A Mother's Plea
This story is a sequel to The Contest but it is not necessary to have read it to understand the events described.
This is dedicated to my mother and to all mothers who stand by their daughters and give them the strength and determination to make their way in this world.
Disclaimer: The characters in this tale belong to MCA, the story belongs to me. This a rather dark story with some violence depicted.
Cyrene glanced at the full tables and benches of her tavern and grinned. Business had never been better. She was a large, well built woman with broad shoulders and coal black hair turning salt and pepper. In her day, her comely looks had turned more than one head. Her piercing cobalt blue eyes soften as she gazed at the reason for this well paying happy crowd. The young bard was in the middle of a very exciting tale. Her voice rose and fell dramatically as she described galloping chariots and a race to stop a war lord and his son from annihilating a village of pacifist. Xena, the dark souled warrior princess, once again saves the day with courage, strength and fighting skills. When the bard finished the tale, the enraptured audience burst into applause and cheers. After all, the warrior princess was one of their own, born and raised among them. A few stole quick glances to the small table in the back corner of the tavern and then looked back to the bard for another tale.
The fair haired story teller bowed as her face flushed with the praise and cheers bestowed upon her. She looked towards the back of the room and a quiet figure gave the bard a pleading glance. The story teller smiled and then turned her attention back towards her audience. "Now for a classic, I sing of Zeus and his fathering of Hercules."
The audience settled back to listen to this new tale. However, the buzz of voices and clink of glasses showed that they would have preferred another story about Xena. It was going to take the bard a few moments to recapture their attention.
"Cyrene, more ale over here and a round for the whole table."
The tavern owner moved over to the bar and lifted a large jug in her arms with little effort. She poured the round and accepted the dinars from her kinsman. "Shhh....listen to Gabrielle. This is a very good story," she admonished her patrons. They laughed but quieted down as the bard continued.
Cyrene moved around the crowded tables pouring ale and then cider from a pitcher. She finally moved into the shadows in the back corner of the room. She gently pressed the arm of a silent figure who sat with her head resting against the back wall. The dark haired woman opened her weary eyes and smiled slightly at the proprietoress. She was clothed in peasant dress and shawl but the common attire could not hide the striking beauty of the woman. However, her comely face was drawn and pale and showed the effects of recent illness.
"Can I pour you ale or cider, my little one?" Cyrene asked.
"No, mother. I still have some."
"Oh Xena, Gabrielle tells such wonderful stories. The whole village seems to turn out night after night to hear her. They even come from neighboring towns to hear her tales as word spreads."
The dark haired warrior looked up into her mother's eyes and smiled gently. "Gabrielle is a great story teller. She has won contests and acclaims. Remember, though that a bard does not have to stick very close to the truth. In the name of telling a good story, Gabrielle will exaggerate and frequently the facts get left behind."
Cyrene looked down at her daughter and shook her head. "I have learned about you and your life through Gabrielle's stories. You would never tell me what she does. Now, not only your own mother but your kinsmen and your old neighbors know you better. What could be the harm in that?"
A wave of bitterness crossed the warrior's face. "Mother, Gabrielle's stories are of the past two years. Others tell very different tales of the ten years before then."
Cyrene bent down and kissed the cheek of her daughter. "We are all learning to forgive you, Xena and see your goodness. Perhaps, in time you can learn to forgive yourself."
Cyrene's smile turned to a frown as she saw her daughter wince, lean back and close her eyes. "You shouldn't be out this late, you need rest," she admonished. "Let me take you home to bed."
"No, I'll be ok until Gabrielle is through. We'll head home then. You have customers to serve. I'm sorry I'm not much help."
"You never did like to work in the tavern," Cyrene replied. Mother and daughter smiled as old memories of an impetuous child finding excuses not to help in the tavern's kitchen came back to both of them. "I still don't cook much," Xena admitted. "Gabrielle is the expert."
A large commotion in the front of the room next to the bard suddenly drew their attentions.
Gabrielle stopped her tale and stared at the crowded table directly in front of her. The two men on the end had been loud and annoying all night. The rest of the group clearly did not like or approve of their table mates. A large brute of a man, dirty and unkempt shrugged off a restraining arm from his friend and rose to his feet. "You are the fool. I tell you Xena is no hero, she is a cold blooded killer. She is a whore who uses her body to get whatever she wants from men and then kills them when she is through."
He staggered slightly and then pounded his fist on the table. "Bard, just where is this hero of yours? She is nothing but a bully and a tyrant but I'm not afraid of her. I can take her out with one swing of this." He held up a meaty fist and swung around the room, delighted that he had the crowd's full attention.
"Bring her on and I'll show you. I'll be the man that knocks the stuffing out of the warrior princess."
Gabrielle began to think fast. Hecklers were just part of a bard's job and she needed to deal with this one. "Look, I'm not telling a story about Xena now. Perhaps, you should take on Zeus." A few scattered laughs greeted this sally.
A leer came over the heckler's face as he staggered towards the bard. He reached out a huge arm and grabbed her around the waist. "Perhaps, you would like to take me on, on top of you." By this time, Cyrene had moved quickly to the table where the lout stood. She glanced over her shoulder and saw her daughter struggle to rise. She needed no more incentive. She grabbed a black skillet from the counter and with a mighty swing crashed it against the lout's head. He crumbled in a heap to the floor almost dragging Gabrielle down with him.
"Some of you grab this trash and throw him out of my place," Cyrene commanded. Several men at the table in front leaped to their feet and quickly obeyed. Cyrene turned back to Gabrielle. "How about finishing your story?"
"Great," the young bard replied and launched into a stirring conclusion. As she finished, once again the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. The bard smiled, bowed and left the front of the tavern. She quickly moved towards the back corner where her best friend waited.
