Time After Time
Brigid Doyle -LPDir@aol.com
Disclaimer: Same as usual, I don't own these characters just borrow them. This story was started way back before Season 6 began and got shelved for quite a while, then a new friend encouraged me to continue when I was ready to quit. It was supposed to be short and funny, but somewhere along the line it took on a mind of its own. Support is a wonderful thing, belief is even better. So this one is for Anndro. Thanks a bunch!
Subtext: I won't even discuss it. People see what they want anyway.
The soft pastel light of the full moon cast a foggy glow around the dark haired woman who sat quietly on a large fallen tree trunk. She massaged the spot in the middle of her forehead, just above her eyebrows, with two fingers. The headache that was starting there would soon consume much more. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back while she drew a deep breath through her nose and let it out in a soft hush across her lips. Slowly, the warrior opened her eyes and blinked at the beams from the sky's lesser light.
This day had been more than even the battle worn woman could withstand. She had come close to losing everything that mattered and had been even closer to letting down the guard that would allow her own life to slip away. She hadn't felt that way in five years. She closed her eyes and laughed silently. 'Make that thirty years ' she thought as she shook her head slowly.
A quick intake of breath and a short cough brought her attention quickly to one of the forms that slept close to the crackling fire a few feet away. She rose with maternal stealth to minister to one of her patients. 'Patients,' she huffed as she stooped next to the fair-haired young woman. She gently brushed the short bangs from the still pale face. "Victims would be more likely," the warrior whispered to the sleeping girl. "This makes the second time I've almost taken your life myself, Gabrielle." She continued speaking although the younger warrior slept undisturbed. Something about that look of innocence, even after all she had survived, brought Xena to softly pet the soft blonde wisps of hair at the girl's temple. 'Twice in this lifetime I have allowed the darkest part of myself to almost take your life.' Even the thought, unspoken, caused Xena's breath to catch and her eyes to well with unspent tears. "You'll never ever know how sorry I am, Gabrielle," she whispered to the sleeping girl. "If I could somehow take it all back, change everything that was, or just ." The warrior stopped, realizing how silly she sounded, how ridiculous the whole thing seemed in the light of all that had happened in the short time she had come to know this 'not-so-young-anymore' girl that slept so soundly after their recent ordeal. She closed her eyes and thanked whatever the power was that protected her protégé from that darkest part of herself.
The second bundle of blankets and furs stirred in the throes of an unnamed night terror. The darker young girl moaned once as she tossed herself quickly to her opposite side and childishly pulled the blankets over her face in an attempt to outrun the nightmare. Xena moved quietly and effortlessly to the girl's side and laid a hand on the tangled hair that stuck out from the coverings. "Shh, shh," she cooed in motherly comfort. She had no trouble visualizing the demons that sought her daughter's soul as she slept. The warrior had spent many nights running from her own guilt over the nightmares she had caused. The mother part of her wanted to gather the frightened girl into her arms, rock her gently and sing the sweet lullabies she had crooned to the infant she had cuddled such a short time ago. The warrior in her knew that the woman before her was a trained fighter, just as she was, and that any quick motion would certainly result in injury to one (or both of them). Any hope Xena had ever had of holding her dear child to her breast, of breathing in the sweet scent of her, of showing her the beauty and hope in the world had been dashed from her grasp in some cruel twist of fate. Eve breathed quickly and let out a short sob as she once again tossed and turned in her restless, but deep, sleep. Xena brushed the back of her fingers lightly across her daughter's cheek causing the girl to gasp and pull away with a sudden panic. Both warriors recoiled and froze, anticipating their 'opponent's' next move.
Even the sounds of the night seemed to inhale and hold a collective breath for that moment. In her sleep, Eve raised a forearm across her face in defense of her unseen attacker. An attacker that Xena was sure had, by now, been incorporated into her child's already terrifying dreamscape. A beat later the older warrior realized she too was holding both hands out in front of her as if in defense. She exhaled silently, hoping not to bring more agony to her already suffering progeny. Xena turned her hands slowly toward her and brought them up to eye level. She stared at her palms for a moment before closing her eyes tightly and squeezing unshed tears across her cheeks. Quickly she brought her hands to her mouth to prevent the sob from escaping from her lips. It caught, strangled in her throat causing the warrior's body to tremble violently. She covered her face with both hands and allowed the anguish that had built in the past few days, climaxing in a battle not only for the sake of the world, but inevitably for the lives of her very heart and soul, to fall in silent tears.
