Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by the lucky folks at Universal and Renaissance Pictures, however they choose to divide it up. I have not intended to infringe on their rights, even though I know the courts would find that I have.
This fiction spoils several episodes including Destiny, The Quest, A Necessary Evil, One Against an Army, Sacrifice II, and all the rift stuff in between.
Violence / Sex Disclaimers:
There is some violence. I believe if you read it out of context, you'll find it rather mild. In context, it can be considered disturbing. This story does depict the main characters in a loving relationship, though there is no graphic sex
Yes, folks, take this hankie-alert seriously. Get an extra-large box of tissues ready. If you are sensitive to an intensly emotional ride you may choose to pass on this one.
I cherish any and all feedback. I'm particularly concerned
about voice and style in this one: did I really sustain this whole first person thing?
Does it need some serious chopping? Stream-of-consciousness writing can be deadly when
there isn't enough shaping of it, even when what you're mimicking is
stream-of-consciousness writing. I'm also trying to tighten my writing. Have I used too
many words? Do you have to labor through a meandering sentence when I could have better
stated it simply?
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Xena's Death
It's sort of strange to be writing about myself. When I roll the quill between my fingers, hunting for just the way to say something, I'm usually trying to find words about Xena, not about myself. But then of course, when I write about myself, that means writing about Xena. Maybe I'm not so far afield in this scroll.
I've had things go upside down before, but it's never been like this. And now that I've had half a moon to let things settle down into the part of me that tries to make sense of the world, I find I have a nagging compulsion to write it all out. Maybe it will help me come to terms with everything. I don't know.
I feel a need to secrete this scroll away. I don't want Xena to see me writing on it. I pull it out only when I know she's away for a bit, hunting or replenishing our stock of herbs. When she returns, just as a distraction, I make a big deal about the grandiose exploits of Xena: Warrior Princess. Sure I know it bugs Xena when I make a fuss over her deeds.
Deep down, though, I think she's proud of what she does. She carries herself like she's proud. Gods know it's justifiable. Just watch her walk into any room full of potential enemies. Often enough, she commands their allegiance without having to say anything. Or beat up on anybody.
* * * * *
It's three days later. Three busy days doing things that neither of us likes to do. Over half a village died from some mysterious illness. Xena thinks it was from the water so she didn't let me drink any. Maybe she was right because I didn't get sick.
What a mess. Xena did her best to mix up an herbal concoction. It did some good because we did save a few. One old man said he'd have rather died than drink that disgusting stuff, but Xena forced it down him and then he drove everyone else crazy brewing his special tea. I thought it was cute and I was sort of glad he took that job from me 'cause even the smell of it steeping in the room next door turned my stomach. But then Xena and I had to do nasty washing and had to burn the dead and all their clothes.
That hurt. Piling up bodies and lighting them on fire. I'll never forget the colors of that smoke. Black at first, but it only veiled a rainbow of hues, flashes of blue and green melting into a dull gray, finally giving way to wisps of white.
Xena didn't really let me help with that, of course. She kept me from touching any of the dead bodies or their clothes. In fact whenever one of the villagers died, she'd send me to the hills for herbs even though I knew we had enough to see us through, or she'd find something for me to do that was on the other side of the makeshift infirmary. Our hospital was once a community barn for storing winter grains and vegetables. The village's only means of surviving the harsh winter.
Just as well. I cramped up every time one of them died. If I hadn't felt so sorry for Xena having to handle it, I'd have actually thanked her for getting me out of there, even if for just a short errand.
Now we're camped a good distance from that village. Xena didn't say anything but I knew she wanted to get away from there as fast we could. We rode hard most of the morning before she let me walk alongside. I needed to walk. Walking gives me a rhythm I can count on. Makes me remember that all I need do is take one step and I'm putting distance between me and that death-laden village.
Well, I'm getting off the point here. I'd earmarked this scroll for another purpose. And if I don't get interrupted again I might get to it. So let me start at the beginning.
We were caught off-guard by a clan of really weird people. When I got close to them, I knew Xena must have smelled them from our campsite that morning. They must have believed bathing washed away their souls. But they'd taken a group of children captive and we were making sure we got them away from those people.
I guess the kids got away. I never bothered to find out because my whole world stopped when that log hit Xena. I thought it was strange that she'd asked me to take her up some mountain, but I did it. I don't remember much of the journey. I vaguely recall bargaining a slimy merchant down to rock bottom so that we'd have enough dinars to buy heavy cloaks. I used every last dinar we had, even the ones that Xena thought I didn't know about, sewn into a fold on Argo's saddle. But Xena was delirious most of the time and I was scared that she'd die just from the cold alone, so I took them and used them to buy those furs.
Nicklio. I don't much like him, though what I know now has softened my anger a little. Here he was, grand healer, the man Xena insisted she be taken to, and all he did was let her die. He didn't even help her! And after she was gone, he practically threw me on a pallet and sewed up my leg. The knife wound hadn't even hurt before that, not even the whole way up the mountain. But now it throbbed and I ached everywhere else.
I think it was only on the strength of Xena's plea that I was able to begin the journey to Amphipolis. Just when we started to climb Mt. Nestos, when I had her bundled up in those furs, she came around for a moment. It was as if she was fighting for enough breath to ask one favor of me.
Of course, Xena. Anything. Name it.
Take me home. After it's over, take me to Amphipolis.
And then she was gone again. Her eyes closed and she moaned every once in awhile, but that was the last I'd heard from her.
And it was enough.
Enough even to get me through that last rush at Nicklio's when he hauled out the casket. She knew! She knew she would die there. She must have had the casket made at the same time as her breast plate. It had identical tooling on it, the same pattern. She must have had it sent to Nicklio knowing he'd keep it for her until she needed it.
I couldn't watch him put her in it.
I just grabbed Argo's reins and squeezed my fist so hard around the leather, my whole hand went numb. Numb just like the rest of me as we slid down Mt. Nestos.
Telling Iolaus was hard. But I knew it would soon get worse because I was heading toward a meeting with her family in Amphipolis.
I'd be bringing her home dead.
* * * * *
Now it's sometime in the middle of the night. I couldn't sleep, this story gnawing on me and all. Xena's sleeping. At least I hope so. I keep checking, looking at her every few breaths.
I had just gotten to the part when everything changed again. I do love the Amazons but I can't believe they ever thought that I should run them. Asking Xena to be in charge I could understand. But it makes me think they don't have all their parts working right if they think I could do it. I was willing to give it a try. It seemed the best choice. The Amazons are a lot more like who I'd become than my family would ever be. So I agreed to take the mask and give Xena an Amazon funeral.
Then Autolycus showed up. I really thought he was crazy but mostly I was mad at him. Mad at him for not respecting Xena. Mad at him for not respecting me.
Thank the gods Autolycus was there.
I've tried many times to conjure a way to describe what happened next. I hardly think I'll do it justice. All those crossroads when I thought my life had changed because of some path I'd chosen, became utterly inconsequential. When your life really changes, when you reach out and grab the hand that fate holds out to you and bring it to your chest so fate can feel your beating heart, you suddenly transcend all the rigors of life.
In an instant, I knew what my life could be.
And in that same instant, I had every faith that it would become that way. Even though we almost didn't get the chance, because when Xena weakened and had to retreat from Autolycus' body I wasn't sure we could get her back, even if we did get the ambrosia.
And then came that extraordinary moment when Xena and I fused. I gave in to her request, gave her free control of my body, total access to everything that I was.
For one extended moment, I knew what it was like to be Xena
There is a remarkable power in that woman and equally remarkable strength to control it. I got a glimpse of how she uses her senses. My fingertips felt every twist of the rope strands. I could hear Valesca shifting her weight and I adjusted to her movements before she could follow through on them. I didn't need to look to see how far I'd climbed because I could smell the density of smoke in the air and I knew exactly how far above the fire pit I was. And I kept my attention riveted on Valesca, puncturing the space between us with my eyes and Xena's glare.
