father could see that she is not the monster he thinks she is. I don't know how to convince him. That monster in the barn, that thing that threatened the village and killed so many was my fault, my fault because I didn't listen to Xena. I am the one to blame not her. I hope you can forgive me mother. I will always love you, all of you, with all my heart.
Xena has gone to Rome, Caesar has put a price on her heard that no one can resist. She made me promise not to follow. Amarice and I ran into Eli and a group of people who are following his teachings. He has amassed a large group. He tells me that, Brutus and his army was seen in the area so we must be careful. One woman in the group told us that his men were crucifying criminals on a mountain not very far away
Xena finished the last scroll through hot tears as she recalled the last moments she and Gabrielle had spent together before Brutus' men nailed them to poles and left them to die in excruciating pain that even the bitter cold could not numb. She had watched helplessly as her young friend screamed in agony and cried softly until her spirit could no longer take breath. Even the pain of her own death was slight in comparison to the scene she was forced to witness that frigid morning. Her heart thanked whatever force moved the universe that neither her own mother nor Gabrielle's was there to watch as well. She rolled the scroll carefully and tied the dark cord around it, ignoring the twinge of pain in the center of her palm. It served as a constant reminder of that fateful day. It was something she never mentioned to her young protégé. It was something she prayed they did not share. Her thoughts seemed to take her far away from that moment and all of the strange events that led to the birth of the daughter she now watched from her shaded perch in the old barn. Her fingers went to another small scroll and she absently unrolled it.
the baby is beautiful, mother and I can't wait for you to see her. Although almost every god on Olympus seems to threaten us wherever we travel, we have managed to see Cyrene. Xena wanted her to meet her granddaughter. She promises we will visit Potadeia soon, which is wonderful because I have so much to tell you. I can't wait to see you. Xena has a plan to end this nonsense once and for all and I really hope it works. When we see you we will tell you all about it. It isn't safe to say much more
And so it ended, twenty-five years ago. Xena huffed in a disgusted sigh recalling Ares intervention in her, then what seemed, 'flawless' plan. How odd that she and Gabrielle's life and times were now condensed into this small box. The warrior stood and stretched her long legs, stiff from sitting too long on the wooden bench. She smiled a crooked silly smile to herself and thought 'not, bad for a sixty-year-old warrior'. A soft chuckle rolled around her chest as she realized how unlikely that would have been in a traditional lifetime. Tying the last scroll she bent to place it back in the box that she had placed on the bench. All the nights her little friend had spent writing volumes, all the strange meetings with traveling peddlers and merchants, dinars passed from hand to hand, finally made sense. Gabrielle was sending word to her family, word that she was alive and well and enjoying the life she had chosen. Xena smiled. That was Gabrielle.
The warrior picked up the lid and turned it to place it back on the small chest. A piece of parchment folded twice to fit exactly into the nook in the lid slipped from its place and fell to the floor. For a second Xena stared at it, knowing almost instinctively that it did not belong to the bard. She bent and retrieved it, gently and carefully, as if it were sacred. Turning back just one corner she glanced at the handwriting and although it bore a striking similarity to her friend's, she knew it was not. It began
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice, although barely above a whisper, caused the warrior to jump uncharacteristically, immediately putting the girl on guard. She moved quickly to her large friend's side and placed a hand on her arm. "Are you all right? Is something "
Xena half turned toward the girl, the parchment in one hand, her other arm still around the small box of treasures. She hadn't felt so guilty since her mother caught her stealing from the tavern's strong box when she was child. The warrior swallowed the lump in her throat but could not help staring into the quiet green eyes that silently questioned her. "I I "
Gabrielle placed her hands slowly on either side of the box and gently slid it from the warrior's grip. She smiled that half-sad little smile that always broke Xena's heart. It was a smile that said 'I really am happy, but I can't feel it through the pain'. The young Amazon pulled the box to her heart and almost embraced it. Her eyes closed and one tear quickly followed its mate over each of her cheeks. She sat down on the bench the warrior had warmed and placed the treasure on her lap, delicately running her fingers over its edge as well as its contents. A soft sob escaped her as she picked up the lid that lay next to her and ran her fingers over the letters on its surface.
"I used one of my father's best knives to engrave my name in this." She managed to stammer between sniffles, then laughed softly. "He used one of mother's best hairbrushes to express his opinion on my backside." The girl hugged the lid to her chest with both arms and held it tightly for a moment before the tears came forth in a mighty flood. "Then then he helped me to varnish the wood so it would last " she choked out painfully.