Had the warrior been attentive to her surroundings, she would have sensed the presence only a few feet from the edge of the firelight. Had she not been so intent on suffocating her own sorrow, she would have heard the soft weeping of that same presence as it sympathized with her suffering. This quiet presence watched the unlikely scene unfold before it, longing to bring an end to the overwhelming agony. This presence had always found safety in the strength of the Warrior Princess, peace in her wisdom, and hope in her defense of justice. The sight of this strong warrior wracked with such pain, such inconsolable hurt was beyond what the presence could withstand. It brushed away its own tears and vowed to stay close until the time and opportunity allowed it to bring this spectacle to an end. The presence was eternally patient and certain the time was close at hand. It drew back into the hedgerow to wait in arduous silence.
Xena drew a quick breath and held it, noticing a change in the soft breeze that carried across the campsite. Even the flames of the small fire seemed to wriggle and drift in the direction the air now moved. She quickly ran the side of her hand across both eyes and rose in one move, making a swift scan of the tree line. She blinked her teary eyes into focus and brought her usual warrior demeanor firmly into place. One hand rested lightly on the hilt of the sword that had become part of her arm as she stood; the other hovered anxiously over the chakrum at her waist. She stood silently daring who ever, or whatever, might be lurking in the darkness to make its move. The brush shook. The sword glinted in the moonlight. The warrior braced herself to once again defend her loved ones. The foliage shuddered violently before expelling a wild-eyed hare that darted along the edge of the brush before disappearing under a thick leafed hedge at the opposite end of the small clearing. In the distance the warrior's keen hearing found the hoot of an owl. She waited, tense and still anticipant, watching the spot where the rabbit had appeared. But the forest had once again calmed and the sounds of the night resumed their song.
The warrior relaxed, slowly lowering her sword and flexing the fingers that had braced for use of her most deadly weapon. She took small, quick breaths to a calm her warrior readiness. "Nothing, nothing," she whispered to herself, "for now". She looked at the sword in her hand then with one silent fluent motion she drove it into the soft dirt at her feet. "When will this end?" She asked no one.
The presence fought the urge to answer, knowing the time was not yet right.
Once again Xena turned to the two young women that slept close to the fire. Her great hope and her dear heart so close now they melded into one love so different, yet so similar. Both once so innocent and pure, now scarred by the very darkness she fought so hard to defeat in herself. Her sweet young bard and her darling baby the last thing she had ever hoped they would be, the one thing she secretly forbid them to become warriors. No longer did a stubborn young girl sleep soundly amidst dreams of grandeur. No longer did a chubby infant gurgle and smile in the moonlit hours of the night. No no longer before her now were the scarred and battered survivors of a war that should not have begun, but could not have been deterred.
The great warrior sunk to her knees between the sleeping forms. Once again she found herself in the midst of juvenile aspirations. "I wish I could have you back. I wish I could do it all again do it right make it right." She promised her 'girls' between the sobs she somehow contained. "I wish you could have back your innocence, your trust your light. I wish I could have back those years and keep you from making the same mistakes the same horrors . I would do anything to give that back to you anything." Slowly the exhausted warrior dropped to her own bedroll realizing the futility of her desires and the useless frustration of wishing for such impossibilities. 'What's done is done.' Her own mother's voice called to her from some distant memory. That memory brought little comfort to the distraught warrior, but enough to allow her extreme fatigue to finally overtake her resolve and pull her into the same deep sleep that held her companions.
The presence smiled as it settled into a comfortable niche in the brush. The time was near, but for now it would keep watch on the sleeping warriors, both young and old.
Dawn broke hazy with a soft pink glow that turned the world a quiet calm color. The sunlight seemed almost liquid as it peeked through leaves and branches on its way to bring light and warmth to the earth. The morning dew glistened like jewels on the blades of tall grass and the very tips of every leaflet. Even the birds, who were always to first to greet the rising sun, seemed to sing their morning song more sweetly, more softly and more lovingly than on any day before.
