THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.24 – Warrior . . . Princess. . . Amazon
(post "Is There a Doctor in the House?")
X: “Gabrielle. You know, if I could do it all over again, I’d take the southern route. I’m so sorry.”
Marmax: “She may well pull through.”
X: “You were right, I shouldn’t have brought her here.”
Marmax: “I guess we all make mistakes.”
X: “My pride may have killed my best friend.”
- Is There a Doctor in the House?
It's a beautiful night, a few hours before dawn, judging by the stars overhead. A soft wind rustles through the tree branches, and a mourning dove is already awake, cooing quietly somewhere in the nearby brush. I've not slept well in the last week of travel. So many emotions running high -- the grief of love lost, and the joy of this new little life that stirs next to me. He's hungry, and I sit up, propping myself against a log so he can nurse.
When I lost Phantes, he was all that kept me going. When Phantes died, a large part of my soul died with him. It was so senseless, and I wonder how I will explain his death to our son. How to tell a child his father died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a casualty of the hatred among men?
My heart is broken, and at the same time, it rises higher than the trees when I gaze at my son's face. I love him more than I ever imagined I could love another person, this beautiful baby boy who grew inside of me. Already, he has his father's handsome features and the beginnings of my blonde curls, a perfect physical mix of two people who loved each other very much, against all reason or odds.
I remember when the village healer felt my stomach, and explained he would be a Centaur, my heart sank. Not that I won't love him every bit as much as I would have a human child, but there are no female Centaurs, so the life Phantes and I made together would be a boy, and that means that once he's weaned, he won't be allowed to stay in the Amazon village. He'll go live with the Centaurs.
I already know who I want to care for him, now that Phantes is gone. At first I thought I would ask Tyldus, his grandfather, to be his caretaker, but then I thought of another, a Centaur named Kaleipus that has an adopted human son named Solan, whose parents are dead. I hope he agrees. Tyldus is getting on up in years, and I would be glad if my son gets the chance to know another human and have him nearby. I don't want him to grow up hating humans, and I fear he will, given what happened to Phantes.
I named him Xenon. It seemed only fitting, since Xena brought him into the world. Xenon and I would both be dead if not for her. Even now, she and Gabrielle have insisted on escorting us back to the Amazon village, and I'm not in much shape to refuse. I still have this row of stitches down my belly, and although he can already walk, it's much too long a journey for a newborn Centaur to make completely on foot.
Xena rigged up this litter behind Argo for us to ride on. Gabrielle herself is still recovering from her injuries in the Mitoan-Thessalian war, and has been riding Argo. Poor Argo, although she seems up to the task. I do believe if she could, though, Xena would carry Gabrielle herself, or ride up there with her, but because of the extra burden, she's been walking alongside, making sure we take it slowly and no one gets jostled too much.
They've both changed. Xena is slightly less stoic, and Gabrielle has grown into a self-assured young woman. To hear Xena talk, our princess has become quite handy with her staff, although she can't demonstrate for me at present. Xena would freak if she tried. She will barely let Gabrielle hold her own dinner plate right now, much less a staff.
The warrior has it bad for her bard. Surely she can see it's mutual.
Speaking of, I hear Xena moving across the fire, and look over. The woman has been getting up every morning about this time. I'm not sure the reason for rising two hours before dawn, but she usually comes back freshly-bathed, and with a stringer of fish for breakfast. The one thing she hasn't fussed over much is allowing Gabrielle to cook, much to all our relief.
Xena herself admits she can't cook. But she does clean and gut the fish, bring the water to boil, build the fire, take the dishes to wash, and break camp. Gabrielle and I aren't allowed to lift a finger in that regard.
While Xena's busy running around gathering wood and all each day, Gabrielle and I have had time to catch up. The chattering child is now a thoughtful, intelligent woman, and I'm glad to call her my sister Amazon. She's still curious about everything, but now has insightful, often deep, commentary to go along with her questions and observations. She'll make a fine queen someday.
She writes furiously in that journal she keeps, and I can only imagine what she writes about. Her eyes follow Xena everywhere, and there's no mistaking the love there. She's asked some rather interesting questions, and I've debated discussing them with Xena. I at first wondered why she wasn't taking her questions to Xena instead of me. She seems to ask her about almost anything and everything. But it became pretty obvious, though she won't say specifically, that these questions are about Xena.
Even now, I watch her, this mysterious woman who was known mostly as a murderer not so long ago. You'd never know it to see her at this moment. She's so wrapped up, I don't think she even realizes I'm watching. She makes a careful task of tucking their furs back around Gabrielle, and leans over and kisses her forehead, before she stands.
For a long moment she just watches Gabrielle sleeping, and when she turns, the remains of the fire shine in her eyes -- a flash of something so sad, it chokes me up, and I think again of Phantes, and that emotion catches in my throat. Xena looks at me and our eyes meet. She merely nods and disappears through the brush, headed for the pond we bathed in last night.
I'm chilled, but not sleepy at all. Xenon is finished nursing, and I ease him back down and cover him up. He'll sleep until the sun comes up, but as a safeguard, I release a low whistle and Argo ambles over. She snorts in understanding and lingers near my son, keeping an eye on him as I stiffly stand.