One look at the warrior's face was all the bard needed to know. They had to leave fast. "Come on, let's get out of here," she said as she grabbed the warrior's arm. Xena let herself be led out the back door of the tavern and into the cool night air. She leaned against the wall a minute as waves of pain and nausea flowed through her. When it past, Gabrielle grabbed her waist and gently supported her as they slowly made their way back to Xena's old home.
Once inside, Gabrielle led the warrior into the small room that had been hers as a little girl. The bard soon pulled off the warrior's dress and got her into bed. She reached for a cup and poured water into it and then stirred in a portion of a white powder. She lifted the cup to the warrior and was met with cold, piercing eyes. "No, Gabrielle. It's enough."
"Now look, Xena. It's been a month since you suffered that horrible stab wound in your side. Anyone else would have been dead by now. Give yourself time to heal."
The warrior stared coldly at her friend, the old expressionless mask firmly in place. "My wound has healed nicely on the outside thanks to the care that you and mother have given me."
Gabrielle looked searchingly at her friend's face. The mask was slipping as the warrior found it harder and harder to keep anything from her best friend. Gabrielle had saved Xena's life first from a crowd of louts bent on winning the dinar prize on her head and then from the terrible wound she had suffered. They had been through both physical and emotional trials together and their bond had grown too close to allow deception.
"And the inside?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "Sometimes the pain and sickness are gone but then it comes back. Gabrielle, the white powder will not help me to heal and may keep me from ever getting strong again."
Xena's cobalt blue eyes narrowed, "Then I'll be easy prey for louts and fools like the one tonight."
"But Xena, your mom and I handled him just fine. The villagers will help you until you are well. No one would give you away or allow you to be taken."
Bitterness and anger swept over the warriors face and she hissed, "I'll never live in fear of such trash. I won't hide behind others. I'll die first!"
"I know and I'm not asking that of you. Just give yourself time to heal," Gabrielle pleaded.
"Times run out. You don't understand. I don't need the white powder to heal, I just need the white powder. I'll do anything to have more of it. This has got to stop now or I may never have the strength to stop at all. Gabrielle, I've seen this in others."
Xena's voice lost its edge and turned more to a pleading tone. "You must trust me on this and do as I say. The next few days are not going to be pretty."
"Are you sure you are strong enough? Why can't this wait a few more weeks until you have healed more completely?" The concern and fear in Gabrielle's face mixed with love, melted the warrior's heart and she reached up and grabbed the bard around the neck. They held each other closely for a moment and then the warrior pushed her away.
"There never will be a good time and each day my dependence on the drug grows stronger. It must be now. Will you do as I ask?"
The concern on the bards face softened into acceptance and she nodded.
"Destroy all the white powder we have made. Then bring in a bucket as from time to time I will probably be sick. Now, this is the hard part. I may get violent and angry. I may throw things. Take everything you can out of this room and at the first signs of this lock me in here. Don't open the door no matter how hard I plead. You will have to help mother with this and you both will have to be strong. Remember it is the drug talking, not me. I am too weak to do serious damage but I still can harm you so stay out of reach. Can you do this?" Xena looked up searchingly into her friend's face. "It's a lot to ask after what you have already been through."
The bard nodded again and grabbed her friend's hand tightly. "Let's began."
Xena counted the hours back to when she had taken her last dose of the powder. It had been in the afternoon. Now, there was a slight craving in her belly but nothing too serious. By morning, the first withdrawal effects should hit. "Gabrielle, try to get some sleep. I'll be fine until tomorrow."
The young bard smiled and shook her head. "I'll sit with you a little while until Cyrene comes back from the tavern."
Exhaustion claimed the warrior and she fell into a restless sleep. Her friend watched over her with concern and recited poems with a quiet soothing voice when Xena began to toss and turn. The sound of the bard's voice always seemed to have a calming effect on the warrior and on the warrior's dreams.
Finally, Gabrielle heard Cyrene come into the small house and she quietly rose and left her sleeping friend. In a low voice, she related to Xena's mother the next trial they must face. Tears came to the older woman's eyes. "How much more must my little one have to bear? Is there no peace meant for her?"
Gabrielle could only shake her head. She had no answer. In the next room, Xena heard the low voices of her mother and best friend and they lulled her back into a deep and restful sleep.
The first gray light of morning came through the little window and shown on the bed where Xena lay. Her eyes opened and almost immediately a wave of pain and nausea assaulted her weakened body. She knew she was going to be sick and looked for the bucket. Gabrielle was sitting next to the bed in a deep sleep.
Xena quietly rose and stole out of the room and through the front door of the house. She made it to the side of the step before she sank to her knees and vomited bitter bile. Her whole body began to shake violently as wave after wave of sickness came over her. Clammy and shaken, she struggled to her feet and slowly walked towards the hills to the right of the house. She climbed through the tall grass until she reached the lone tree at the crest of the rise. She placed her forehead on the rough trunk of the old oak. Xena could almost hear childish laughter as her brother Lyceus and she swung from its high branches and fought their make believe battles around its wide girth.
Her nose began to run and her eyes water as more waves of sickness came over her. Xena tried to turn, looking for shelter or someplace to hide almost as a wounded animal might do. She stumbled and found herself on the ground. Sweat poured off her face as she struggled to rise. Her head was foggy and the world seemed to dance and spin.
Suddenly, a vision appeared before her. She squinted her eyes to try to clear them and a shape of a man appeared. He was darkly handsome with dark beard and cold dark eyes. A smile played around the corner of his mouth showing perfect white teeth. "This is no way to find my warrior princess."
"Xena," he called and then called again a little louder. Xena stared up at him and muttered under her breath, "Ares."
Ares smiled and waved his hand slightly in front of him from side to side towards Xena. Suddenly, the sickness was gone and she felt her strength course back through her arms and legs. She stood up without effort as her head and eyes cleared. The sudden relief of having her body without pain or illness was overwhelming.