Gabrielle blinked a few times as her eyes focused in the strange morning light. She shivered a bit as the chill of that birth of the day ran across her body. The fire had dwindled to little more that a tendril of smoke curling up from flickering embers. The girl's breath seemed solid as its cloudy vapor materialized before her. She cast a quick glance at Xena's bedroll, sure that the warrior would be long awake and off doing whatever it was warriors felt they needed to do before the sun peeked over the horizon. Her brow wrinkled when she discovered her friend curled tightly under the heavy furs of her bedroll and for a moment she worried that the wounds Xena had earned in her recent battle with the Olympians may have been worse than she had first inspected. The warrior's soft steady breathing told her all was well. Still it was odd for Gabrielle to wake before her older and much more wary mentor. Even on those rare occasions when she did Xena was always awakened by the girl's movement (no matter how quiet or careful Gabrielle attempted to be). Gabrielle sat up carefully, and pulled her own blanket snugly around her shoulders. She sat cross-legged and let out a deep breath that almost immediately became a miniature cloud, hanging before her eyes for a few seconds before dissipating. It was no easy task to decide whether to say put and wait for the perpetually warm Xena to awaken or brave the morning cold to retrieve more firewood on her own. A few more minutes wouldn't hurt. She would just wait. 'Not for Xena,' she told herself, 'just until I warm up a little bit more.'
Eve tossed a bit under her blankets as she wriggled herself into a more comfortable position and peeked from under the hood of coverings at the shivering bard that sat across the not-so-warming fire. She moved only her eyes to see her mother sleeping just a few feet away. Livia never would have allowed herself to be so vulnerable. Eve felt more safe and content than she thought possible, only faint memories of such a feeling tickled her mind. It made her smile, not that evil-get-even smile, but a genuine smile. It wasn't a feeling the young woman was familiar with, but it was one she definitely felt she could get used to very easily. She glanced back at Gabrielle only to find that she was staring back. Gabrielle smiled softly and motioned with only her eyebrows toward the stream that gurgled to the left of the campsite. Eve took the cue instantly. She rose with the same silent catlike stealth that was her mother's trademark. Gabrielle somehow could not help but to feel a twinge of pride in watching the young woman. She slid from beneath her own covering and resisted the urge to rub her hands over the chilled gooseflesh of her arms. 'I really hate the cold', she thought to herself, 'think I'd get used to it after all this, but still...' The thought dwindled as she realized Eve had already disappeared into the brush. She hurried to catch up to the 'child' that was now at least three years her senior.
The young warrior stood at the edge of the small stream and stared toward the rising sun. It seemed to burst upon the horizon in a shower of color. Gabrielle had to admit it was quite a sunrise and she wondered if some unseen power was using it to say a little more than simply, 'Good Morning'.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" She said softly as she approached Eve from behind.
The girl nodded, "I think it's the first one I've ever seen."
Gabrielle stooped and drew a handful of water, she sipped it slowly then splashed a bit across her face. She smiled as she remembered showing the infant Eve more than one sunrise just (what seemed to her) a few months ago. "You must have seen the sunrise as a child, Eve, must have wondered about it, about "
Eve hung her head for a moment as Gabrielle stood and turned to face her. Before the younger woman could begin to apologize she continued. "I suppose I did, but it wasnt the same. My uncle " She paused for a moment as if recalling some lost thought. "I was the daughter of Rome, Gabrielle, " she smiled an evil smile that startled her companion, "there was no light greater than my own." Then just as quickly it disappeared and she finished in little more than a whisper, "humility allows you to see things so much more clearly."
Gabrielle let out a soft breath, hoping that Eve did not see her relief and nodded in agreement. She smiled at the warrior who now seemed so unguarded; it was a look Gabrielle had seen many times before. The memory mixed with the reality of the moment and a sob caught in the bard-turned-warrior's throat. She brushed an errant tear away quickly as she turned back to view the rising sun.
"I understand why you and mother did what you had to do, Gabrielle, but I missed so much." She laughed a small sad laugh. "I even understand what Agustus did was to protect me and to remain loyal to both of you. You must have been good friends once."
Gabrielle recalled her recent meeting with the young Octavius and the tragic death of the Queen of the Nile. It was a story for another time. In reality she barely knew the young emperor. He was just a boy trying to fill the very large shoes of that pompous ass that had brought so much pain to so many. She gritted her teeth at the memory of Caesar, almost thanking the powers that be for the fate that befell him. There were so many things she could tell this girl, so many stories she and Xena could have shared with her as she grew. So many mistakes she might have helped the girl avoid. Perhaps, Eve might even have followed the way of the storyteller herself.