Still, for all the wonder of having her inside me, what I most wanted was to have her back and whole again.
I parted her lips gently, fighting the temptation to pull away from their chilled and dry lifelessness. I placed the ambrosia in her mouth. I waited.
Had I just given Xena her life back?
When I saw those blue eyes again, I let go of everything right then and there. I fell apart completely in front of all of them--Autolycus and the Amazons. We got her out of that casket, but Xena was too weak to move much so we both sat on the floor and held on to each other. I don't remember Autolycus or Ephiny leaving, but I'm pretty sure they left us alone right away.
Sitting there on the floor with Xena, I believed that I'd never be able to let go of her. And from the way she squeezed back I think she had the same feeling. Eventually, I got my wits back and asked her how she was. She laughed and said she felt great but I could tell that she was pretty tired. I helped her up, and we made our way outside.
There was a spring nearby. Xena insisted we stop. I could hear the Amazons camped just down the hill, but Xena said her skin felt clammy and she wanted to wash before we went down there. I helped her off with her clothes because the leathers were pretty stiff after so many days without moving. She wanted me to rip off the bottom of her shift so she could scrub herself with it, but I sprinted down to the camp and retrieved our saddlebags so we could use our regular soap and that funny thing Xena picked up on the southern shores of the Crete. She called it a sponge, which I think is a silly name, but I sure do like to use it.
The spring was cold but Xena being Xena and all, she stood right in the middle of it, the chilly water running up over her ankles. I lathered up the sponge and started to hand it to her but she got this look on her face. It was like she acknowledged that I had given everything over to her, my body, my heart, my soul, and she wanted to find a way to show me she had done the same. So I held the sponge, running it in long strokes down her back and legs, and in circles around her breasts. It wasn't so much a sexual experience as a sensuous one. The sponge touched her body. I touched her soul. And she stood there naked in a cold mountain spring, holding her soul open for me.
* * * * *
That night, everyone knew to leave us alone. I don't doubt that Ephiny orchestrated it all. She's so good with people, knowing when to support someone by being there and when it's best to give them space. I gave the mask to Ephiny knowing that she could be their queen. She has the gifts of benevolence and a keen perception.
We slept all cuddled up, Xena and me. And we have every night since then. Except for now when I'm writing this and Xena's sleeping. I'm pretty sure that even in slumber she can tell I'm not there. She hasn't woken up but she's restless. Well, I'm almost done. Then I'll lie beside her and she'll turn toward me, wrapping me in her long limbs.
We traveled with the Amazons back to their village. I convinced Xena that she needed to rest for awhile. Since she agreed to the plan without a lot of fuss, I knew she felt really lousy, even though she never complained.
It wasn't too hard to keep her lounging around most of the next few days. All I had to do was sit down and she was right there with me. Her need to be at my side outweighed her drive to power through the recuperation by taking out all her frustrations physically. And she even had a village of willing Amazons wanting to exercise her skills.
We spent most of those first few days just talking. She told me about M'Lila and Nicklio. And about Caesar. Xena doesn't tell stories very often and she doesn't tell them quickly. She gets to some significant moment and then she stops for awhile. It's like reading a scroll a little at a time, savoring it by rolling it up and stashing it away for another day. It draws out the suspense because you have time to think about everything a lot. If I ever told a story using that technique in a tavern, I'd be hung from the ceiling by my own skirt. But it seemed just right for this one. Xena's story needed time for each scene to congeal, to lock into place and become bedrock for the next link to build on.
On the fifth day, we had a ceremony where I gave the queen's mask to Ephiny so I had no legal ties keeping me there. And then a whole new horrible scenario began when Valesca showed up with more ambrosia. I don't think I'd ever been that scared before. Or that angry. I couldn't believe Xena dredged up Callisto. And I've never been as horrified as when that blonde witch forced me to talk to her, even if Xena was convinced we needed her to defeat Valesca. I'm just really glad they both ended up in the lava river. That'll be the end of that, thank the gods.
We headed back to the Amazon village to get Argo and our stuff. We were ready to move on by then. Xena had recovered physically and we both just wanted time away from everything. Our last night there, Ephiny came to our hut and thanked us. She told us how amazing it was to have witnessed Xena's return and that she knew nothing in her life would ever match that experience's intensity. She was much relieved to know she wouldn't have to deal with Valesca anymore.
I thanked Ephiny profusely and I told her what the Amazons meant to me as best I could. When we parted, we all knew that I would return whenever I could, well Xena and I would, because there was never a question about whether or not she'd be with me. And at least Xena and I knew that I'd never take the mask from Ephiny unless it couldn't be helped.
* * * * *
I guess I didn't have the stamina to finish this in the middle of that night. Besides, Xena looked like she was going to wake up so I hid this scroll in the bottom of my bag and got back in the bedroll.
It's two days later and we've sprung for a room at an inn because it's raining. Xena is with Argo in the stable and I think she'll be there for awhile. She missed her, too, while she was gone.
It's nice and warm in our room and there's promise of a hot bath tonight. I would have never guessed that the weekly childhood ritual of bath then bed would be something I truly missed. I always went first, and the water was too hot. Mother sat on a stool by the huge tub and washed my hair. I never took the time to enjoy that because I dreaded the combing out I was about to get from Father while Lila had her bath. Lila bathed second because she was younger and had sensitive skin. She couldn't stand the heat. I think it's because she yelled a lot and so she got her way more often than I did. After that, we'd both be put to bed and then mother would take her bath and finally, when the water was lukewarm at best, Father would get in there. He'd always sing while he washed and I fell asleep those nights smelling like a hint of herbs and flower petals, lulled by Father's deep baritone.
Now I've gone off on a tangent again. I've got to remember to stick to my plan or I'll run out of parchment before my tale is finished.
When we left the Amazons, we didn't have a particular place we were heading toward; we just took whatever trail suited our fancy. Xena started walking more and when she needed to ride, I'd climb up in the saddle behind her and clasp my arms around her. We both liked that.
That first afternoon, after we'd ridden for a time, I suggested we walk again. She reached for my hand to help me down but once my feet hit the dust, she didn't let go. She hopped off Argo, took the reins in her other hand and started on down the trail. It seemed so perfectly natural to travel linked like that. It was, after all, the way we felt. Holding hands just fit right.
And then that night, the intimacy seemed like one more tiny step, not the huge leap I'd always thought it would be. And so I wasn't scared and I wasn't thinking too much. I just gave into the feelings and soared right along with her. She was patient with me until she realized I didn't need any coddling. I think my ardent passion surprised her, but she never said she minded.
And so now we're here in this village on a gray, rainy day and I'm thinking about our first hot bath together and our first night together on a soft pallet. What a turn my life has taken. Within the space of a month, Xena dies, comes back for me, releases Callisto, saves us and the Amazons, rids the world of Callisto and Valesca for good, and professes her love for me.
Not that I didn't know by then that she felt that way, but hearing her say it this morning was something else entirely. I'd been afraid to say it first; I didn't really know how she'd feel about it, whether it would suffocate her or drive her away. Silly me. I'm learning to trust my instincts. They do seem to be right where Xena is concerned.
When I'd stopped crying this morning and pulled back from her very wonderful hug and let myself finally say what I'd known for so long, It felt...