"Now, isn't that better? Xena, I've missed you." Ares smiled at the warrior and walked over to her. He seized her hand and kissed it gently.
Xena was struck by the shear power of his personality and his handsome features. He was one beautiful god. His muscular figure was clothed in black leather and a large sword hung from a scabbard on his belt. Xena glanced down at her own dirty shift and didn't like the contrast.
"Now tell me are you still having more fun these days since you left me?" Ares tone of voice remained soft with just a hint of sarcasm. "Last time you told me you were fighting for justice but sure haven't seen much of that from you lately. Looks like you just keep taking another beating. Is that what you want?" His voice turned more persuasive with just a hint of mockery. "No, of course it isn't. Why don't you let me help you?"
Xena shook her head and stepped back from the powerful god. "What do you want, Ares?"
"The same as always of course. Just to have you back again where you belong. Xena leading an army in my name would be so delicious. You know that's what you want, what you have always wanted. Have you noticed since you left my side how things have not worked out so well for you? I can fix that. Isn't it great to feel good, like your old self now?"
Xena nodded and then shook her head again. Ares was getting to her and this was not good.
Ares smiled and continued, "You know your soul has always belonged to me. Why keep fighting it? No need to lose sleep over this, just accept it and be proud I chose you. You are so beautiful." He drew closer to the warrior and held out his hand. "Take my hand and be whole again. Return to your true form. It's what you want, just do it."
Suddenly, enraged with her own weakness and the grinning god before her, Xena leaped forward. She tried to wrap her hands around his neck. But before her fingers could close, he vanished and reappeared behind her. "Now, now my princess. That isn't nice. You know you can't damage a god."
Xena turned and her right eye brow arched. "All right Ares, what is your deal?"
"Very simple, my dear. You pledge yourself to me and all the sickness, weakness will be gone. You will be in better shape then ever before, your fighting skills as good as ever. You can led your army against injustice if you wish. I don't care who you go after as long as you shout my name."
Ares paused and then continued, "In fact, the timing is really good as the Huns are massing on the northern border. They are led by a real ruthless and cruel savage who plans on burning, looting and destroying all the villages in the valley to the south."
Ares smiled slyly, "I like this man!"
"Anyone in his way will be killed or sold into slavery. Of course your little home town lies right in his path as does that village where you found the irritating blond. Save it if you like. After that, conquer what you will. Pass declarations that are fair if you wish. You will rule as my warrior queen as you see fit. All I ask is you honor me, build temples and make sacrifices to me. Perhaps you might provide me with a little creature comfort now and then. That is up to you but I do think you will find me irresistible." Ares smile was winning and charming but never quite reached his cold, calculating eyes.
Xena turned and looked out over the village below. It looked so peaceful and prosperous. Just the sort of pickings the Huns would love. She turned back to Ares. "I need to think this through, will you give me time?"
"As you wish, my dear. You may have two days but to bear the pain you were in that long seems such a waste. I'll tell you what, meet me here two days from today with your answer. If you decide sooner, just call my name. There is no need for you to suffer more."
He moved towards her, took her into his arms and kissed her tenderly. Xena did not return his kiss but did not resist. Just as he appeared, he was instantly gone. Immediately, the pain and sickness overwhelmed the warrior and she collapsed to the ground. She shook her head. Had this been a dream or reality? Then she heard a whisper almost like the wind, "Remember, you have only to call my name...... Ares."
The morning sun glared in her eyes but Xena could not move. Her lips cracked and her parched throat cried out for water but she had none. As she lay on the ground, sweat streamed off her face and pain clawed at her abdomen. The craving in her gut was unbearable. Just when it seemed that the warrior could stand no more and a name came to her lips, a shadow passed in front of her. She opened her eyes to see a dim figure standing over her, shielding her from the glare of the sun. The figure kneeled down next to her and lifted her head carefully. Cool water flowed into the warrior's mouth and down her dry throat. She greedily gulped and tried to swallow more.
"No, no my little one. That's enough for now. More later."
Xena tried to focus her eyes and finally the face of Cyrene took form. "Mother," she whispered gratefully.
She must have passed out for when Xena's senses returned, she was laying under the branches of the old oak with her head in Cyrene's lap. Gentle fingers stroked her hair and a cool cloth wiped her sweaty face and arms.
"You were out for quite awhile. How do you feel?"
Xena looked into her mother's eyes, so full of love and pain. "I've been better. Could use some water."
Cyrene smiled and brought the water skin up to the lips of her daughter. Xena drank long and then sank back onto her mother's lap.
"I should let Gabrielle know where we are. When she woke and found you gone, she was very upset. I told her to search the left side of town and I would take the right. I didn't think you could get too far away. Somehow I knew I'd find you by the tree where you and Lyceus played so often."
"You always knew where to find us, even when we didn't want to be found."
Cyrene smiled gently and then gave her daughter a serious look. "I saw you talking with a man and then he suddenly disappeared. You fell to the ground and I was very afraid of losing you. It was Ares, wasn't it, the god of war from Gabrielle's tales?"
"Yes, mother." Xena tensed as a sharp pain and nausea returned. She fought her churning stomach and the horrible craving. When she opened her eyes again, her mother held the damp cloth to her clammy forehead.
"Xena, we must talk. When you were little, we shared everything. Then the day came when you pulled away from me and no longer spoke of your feelings. Don't pull away again. You need my help. Don't shut me out. Please."
Xena listened to her mother's plea and then shook her head slightly. Gods, how was it possible for a body to feel this bad, she thought.
Cyrene's voice grew hard and firm as she used a tone Xena had heard before. "Daughter, I asked you to tell me what's going on. What did Ares want?"
When Xena did not reply, Cyrene grabbed her and cold blue eyes met cold blue eyes. "You think to protect us? You think you can fight Ares alone. Perhaps you think by giving in to him, you can save us. Did you ever think that would destroy us? How could Gabrielle go on, how could I, knowing you didn't trust us or believe in us enough to let us help you."