"You must have known a lot of people then," Eve smiled as she continued. "I was able to read a bit of your scrolls back at Virgil's place. I was reading the story of finding the baby in the reeds when you " She stopped suddenly and stared into the green eyes that stared back.
"Eve, I " Gabrielle began.
Eve held up one hand and raised an eyebrow signaling the girl to stop. Instinctively Gabrielle did just that. "I know it wasn't you, Gabrielle. The furies were driving you mad. We were being manipulated in order to avoid what was to be inevitable. Perhaps that is what was meant to be. Perhaps it was part of the plan."
Gabrielle sighed, she hadn't thought about that but it certainly was a possibility.
"I am sorry mother had to hurt you. I know it hurt her as well. She must love you very much." The girl smiled as if she longed for that same unconditional tenderness.
Gabrielle turned and placed a hand on Eve's arm, "she loves you Eve. She loves you very much, more than you can imagine or measure. She always did."
Eve smiled for a moment then looked away as a tear rolled over her cheek. "You must have had a wonderful mother, Gabrielle," she said quickly.
Gabrielle swallowed hard; it was the first she had even thought of her parents. In her head she quickly calculated their years and told herself they could not possibly be alive. Even her baby sister was now old enough to be a grandmother. "Both of my parents were wonderful " her voice cracked as she spoke, "I don't think I ever told them that. I think I may have hurt them an awful lot with the choices I made and the paths I followed."
"But they still loved you?" The girl seemed anxious to know.
"I I think yes, yes they did," Gabrielle confessed more to herself than to the girl. "I don't think they always understood me, but I know they always loved me."
Eve looked over her shoulder toward the clearing where Xena still slept. "You could never have done the things I've done. I don't deserve my mother's love." The last part of her statement she spat out in disgust. "I wish I wish " She stopped herself and turned away quickly, stooping to collect the driest pieces of wood for the dwindling fire in their campsite.
Gabrielle watched as the girl pulled her emotions back into check, turning fear and pain into anger. Thankfully she took out that anger on the branches she pulled from the ground and slammed into her arms. She knew enough about warriors to keep her distance. She knew enough about this warrior to know she would not appreciate blatantly showing her weakness and tears at this time. "I wish too, Eve," the smaller, fairer girl whispered to the wind. "I wish you could have that time with your mother. I wish she could have known you and you could have known her. I wish her love surrounded you and protected you over all those years and brought you to another path. And I wish you could love her like I do." She watched as Eve marched along the stream's edge, still collecting wood. After a few moments Gabrielle let out a soft sigh and began to follow.
The wind swirled a few dry leaves into a tiny whirlwind and if either young woman had been listening they might have heard Gabrielle's whispered wish repeat itself over and over in rapid succession within that zephyr. It swirled and twirled into a thin pillar that reached into the air landing softly in the palm of the presence that had followed both girls from the campsite and watched soundlessly from the trees. The wish wind perched in that soft hand as it relaxed and melted into a soft blue glow. The presence smiled. It was time. All had come together. All was in place. The presence drew a breath as it lifted its palm to its lips, then blew softly across the puddled luminescence there. The liquid seemed to solidify as if it became ice then broke into millions of tiny sparkles and drifted out in an arc, turning the world a bright blinding soft blue.
Gabrielle turned at the sound of a soft vibration only to immediately shield her eyes at the brilliance before her. She knew she tried to scream to Eve, but she never heard her own voice. A few steps behind her Eve had also turned and stood mesmerized by the sight. The shimmering cloud engulfed Gabrielle as if in slow motion. A moment later the world disappeared in a warm burst of azure.
Xena was on her feet, sword draw, before her eyes were fully open. The shriek that cut the still morning air did nothing for the headache that had not been cured by what felt like the most restful sleep she had had in too many nights to count. She burst through the thicket and stood at the edge of the stream scanning the entire area for what terror had been wrought upon her and her companions this morning. The shrill piercing intonation continued as if its owner had neither need nor desire to draw a breath and re-establish its hold on that earsplitting note. A wail so desperate could only mean more trouble. The warrior pivoted toward the sound and broke into a slow cautious trot along the stream's bank, following the two sets of footprints that lead in the same direction. Her rude awakening, her pounding headache and that gods-awful keening kept her from recognizing who might have left the marks in the soft wet sand. She rounded the bend in the stream leaping effortlessly over a fallen tree trunk and stopped practically in midair.