Xena sank to bench next to the girl and quickly placed an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle laid her head against her friend and covered her face with one hand as her grief poured forth. The warrior kissed the top of the girl's head and shushed her, maternally rocking in comfort. Sadly, the warrior realized that although she had managed a few brief visits with her mother over their years of travel and misadventure, Gabrielle had seen her parents but once since she had run away from this small village so very long ago. That visit was not very pleasant and its memories did little to comfort the heartbroken girl. Even after all these years, yes this once-bard turned Amazon Warrior Queen was still a mere girl.
"Where how " Gabrielle shook her head as she tried to speak.
The warrior pointed to the pile of rubble that was once a shelf and the sawdust that once was a chest on the floor and answered in a voice barely above a whisper. "Actually, it was an accident."
Gabrielle hiccupped a cough that turned into a small laugh then took a shaky breath and nodded toward the debris. "I used to play under that shelf when I was a little girl. It was my secret place I ." She turned into the warrior's shoulder in an effort to escape the flood of memories rushing through her heart and soul. Once again, Xena pulled her close and waited for the girl's emotions to release their anguish.
Sorrow much like all human emotion passes, and faith allows all of mankind to turn forward, leaving those moments of pain or passion in the darkness of what has passed. Gabrielle drew a deep breath and ran the side of her index finger under her nose, sniffing away the last of her tears. She patted the hand of the warrior that had gently rested on her shoulder and pushed herself upright. Tilting her head and smiling that same sad smile she had worn since learning of her parents' fate, she nodded at the warrior before swallowing once and clearing her throat. She spread her hands across the top of the box that had lain in her lap throughout this ordeal.
"I guess there isn't very much here worth saving," she let out a long weary sigh and did her best to conceal her feelings. "They've all been gone a very long time, haven't they?" She lifted her gaze to meet her mentor's. Searching not for an answer but for a bit of reassurance that all had not been in vain. Xena smiled in return, knowing there was little she could do or say to help. Gabrielle brushed her palm over the top of the box once more then placed her hands on either side of it. "I never thought it would still be here I guess I forgot about it when I got older. I must have put it away one day and just never took it out again. There can't be anything in " She shook the item close to her ear, leaning forward to hear any sound it might make. Surprised at the soft rattle, she smiled broadly, rising her brows. A final tear sneaked over the side of her cheek and remained there, causing an odd contrast of grief and glee. Xena opened her mouth but before she could speak the girl lifted the lid and spied the contents of her small treasure chest.
Gabrielle's brow wrinkled in confusion as she lifted one small scroll, then fingered through the others. She looked to the warrior asking a silent question. Then looked back without waiting for an answer. "But, I didn't " she began.
"You did." Xena told her softly. "They're letters you wrote to your mother. She used your box to save them, little pieces of you, moments of your life to keep her company." She smiled softly through her own tears.
"But how " Gabrielle stammered, still clearly confused.
"I read them." The warrior confessed, hanging her head, suddenly ashamed that she had invaded this most private relationship between Gabrielle and her mother.
For a moment Gabrielle could only stare at her friend as the initial twinge of anger she felt melted away in the light of Xena's apparent penitent expression. There was nothing in anything she had ever written to her mother that Xena was not aware of or that she would not want her to see. She shook her head for a moment and raised a finger at the warrior, "You know " she mock scolded, then half smiled and continued, shrugging her shoulders, "we went through it all together, there's nothing here you don't already know." Playfully she bumped her own shoulder against the warrior's, knocking her for a split second, off balance.
Xena gently pushed back, forcing the bard in the opposite direction slightly. "Yeah, well I might remember some of it a little different than you did." She raised an eyebrow at the girl whose look of feigned innocence was unconvincing.
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and puffed a short breath, "Xena, she's my mom. I couldn't tell her everything. She'd worry about me too much." Her eyes sparkled just a bit with unspent tears.
"No," Xena laughed, "I guess you couldn't." Gabrielle laughed as well. Then both fell silent knowing that to continue now would be just too painful.
They remained locked in their own recollections of times gone by, the blessings and tragedies that they had endured. The sun's light, now slipping toward the western horizon, cast an amber light into the dusty corners of the old structure and a cool breeze caused the loosest slats to rattle as if they were shivering with the change in temperature. Before the silence became uncomfortable, Xena stared at the still folded parchment in her hand, rubbing it softly between her fingers, debating whether or not it would bring her young friend more pain or some resolution to the empty feeling that seemed to overwhelm her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's soft voice broke the silence.
"Hmmm?" Xena answered without taking her eyes of the crooked nail she had been staring at for the past few minutes.