"Xena, what did Ares want?"
"He has always owned my soul, he laid claim to it and to me," Xena whispered.
"Nobody but you own your soul. You can choose to give it away but it is yours to give." Cyrene shook her daughter in her passion. "Is that what you chose, to give your soul to Ares, to become a monster and destroyer again?"
Cyrene knew that the battle for her only daughter had to be waged here and now. She gathered her strength and determination. "Since when has my daughter, the great warrior princess, become a coward? When did you start running away from a fight? When did you start running away from yourself?"
Xena's eyes narrowed and she gave her mother a cold icy stare. "Never," she spat.
"Are you so sure? You are ready to give in to Ares and to give up on us."
"I can get well and save our village if I call Ares' name. It is not such a high price to pay," Xena whispered and then looked up hesitantly into her mother's face. Why did this statement seem such a lie? If only I could think clearly, she mused.
"No, by the gods I'd rather die and see this village destroyed then have you pay such a price. Or is that all?" Cyrene shook her daughter again, "Tell me and yourself the truth. Isn't this really about easing your pain and suffering?"
The great warrior's steely resolve broke. "Oh mother, I just can't bear anymore," she cried. Cyrene grabbed her child and held on to her. Tears fell down her cheeks as mother and daughter cried long and hard together. They cried for the pain of the present and the mistakes of the past.
Finally, the sobs of the warrior fell away and Cyrene wiped her tears and her daughter's. "My little one, I don't know why you have been chosen to bear so much pain and to suffer so much. I do know that I will be here to help you though this. Gabrielle will be here as well. We will not give into Ares and somehow you will be well and strong again. You just have to want this as much as we do."
Cyrene stroked the matted hair of her daughter and kissed her gently on the forehead. "I love you, Xena. I always have and no matter what I always will."
Xena gazed into the face of her mother so determined and so strong. As a child, she had always relied on that strength and the insight her mother possessed. She thought back to her fifteenth year when she had turned her back on her mother's council and love.
Xena nodded and gathered her strength. "We will defeat Ares together. I will need your help for it's going to get ugly before it gets better. I love you. Perhaps, many years ago if I had come to you, things would have been different. Thank you for being here for me now."
Cyrene smiled gently. She grabbed her daughter and held her tightly, hoping she would have enough strength for the both of them.
Cyrene then looked up and waved a hand. Coming up the side of the hill, Gabrielle rapidly walked towards mother and daughter. "Glad you found her. Xena, what are you doing up here?"
Xena looked up at the worried bard and smiled gently, "Having a mother daughter talk."
Gabrielle smiled and gave her friend a knowing look. "Can you stand?"
Xena nodded and with the help of Cyrene she was able to regain her feet. The bard took one side and Cyrene the other and between them they were able to support the shaky warrior. They started their slow walk down the hill and soon had Xena back into her bed in the little room.
The day wore on as Xena suffered through bouts of sickness and then cold sweats. At times she trembled so hard, the bed she lay on shook. Gabrielle and Cyrene kept a constant vigil and took turns cooling her face with a damp cloth and trying to coax tea or water down her throat. As the cool of night came on, the warrior rested a little easier and Cyrene took up her hand weaving. Gabrielle found one of her scrolls and started to work on a new story.
Later in the evening, Cyrene got up and stretch her weary back. She went over to the small bare table at the side of the bed and lite a candle. Xena opened her eyes. "You don't have to stay here with me, mother. You should be getting down to the tavern."
Cyrene returned to her chair. "I got Moreus and Silais to take care of the tavern for the next few days. I really didn't want to leave you and besides I can use a break as well."
"Moreus! Mother, he'll drink up all your profits," laughed the warrior.
Cyrene grinned, "Xena, that's no way to talk about your kinsman."
Gabrielle laid aside her scroll and pulled her chair closer to her friend. "How are you feeling?"
"Been better, sure could use a little of the white powder to take the edge off. What do you think, Gabrielle? Can you get me a little?" There was a note of pleading in Xena's voice and a hint of desperation.
Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "No, there's none left. Better not think of it."
Gabrielle looked into the haggard face of her friend with pity and concern. She needed to get Xena's mind off her pain. "Cyrene, this is a great chance for me to hear stories from you about the warrior princess growing up. I've told you tales of the last two years, let's hear about the young Xena."
Xena groaned and looked imploringly at her mother. Cyrene grinned back and stated firmly, "Why I would love to tell you, Gabrielle about what it was like to live with my precocious daughter."
"She was always in motion, climbing trees running from place to place. She had boundless energy and curiosity. She wanted to know why things worked the way they did, full of questions, always taking something apart. She fought constantly with both her brothers but Lyceus and her were closer. I guess it was because Toris was a few years older."
Cyrene smiled, a flood of memories coming into her mind. Xena closed her eyes and pretended to sleep but she heard every word her mother said.
"Xena was a serious child, not given to chatter and foolish talk like so many of the village girls. She played with her brothers and the boys from town. I certainly had some serious misgivings when the play turned to wrestling and then fighting games. Of course, she was very strong and tall for her age and won more fights then she lost. There came a time when she never lost and the other boys began to look to her for leadership. Of course they still challenged her, but no one ever beat her again, not even her brothers."
Cyrene smiled proudly at her daughter and then continued. "I remember once she and Lyceus played king of the mountain all day long. A tree had fallen and they climbed on top of it and held off all the village boys. When night fell, Xena refused to get off that tree for fear that someone would sneak out and climb it while she was gone. It was her tree and she refused to give it up. Toris and I had to pull her off it and carry her home to eat supper." Cyrene laughed out loud, "She was six."
Xena opened her eyes and stated emphatically, "I had to get it back the next day when you finally let me out of the house. There were five boys on my tree."