The stream spread out across a much larger bed boasting itself now more as a river than a mere trickle of water through a wooded area. A child stood alone in the small clearing that made up what might have been called a beach. That child seemed to be the being whose caterwauling had brought the Warrior Princess to arms. She stood still and straight with both hands clenched in fists at the ends of rigid arms. Her face was pulled tight, eyes closed, but mouth opened wide and still screeching at the top off her lungs. Although the child seemed small and thin the warrior was sure that part of her body was healthy and probably a bit large for her petite frame.
Xena spun in a circle taking in the entire area. There was no sign of struggle, no evidence of hostility or battle, no sign that anyone was anywhere near or had been anywhere near this bellowing child. Still, the kid had to be screaming for some reason. Perhaps she had escaped slavers or had seen some horrific tragedy befall her family. The child's pitch raised an octave, driving what felt like a burning pike into the warrior's ear. Xena stepped closer to the girl.
"Hey," she said softly, "hey, what's all the noise?" She took a few more steps toward the child whose screaming was more than likely preventing her from hearing a thing the warrior said. "Are you hurt?" Xena asked a little louder, but still not matching the child's timbre. She shook her head as she slid her sword into its sheathe and closed the clasp that kept her chakrum safe at her side. She stopped ten feet from the child and placed both hands on her hips. The kid had to take a breath eventually all she had to do was wait. If she wasn't totally deafened by that time, maybe she could get some answers. One thing for sure, she knew, was that whatever the danger was it was not close. The child's screaming had more than likely driven away any predators, if it hadn't she'd certainly have been knocked senseless by now (if only to just shut her up!). Xena admonished herself silently for that last thought. After all this was a child, alone in the woods not long after dawn, there had to be some explanation. Maybe she was just lost. Simple as that, lost, and just as simple to solve. She'd just return the wailing waif to her parents and hopefully her hearing would return by sundown. But for now enough was enough, the warrior placed two fingers against her bottom lip and let out a piercing whistle that drown out the child's scream completely.
The girl stopped mid-shriek and gaped wide-eyed at the warrior. Her mouth hung open as well, almost as if it were stuck in that position.
"Now that's better," Xena smiled her most friendly smile as she held out both hands to show the child she meant no harm. "Why don't you tell me what all this yell ." The warrior never completed the statement. The child had taken a deep breath, which only seemed to make her eyes grow even wider, then let out a teeth rattling scream that would manage to pale the warrior's familiar ululation. Xena cringed and raised her hands to both ears. Her patience was wearing thin, as soon as she was close enough to this little siren she had every intention of using whatever means necessary to gag her until her urge to shriek was quelled. The kid's eyes were squeezed just as tightly shut now, as they were when the warrior first spotted her. In just a few more steps
Xena had not seen nor heard (not that anything could be heard over little Miss Lofty Lungs) the creature that slammed headfirst into her midsection. This second larger child managed to knock the warrior off balance and temporarily relieve her of her breath. Xena gasped to draw in oxygen while at the same time tried to deflect the blows this new oddity was inflicting on her. The child was battering the warrior with both fists and landing more than one solid kick with either foot. It would have been comical, but the strangest thing was that this kid was actually making her punishment count. Luckily the child was not screaming to match her smaller friend, but the string of curse words that poured from the girl's lips brought a blush to the hardened veteran's cheeks. Xena hadn't even heard most of those words until she was at least five years older than this kid and she hadn't used them well, someone's mother had better had a long talk with this kid AFTER she found a bar of soap! The warrior did her best to parry the blows the girl was landing on her without hurting the child in her effort. The combination of this ridiculous battle and the unending screech of the smaller child took its toll on the warrior rather quickly. She caught the larger girl's fist with one hand, seconds before it would have struck her chin. Easily she spun the skinny girl in a complete circle using her own arm to trap her against her armor. This only angered the girl even more. She kicked and stomped at the warrior's feet but found no purchase.
"Playtime's over," Xena growled through her teeth as she turned the girl a second time and easily tossed her over her shoulder. She took two long strides and snatched the smaller child under her other arm pinning her securely against her hip. "And so's the music lesson!" The second child's scream snapped off with a startled yelp that quickly turned into breathy sobbing. "Great, just great, " the warrior growled more to herself than to the children. "Just what I need." The older child pounded her fists against the warrior's back and let loose a second round of vehement swearing that included a few words in Latin. Xena was sure she had never heard them before but taken the context of the threats the girl was making she was just as sure they were variations on a few choice Greek terms. The warrior shook her head and rolled her eyes as she hoisted both children into a better grip and marched back toward camp.