It felt like I feel now. It's not something I can describe. In fact, I think it's something I shouldn't even try to, for whatever I write, it can never begin to approach the way I feel inside. The way we feel.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Tartarus
I've finally been able to shoo Xena away, not that I've really wanted to. But I'm feeling so much better and I know she should get out for a while. And once again, I have that need to write about everything in a personal way. Like a year ago when Xena died. Someday I suppose I'll write a story about all that's happened since then, but not yet. For now, I need to do some sifting. See what's really there. What's really left inside of me.
And I know that I wouldn't be able to do this if we hadn't started to mend our friendship. If I didn't believe that things were better, I'd still be silent. I haven't been able write for a long time. Not since Britannia.
Gods, I made a mess of things again.
I let my daughter live only to have her murder Xena's son.
That did it. That drove me to pre-meditated murder. I murdered my daughter. I only wish I had done it sooner.
I'll never be able to change that.
So my only choice is to go on. Shut out the horrible memories. Refuse to grant them passage to my daily thoughts. Forget them. Make the best of everything.
What an awful thing to write about Xena and me. Make the best of it.
I may be feeling better but I'm not over it yet. That poison did more than almost kill me. It gave me hideous dreams, replays of events that shattered me, magnifying every wrong move I'd made. The poison latched on, dragged me into the hut where Solon had hidden, pried open my eyes and made me endure seeing Hope murder Solon over and over, with bared gleaming teeth and a hideous laugh. And since I hadn't actually witnessed it, the dream-Hope invented new ways to kill Solon with every new nightmare, each more gruesome than the last, more colorful, more drawn out, more sickening.
Now that the poison is leeching from my body, I can recall the nightmares and only blame the poison for inciting them. I know they are made of the stuff that lies buried in me.
I can't believe what's there. Inside of me.
How will I ever get rid of it?
* * * * *
One more day and I really feel better now. In every way. Being sick makes you depressed, brings out lingering dark thoughts to twist around your vision, clouding it.
Today is so different.
Last night, Hippocrates said I was well enough to leave the temple. I'd been under his care day and night since we got to Thessaly. Of course, I'd been under Xena's eye since the arrow pierced my shoulder. The only time she'd been more than a few feet away from me since I was wounded was to scout. Except when she was thwarting the entire Persian army single-handedly, but even then she kept a close watch on me.
Yesterday I got her to go outside for a little while. She didn't stay away long. She knew how I was feeling. Gave me a little space to work on it but then came back and made sure I was okay.
Maybe she convinced Hippocrates to let me leave the temple. I don't know, but it sure did help. Neither of us had pleasant memories of the place since I'd come so close to dying there during the Thessalonian-Mitoan war. Even though, this time, I was well past danger when we arrived and no war waged just beyond the temple walls. It was hard to be there.
Xena and I talked a lot last night. We lay in bed in a small but comfortable room, decorated with bright paintings by the innkeeper's son. They weren't great paintings, but they were honest and cheery and full of life. It helped to have them around us, and the fresh bread and honey for breakfast was nice, too.
I asked her what she thought her role in life was. At the armory, she'd said she was through atoning for her past and that her responsibility now was me. I think it shocked her that I could remember what she'd said word-for-word, but when someone says that kind of thing to you, it burns into your soul so you can never forget it.
She said that it didn't mean she was going to stop helping people. I was relieved to hear that. I'd been scared that she'd say she was giving up life on the road and going somewhere away from everything, just to keep me safe. I told her I'd been worried about that. Told her that I never wanted to do anything else, no matter what sort of danger we might face. There's danger everywhere. You might as well do what you're meant to do. You can never really be safe. Besides, I told her, snuggled up against her so my breath warmed her neck, I could prick myself sewing up the hem of our curtains and die from the infection. Why not slam some heads around and really make a difference.
She laughed. Oh, how I love to hear her do that, especially when my ear is pressed to her chest and I can feel it. It's a glorious, tingling vibration to feel Xena laugh. It's like putting your fingertip on a purity of spirit that captures the whole knotty multiplicity of life.
She told me I wouldn't be dying from any pin prick, at least not as long as she was around. Then she laughed again and reached down to touch my lips. She said she knew she'd find a big grin there. I asked her how she knew, already knowing the answer myself, of course.
I have many skills. It'll be your epitaph, I told her. Here lies Xena. She had many skills.
We both laughed until the boarder in the room next door pounded on the walls. Xena wanted to explain to him in person that he shouldn't be pounding on any walls when the Warrior Princess is next door, but I distracted her and kept her from frightening that poor man out of his socks.
* * * * *
Xena took me for a walk today. I could tell she thought I was pretty much recovered because the walk lasted most of the day. We found a little waterfall and a series of deep, rounded pools. We had stick races over the waterfall. Xena always won.
Toward late afternoon, just before we were going to head back to the inn, I stood by one of the pools looking at its smooth, glass-like surface. It reflected the sky. A few puffs of white scattered over the gray-blue.
And then I looked more closely and saw my reflection in a shadow.
I knelt down and bent over the water, hoping what I was seeing was a result of some unusual refraction of light, perhaps a jagged stone just under the surface. But no, that was my face.
It shouldn't have surprised me, thinking of all that had happened. I looked like a girl when I left Poteidaia--no I was a girl then. Now I had grown up. My life's tribulations had left their emblems in the lines on my face.
Xena came and I flicked my finger through the water to break up the image.
I'm fine, really. Just having a look around, you know me.
As we walked back, hand-in-hand, I studied Xena's profile. Still the same. Hardness just sluices off of her. Of course, I knew her well enough to know that the tale was different on the inside. Everything was there. Memories of everything that had ever happened to her were ready to be called up in exacting, vivid detail.
I wear my memories both inside and out.
Actions define a person. Words are a part of your character, sure, but I respond to the action. I know a tavern full of listeners gets pulled along by the action. That's why I save up the moral for just a tiny sentence at the end of a story, and use it as a signal that the tale is finished rather than to teach anything. They've already been shown what it means to be fair and honest and unselfish and altruistic. Xena lives that life. When I describe it, it has much more meaning than if I tried to tell them what to do.
That's part of what draws me to Xena. Action. I use words, dull when bantered about without a clever hand. I can't imagine what kind of a storyteller I'd be if I hadn't hooked up with Xena. Her actions taught me everything I do well now as a reciter of tales. And as a person.
When I sit back and record each adventure I know I'm going to come to a point where the only thing I can think to say is wow. Wow. How did Xena know that by saving the pig, the crops would be more plentiful, or that by trusting a brat, a kind soul would emerge?
Every time. There's always something about what she does that slams into me with breath-stealing force when I look back at her actions. It hits me in a way that's outside of everyday life, out of the passage of time, out of the ordinary realm of humanity. Though Socrates may be regarded by many as the wisest man alive, it's only because most of the Athenians who've heard him speak haven't yet run across Xena. That is, the Xena that I know.
And so knowing that Xena defines herself by what she does, I look back on the past few days and know in my heart that she's forgiven me. Even though up in that loft, just before the Persian army broke in, she told me she'd loved me--and that had been the first time she'd said it on her own initiative, not just responding to my declaration--I'd already known how deeply she'd believed it.
She was ready to sacrifice all of Athens just to save me.
Never before has she put me first in that way. There've been little decisions here and there that made it look like she put me ahead of all other concerns, but usually she already had a plan to save the world, too.
No, this was the first time she'd ripped The Greater Good from its pedestal and put me up there in its place.
At least I had enough strength to talk her out of it. Three times.
And she found a way, once again, to preserve us both. Me and the Greater Good. Xena's dual watch towers.
After the battle with the Persians, she rested for a few hours beside me, holding my hand in hers against her cheek as she slept. When she rose, she built a travois and brought me here to Thessaly. I was still pretty out of it when we got here. I heard Xena arguing with Hippocrates about whether or not to give me more of the antidote. Hippocrates said more would help. Xena wasn't so sure. She thinks that sometimes the antidote is as bad as the poison, and she didn't want to risk giving me too much.