Gabrielle laughed delightedly. How like her stubborn friend not to ever give into overwhelming odds even at six.
"Xena never really talked to anyone much but to Lyceus and to me. She always came to me when she was troubled or when she needed just to get something off her chest. I tried to listen and give good advice. I'm not all that sure she ever took it, but she always listened." Cyrene looked over to her daughter for confirmation and was awarded with a soft smile and nod.
"Then there was Xena's temper, did she have one. I remember one time Toris rode her pony without permission. She stomped around in a black rage and when her brother came back with the animal all lathered up, Xena almost killed him. She came up behind him and hit him with a hoe. He was out for almost an hour."
Xena looked accusingly at her mother, "You punished me for that and I lost supper. Toris got off without a word!"
Cyrene looked at her daughter and her eyes danced. "You got even though by running away from home that night. She turned to Gabrielle, "We were up half the night looking for her before we finally found her in that stupid oak tree."
Xena smiled softly and noted, "You could always find me, no matter how hard I tried to not be found."
Cyrene looked at her daughter a moment and decided the time was right to clear something up between them that had bothered her for a long time. "That was true until your fifteenth year and then I lost you and couldn't find you anymore."
Xena looked into her mother's eyes and then turned way. "That was a long time ago, mother."
"It is like yesterday to me," Cyrene replied and then plunged on. "It was that stupid horse. Her father had given that animal to her when he came back from one of his adventures and taught her to ride. She was delighted. When he left for good, I guess that pony was all she had left of him."
"It wasn't much of a horse. As the years went by, it became sway backed and bony but Xena loved the animal. One day, someone stole it from the pasture out back. By now Xena was fifteen and a tall, strong, strapping woman. I don't think she had ridden that old pony in years. Never the less, when Lyceus came in and told us the animal was missing, Xena flew into a rage. She radiated cold fury and almost seemed possessed with some dark demon. She set off to find the horse to bring him back. Lyceus went with her. I begged her to let it go but she shrugged off my concerns and stomped out of the house. She took one of her father's swords and a dagger. I knew she and Lyceus practiced with weapons all the time but to see her coldly arm herself and leave sent a chill through my heart."
Cyrene looked over at her daughter and when there was no response forthcoming she continued. "Two days went by and when she and Lyceus returned I knew something terrible had happened. Her face was stone and her eyes held a cold fury and a icy stillness that I had never seen in them before that day. She seemed to look right through me when I asked about the pony. She never talked to me after that. She lost her girlish laugh and her soft smile." Tears glistened in the older woman's eyes.
"Lyceus never spoke of what happened either. But after their return, he stopped being a boy and became a man. He grew more serious and became older somehow even though he was only fourteen." Cyrene again looked over at her daughter and waited silently, hoping for a response.
Xena opened her eyes and Gabrielle was shocked to see tears in them. Xena trembled. Should she share the truth with the two people whose love and devotion were all that stood between the warrior's black insanity and hope of redemption? If they finally understood what the warrior was truly capable of, would they not turn away in disgust? Would she not lose her best friend and her chance to regain her mother all at once?
Gabrielle saw the pain and anguish in her best friend's eyes and seemed to understand. She grabbed Xena's hand and held it tightly. "Speak of this or not as you wish. Just know that there is nothing you can say, nothing you can do or nothing you have done which can stop me or your mother from loving you."
Xena took a long shaky breath. She was sure that the pain from her wound and the effects of her drug addiction were more bearable then the pain in her heart caused by this incident. It seemed to the warrior that of any event in her life, this one defined her start on the path towards darkness.
"It was not hard to follow the trail my pony had left. It had rained the night before. Lyceus and I jogged most of the way. We crossed over the hills to the west and by late afternoon we reached a flat grassy plane. There in the distance we could see my horse being led. I started to run my fastest and quickly closed on the thief. As I came upon the man leading my horse, I drew my sword. He was a ragged unkempt old coot. You know the type, teeth missing, foolish grin on his face. As he saw me approach, he drew a dagger. Perhaps he thought he could scare me away. Lyceus was right behind me and drew his sword as well. It was over in a second. He lunged at me and I ran my sword right through his midsection. Blood spewed everywhere, on me, on him and on Lyceus." Xena stopped her monotone recital and looked at her mother and then at the woman that meant more to her than life itself.
"I pulled my sword out of his body, and it felt good. I felt good, somehow whole and complete. The sword just slide out so cleanly and my thrust had felt so natural. The body of the man fell to the ground and he just lay there with eyes staring at the unknown. Then we heard a call and saw a little boy running from behind a bush towards us. He kept yelling, "Grandpa, Grandpa" over and over again. Lyceus grabbed him and kept him from reaching the body on the ground. We dropped the kid off at the next village. No one knew who he was or if he had any other relatives. My first kill had resulted in my first orphan. We spent the night in the village and the next morning we found my pony dead in the stables. He had been an old horse and probably just gave out. Lyceus and I never talked about the incident. At the time, I was sure the man deserved to die for stealing my pony. But his eyes have stayed with me even to this day." The warrior shuttered. Gabrielle continued to hold her hand tightly and did not pull away as Xena thought she might.
Cyrene sadly nodded her head. "I was afraid you had killed. Why couldn't you come and tell me?"
"It no longer seemed to matter. " Xena searched her mother's face and was relieved when she did not find revulsion in her eyes. "Killing had been too easy and felt too natural for me to worry much about it. Even the orphaned boy did not touch me. Lyceus cried for the boy but I felt nothing."
Puzzlement crossed the warrior's face and she shook her head. "I don't know why I felt the way I did. But after that, I knew that killing a human being was not difficult for me to do. In battle or not, anyone in my way was easy to kill. It did not bother me and I had no remorse."
The warrior's face showed the strain and weariness caused by painful memories. "I'm sorry mother. After that day, I guess I just stopped feeling compassion for anyone. There just wasn't anything to talk about anymore."