"GABRIELLE! EVE! I could use a little help here!" She barked angrily as she neared the clearing. "Just like you to sleep in while I " Xena stopped cold staring at the vacant campsite. She slid her larger licentious captive to the ground letting the girl drop roughly on her backside. The child pushed herself away without taking her eyes off the warrior as she kicked dirt toward Xena with both heels. She took handfuls of pebbles and leaves and threw those in the warrior's direction as well. The smaller child was deposited on the nearest pile of furs and blankets. She landed face first then rolled over and sat up quickly, brushing the tears from her eyes with both fists. She blinked up at the warrior who now towered above her.
Xena caught a large stone that sailed toward her face without turning her head or flinching so much as a muscle. She turned and glared at the larger child who glared right back with a look so smug, so defiant, that the warrior was tempted to leave her handprint across the child's cheek. She looked at the rock then back at the child. "Knock it off," she warned in a tone so feral that the younger child's crying stopped immediately. The older girl smirked a sarcastic smile, crossed her arms over her chest with a disgusted huff and looked away.
'Smart move,' Xena remarked to herself, knowing she was very close to showing this smart-alec kid a bit of her dark side. 'Now to solve the second mystery.' Gabrielle and Eve had vanished. If they had awakened and found the warrior gone they would not have left without leaving some sign. One of them would have stayed behind. They had to have heard that screaming. They would have come running! But they were not here and she had not passed them on the way back.
"GABRIELLE!" The warrior called again. "EVE!" Her voice echoed in the silence of the shattered morning.
Xena paced back and forth between her two small 'captives' as she strained to hear any evidence that her daughter and best friend were close or at least making their way back to camp. Only the slight rustle of leaves in the early morning breeze answered her call. She ran a hand through her dark hair and glanced at the more intrepid of the children. The girl glared back at her with sheer defiance. She appeared to be a child of means, dressed in a light linen tunic that rose over one shoulder and tied at the waist with a gold chord. At closer inspection Xena sensed it was spun with actual gold and probably worth more than any farmer in this area might hope to earn, even with the perfect crop, in more than five seasons. If these two were victims of highwaymen or marauders that item itself would have been of major interest. The girl would certainly have been relieved of it immediately. She glowered at Xena refusing to turn away or even to blink away a second of eye contact. The girl was all angles, with a narrow face and high cheekbones. Her chin was well defined, lips pursed in a line of contempt almost as if she had drawn the same in the sand before her and dared the warrior to cross it. Xena scowled back into the child's eyes, eyes that were such a deep blue they almost seemed indigo. The girl's wheat colored hair, although clean and kept, seemed to splay out and away from her face as if it were charged by the child's pure fury. The soft curls that framed her face were the only clues that a child lay beneath the bundle of wrath. Xena narrowed her eyes at the girl. 'How could someone so young be so incensed? What could have brought this child to this?' Thoughts ran across her mind as the child mimicked the warrior's gaze and dug her nails into the soft earth at her sides pushing herself with both sandaled feet closer to the log she rested against.
"Lady?" A soft voice called just a bit above a whisper.
Xena turned toward the smaller child. She seemed to be the antithesis of the first. She was softer, more rounded, her coloring so different that the warrior deduced the children had certainly not come from the same line. The little one's clothing was drab. A faded knee length frock covered with a dark green vest that looked as if it had been pieced together with bits of other clothing perhaps discarded or outgrown. The belt that adorned this outfit was created haphazardly out of twine and seemed to be used more for holding up the skinny child's garment than adding to its appearance. On her feet were worn leather boots that ended just below her dirty knees. One foot seemed to be peeking through the sole of one boot, while the other was stitched very carefully with leather cord in several places. Apparently this little one worked ('or played', Xena smiled) very hard. This little one was from a working family. Xena recognized the look and feel of having to work very hard to make your way in the world. From the dirt on the girl's clothing it was almost certain she was a farmer's daughter. The warrior stepped toward the child and flinched with the girl pulled back in fear. She peeked at the warrior through the strands of sun bleached hair that fell lightly over her shoulders.