Later that night, I was groggy and sweaty and uncomfortable. My heart grieved from the hideous dreams the poison manifested in me. I felt Xena run a damp rag over my brow and knew she was asking me something. I wasn't sure what it was but then I felt the cold edge of a jug at my lips and I swallowed. It was bitter and I coughed it up. She gave me more and then offered clear, clean water to wash it down.
She'd decided to try just a bit more of the antidote. She'd wanted to quell my fever, quiet the hallucinations. I guess I mumbled a lot as I tossed and turned. With her hearing, she must have figured out what I was saying, what I was dreaming.
She curled up with me on the pallet and I realized she'd been there all along. It's funny how you don't remember how something feels until you get to that place again and your muscles just know. That's how it felt when she wrapped her body around mine and coaxed me back to sleep.
Her actions gave me the gift of belief. Belief in us. For four days, all I had to do was open my eyes and she was right there. I used her strength to climb out of that pit. I let her reach right inside and wrap tendrils around my heart, connections so strong no poison could pass through her barrier to harm me.
She brought me back to life as she'd done once before in Thessaly, as we'd done together for her with the ambrosia the year before.
She healed me.
And in doing so she healed us. Of that I have no doubt.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Our Homestead
I thought I'd experienced long, arduous recoveries before but they've never been anything like this. She still won't tell me how she managed to get me back. She doesn't want to talk about it.
I can only begin to imagine how Xena must have felt when I took Hope with me over the edge and plunged to my death.
I know how I felt when I saw Xena die that horrible, frigid night on Mt. Nestos. And that was before we let ourselves fuse into one being, one soul.
I know how much it scared her to see me trying to fight off the poison in the armory, trying to keep Hades at bay. So I think I know how she felt to hear me call to her as I plunged to my death.
She's left me with a lot of holes. I'm not sure how much time has passed, how long we've been here in this, our home up in the hills. We're not far from Thessaly, a day's ride if need be. That much she's told me.
It's a small, cozy, one-room cabin that Xena built herself. We have a large pallet and a clever set of steps up one wall that serves as our storage space. We have no need to secrete anything away behind closet doors, we receive no visitors.
No one knows we're here.
I'm not sure how long I was dead. She hasn't told me all of the events between that last look I had of her--a horrified, unbelieving face--and the time when I could sit up and notice with clarity the passage of time.
I don't know how long it took me to recover enough to have lucid moments. It took awhile. And I still have blank spots every now and then, though Xena tells me they'll go away soon. Sometimes I find myself sitting at the round table Xena carved from a giant, gnarled tree stump, when the last place I remember being is in bed or out in our tiny garden or by Xena's side as she curried Argo.
I don't like to think I can blank out like that. And it's really disconcerting to imagine how much of my memory is gone, lost to the winds.
* * * * *
We talked more. I pressed her to tell me some of what happened. Even though nothing in her face betrays the agony, I know it's inside her. It needs to be purged. I want to do something useful. She's led both our lives lately.
She only spoke of more recent times. That it was hard for her when I began to have lucid moments. The transition in and out of them was so agonizing. Hard for me when I had clarity because I realized where I'd been. In some blurry existence, hovering in darkness, in a half-alive illusion. A chimera.
And it was hard for Xena when I collapsed back into my dream-world. A spark of hope illuminated her soul, only to have it extinguished by the monster that had hold of me. It was a demon she couldn't fight with anything but patience. Her most demanding battle.
She couldn't hide from me how painful it was to talk about it. She didn't even try. It was as if she'd spent so many weeks or months doing nothing but trying, she'd grown weary of struggle.
Sad, too, because I was just getting back the comfort of talking. As I needed her to help me up that one last rung, she let go.
So now what am I to do? All I can do is close my eyes and let loose an internalized howl. Xena, how can I help you when I can't concentrate for more than a few minutes? This scroll has been written in stops and starts, little spurts of sanity, half a sentence here, a fragment in the margin. Come back to it, scan what I've scrawled, collect those fading thoughts and finish the point.
I'm not capable yet of helping you and, damn me, I know it's when you need me most.
* * * * *
I blacked out and hit my head. Xena was there, but two steps too far away to catch me. We had been out with Argo, on a short stroll through a nearby stand of young trees. Xena said there'd been a fire there a few years back, probably from an errant bolt of lightning. All those saplings got their start together and were racing for the canopy to see who'd win out in the end. They'd grow thick after they'd grown tall, surging up to claim the light.
She brought me out there because I begged her to. We'd sat under the shade of our porch one morning and she'd tried to describe the color of the saplings' leaves. She kept referring to them as baby green. I couldn't picture it.
Reluctantly, she gave into my whim. I wanted to see what color baby green was, but mostly I wanted to go out there. Away from our cabin, our garden, our clearing. I wanted to feel again the newness of nature, the forces that followed a unbroken chain of renewal and growth after every fall.
I did everything she asked. Stop for rests and never complain. And I don't know what happened. I didn't get any warning. I just blacked out and collapsed on the rocks I'd been resting against.
I scared Xena.
She's back in hover mode. I can't do anything without Xena swooping in to help me.
No, Xena. We've got it turned around again.
* * * * *
We had a cold spell and two long days of snow. Xena stayed in with me. Nine days.
I tried in every way I knew how. I tried not to be in her way, not to be a burden to her. I tried to give her room to move.
It's a small cabin.
On day six, everything fell apart. I had forgotten I'd left my bag on the floor. She was at the table so I took the bed. I tried to write, but all I could do was stare at empty parchment. I threw everything over the side of the bed and buried my head in the pillows.
She tripped. It's not like she got hurt or anything. But she flew one way and my bag another, and before I could see what landed where, she was up and screaming. Raging mad about me not taking care of anything, making her do everything, and not even trying to help.
I had no reply.
Because it was just the way I felt.
It wouldn't have made a difference anyway. She threw a few more barbs at me and all of our clothing.
Then she left. She stormed out of the cabin into snow drifts so high I couldn't have followed her even if I'd been perfectly healthy.
I regretted everything. I regretted being selfish, desiring Xena's affection so much that I made her fall in love with me. I regretted every step I took in the chain of events leading up to our stay at the cabin.
A life in exile.
A life in fear.
I understood her a little better. She was so scared of losing me that she couldn't stand my company. Every minute that we spent together raised the stakes for that eventuality. I would die again.
She'd long since given up trusting death. Callisto returned from it too many times to count. I'd returned. So had she.
But not trusting death makes the inevitability even more frightening. Was it that she couldn't stand the thought of losing me again or that she couldn't endure another cycle? I die, she brings me back, I suffer regaining my stamina, I die again.
It paralyzed me. I couldn't go out after her. I knew her pride might keep her away forever. And it was cold enough to kill someone out there in the swirling wind. Cold enough to kill even Xena.
I curled up by the fire. I cried. The next time I had a coherent thought, the fire had almost burned itself out. Still no Xena.
I couldn't see a purpose for the fire. Pumping its pseudo-warmth into a cold room, devoid of hope and trust. I let it be.
I began to shake. I don't know if it was from the cold or if my body had started to shut down for other reasons. It didn't matter. I stopped wondering why. I stopped asking questions.
It's a strange feeling when your body moves and you have no control over it. My mind detached completely, bolting away from its responsibilities. My vision flattened until every object in the room looked like a painting.
I shook more.
Finally, I stopped thinking entirely and just let time pass, listening to my teeth chatter. I could hear it both inside my head and out, as if it were someone else's teeth clicking together.
Later, I smelled wool. I guessed that it was from a blanket but I couldn't tell. I wasn't getting any signals from the rest of my body.