"Oh, my little one. How terrible a burden for a young girl."
"No," the warrior hissed and pushed away from Gabrielle although she still held her hand in a vice grip. Her eyes took on a hysterical desperate light "Don't you see, it was in me to deal death to others. It was not an accident, or self-defense. I enjoyed killing. I liked killing that old man."
There, at last it was out. The one thing she could never forgive herself or even understand. She was a monster. "I felt alive only when I was fighting and people around me were bleeding and dying. I felt good only then and I needed to feel that way. It was a mental addiction just like the physical craving I have for this white powder. I still feel that way now," the warrior whispered. This was all she could take and she buried her head in her hands. Her whole body shook and she felt sick to her stomach.
Cyrene pulled Xena's hands away from her face and looked into the tortured eyes of her daughter. "It's over now, little one. You have come back to us. You are not a monster. For the rest of your life, you will have to deal with the time when you were. We can see the goodness in you and respect you the more for your struggle over your own darkness. Gabrielle and I love you and we'll always be here for you."
"Oh, mother, you still don't understand. I'm capable of murder and worse even now. I have not really changed down deep. Not a day goes by when I don't think of the possibility." This was all Xena could say and as Gabrielle's and her mother's arms closed around her, sobs welled up in her breast. The break down of the great warrior was complete. They held each other until there were no more tears to shed.
Cyrene got up and went into the kitchen area to start a fire and boil some tea. Gabrielle gently wiped her friends troubled face with a damp cloth and stroked her dark tangled hair. Eventually, the tired warrior slipped into a deep sleep, not troubled, for a change, by faces of the dead.
Gabrielle stayed and watched over the warrior in her sleep. As the early morning approached, the warrior stirred and the bard was instantly wide awake and by her side. Gabrielle was worried. All this emotional upset on top of the physical threats to the warrior's health might be too much for her. She had seen in Xena's eyes a fleeting look of sheer madness. She was concerned for her friend's well-being and her sanity and she knew the next few hours would be critical.
Xena's eyes opened and she smiled as she saw the bard next to her. "Gabrielle," she whispered softly. "Gabrielle, please give me a little of the white powder. It will take the pain away and help me sleep. Please Gabrielle."
The young bard drew back and shook her head. "No, Xena. There isn't any more powder. It's gone. Go back to sleep and rest."
The warrior's eyes narrowed and she arched an eyebrow. "Don't hold out on me, I know you have some. Come on, Gabrielle share some with me, please."
"Xena," Gabrielle stated more firmly and with a trace of annoyance, "I told you, the powder is gone. There isn't any."
The warrior moved forward and put her feet on the floor. Her eyes shot blue flames as she grabbed the bard by the arm. Even in her weakened state, she was still strong enough to jerk the bard to her feet and spin her towards the open door. "I won't ask again, now I'm telling you. Go to the medicine pouch and get me some of the white powder. Do it!"
"Xena," Gabrielle faltered. She could feel the cold icy gaze of the warrior upon her and now knew how the victims of the warrior princess must have felt before they were slain. Her eyes held no warmth or compassion only cold fury. They were not human. She rose to her feet and advanced towards the bard. Gabrielle realized that she was suddenly terribly afraid of this woman. If Xena were to kill or harm her, all was lost, for the warrior would never forgive herself.
Gabrielle backed away from the enraged warrior playing for time. She kept calling Xena's name hoping something would click. Suddenly, the warrior reached out, grabbed the bard by the arm and jerked her close to her body. She reached for the bard and Gabrielle saw her murder in the icy blue stare of her best friend.
"Xena, look at me," Gabrielle begged her friend. The warrior's hand closed around the bard's neck but then she stopped and gazed intently at the figure in front of her. Havoc played across the warrior's face as she fought her private war with her demons and self control. Finally, she shook her head and released the bard. "Go quickly, Gabrielle. Leave this room and lock the door. Do it, now!" The command came out as a roar. Then Xena whirled back towards her with sudden fury.
Gabrielle turned and fled the room and slammed the door behind her. She quickly turned the key in the heavy lock and laid her forehead against the structure as a sob escaped her throat. She could hear Xena thrashing about on the other side of the door. Suddenly, a cracking noise was heard as a chair was smashed against a wall. Then there was the sound of the bed being dragged across the floor. Xena was panting and muttering to herself. So much for Xena's weakened state, Gabrielle thought ruefully to herself.
Next, a scream followed by a cry came from the little room. It truly sounded like Xena was going mad. Another roar from the room made the bard think a wild animal was on the other side of the door. She kept her head against the door and pressed her body against it as well to add strength to its solid structure.
Cyrene slipped next to the young bard and also listened at the door. "What is going on in there?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "She ordered me out and told me to lock the door. Its pretty bad."
Cyrene nodded and listened to the noises that came from the room. "How strong is this door?" asked Gabrielle.
"Toris build it from oak to protect Xena when she was ten from intruders. It's as solid as they come."
"Good," the bard said, "It better be because its got to protect us from Xena."
No sooner had she said these words when a terrible crash was heard and the door shook. "Gabrielle, let me out. Give me that powder now," the warrior screamed. Then there was another crash and a jolt so strong that both women were thrown away from the door. A cracking noise was heard as the solid door began to weaken.
Both women ran back to the door and pushed their bodies against it as they heard Xena moving back and preparing for another assault on the structure. They heard her rush forward but instead of a loud crack they heard a strange thump followed by a splat as if a melon had been dropped on the hard ground. Then the sound of a body sliding against the door to the ground was heard. Finally, there was total silence on the other side of the door.
The two women exchanged glances. "Open the door," commanded Cyrene. "No, wait," Gabrielle pleaded. "We must wait to be sure. Xena's very clever. We have to make sure she can't hurt us. It's for her sake as well as for ours."