"Lady?!" The other child exclaimed with a disgusted laugh. "Don't be ridiculous! Can't you see past the end of your dirty little Greek nose?" She continued, emphasizing the word 'Greek' with dripping vehemence. She stared again at Xena, who now glared at her. "She's no lady," the girl sneered, "she's a warrior." She finished in a sarcastic singsong voice, then tossed a handful of moist dirt at the smaller child. "You are such a stupid kid!"
The younger child ducked to avoid the spray of earth, without much success. She brushed the bits of soil from her dress and hair, then drew the back of her hand across her eyes leaving a trail of grime on her tear streaked face. "I'm not stupid!" She retorted. "And I'm not a little kid! I'm had nine solstices already!" The older child huffed in taunting amusement and rolled her eyes in a silent 'big deal' comment but let the subject drop.
'Perhaps the little one is a servant to the older girl,' Xena thought. That made the most sense. 'Travelers,' she told herself, 'yes, travelers and these two just got separated from their caravan and oh, where was Gabrielle when she needed her. Gabrielle was so much better with kids, with 'sensitive' matters.' "Gabrielle!" The warrior called again as she turned toward the brush.
"I'm sorry." The little one sniffled.
"Don't start your balling again, baby, or I'll show you something you can really cry about." The darker child threatened as she shook a fist at the girl.
"That's enough!" Xena barked causing both girls to jump at her voice. Before she could continue, the soft sound of rustling branches caught her ear. She brought a finger to her lips cautioning both children to be quiet as she drew her sword slowly and stepped toward the sound. With one quick motion she reached into the foliage and snatched the hidden voyeur, drawing that person into the open with one yank.
"Hey! Not so rough!" The curly-haired frilly-dressed woman squeaked. Xena held the woman tightly, pointing the tip of her sword at her chin. The wide-eyed captive blinked a few times and smiled weakly. She laughed nervously under her breath looking from the blade and back to the warrior. "You really don't need that, do you?" She almost pleaded.
Xena drew a breath and let it out in frustration as she released the woman and jammed her sword back into its sheath. "Grrrreat," she mumbled to herself and she turned away, "just grrreat." She threw her hands up in desperation. The pink chenille clad woman twittered a bit and shrugged her shoulders. The smaller child smiled. The woman wiggled her fingers at the girl and smiled back. Xena grit her teeth and snatched the woman by one arm dragging her behind a laurel shrub large enough to give her some privacy but small enough that she could still keep an eye on the children.
"Aphrodite!" Xena growled through her teeth, "what are you doing here?" She stepped back quickly to glance at the campsite, then looked from side to side still hoping to find Eve and Gabrielle.
The goddess smiled a silly smirk that only added to the warrior's growing ire. She shrugged her shoulders and raised her brows almost as if she had something to confess but couldn't find the words to do so. Xena waited, raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest. Aphrodite sighed then examined her nails. The warrior slapped her hand away.
"Ow-woo," the goddess whimpered as she hugged the injured extremity to her chest.
Xena rolled her eyes. "I don't have time for your pampered deity routine!" She whispered hoarsely. "Either give me an answer or get the h ." Aphrodite's eyebrows went high as she bit her bottom lip and glanced quickly toward the campsite. Xena glared as she drew a breath across clenched teeth and let the rest of the statement drop. She took a step away from the goddess; shook off the frustration then stepped back. Aphrodite smiled again. Xena closed both eyes and drew a long cleansing breath, she opened them slowly and stepped close to the goddess resting a hand on one of her shoulders.
"Listen, Aphrodite," she tried to keep the rage out of her voice as she raised a finger in front of the small goddess' face. "I'm having a very bad morning. I've got a splitting headache. I've got Miss attitude and the queen of scream sitting in my campsite and my friends are gone without a trace." She took a breath and continued before Aphrodite could respond. "I don't know what you're doing here and frankly I don't give a damn!" She lowered her voice to a mere breath and warned the goddess with only her eyes not to comment. "BUT!" She smiled with mock evil, "As long as you're here," she poked the goddess's chest, "you can keep an eye on the daunting duo, until I find Eve and Gabrielle." She turned to leave, grumbling something under her breath that the goddess was sure she was better off not hearing.
"Oh you don't have to look for them." Aphrodite chirped as if it were clearly evident.
Xena spun around coming nose to nose with the smaller woman. "What's that supposed to mean? Look, if you've known all along where they are I'll ."