Some Amazon warrior. It will take weeks to get my stomach muscles back, and my spine is still slightly out of alignment. I twist as much as I dare with the stitches, and feel relief as a few vertebrae pop into place.
We'll reach the village by nightfall, and it's time I go have a chat with a warrior friend of mine. If you'd told me two years ago that I'd call Xena, the Warrior Princess, my friend, I'd have laughed until I cried. She and I may not be close, but we have bonded, and we share a commonality only two women warriors can share. We've both seen a lot of life and a lot of death, and we've watched the world around us change drastically in the last decade.
Slowly, I follow her down to the bank, where she's just sitting, staring silently out over the water, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. "Hey." I approach her cautiously, and she looks up, and miracle of miracles, she smiles, just the tiniest flash of teeth, before that sad expression falls over her features again.
"Hey." She scoots over and makes room for me, a good sign, I hope. Unless she's decided to toss me in and be done with me.
"Sun'll be up soon," I comment casually.
"Yep." She continues to look across the water. "It's been know to do that this time of day."
I glance at her and realize it is an attempt at humor. I smile and laugh lightly, hoping to break the ice. As I do, I feel a pull at my stomach and grasp it without thinking.
"Careful." Xena touches my tunic, pushing it aside in a most sterile fashion, and it takes a moment for me to realize what she's doing, and just how little anyone in the Amazon village would believe this event is occurring. She studies my stitches and then drops the material back over it. "Need to put some more of that salve on them when we get back to camp. They look a little irritated."
"Itchy is more like it." I smooth my tunic down.
"Don't want to risk infection," she responds. "Need to put some on Gabrielle's stitches, too."
"You've taken good care of her," I ease carefully into the conversation I hope to have.
"Have I?" Her voice is quietly self-reproachful.
"She couldn't have asked for a better healer, you know that." I remember the floundering attempts of Galen, the healer priest in the temple where I gave birth to Xenon. If not for Xena, there would be a whole lot of dead Mitoans and Thessalians.
"And she wouldn't need a healer if I hadn't taken her right into the middle of a war zone." She picks up a rock and hurls it savagely into the water.
"Selfishly, Xena, I’m really glad you ended up in that war zone." I pat my finally-flat stomach, just to the side of the stitches. "Because of you, the love between Phantes and I will live on in a very tangible way. I hope I've thanked you properly for that."
"A few times," she grins sheepishly for just an instant, then just as instantly grows sad. "But it almost came at the cost of my best friend's life."
"Friend?" It escapes my lips before I have time to censor it, and she looks over at me. She doesn't say a word, but there's no need. There's love in those eyes, too, but mixed with an equal share of utter anguish.
"How long have you been in love with her?" I ask as gently as I can, hoping it won't earn me a close encounter with a chakram.
She sighs, a deep longing release of breath, and looks up, blinking. If I didn't know better, I'd swear she was trying not to cry. "I think, from the moment I first saw her."
Oh. Ouch. "That's a long time to suffer in silence, my friend."
"Yeah." She nods her head. "And it's going to stay that way. Not a word to her from you, you understand me?"
"Alright." I re-think my strategy. "She's not a little girl anymore, Xena."
"True." She glances at me. "And your point is?"
"My point is, she's obviously in love with you, too. What's the problem?"
"That is exactly the problem," she answers bitterly. "She doesn't need to be falling in love with me. I’m not exactly the kind of girl you take home to Mama, you know?"
"A little late for that, Xena." I clasp her shoulder for a moment, glad when she doesn't knock me into next week.
"What do you mean by that?" she asks warily.
"Let's just say your bard colors a rather nice rosy red when she's asking questions about what women do together." This earns me a blush, which she quickly hides by covering her mouth to cough. Or is she choking? I resist the urge to laugh at her.
"She asked you that?" Those blue eyes go round as the moon above us.
"Yes. I think her exact words were, 'Ephiny, I know about the birds and the bees. What can you tell me about the birds and the birds'?" This time I do laugh, and Xena joins me, that rarest of smiles lighting her face, although I have a feeling Gabrielle sees it a lot more often than most.
"She does have a way with words," Xena chuckles. "I'm afraid to ask what you told her."
"Then don't," I answer seriously. "I told her enough. I hesitated telling you as much as I have, but it's obvious something is holding you back, and equally obvious she's ready and willing to dive in headfirst. She didn't mention you by name, but she didn't have to. I see it in her eyes, Xena. Surely you do too."
"I do." She's silent for so long, I wonder if the conversation is over. "It doesn't matter. I'm not the right person for her."
"No, Xena, the Destroyer of Nations wasn't the right person for her." Her head snaps around so fast I'm surprised she didn't sprain her neck in the process. For a moment, I see ice blue chips and I shiver, realizing there is still some of that destroyer left in there. I forge on. "I've heard the stories, Xena. About the northern Amazons." Those eyes grow impossibly colder, and then incredibly sad.