Then I could tell that my legs and arms had straightened. When I sat down by the fire, I scrunched into a tight ball, rocking a bit. Now I was lying in bed.
I looked for her. She sat leaning back in a chair, booted feet up against the wall, staring out the window into a maze of whiteness. Snow.
She sensed I was looking at her. She apologized for yelling, for leaving. She didn't mean anything she'd said. I was brave and a fighter and she could only hope to have half of my will to live.
I wanted to explain. To tell her it had been my fault. But I'd forgotten how to form words. My hand moved for me. It sent my fingers out to touch her. To bring her to me.
I slept on and off for the next two days. Every time I awoke, Xena was beside me. She must have gotten up while I was asleep, but I never felt her leave. I never saw her rushing back to me, she was already there.
The sun came out on day ten. The first hint of warmth in the air brightened both of our countenances. She sat me by a roaring fire, wrapped in both blankets, and fed me broth, smiling and prattling on about nothing very important.
Thank you, I said.
She dropped the bowl, sending it shattering against the hearth, and pulled me into her lap. She molded herself around me.
She told me that she'd missed my voice. She said that if I could talk about it, I would feel better. She didn't demand it from me. She asked me to talk.
I worked my hand out of the blanket and threaded it under a strong arm she held around me. I closed my fingers around her smooth skin and looked at her.
Only if you talk, too.
We talked until the snow melted. Not continuously. A spell and then a break. We were both close to the edge but our focus had turned toward each other and we spent what little energy we had bolstering our confidence.
Many days passed, divided by long, dreamless nights. We took our time, peeling back one layer after another until we found ourselves again.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Family
Xena found out about it when we were far to the south, near Athens, along the coast. I was trying to barter a merchant down to a price that Xena would agree to. It was the fifth leather booth we'd visited. I was beginning to think she just didn't want to replace her laces, that she'd come to regard all those knots up and down her boots as practical.
She'd storm out, infuriated by the asking price. I'd follow and remind her that she really did need new laces, that she complained every morning about how long it took to get her boots on, and that if a raider were on his way in, she'd be busy getting dressed rather than ready to defend us.
Another day, another market, another leather merchant. But this one had just arrived. He'd traveled from the north, he said. She hardly listened to his babble as she selected a few candidates. Strong, supple, and the perfect color match, I noticed.
He'd found one nice town and planned to stay there for while. Things were just getting too dangerous up there. Made friends, made a living. But even a town as big as Amphipolis couldn't keep the raiders out.
Xena dropped the laces. What happened?
You've found something you like, have you? And now you're ready for chit-chat?
She slammed him up against his sturdy tanning table.
She scared him as much as he'd scared her. So I explained to him that her family lived in Amphipolis while I pried Xena's fingers from his collar.
He told her. It took awhile to get the whole story, but she waited patiently, asking for more detail, more precision. First she wanted to know what the raiding party looked like. What warlord had sent them. It wasn't a surprise, just one of the local scum that scoured the landscape looking for a handout or a man to join them.
Next she wanted to know what damage had been caused. It didn't seem like much, she said. Why did that drive you away? There's little chance of better here.
Xena, ever practical.
Because, he said, I lost a good friend. His wife, too.
Oh, I answered for us both. I'm very sorry to hear that. It's understandable, then. Sometimes the memories haunt you.
He looked at me. I saw kindness and sadness in his eyes. I don't know why I asked, really, it just seemed the nice thing to do.
Tell me about him.
He was rather quiet. A gentle man. A good listener. His wife had borne him two little twins. The babies had a hard time at first, being so small. But Toris never left their side... what? Did I say something wrong?
Xena's eyes glazed over.
She's his sister, I said softly, moving to support her.
He never mentioned a sister.
His mother, Cyrene, she runs the inn?
I could see him staring at Xena's eyes. Yes, I said to myself, they are the same color aren't they. There's no mistaking a child of Cyrene.
Xena insisted we travel by boat. It would save us many days' journey. Xena found someone who would be leaving in three days' time. We set off with him the next morning. He spent the voyage looking out for Xena, scampering away whenever she approached him.
By the next evening, we docked in Eion. I thought we'd stay there and head up to Amphipolis in the morning. Xena pressed on. She said the moon would give her enough light.
Xena had within her the ability to push everyone she encountered. Make them move faster than they ever thought they could. To wrest every drop of blood from them if need be. I do appreciate it. She brought out the best in me in more ways than I can begin to list. But sometimes, she pushed too far. I had to gauge her mood if it was me she pushed, decide whether I could get her to slow down or if mentioning it to her would drive her harder. Usually, it was other people. She expected of them more than they expected of themselves. Often it taught them a thing or two about themselves.
Sometimes she just kept demanding more until there was nothing left to give and it turned out badly.
But not with Argo. She trusted her. Argo could read Xena's moods and make her own decisions, it seemed.
Argo picked our way home, stepping carefully when the path was covered by a canopy of leaves and only a dull glow from the moon penetrated to the trail, and trotting when the foliage opened up.
I tried to talk her into waiting until the morning. Cyrene needed her sleep. Running an inn meant you rose before dawn and bedded down after the inn closed and the night's chores were finished.
Xena couldn't wait.
Cyrene didn't show her surprise. Said hello to me, told Xena she looked exactly the same as the day she'd last seen her. How long ago?
Xena asked her why she hadn't sent a message.
Cyrene didn't say anything right away, but set a pot on the fire to heat water for tea. We watched in silence as Cyrene pinched herbs into three mugs and brought out the leftover heels from bread served with dinner the night before, smothered in honey that tasted of blackberries.
As the tea steeped, she answered Xena.
I get a lot of stories here. Travelers come to the inn. So close to the sea we get them from all over. I know some of what you've been doing, Xena. People speak of you in hushed voices. Not because they fear you. Not anymore. They are in awe of you, Xena. They've seen you defeat warlords, rebuild their homes, care for their sick children.
You know I would have come home right away.
Yes, of course. And that's why I didn't send word. You needn't worry about me when you do so much good in the world.
I didn't feel it was my place to interrupt. Xena needed to hear Cyrene say that, and she needed to come up with her own answer to it.
Mother, there's nothing about the world that's more important than family.
Cyrene hugged her. And when she finished, I hugged her, too. I know what Xena means when she uses the word family. There is nothing more important than that. To her and to me.
What neither of us had stopped to consider was that since Toris and his young wife were killed, Cyrene ran the inn and took care of the twins. They'd seen just eighteen moons and were getting to the age that required one eye on them constantly. Mobility gave them a new-found freedom to explore everything.
We'd come home just in time.
It was a bittersweet moment when Cyrene introduced us to the twins. Selene, first born, was named after Leda's sister. I'd always liked that name and not just because as the Moon Goddess she was often spoken of as a spirit of Artemis, patron of the Amazons. Selene is a name for wild things, and as a child, I'd always wanted to be wild. I just never had the courage. Selene had plenty to spare.
But the boy. The boy. He took after Toris as much as Cyrene said Selene looked like Leda. He had the sparkling blue eyes I knew well, and a shaggy growth of jet-black hair. Xena picked him up and tossed him in the air, laughing as loudly as he squealed.
His name is Lyceus.
Cyrene said it softly.
Xena snatched him in mid-flight. She brought the boy to eye-level and gave him a long, hard stare that he returned in kind. Then she clasped him to her in a hug so tight I worried she might hurt him.
Xena was on such a thin edge with her emotions. She needed to keep them deeply buried. Hearing that Toris had named his child after their brother brought the wall up. I was afraid that she'd never let her playful side out again, afraid of losing her to what had once almost consumed me.
I want so to help her understand what she is feeling--a complex, deeply layered array of emotions. She was mad at Toris for having died. She was mad at him for leaving two small babies unprotected. Dying had never stopped her before. Why couldn't Toris have overcome it as she did.