They let a few minutes elapse and when no sound came through the door, Gabrielle reached down and unlocked it. They opened the door slowly as it hung crookedly on its hinges. There on the floor in a heap lay the warrior princess. Her head lay to one side and blood flowed from a deep cut over her eye. The rest of her body was curled into a fetal position. The side of her face was beginning to swell. It was clear that instead of using her broad shoulders to break the door down, her last lunge at the structure had been with her head. The warrior had chosen to damage herself rather than risk breaking the door down and hurting her loved ones.
With Cyrene on one side and Gabrielle on the other, they gently lifted the warrior onto the lopsided bed and pulled it back against the wall. Gabrielle ran to get a cloth to stop the bleeding and to get some cold water on Xena's battered face. Cyrene, with tears running down her cheek, kept talking to her daughter and held her hand trying to wake her. It was no use, she was out cold.
Gabrielle tended to the cut and kept cold compresses on the side of Xena's face and head as both continued to swell. The right side of her face and eye began to darken as a huge bruise made its appearance. Morning came and went and still the warrior remained unconscious. Gabrielle went off to bed to catch a few hours of sleep as Cyrene watched over her daughter. They had cleaned up the little room and pulled a bench in to sit on as both chairs had been demolished by the warrior.
As the late afternoon sun came through the little window, Gabrielle returned to the room to face a worried Cyrene. "We'll have to try to wake her. She has been out too long."
Cyrene nodded and went to get more cool water. They wiped the warrior's face and then Gabrielle gently shook her. "Xena, Xena can you hear me. Please, Xena you have to wake up." There was no movement from the warrior, so Gabrielle tried again. This time she was firmer and called more loudly. Sill there was no response.
"Come on, Xena. I know you're in there. Come back to us. Please come back," the bard implored. Cyrene again put a damp cloth on the forehead of her daughter. "Xena, come on, wake up."
Finally, when both women had almost given up hope, a faint murmur came from their unconscious patient. Slowly she stirred and her eyes opened. She saw two anxious faces peering down at her and she smiled wanly. "Don't," Gabrielle cautioned as she moved her head. A thousand stars danced before her and the world spun.
"Guess I'll lay still. What happened? Feels like I was kicked in the head by a horse," Xena whispered hoarsely.
"Do you remember anything?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena closed her eyes and tried to focus. She couldn't recall much. Everything seemed a blur. "No, what happened?"
Gabrielle smiled, relieved. "You hit your head on the door. You have a bad cut and the side of your face is bruised. You're right eye is about swollen shut. Looks like you lost a fight with a Cyclops. In fact you sort of look like one."
Xena grinned at her best friend, crookedly. "Guess I've looked better."
Cyrene smiled at her daughter. "You've never looked better to me."
As evening came, Gabrielle and Cyrene took turns keeping the warrior princess awake. She was able to eat and drink a little. Although her face was hideous to look at, her color was better. As Cyrene bustled about in the kitchen cleaning up, Gabrielle kept a close watch on her friend. Xena turned to the young bard and looked searchingly into her eyes. "It was bad, wasn't it?" she asked.
"Are you starting to remember anything at all of yesterday or last night?"
Xena tried to focus her whirling thoughts. Her head throbbed. "I remember mother telling stories and........" her voice trailed off as she recalled her admission of her first killing.
Gabrielle smiled at her friend gently, "And after that?"
"Everything is black. Gabrielle, did I hurt you or mother?" The worry and concern on the warrior's face touched the young bard.
"No Xena, as usual, you took it all out on yourself. I must say though, you were pretty scary."
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. You should have not been here. Seeing someone go through this is a terrible experience."
"How do you feel?
"Other than my head, not too bad." Xena smiled reassuringly at her friend.
"Do you still crave the drug?" Gabrielle asked with concern in her voice.
"I still have a few pangs in my stomach but nothing too severe. I think the worst is past."
Gabrielle looked upward, "Thank the gods for that."
Xena grabbed her friend's hand and looked deeply into her eyes. "I just wanted you to know....that is...thanks for being here for me.....I uh..."
Gabrielle smiled at her friend, "I love you, too."
As the night wore on, Gabrielle and Cyrene took turns watching over the sleeping warrior. There was little need as Xena slept peacefully. As early dawn approached the warrior awoke, refreshed and stronger. Her eyes softened as she glanced over and saw Gabrielle sleeping soundly with her head resting against the wall. She looked so worn and exhausted.
Quietly the warrior slipped out of bed and moved through the door into the outer room. She pulled on her leathers and armor. Finally, dropping her sword into its customary place on her back, she sank to a bench in exhaustion. She was amazed at how weak she was! After resting a moment, she noiselessly slipped out of the little house and headed up the grassy hill. There was one more thing that had to be done.
Xena climbed the little hill slowly, stopping frequently for rests. How heavy her armor and sword felt! She shook her head. Getting back into fighting shape was not going to be easy. Finally, she reached the top of the hill. After a quick rest under her old tree, she moved out into the early morning sun light. She closed her eyes and concentrated on a face. She whispered softly, "Ares."
Instantly before her appeared a vision and then the solid form of the god. He smiled at her, self-assured and arrogant. "A little late aren't you, my dear. Thought we had a date to meet earlier."
Xena looked into his cold eyes and smiled as well, "I've been a little busy."
"Yes, I can see that. Your face is not up to its usual form."
Annoyance rose in Xena but she pushed it away. She was tired of always being on the defensive when she faced this god. "I've come as I promised to tell you of my answer to your proposal."
"My answer is no. You don't own my soul, I do. It took mother and Gabrielle to help me see that. I can give my soul away but you can't take it. Its not yours to take and I won't give it to you. Not now, not ever."
"But Xena, I'm a part of your soul. You can't deny that." Ares replied with a soft persuasive voice and smile.