"Do you ever wonder why?" The girl's question seemed more of a sigh. "We've saved so many people, but the people we love, the people most important to us we just weren't there for them."
"Gabrielle, don't " Xena began, knowing where this would lead. But the girl continued, as if the warrior had not interjected that small warning.
"Not once, Xena, not for any of them. We couldn't save Solon or Ephiny or Joxer not you mother or my parents, not any of them Xena, not one. All the good we did, all the people we helped for whatever force of good there was, all the times you and I came back to do it again and the people we loved the most aren't here because we weren't there to save them." Gabrielle's voice remained calm, almost emotionless as she let her thoughts pour forth. She stopped and looked down at the chest, shaking her head then turned toward Xena. "Was it worth that price?" The question was hardly a whisper and her voice cracked with the feelings she desperately tried to contain.
Xena looked into misty green eyes that begged for an answer, it was a look she had not seen in recent years. It was the look that pulled on her heartstrings and let a small inexperienced kid inside a very dark place. It was the look that brought light to that place. Now, it threatened to break that same heart. She had no answer for the same questions that plagued her every moment. Gabrielle was the one that had the answers, the platitudes that kept them going when everything seemed lost. The warrior was weaponless in this battle, helpless to defeat this intangible foe. This darkness was eating away at the girl's soul. Xena let out a soft sigh, in it a prayer that somehow she could find the right words. Again she rubbed the parchment she held between her fingers. 'Words ' she thought 'the right words'
"Maybe you should read this ." She handed the worn piece of scroll to the girl.
Gabrielle looked at her own name, faded in many places, but neatly lettered across the parchment. She blinked the tears from her eyes then looked questioningly at the warrior who curtly nodded and pushed the object a bit closer urging the bard to take it. Gabrielle reached, almost in slow motion, took the parchment and held it for a few moments still staring at her name. Again she looked to Xena for the answer to her unasked inquiry.
"It was in the box." Xena nodded at the small chest in Gabrielle's lap.
Gabrielle nodded her understanding.
"I didn't read that one." Xena informed her.
She smiled her thanks and her knowledge that the warrior would now and forever respect the things sacred to her. Again she looked at the small folded message she held. Her hands shook as she opened it. Holding it in front of her she looked at the familiar script, recognizing the hand that had held her own small one and traced letter after letter until she was able to reproduce each and create words of her own. "Mother oh mother " She wept at the memory and the warmth of this last bit of the sweet woman who had given her life, taught her to love and blessed her with freedom.
Suddenly, Xena felt as if she were intruding on a private moment, almost as if she had opened a door or peeked into a window to spy on some personal family intimacy. She rose slowly; willing to give the girl privacy as well as time to read her mother's last bit of communication. Gabrielle, she was sure, would not notice her departing.
"Stay ." Came the gentle voice as a small hand grasped the warrior before she took a step. "Please " the request was repeated as the girl looked up to the tall woman.
Xena patted the hand that rested on her forearm as she returned to her place on the bench.
Gabrielle stared at the form before her, but spoke to the women next to her. "She knew ."
Xena tilted her head, confused by the comment.
"The night I ran away, she knew she was watching from the doorway." For a second the girl looked to the old house remembering the image of her mother standing in its archway. "I stopped at the gate and turned for one last look, she was right there watching me." She looked at the warrior, then back to the house. "I froze, thought she would come after me but but ." Gabrielle drew a deep breath and stopped, struggling to grasp and hold on to the emotions that threatened to flood at any moment. Xena waited, although she herself found the ability to contain emotion growing extremely lax.
Gabrielle shook her head and released the breath in a long sigh. "She didn't stop me." She looked back to the message that she had placed on her lap, unconsciously stroking it slowly. "I knew she was crying, but she just raised her hand and waved, then I waved back and and ." Again her voice cracked with the threat of emotional outburst.
"The rest is history." Xena deadpanned, hoping to lighten the mood, if only just a little.
It worked, as Gabrielle laughed into a sob, placed one hand over her mouth and leaned into the warrior's shoulder for emotional as well as physical support. Xena would always be there. Again a companionable silence fell between them until the girl let out a short breath and picked up the parchment. For a second she considered taking her head from this place of warmth and safety. Xena felt the shift in the bard's weight as well as the almost immediate return to remain in position. The warrior moved her arm to rest protectively around the girl's shoulders. There she could offer unspoken support as well as comfort. She squeezed the girl's upper arm just a bit, then patted it softly urging her to go on with the task she was putting off very creatively, however unintentional.