And as I did. She was mad at me for that.
She was mad at her mother for not thinking to call her home. And she was mad at herself for not being a more important part of Toris' life. He hadn't even told his friend, the leather merchant, that he'd had a sister.
Understanding death means finding out why you feel angry. Then finding out why you feel sad. Then finding out why you feel so alone. Each layer once washed away reveals another.
* * * * *
We took a room at the inn and insisted Cyrene move back to her home. Xena worried about her, getting older, enduring so many tragedies over the years. Cyrene never gave up her long hours. On many mornings, she got into the kitchen before Xena woke up, but we knew she slept well without having to fret over children waking in the night.
At first, I thought I'd get shackled with the brunt of the babysitting. I like kids, but taking responsibility for two tiny lives is daunting. Even when you have nine months to prepare. Xena and I decided to do it in the length of time it took to lock eyes.
Looking after the twins doesn't overwhelm me. The three of us take turns, share the load, break up the routine. I don't think I'll ever tire of this life.
Xena has more patience with the twins than either Cyrene or I do. When they pull down the flour bag, drenching themselves and most of the kitchen in a fine, white powder, Xena swoops in, brushes the worst of it off their clothes and faces, finds something utterly fascinating for a toddler to do like beating on pillows, and then storms through the kitchen with a mop and a rag, leaving no trace of the twins' transgression. She doesn't yell at them. Never has. I don't think they've seen a wrinkle of frustration on her brow.
They're a magic tonic for her.
Selene and Lyceus can yank on me, though. I've lost my temper more than once. I always regret it, especially because you can't apologize to one so young. Xena takes care of that, as well. She tells me the twins love me and that she does, too. And that family is about making mistakes and learning from them. All of us as well.
* * * * *
We tackled the main room first. Since the customers sat in there, that was the room to start on, Xena explained. The customers brought in the dinars. We began with the old fireplace. So much of the mortar had chipped away, the stones had begun to fall.
Demolition day was either hilarious or frightening, depending on your point of view. I thought it terrifying as it happened. Looking back on it now, I get a good laugh.
Xena wielded an enormous axe, striking mighty blows between the stones to knock them apart. She'd left strict orders to keep the twins out of the main room. She said bits of stone could fly all over and she didn't want to risk hurting either of them.
I peeked out and watched her, craning my head around the kitchen door. I loved to watch the muscles dimple in her upper back and arms when she put her full force into a task. I marveled at how well she hid her brawn under the constant shade of feminity, an asset more powerful than her legendary strength. Even now, after five years with her, she still has a youthful body. I guess she's learned how to keep the signs of life from marring her perfect skin by exorcising the demons in physical activity.
I think she knew I watched her because she drew back the axe deliberately before propelling it into the stones with the force of a storm-driven sail, impaling it right up to its wooden handle. The room shook, then settled.
She jerked on the axe to dislodge it. The whole wall came down.
Where once there stood a woman and a fireplace, there now lay only a dusty pile of stones and dry mud. Xena! I flung myself into the room, charging in to help followed by Cyrene.
Xena's under that. Help me dig her out.
We tossed stones aside like two mad women, not daring to hope, not pausing to think. I hurtled stones half-way across the wide floor, stones that on any other day I would barely have been able to lift. We paid no mind to where we flung them, not listening to the deep thuds as they pounded against the floor.
By now you'd think I'd know to expect a miracle where Xena's concerned. We heard a low keening under the rubble that increased in volume and intensity. When I realized what was about to happen, I wrenched Cyrene from the pile, dragging her to safety.
The stones trembled briefly then exploded as Xena burst upward, somersaulting near the rafters and landing neatly on what was left of her tomb. A fine coating of white dust clung to her body, her clothes, and her hair. She looked like a portrait of herself in bas-relief. While we stared at her in wonderment, she struck a pose. One hand thrust toward the sky, the other perched defiantly on her hip.
For I am Xena: Stone Princess, she declared.
And from behind us came two little voices laughing and cackling, pointing at Xena, the white statue.
We all sat down together and enjoyed a cold drink. None of us wanted to admit that we had hours of clean-up to do, or that we'd almost lost Xena that morning.
The new fireplace looks wonderful. Xena collected the stones, sorting them into piles by size and color. As she built that wall back up, she inlaid into it the outline of a mighty tree, its branches extending outward from the trunk and disappearing into the room.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Tragedy
So many years have passed since I've felt the need to dissect my feelings with a quill. I had to stop writing for a time when I broke my hand, but that was at least five summers ago. It really is that I haven't had the need. The adventures we have mostly revolve around our home, the twins, and the inn. When you're not out there on the road, when you've settled into a normal life, you endure fewer events that rattle you to your very soul.
We've had one.
Xena very occasionally accepts pleas for help that take her more than a day's ride from Amphipolis. But this one came from Hercules himself. A group of mangy warlords had miraculously found a way to work together. With the intimidation factor alone, their giant army claimed huge parcels of land along the northeastern shores of Greece. Hercules needed help. He couldn't conscript his own army. It would have had all the cataclysmic effects of war. He wanted Xena to help him find a way to dissolve it from the inside.
Xena had worked with or fought against most of the leaders. She knew how they thought, what their strategies might be. She knew she could be the difference in whether or not they'd be able to settle it without billowing fountains of blood being spilled on the battlefield.
Just so you're not going to fight, Xena. You may look good on the outside, I told her, but your bones are too old to take those hits.
She seemed to take my warning seriously.
I'll pack our things, I said. I know you want to leave right away.
She did not speak sternly, but there was a seriousness of purpose that I'd never be able to refute.
Mother is too old to handle the inn and the twins on her own.
They'll help out. Selene has your mother's touch in the kitchen. Lyceus is able to take the cart to market.
We'd boosted the size of dinner crowd considerably when, on Xena's recommendation, we began traveling to Eion each morning to bring back the day's fresh catch. River fish filled the plate but the ocean catch made the meal.
Xena regarded me silently.
You're right, I admitted. We can't ask them to take it all on. It might be weeks before we returned.
A deep ache impaled my chest. Xena drew me into her arms.
I wish I didn't have to go.
I know, Xena. I'm sorry I can't be bigger about this. I should wait at least until you've left to get depressed.
The depression settled in for a long haul. It's not that I minded picking up the extra work for her, though she did manage to shoulder well over a third of it on a regular basis. She took a bit more of Cyrene's load each year, trying to couch it in practical terms, trying not to hurt her mother's feelings.
Fortunately Lyceus and Selene really did pitch in. If not for them, I might have slipped back into the darkness. Back into the gloomy days of recovery in the mountain cabin. Whenever one of the twins came sailing in, they brought with them the effervescence of youth. They lived freely, and sometimes their awkward gears of life turned with wild abandon. They were learning how to manage their minds and emotions, as I remember I once did.
Selene hadn't yet learned how to temper her wild side, and since she had the courage of Xena, we often had to haul her out of outrageous situations. She'd decided to accustomize, as she called it, the tanner's bull. He was a mean-spirited beast but a useful stud, breeding the best of qualities a tanner desired. Selene got herself stuck on a stack of hay bales in the tanner's barn, watching wide-eyed as the bull rammed its stubby horns into the hay, doing its best to dislodge his tormentor.
And it was Lyceus who figured out how to save her. No one wants to tread near a tempestuous bull, not when he's mad enough to foam and snort and kick. I stood by the tanner, both of us peering in through knot holes in the wood, grasping at inadequate solutions, knowing time was running out.
Lyceus went to the neighbor's barn and tied a sturdy rope around a young cow's neck. He led her quietly ambling toward the tanner's barn, until they stood smack in the middle of the doorway. The bull whipped around, catching scent of the intruder. He dug his front hoof into the dirt and grunted.