"My soul is filled with darkness, that I don't deny. Every day of my life, I will fight the dark and keep looking for the light." Xena's blue eyes snapped fire and she stared defiantly into Ares' face. "I will make sure that the blackness of my soul will not harm another human being on this earth, this I swear. I will not murder in cold blood and I will only fight for the common good."
"And just how are you going to fight for good with no strength and your skills withered away? How will you feel when you see your village destroyed, your loved ones butchered and you unable to lift a finger to help?" he sneered. "You'll beg for my help then."
"No, I won't. Kill me if you want, do what you will to others. The fates will determine the outcome of your interference. I will get strong again without your help. I will do it myself. To my last breath, I will defend my home and my family. I'm not afraid of you or what you will do. I'm never coming back to you."
Ares shook with rage. As he stared at the defiant warrior before him he drew his sword. Xena stood still and watched coldly as the brutal god took a step towards her with his sword raised. She made no attempt to draw her own weapon but drew a deep breath. She waited for the sword to pierce her body. She never lowered her gaze but stared into his enraged eyes. Her own fury and emotions were well under control and she had no fear. Death would be such a relief!
With a roar of defeat, Ares lowered his sword and swung away. He hissed under his breath, "You'll be sorry for this. You will call my name in battle, that I promise you." With that he vanished.
Xena slumped forward as the strain of the encounter left her momentarily weak. She turned slowly and shook her head. Time to focus. She had to start working to regain her strength right now. As she slowly jogged to the tree on the next hill, she felt the presence of others watching her. She smiled and looked over her shoulder at the bushes on the side of the hill. Barely visible were two heads, one dark and one light colored, Gabrielle and her mother. It was comforting to know they were still watching over her. She would always need their love and devotion. For the first time, she accepted this fact and accepted their gift.
Gods, she thought, that tree is a long ways away.
Xena finished tying the last bundles onto the saddle on Argo. Her mother had been way too generous with food and utensils. As Xena checked the cinch strap of the saddle she rolled her eyes, "Argo, your belly has grown twice its normal size. You need work." The mare nickered her response. She seemed glad to be off and shook her head impatiently.
"OK, girl. Let's go pick up Gabrielle." With that the warrior swung easily into the saddle. How good it felt to have her strength back. Never again would the warrior take her health for granted. It had taken several months of constant effort and pain before jogs over the grassy hills had become easy. Her sword practice had finally paid off in strong arms and shoulders. Xena knew that she was not back fully but she was close enough to be able to deal with whatever she and Gabrielle encountered on the road. It was time to be off.
She had broken the news to her mother the night before. They had walked the grassy hill, arm in arm and stopped by the old oak to enjoy the sunset. Cyrene had voiced the hope that her daughter might settle down in her home village. Xena had shook her head sadly. There was too much yet to be atoned for to allow that. "Your pursuit of redemption is an addiction we both must live with and the world is a better place as a result," Cyrene had noted. Best of all, mother and daughter had found each other again. No matter where the warrior roamed, she knew she had her mother's love with her always. It was a wonderful feeling.
As Xena cantered into the small village and up to the tavern, friendly faces greeted her and waved. She waved back and swung off Argo to go inside the small structure. Gabrielle had wanted to say good bye to Cyrene. This adventure had brought them very close.
As Xena entered the darkened room, she heard a growl which made her instantly stop cold. "I've been waiting a long time to pay you back for the knock on the head you gave me. Took me months but now I'm here and I'll put my brand on you."
As the warrior stiffened she saw a huge, ugly brute holding a dagger to her mother. Gabrielle was on the floor in a daze. At once, Xena recognized the loud fool who interrupted Gabrielle's story telling long ago.
Giving her war cry "YaYaYaYaYaYa" Xena flipped over the astonished lout and grabbed his wrist bending it back. The dagger fell to the floor. She pulled the man's arm around and swung him out the door and onto the dusty road in front of the tavern. Quickly, a crowd gathered.
"Well, well," the warrior softly purred. "Last time you were here, you wanted to meet the warrior princess and give her a thrashing. Still want to? Here I am." With this she motioned the man to his feet.
He jumped up and with a roar bulled his way forward wildly swinging his meaty fists.
Xena caught him in the face with a knee and then a kick in the chest sent him sprawling on the ground. She grabbed him by the hair and forced him to his feet. An elbow in the face and knee to the stomach soon had him on the ground again. Once more he struggled to his feet, wobbly. The warrior hit him blow after blow and finally toppled him over. He lay still in the dirt. The rage on the warrior's face was fearsome. She kicked him in the side and when he didn't move she made for him again.
"Xena," Gabrielle called from the front door of the tavern. The warrior looked back at the face of her friend and her mother standing behind her.
"Oh, don't worry," the warrior spoke softly but with menace still in her voice. "I won't kill him but he will remember me enough to stay away from here." With that she jerked the brute to his feet and dragged him to a water trough where she threw him in it. He came up sputtering and coughing.
Xena peered deep into his face and pulled his chin up. "Get out of this village and don't you ever come back. If I catch you here again, I will kill you," she hissed. With that she dropped his head back and watched as he climbed out of the trough and slunk away.
She turned back to Gabrielle and openly grinned. Gods it felt good to be in fighting form again!
As she turned, the town's people cheered and began to chant "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na!" Then from the back of the crowd, she heard Moreus' deep baritone, "Battle on!" She grinned wider, swung onto Argo's back and extended a hand to the bard. Gabrielle grinned back and swung up behind her friend, staff in hand.
"Good bye, mother. Be well. We'll be back to see you soon."
"Good bye, my little ones. Keep safe."
With that Xena urged the palomino into a canter. Soon they were out of the little village and into the countryside.
"Where are we headed?" asked the bard.
"Thought we would head north and check out this Hun thing. I don't think Ares would lie about that."
Gabrielle smiled at the sound of a new adventure unfolding. "This will make a great story."
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