Gabrielle swallowed once then began reading the faded words on the soft worn parchment .
My dear sweet child, it is my most heartfelt wish that someday you read these words. I have so many times thought of you over these years and so many messages have come to me through so many people, but never have I returned such. I could not even imagine how I would get word to you, but know that you were never more than a breath away from my heart. I have watched the moon and known that, wherever you were, you were looking at that same sight and in that thought I knew we were together .
Gabrielle paused remembering all the times she and her mother had sat under the moon and stars, talking long into the night. Hecuba shared many stories with her daughter, teaching the many legends and folklore that lead the girl to her dream of literary greatness. Mother would point to the heavens and tell her that all the people of the world could see the same sky, the same stars and the same moon no matter how near or far they would travel. 'I did remember, mama,' she thought, 'I did think of you then.' For a second, the girl closed her eyes hoping her tears would not blur her vision.
So many merchants and travelers brought so many stories of your Xena and how she was changing not only herself but also, the many people she helped. Your father refused to listen, brushing off anyone who even mentioned the name but when they spoke of the young blonde girl who traveled with this noble warrior, even he couldn't help himself. I must scold you, little one, because many of your messages were quite different from the stories these travelers brought to our village. Even your little sister and a man called Meleager had more to say about your escapades than you seem to think this frail old woman can take. I survived you and all of your antics as you grew, my sweet child. You did not have to spare me the details of your life now.
The girl could not help letting out a chuckle as she could actually hear her mother's stern voice and see that finger wagging in front of her nose. Xena smiled, resting her cheek against the top of the girl's head. It was a good sound to hear.
A strange little man in even stranger dress who called himself Salmoneus brought us a multitude of merchandise from the four corners of the world and a few stories of his own. He told us of how you saved a village from a warlord when your friend was too ill to help and of how you had yourself sent to prison in order to save her and someone called Flora. Somehow there was a wolf in this story as well. We laughed until our sides ached when he told us that you convinced your Xena to participate in a beauty contest that awarded the first prize to a young gentleman, that fancied lady's finery.
Again Gabrielle laughed a silent laugh, remembering the events her mother's words described. Xena smiled, hoping the letter would continue to lighten the burden the girl had been carrying since their return to her family's home. The warrior had worried, in her own quiet undetectable manner, that Gabrielle could never accept her parent's fate, that it would tear a gash in the girl's soul that might never heal. Xena had a place to go to say goodbye to her mother. Even the grisly scene she had found in that tomb had forced the woman to believe the unthinkable had happened and forced her heart and soul to accept the fact that Cyrene had crossed the line between life and what lies beyond. A tear ran over the warrior's cheek. She lifted her head from its resting-place before that lone bit of sadness was able to reach the girl's hair. Gabrielle shifted positions easily as Xena sat upright, unconsciously settling into the crook of the warrior's arm without taking her eyes off the words before her.
We've had so many traveling bards in our village square and every one has told at least one story of how Xena has changed so much because of the fair-haired girl that travels with her. You cannot imagine the pride that brings to me. Although I would never expect any less of you, since you have always brought a smile to my life as well. But, daughter, I worry about the dangers your warrior has put you into. I was not at all happy with the fact that you had brushed paths with a Bacchae or that you had once set sail on a cursed ship. But when the tales include such heroes as Ulysses and Hercules, then I must tell you that even I envy the life you have chosen. One young bard even told the story of how Xena saved a baby and helped a King called Gregor to find that the person he need fear most was the captain of his own guard. When the bard told us the child was later called, Gabriel, I had no doubt that you had some hand in whatever events led to that conclusion.
I wonder, my dear one, if any of these fine young men have captured your heart as young Lector has captured Lila's. Believe it or not this young man was a peddler that ended up spending the night in our barn when his wagon's wheels simply collapsed on the road just outside town. Your father agreed to having him work to earn his keep and well, before we knew it Lila was smitten, as was this fine young man. Oh yes, your father was livid but after you left to pursue your dreams I don't think he was ready to have Lila running off to follow this peddler. He offered Lector a place to live, a means of income and of course your sister's hand in marriage. The ceremony was beautiful and your presence was gravely missed.