Lyceus patted the cow's flanks. He was only just barely tall enough to peek over her back and track his eyes to the bull. He led the cow a few steps from the barn and into the tiny pasture. He leisurely jumped on the fence and perched there, right by the gate, sucking on a long piece of straw.
The bull poked his head out of the barn. The cow in the pasture moved farther in. She knew how to play the coy one, making it look as if she wasn't interested in him at all.
It wasn't long before the bull sauntered out of the barn and into the pasture. Lyceus calmly shut the gate, wiped his hands in a display meant just for me, then hopped down to help his sister climb down from the hay.
* * * * *
I really had to fight to keep up with everything. But every task became magnified under the gloom. Xena sent a message. She and Hercules had a few plans and they'd try them all if they needed. She said she thought they'd succeed the first time, but that I shouldn't be waiting up for her at night.
I did want to hear from her. But I didn't want to lose the possibility that she might walk in the door tonight or tomorrow.
I'd been getting up and taking the cart to Eion. Even though the years had certainly left their mark on me, I still thought I could hold my own better than any of the others. Just in case something happened. By the time I returned at midday, I'd be hunched over, resting my arms on my knees, hardly giving direction to the Fleece, Argo's offspring and our work horse.
Cyrene waited for me on the porch, saw me before I'd straightened up.
That'll be the last of those trips for you.
No, no, I protested. It's fine, really. I like getting out. I don't mind the market.
Tomorrow, Lyceus and I will go. We'll discuss the next day after we get back.
I shouldn't have ever given in. I did much prefer sitting in the kitchen with Selene. She'd keep my mug of tea full and make me tell her stories while she prepared the day's meals. I rarely told my tales anymore. And never in front of an audience. That had silently slipped from my life.
Selene loved the adventures and begged me to tell them to her. Even though she'd heard them all often enough to etch them into memory, she bribed me with that bottomless cup of tea and tiny sweets.
We got news of the accident not long after it had happened. But not soon enough. Selene and I borrowed a boarder's swift horse and raced down the river path. We could see where the trail had given way to the rushing waters, the undercutting of dirt invisible from above until it caved in, taking the horse, cart, and occupants down in a terrible fall.
Cyrene died before we got there. Her body had been hauled from the cold river and covered with a passerby's saddle blanket. Her feet stuck out on one end. They'd needed to hide the head.
Selene dropped to the ground by a wet, cold, and still Lyceus. She placed shaking fingers under his nose and sat back on her heels, covering her mouth with her hand. I grasped her shoulder in a futile attempt to be reassuring. She looked at me and nodded. He was alive.
My eyes traveled down his body. Both arms broken, one leg so distorted it would never heal properly. But I worried mostly about his insides. Xena had taught me that people die from what you can't see more often than from what you can.
The man who'd stopped to help gave us a ride back to Amphipolis. He lifted Lyceus as carefully as he could and placed him in the back of his cart. He kindly offered to leave his belongings hidden up a piece from the path. He could come back for them later. Selene sat by Lyceus. That left me in the middle next to Cyrene. I hadn't looked under the blanket yet. I didn't know if I could.
The healer met us at the inn. News travels fast. Especially bad news. And three women from town were in the inn taking lunch orders, serving what Selene had started simmering. We hadn't even asked for help.
Lyceus' fever soared. The healer had the same fears I did. She didn't know all that his body had suffered in the fall and the furious trip down river.
I let all my worries focus into one horrible question. Should I call Xena back for this? We'd know one way or the other long before I could get a message to her. Would it make a difference?
Selene gave me the answer. Let Xena decide.
The next morning I spoke with the boarders and found one who was willing to make the journey. It was only two days out of her way and she said she'd wanted to do something for us from the moment she'd heard.
* * * * *
Four days later and I'm in worse shape than Lyceus. He's sitting up and eating well, though his bones give him a great deal of pain. Selene never leaves his side. She jokes with him and distracts him.
Once, as I brought tea to them, I stopped outside the door to shift the tray and reach the handle. And when I heard her, relating a ludicrous rendition of when Xena first met Meg, I froze. Lyceus laughed and laughed at his sister's hilarious story.
I turned back, placed the tea on a counter in the kitchen, and took refuge in my room. A toxic mix of guilt and jealousy drowned me. Cyrene and Lyceus should never have had to make the trip. Selene had taken over my place in life. I'm the storyteller. The storyteller who couldn't even find a way to drive a cart.
I felt myself slipping away into familiar territory. I wouldn't have to feel ever again.
Selene came for me. She didn't berate me for running away. But she did forcibly haul me out of bed. I couldn't believe that little girl's nerve.
I am not a little girl, she said gently.
It wasn't defensive or mean. It was meant to reassure. To tell me I was in good hands.
She moved me in with Lyceus and told stories to both of us. I got a hearty dose of just how wild her imagination could be. Late that night, when I couldn't sleep and Lyceus couldn't find relief from the pain, Selene began to take fragments of one adventure and plop them into another. She had Xena chasing Joxer with our frying pans, me whipping Borias with Cupid's arrows, and Argo dressed as a Hestian Virgin.
They were a gift to me.
By the next morning, I could see my spirits rising. On the following day, I ran downstairs for tea and nutty pastries, bounding up the stairs with a gait I'd forgotten I'd ever had. When I got to the door and settled the tray to reach for the latch, I realized what had just happened.
I opened the door, set the tray down, and told them.
Lyceus, you are the bravest person I've known.
Barring one, he'd said.
His tone didn't disagree with me. It was a gentle reminder.
Barring one, I agreed. And Selene, you are the wisest.
Then we laughed because we'd said barring one at exactly the same time.
You just rescued a disintegrating soul. You both know that Xena and I have endured spells of living nightmares. You both know how we relied on each other to make it through. I've discovered that it's not just Xena who can pull me out of those shadowy realms, those hideous places where you can't tell when life and death part company. My family can do that. My family just did.
When Xena arrived, blown in on the dying winds of a rainstorm, she found us in fair shape. She went first to Lyceus who told her all that he remembered of the accident. She squeezed his hand through the whole tale.
Next she went to Selene who told her of the aftermath. Of Lyceus struggling to live through the night.
It wasn't until much later that she asked me. I told her the truth.
I fell apart, Xena.
Not from what I've heard.
We'd curled up together on the pallet. She rubbed my back and I buried my face in her bosom.
I heard that you were the rock, the one Selene relied on to keep a level head. That you knew more about Lyceus' injuries than the healer did, exchanging one herb for another you knew to be better. That you organized the volunteers into teams so that no one worked too hard to keep the inn running. That you found a way to let me know as quickly as possible. You had to write that note. You had to tell me what had happened. It is often a much greater burden to tell than to hear. You're human. Give yourself time to grieve.
But it wasn't normal, Xena, I whispered, not having command of my voice any longer.
And neither are you. You are, she said to me, extraordinary.
* * * * *
I'm not certain when I first began to suspect it. It must have been years ago, but now I wasn't the only one noticing it.
Cyrene's death had aged me. The wrinkles around my eyes had deepened, tufts of gray tucked in along the flaxen blonde. I'd long since given up wearing my adventure outfit. That's what Selene called it when she found it as a curious child and played dress up. I covered my body more thoroughly now that I didn't sport taut muscles.
Xena, however, could still wear her leathers. And wear them with style. Her skin retained its youthfulness, her eyes their twinkle. She never slowed down, could still lift more than any man in Amphipolis, and had the energy of a young girl out discovering herself for the first time.
But there was something unnatural about it.
I was actually mustering the courage to confront her about it when Hercules arrived.