"She hasn't." She spits forcefully into the pond. "There's a whole lot more about me she hasn't heard. A whole lot more," she trails off quietly. "I've done terrible things. I won't add taking her innocence to that list. I won't have her hating me for it someday."
"Xena," I shake my head sadly. "She won't be innocent forever. Someone is going to come along and take that very thing from her. Why not let it be someone she loves? Or maybe you'd rather it be one of her sister Amazons?"
The ice chips reappear and I shiver again. I don't want to ever see her when she's really angry, especially at me. "What do you mean by THAT?" Amazing how quickly someone can go from love-sick pup to protective mother bear.
"Just that half the nation has a crush on our new princess." I smile in memory of a dozen giggling junior Amazons secretly following Gabrielle around our village the last time they were through there.
"Only half?" She nudges me in the arm.
"The other half has a crush on her champion." I enjoy this moment just a little too much.
It takes a minute to sink in, but when it does, she rolls her eyes. "Great."
"Seriously, Xena. Someone is going to come along and sweep her away. There's love there, but you need to reciprocate if you want it to remain."
"Reciprocated too much, already," she mumbles.
"Nothing." She looks up, and that practical, stoic expression is planted firmly in place. "Listen, Ephiny. I appreciate what you're trying to do. Just . . . I can't let it happen. Don't you see? It was bad enough when she was constantly in danger as a by-product of being with me. But a while back, she was specifically targeted by someone who wanted to get to me by using her. She could have been killed. And now this. I take her into a war zone, because I'm too proud to take the long road, and she almost dies because of it."
"No!" She stands and walks to the very edge of the water, her back to me, the beginnings of sunset burnishing her skin copper and her hair fiery ebony-red. She spins around to face me. "People who fall in love with me tend to die. I couldn't live with myself if that happened. I'd rather see her safe and happy with someone else. She's a remarkable person -- the most amazing person I've ever known -- and she deserves a chance at a long and happy life. With me, the odds aren't so good."
"You'd let her go, just like that?" Despite the sadness of the circumstances, a certain warrior just grew greatly in my esteem.
"No. I HOPE to let her go, just like that. I hope every day that she'll find a kind and decent person to love. Hades, Ephiny. I hoped she'd fall for Democritus back in that temple -- sent her specifically to work with him. He was crazy for her -- kind and gentle. Everything I'm not."
Stubborn as the day is long. I change tactics, again. "You don't always choose who you fall in love with, Xena. Sometimes it chooses you, and in the most unlikely of ways."
"You would know," she answers quietly, touching my arm for the barest second. "Ephiny, I'm so sorry. I know I haven't really said much, but --"
"Thank, you." I cut her off. This is no time to cry. I have two heads to try to knock together. "And yes, I would." I turn and gather my strength, and look her straight in the eye. "And I also know love can be snatched away from you in a heartbeat. You would know that, now, wouldn't you?"
She looks down, and I honestly think her chin is quivering. She looks up slowly, her eyes shining, but refusing to cry. "That was my fault. We both know that."
Oh, for the gods' sake. I close my eyes and purse my lips inward, thinking. "Just -- don't let it pass you by, my friend. Reciprocated love -- that's a rare gift."
"I know," she whispers and stands. She clasps my hand, helping me up, and I follow her silently back to the campsite. When we reach the edge, she stops and turns. "Thanks. No matter what, I want you to know I appreciate it."
"Welcome." I return to my bedroll, smiling at the soft baby snores that greet my ears. Argo nudges me, shoving me gently toward my boy, and I settle down next to him, my eyes on my son and my ears on the two people across the fire from me.
"Hey." Xena kneels down, touching Gabrielle's face. "How you feeling?"
"Still sleepy." I look over just in time to see the silliest grin on our princess' face. One matched equally on her champion's face.
"Sleepy, huh?" Xena ruffles her head, and then strokes her cheek, her fingers lingering there, and even in profile, I see a glow on her face that she simply cannot hide.
"And cold." Gabrielle sits up, and groans, and my own body groans in sympathy. Healing is a slow, often painful thing, especially if you forget and move in ways you shouldn't.
"Hey. Careful." Xena quickly moves in beside her and gathers her in her arms, drawing the furs around both of them. They sit there in silence for a long time, Gabrielle's head resting against Xena's shoulder, her eyes closed in contentment, and Xena's chin propped on top of her head.
After a while, Xena looks over at me, the sadness in those blue eyes cutting right through me. Gods, she's elevated self-flagellation to a new art. When it's obvious Gabrielle is asleep, she carefully lowers her back down onto their furs and covers her up, and then stands, her posture utterly defeated. Slowly, she stands up taller, the proud, determined warrior I first met. Her eyes are narrowed slightly, her face a study in cool detachment.
"Not a word." She looks at me and shakes her finger back and forth, just once, her head jerking angrily. "I'm going back. I forgot to catch the fish."
I merely nod and clamp my jaw shut, holding my son, and idly rocking him. She stalks away from us and disappears. Finally, I smile. She can run all she wants to, but it doesn't matter. She's already caught.
NEXT in the BTL Series - "Warrior Prince" (post "Orphan of War" - season 2 premiere)