Gabrielle issued a soft sigh and closed her eyes, imagining her little sister's wedding and the man who had stolen her heart. There was a time when she would have delighted in nothing more than giggling well into the night with her little sister as they discussed their deepest secrets and feelings about such things. Now even a question about this part of Lila's life brought back horrific memories and sent the elderly woman into seclusion refusing to speak at all for several hours. Gabrielle could not reach her sister's pain and that made her own agony even more self-consuming. For as much as the pain in her chest made her feel that her heart could actually shatter into small jagged pieces, no tears fell from the girl's eyes. She could almost see her own pain, reach out and touch it but for this short speck of time it seemed more numbing than damaging. The feeling brought panic close to the surface, but her anchor was still close and she clung to it desperately. Xena's hand gently patted her upper arm as if somehow this feeling was evident, as if she knew just when to add just a bit more support without asking a single question.
The girl's eyes opened slowly, hot from the unspent tears. She fought the urge to drop the letter and let all this pain just evaporate, if that could ever happen if anything could ever be right again. At the same time she fought the need to continue, to know more despite the pain it would bring, for she had learned through all the trials and tribulations she and Xena had survived that healing comes only after the worst of the hurt. Moving closer to her larger protective friend, she continued.
I am sure your own wedding was just as lovely. It was not until the soldiers brought news of Perdicus' death that we even knew you had been wed. I'm sure if things had not happened as they did, you would have come home to tell us yourself. Perdicus' family did not take the news well, although he died a hero, protecting you. They demanded vengeance, stating that were it not for you're leaving, he would have stayed here in Poteidia. His father and uncles proclaimed that you should be made to pay for what had happened. Lila and I were astonished when your father stood up in front of the entire town to defend you. Yes, little one, your father that quiet, stubborn man stood up very slowly and told all of them just what they could do with their ideas and how they've have to come through him first. Later when I asked how he could ever think he could stand up against the whole town, he just walked away. He didn't think I heard him mumble that it wouldn't be very hard with that 'damn warrior fighting right next to him.' I think given some more time, your father might just come around.
I know when you visited us that last time that your father was rather rude to Xena. He finds it easy to blame her because he can't blame himself nor can he bring himself to believe you would decide on your own to leave his home. The night you left, when you turned and waved to me, I knew you were setting out to do exactly the things you had always wanted to do. I knew if I stopped you then, you would only leave at some later time. I never told you that I prayed that night that your path would be guided to that warrior you worshipped so much. I knew that if she didn't accept you and protect you, that she would be sure you came back to me safely. A mother knows these things, dear. Although it did help to have my own little conversation with your brave friend before you left that morning.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open as she pulled away and stared at the warrior, Xena stared back wrinkling her brow in confusion. She pointed a finger at the warrior without letting go of her parchment. "You and I have some things to talk about, I think?"
Xena's brows shot up in a silent question as she pointed an index finger at her own chest then smiled at the girl's perfection of the 'raised eyebrow'. Gabrielle shook her finger again, warning the warrior not to take her threat lightly before returning to her former position to continue reading. If she felt the low chuckle that rumbled in the warrior's chest she did not comment.
Xena told me of your trip to the isle of Britannia and how you were violated by the demon that left you with its seed. She told me how you tried to save the child that she meant to destroy. She did not have to tell me it was your endless love for every living thing that drove you to make the choice that you made. Don't be angry with your good friend, little one, she knew that there were some things a mother must know, despite the hurt and it hurt her as much to tell the story as it did for me to hear. I've never seen a warrior weep, little one, but that morning we wept together. You must know that I was uneasy with the one you called Hope, from the beginning. I knew that after so many years away from home you would have changed and grown up a great deal. Xena was surprised to learn it was my fifteen-year-old who followed her all that time ago and I suspect by now she might have mentioned that displeasure to you. But, even though you are grown and so different from the little girl I raised, you could never have become the cold, unfeeling woman that walked into our home that day. Your father was too angry to notice, your sister too happy, but a mother knows her child's heart.
A quick sob escaped the girl before she realized it was there. The warrior anticipated the reaction and her surprise only came from the length of time it had taken to occur. She took a deep breath and pulled the girl closer. Just two years ago, in her mind and the mind of her friend, they had sat on this same bench exhausted after battling the demon Hope and her hideous prodigy. That night they both admitted they felt lost, but knew that the search they each needed to make would always include the other. Whatever this night brought, whatever these precious last words stolen from a moment in time meant to her young friend, she would stay near, be close as always.
Your warrior shared so much with me that morning and I wanted so to tell you how proud I am of you, how I admire your courage and your conviction to the things you believe. I knew it would embarrass you and your friend, not to mention enraging your father who had all but convinced himself that you would stay. But, it wasn't but a few months after you left that Lila and Lector were wed and now their little Sarah plays at his feet. Lector is such a good man and a wonderful father, just like your father was when you were such a little one. It has taken all this time but I think he is finally accepting the idea that you have chosen your own path. Certainly not what he would have chosen for you, but he knows you are happy. I think, in time, he will forgive both you and your warrior. I can only hope. But then came rumors that you had died a horrid death, that the emperor of Rome had ordered both you and Xena crucified.