The warlords had been splintered, the lands returned to their previous owners and the armies run off. But at a horrible price.
When Xena left, Iolaus took her place in their plan. He couldn't match her abilities. Even though it ultimately worked, it had cost Iolaus his life.
Xena told Hercules it was right that he'd come there. He could stay as long as he wanted.
Oh, the town loved having him there. Selene had something to do with that, spreading amazing stories around about him, though he didn't need it. His reputation had been secured long ago.
He spent his days with the villagers. Some wanted just to shake his hand, others asked him for advice. He visited their homes, helped them repair and build anew and solved their problems.
Most afternoons, he was out with the youngsters. They'd chase him all over Amphipolis or play seeking and hiding. He always lost. More times than I can count, he traipsed into the inn, one or two kids on his back, a few others hanging on where ever they could.
And he worked with Lyceus. He and Xena both. Teaching him how to compensate for his permanently crooked and weakened leg. They figured it out together, how he could balance, how he could walk without doing permanent damage to his hips and back.
We all regained our footing together. Each helping the other. Only there were five of us to share the burden. It's not that it made it any easier or any faster than if had just been me and Xena as in years past. It just had a rightness to it that we could never really explain to anyone else.
It was a pleasant afternoon and I was out weeding the herb garden. Hercules came out and sat under the awning's shade. He'd brought two cool mugs of ale.
We both knew what needed to be said. Our suspicions needed to be aired. It felt so good to talk to someone about it.
Did she make a deal with anyone?
No. I'd have heard about it. Ares loves to taunt me and he'd have used that long ago if it were true.
But it can't just be her. I mean, I know she's extraordinary, but does she have that kind of power? She isn't aging, Hercules.
I think it might be the ambrosia.
But it was only a little bit!
It isn't a matter of quantity. It's the food of the gods whether you eat a lot or just taste it.
That must be it.
He took my hand. I don't ever remember him doing that before.
That's only part of the problem, isn't it?
What do you mean?
Xena isn't aging. But... you are.
Oh gods, he'd seen right into my innermost fears. I felt support in his firm grasp.
I don't know what to do.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Year of Twilight
Once again, I am struck with how long it has been since I dipped my quill in ink. I can't write for any length of time. My hand aches terribly. The bones broken long ago have grown craggy and rigid. All of my joints throb when I'm up too long.
The time has come to face my most horrific fear. I am going to die. Xena is not.
* * * * *
Selene is pregnant with her third child. She is due within the moon. Xena tells her not to work, that between Pindar and Lyceus, they can take care of everything at the inn. Lyceus' wife, Coronis, has gone to visit her family up the Strymon. She'll be back before week's end.
Selene sloughs it off and continues, slowing down just enough to keep Xena from insisting.
* * * * *
Xena built a lovely swinging chair for me. She put it on the back porch by the herb garden. The porch was a present a few years ago. I like to sit there. I can watch Xena as she runs through her drills, still exercising as much as she did the first day I met her.
If I'm going to live forever, I might as well enjoy it, she said.
You might as well look great, too, I teased.
We'd talked about it sometime back. We'd gotten far enough along to tease.
* * * * *
It's been quite a trick to keep warm this winter. Xena heats up the room as best she can. She built a contraption for the fireplace, a stand for the wood that's a series of tubes. They curl around at the top, pointing out into the room. I have no idea how she figured it out. She said something about how the air always rises above the fire, even in the wind. So she just thought if she could capture that air, she could send it into the room, heating it more.
I don't know. It was something like that. She's clever.
* * * * *
Selene had her baby this morning. Her third girl. Everyone is fine.
Xena delivered her. She loves to do that.
Whatever makes you happy, that's what I say.
* * * * *
A message came today for Xena. Someone needed her help. She said no.
I told him no.
She turned her back on me and set about washing the breakfast dishes.
You've never said no before.
I'm not leaving you.
Oh gods... But I'm going to leave you.
She took me back to our room, our refuge.
Xena, I said, hiccuping through the tears. I am so sorry. If I had known the price you had to pay for coming back, I'd have never asked you to do it.
You couldn't have known.
Did you know?
I'd never asked her that before. All the times we'd talked about it, I'd never asked her if she'd known she would become an immortal.
I thought that might be the case. But it's a price I gladly paid. Anything is worth the life we've had. Don't you know that?
You sacrificed your humanity for me.
For both of us.
* * * * *
This will be my last entry. I've had a cough for too long, the kind that rattles in my chest after I've finished hacking. I can't shake it and I know I never will. Getting out of bed takes help. I can't eat but a few bites at a time.
I can't believe that one day I'll be gone and Xena will be alone. Forever.
I'll be able to hear her thoughts and she'll never again hear me. Never.
I can't believe that it all comes down to this.
Xena, you didn't need to lose your humanity for me. I can't accept that gift. Please don't make me.
You are going to out-live every person you ever meet, ever love. You'll have to relive this over and over and over. The cycle will never end.
Xena, my love. I don't think I can begin to describe how much it hurts to leave you. You've done everything for me and now I can do nothing in return.
I'm going to die, Xena. And you're not.
May the gods grant you a reprieve.
I will wait for you, Xena. Please remember that. Someday the whole world will end. And if that's what it takes to be with you again, then that's what I'll wait for.
I love you. I wish I could say more.
* * * * * * * * * *
I never did read these scrolls while you were alive. I knew you were writing them, though. Even that very first day when you thought you'd put them away before I came back from the creek. I waited until you'd finished before letting you know I was there.
Reading them was hard. I waited. I waited a long time. Its been almost a year since you've been gone.
I wish I could find a way to join you. But i'm going to keep my promise to you. I'll never go back to who I was. No deals with ares. No deals.
I will keep looking for a way.
I could have borne an eternity in Tartarus knowing you were in Elysia looking out for me. An eternity on Earth is a harsh sentence, even for me.
But I admit that only to you. And only once. I accept it graciously. No one need ever know how I feel inside.
There was a time when I believed no one would ever know my feelings. That was, until I met you.
When you've experienced something profound it's much harder to do without it than if you'd never known it.
Gods I miss you. Do you know how much? I can't do anything without something reminding me of you. The way the kitchen smells after breakfast. Tea and fruit. The mantle in the main room. I carved our initials in there. I never told you that, did I? They're hidden on top in a back corner. You can't see them unless you hang from the rafters. I like to go in there late at night and rub my finger against the wood.
I miss touching you. I miss your touch. Sometimes I try to remember exactly how it felt to have your body next to mine. It's a sterile bed now. I can rarely sleep there anymore.
The only reason I can fathom surviving this eternity without you is because of what you taught me. Always look for the good in something. It's everywhere. It can be hard to find but the more difficult the path the greater the rewards.
I'm going back out on the road tomorrow. Lyceus and Selene don't need me to run the inn.
I'm going to visit the Amazons for awhile and then, well, I haven't made any plans beyond that. Something will come up. The world will keep me busy.
And, my love, when the world ends I will come looking for you. I
I really meant what I wrote in the disclaimers. I learn a tremendous
amount about writing from the feedback you readers give me. I would love to hear your
comments. Email: email@example.com
As I was writing this story, I noticed a few oddities in the text and then gave myself the challenge to continue with them. The word 'Gabrielle' does not appear anywhere in the story, except in the title. The endearing terms of 'bard' and 'warrior' (and oft used devices to avoid repeating 'Xena' and 'Gabrielle' every other paragraph) do not appear in the text, except in the title (bard) and as part of Xena's tag phrase 'Warrior Princess'.
I used no quotation marks around dialogue. I made every effort to keep clear the distinction between dialogue and thought. That proved a fun challenge.
I had never written anything in first person. This was originally
conceived of as an exericise. I'm glad it burst out of that restriction.
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