The familiar shudder that ran through Gabrielle's body made Xena aware that either she had read something about their fateful meeting with Brutus or something had triggered that memory. Although they never spoke of that incident, never relived that time of their lives or to be more exact, their deaths. Countless nights the dreams of that horror pulled her from sleep, that sound of that mallet clanging against the spikes that held her to the patibulum she relived the agonizing pain as the cross was pulled upright and jarred into place. The warrior closed her eyes, swallowed the queasy feeling that rose in her stomach and allowed the same shudder to fall across her form. She was certain Gabrielle had those same nightmares, waking only a few seconds after she did with the same pale look of terror etched across her still young features, but giving her the aura of one much older. On those nights the wind always seemed colder and the skies starless, the warrior would build the fire higher to chase away the shadows then pull the still shaking girl closer and hum some long forgotten lullaby her mother used to drive the fears of frightened youngsters away. Xena was never quite sure whether the song came to mind in those dark moments so that she could comfort Gabrielle or so that the memory of her own mother would bring comfort to her own tormented soul. It made little difference for the soft melody brought peace to both survivors just as they found safety in each other's presence.
It was easy for Gabrielle to detect that same shudder in her large friend's usually sturdy frame. She closed her eyes against the memories her mother's words had stirred, but even in that forced darkness the vivid recollection of her deadly horror attacked her mind with a vengeance. There was no protection, no defense, no escape from the reliving of every sight, sound and feeling that had torn through her mind and body on that fateful day. The girl even feared so much as taking a breath, knowing the stench of that prison would fill her nostrils although she had left it all behind more than a quarter of a century ago. She wanted to cry, to let the pain go the relief that her parents had not been witness to such brutality but their fates collided with her own and the imagined vision of their own terrible deaths intermingled with her hideous memories and stifled what little breath she could manage. For a moment she existed in the black hole of those thoughts, alone in the frigid emptiness of her pain. A soft sound called her back, a sound that was no more than the breath of the warrior that had pulled her close, laying her cheek once again against the top of her head. The soft warm breath of that loyal friend hinted, almost imperceptibly, a quiet tune that Gabrielle seemed to hear more in her mind than with her ear. With whitening knuckles, she crumbled the parchment she had held against her chest in an uncharacteristic gesture of defeat.
"Oh, Xena " the girl sighed, her voice cracking with the penned emotion.
"I know." The warrior comforted in a hushed voice as she wrapped her other arm around the girl and rocked her gently in maternal comfort. "I know." She repeated, close to the top of the blonde head that rested heavily on her shoulder.
Gabrielle turned, looking up at her dark friend and smiled even as the tears she did not seem to notice ran over her cheeks. Xena wiped them away and returned the same weak smile. The girl grasped her hand and squeezed it gently then nodded in silent understanding before turning back to her mother's scroll.
Such horrible rumors those men brought to our village. I refused to believe any of them and for a good reason, because it was not a fortnight later that new stories had come to us about how both of you were well and that Xena was with child. You can imagine what your father had to say about that, little one. But he sits in the evening, in front of the fire, with Sarah on his lap and tells her of all the tales that the travelers bring to Potadeia of the great Warrior Princess and her very brave aunt that travels with her. I do think he adds a bit more to the stories than the bards tell and immediately I know from where your talent has come.
As you can see, my little warrior one, this letter has grown much longer than I had planned and there is little room left to put down all the thoughts I have and all the things I wish to tell you someday. It has been so very long since I have had any news of your whereabouts or your adventures. The fear inside my heart grows larger each day that someone will come with yet another tale of how both of you have gone to the other side in a senseless battle with the Olympians. Yes, even here in this little village we had heard of the prophecy that the child of Xena would bring about the fall of the gods, but never did I think it would come to this. So many times such rumors have come and gone and I refuse to believe that you are truly gone.
And isn't it just like your silly mother to wait until no one is sure if you are alive to find the time to sit and write all of this down. But know my dear one that you were never more than a thought away from my heart and it is the memory of your sweet smile and loving heart that have warmed my soul. I always knew you would grow to greatness, my sweet first-born child and I hope that someday, somehow you will see my words and know my heart. I will not believe you have left this life, for in my heart of heart I know your spirit will always survive.
Gabrielle drew a short breath and let out a sob, followed just as quickly by another quick breath. She swallowed once in a half-hearted attempt to hold back what could no longer be contained. The sobs and breaths came faster as the tears that had been damned burst forward, effectively blinding the girl. The last words on the script blurred into black squiggles that swam in her tear-filled vision. Her hands shook violently with the force of her emotion, adding to the imparity. It took little time for this quaking to overtake her entire body and without a fight, the girl gave in to the pain and loss that had haunted her since this episode began.
But this had to end.
Xena gently laid her calming hand over the shaking hand of her young friend, easily prying the parchment from her grip. Gabrielle let go without resistance, almost relieved as she turned into the warrior's embrace and allowed her heartache to escape. Her anguish poured forth as if it would not end. Although Xena's eyes were also filled with tears she offered the sympathy and the comfort the girl needed, allowing her grief to exhaust itself. Several minutes later the bard grew quiet, her sobs ebbing slowly to intermittent sighs and then finally only an occasional shaky breath or soft sniffle.
The warrior glanced at the heartbroken girl then at the parchment in her hand. She shook it a few times in an effort to straighten it with one hand while still holding her anguished friend with the other. She quickly scanned the body of the letter, noting with similar pain the places Gabrielle had found too difficult to relive moments in a life now past that still touched her gentle heart. Xena began to fold the piece but a shaky hand stilled her own and the head that still rested against her shoulder shook rapidly. She bent to look into the girl's eyes.
"More?" Xena asked quietly. At Gabrielle's nod she began to hand the scroll back to the girl but stopped suddenly when the girl again shook her head and pushed it back toward her. The warrior shifted her weight and again bent to see the bard's face. "Gabrielle, I " She began, confused by the girl's response and her actions being so contrary. But one look at the face, that now seemed so young, so lost and so hurt gave her the answer. Gabrielle pointed to a spot on the parchment with one shaky finger then pulled her hands back over her heart as if hugging some invisible form that could not give her the comfort she sought. Xena understood.
She skimmed the last few lines of the document once before reading aloud the last bits of mortality Hecuba had to give to her first born child.
I've written all I can for now, my sweet little one. I will keep this in your special box with all of the letters you have sent to me. I promise to write immediately when your next message arrives. Until then I will keep all of this in your secret place in the hopes that someday you will find it. Then you and I can sit and laugh over all of this, and knowing my Gabrielle, we will cry as well.
But I am not a foolish old woman and I realize I may not see you again in this life. For that I want you to know that I am as proud of you now in all of your accomplishments as I have been all of your life. I take pride in all I hear about you and your friend and all of the wonderful deeds you affect in the hopes of changing the world. I know the choice you made was the right choice and that you would never have been as happy here in this little village. Not everyone is meant for that life and right from the start I always knew you were meant for much much more. Never stop trying, never stop hoping, hold on tight to every dream you have and follow every star. When you were such a little girl, and so very afraid of the night, I would hold you near the window and show you the stars. I used to tell you that they were the windows of heaven and that angels peeked through to protect and to guide you. If this dreadful story that comes to us from so many travelers is true. If you and Xena have perished at the hands of the gods, then on my loneliest of nights and in my darkest hours I will look to the stars and know that you will be one of those angels. And if by some even more powerful force you are still alive and reading this and I have gone before you. Then know, my child, that I am watching and that you will always be as close to by heart as the first time I felt your sweet breath against my breast.
Remember, dear heart, no one will ever love you more than your mother.
Xena's voice cracked as she voiced the last of Hecuba's words, finding that comment hit much too close to her own heart. She too had lost that dear sweet part of her life. Struggling to hold back her own tears she let the hand that held the parchment drop to her lap as if it were not a part of her body. Gabrielle's sobs were quiet now, something the warrior felt more than heard. The sun had lasted just long enough for her to finish reading the last of the message and now long shadows crept across the dusty barn floor. The fading light that broke through the cracks in the old walls cast an odd striped pattern across them, weaving the patches of dark and light together in nature's perfection. Time moved slowly as the words both hurt and healed the warrior friends who had traveled across its confines to arrive at this moment. No words needed to be spoken, friendship forged in fate as well as faith allowed them to share the silence and find comfort in its embrace.
Gabrielle slid the parchment from the warrior's hand and pulled herself upright. She held it out in front of her for a few seconds, smiling a sad but satisfied smile. Laying it down across her lap she gently smoothed her hands over it then carefully folded it on the aged creased lines that crisscrossed its length and width. She brought the folded piece to her lips and kissed it gently, holding it there as a choked sob overtook her momentary calm. Her eyes closed tightly squeezing tears out and over her cheeks that she did little to catch or to stop. Xena watched, tortured by the girl's pain, pain she could not stop. Gabrielle opened her eyes and picked up the small box that had been next to her on the bench. She delicately placed the parchment back in the lid of the chest then closed it.
"Mother, Lila says " Eve's voice, although normal in tone, shattered the cautious silence. Warrior and bard turned immediately toward the girl who stood in the large doorway silhouetted by the setting sun. "Are you all right? Is someone hurt?" Her tone changed immediately, sensing the turmoil she stepped closer. Only the dim interior of the barn hid the red rimmed eyes of both her mother and the girl she thought of as sister.
Xena held up one hand, stopping her daughter in her tracks. She cleared her throat and stood, blocking the girl's view of Gabrielle. "It's okay, Eve," she grinned, her voice calm and steady. She glanced over her shoulder at the young warrior behind her. "Just a bit nostalgic, we'll be fine."
Eve raised an eyebrow, hereditarily perfect, and leaned to see around her mother. She did not believe the statement wholeheartedly, but enough to know there was no emergency. She nodded at the quick tilt of her mother's head back toward the door. "Uh huh, well Lila says if you want to eat " She left the statement unfinished and jerked her thumb toward the house then took a few step backward before turning to leave. The girl stopped at the door and turned back. "I'll tell her you'll be a few minutes." She smiled at her mother then disappeared around the side of the dark wooden doorway.
Xena turned back to find Gabrielle standing quietly behind. The girl held the box with both hands, in front of her and seemed to speak to it rather than to the warrior.
"You know that night I ran away?" Gabrielle sniffed once then continued although no one had answered. "It was just a spur of the moment decision . I saw you that day and and ." Slowly she raised her eyes until they met the warrior's. "I just thought if I didn't do it right then and there that I'd never leave." One lone tear made its way over her too wet cheek. She bent her head and raised her shoulder to it in an effort to wipe it dry.
Xena shook her head. She snatched a cloth that she had been using earlier and took the girl's chin in her hand. Maternally she wiped the dampness from Gabrielle's cheeks then in the fashion that is common to all mothers she was careful to swipe her nose as well. "And you still can't keep your face clean." She quipped. Gabrielle hiccupped then giggled in unison with the warrior's deeper laughter as she fell against the Xena's side. Xena smiled and squeezed her once. "Let's go get some of that chicken. I understand your sister has these seven herbs and spices ." Gabrielle laughed again and hugged the box closer as she walked with the warrior toward her home.
Virgil had driven the wagon away from the farm the next morning. Eve had gone along with the party to Athens hoping to find a group of Eli's followers that had been rumored to be in that area. Sarah and Lila seemed uncertain and fearful, but were encouraged by the new 'family' they had found. Xena and Gabrielle had decided it would be best not to accompany them. They stood on a slope watching as the wagon grew smaller and smaller in the distance.
Gabrielle pulled on the reins of the chestnut mare that stood at her side as Xena mounted the young Argo. She stared for a second more at the disappearing travelers then back at her friend as she turned to follow, leading the horse rather than riding. "So where to now?" She asked almost in rote fashion.
Xena shrugged. "I dunno. How about a vacation? Some sand, some surf, some sun?"
Gabrielle stopped and shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at the warrior. "You're kidding, right?" She crinkled her nose as she asked.
Xena stopped and turned in the saddle to glance down, she mugged a false frown. "Naw ." She shook her head. "You deserve something different and I know just the place." Her eyebrows wriggled up and down in a way that made the younger warrior a little apprehensive.
She bit her bottom lip and smiled back. "Xena? You know there's just enough room for me to get up there behind you "
The warrior was about point out the second horse when the memory of the first time she heard those words flooded back to her. She laughed silently and held out a hand to the girl below, easily lifting her onto the back of the saddle.
Gabrielle settled in quickly, wrapping her arms around the warrior for safety and support. She smiled to herself as she too recalled words spoken so long ago. The metal picture of her young skinny self proclaiming 'I'm not a kid!', was almost embarrassing. But she had changed, grown and learned the reality of the changing world. Right now being grown up was not such a great thing, but now she really wasn't a kid. No, she wasn't, not anymore, but for today for now, it was okay just to need someone else to be strong. For now it was good to know that some friendships do last for all time.
The chestnut mare followed behind, tethered to the golden palomino. A familiar satchel hung over its saddle, inside a small wooden box labeled in childish scrawl held the precious moments of a mother's love.
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