"Xena," Aphrodite half-laughed, half-sighed, "they haven't gone anywhere. They're right behind you."
Xena turned again, looking in all directions for her companions. The clearing, the campsite looked just as it had the evening before. Except for the two children seated exactly where she left them, nothing had changed. "Don't play games with me Aphrodite!" Xena snarled as she clenched her fists at her sides and once again turned back to the goddess. "The only other people here are those two kids I found near the lake! Now, where are Eve and Gabrielle."
Aphrodite half smiled as she shifted from foot to foot and nodded toward the campsite again.
Xena followed the goddess's line of vision staring at the children for a few seconds. The smaller girl had finally relaxed and was now smiling broadly while chattering to the older child who simply sneered back. Slowly, a very strange reality took place in the warrior's mind.
The warrior seized the goddess roughly, by both arms. "You didn't," She breathed in disbelief. "You didn't!" She exclaimed in repulsion. Again she cast a glance over her shoulder at the two girls seated on either side of the dying fire. "You di what were you thinking?!?!?!" She shook the goddess in rhythm with her statement.
"Hey!" Aphrodite exclaimed, "easy, easy I just granted your wish all your wishes." She smiled a small smile hoping the warrior would be grateful as well as understanding.
"Granted my w ! Are you cr ? Did you th ?" Xena stammered as she released the goddess with a short shove.
"I knew you'd be pleased, but I never expected speechless." Aphrodite smiled, extremely pleased with herself as she fussed and primped her pink frillies back into perfection.
"Pleased? PLEASED?" The veins on the warrior's neck stood out in stark lines as she stood on her toes to allow the full extent of her exasperation to be expelled. "Aphrodite, if you weren't responsible for saving their lives in the first place I'd I'd . PLEASED???" Xena stomped her foot and let out a stifled warrior's cry before yanking a small sapling from the ground and snapping it into several pieces then tossed them against a large rock. The sticks exploded into a shower of splinters. "PLEASED? No, no Aphrodite, I'd say I'm more pi ."
"Ah, ah, ah," the goddess wagged a finger at the warrior as she backed away, "remember there are children present."
Xena reached out in a flurry of movement with every intention to catch the goddess by the throat, but Aphrodite disappeared in a shimmer of pink light. The warrior growled in her chest and turned, mumbling a string of curses so stinging she could hear the air crackling around her. "Aphrodite!" She demanded in a whispered shout, "you get your pink pampered a behind back here. Right now!" She waited a moment listening, feeling with her seventh sense for the presence of the last Olympian. "Aphrodite!!" She screamed silently again.
"Lady? I I mean warrior?" A small voice came from directly behind her as she felt a gentle tug at the bottom of her leathers. She turned and looked down into familiar green eyes. How could she not have recognized this face before? Yes, it was much younger, but the spark was there. The spark that would become the light that would lead her from the maddening darkness that almost consumed her. She smiled at the innocence before her, for a moment lost in the joy that this Gabrielle had not been violated by a demon or nailed to a wooden traverse to die in the bitter cold. This child had not been devastated by a mad woman or thrown into the pits of Hell. This little girl had not been dragged by a vehement warrior across the rugged Amazon terrain or had her skull split open by a weapon that was meant only for the destruction of those who meant to take away such innocence. Slowly a tear made its way across the warrior's cheek as she squatted on her haunches to reach the child's eye level.
A small hand reached out and gently wiped the tear from the woman's cheek. A small concerned smile spread across the little face, the kind of smile a mother might give to a child who hid some juvenile worry. Xena imagined Gabrielle's mother being such a woman teaching even this young Gabrielle in her ways. She reached up and took the tiny hand in her own, immediately surprised by the warmth she found there. She pressed it against her cheek in a mini-embrace and smiled back at the child through the unspent tears still in her eyes.
"Are you okay, la I mean warrior?" The child asked sincerely. She looked over Xena's shoulder scanning the brush, then back at the woman before her. "Who were ya talking to?" Her tiny face crinkled in confusion as she asked.
Xena shook the emotional veil away and stood without letting go of the small hand. She took one last look over her shoulder into the shrubbery and paused, listening. The warrior looked down at the inquisitive face still waiting for an answer. "Just a friend who's gone to take care of a few little problems." She minimized the situation for both their sakes.
The girl looked unconvinced but let the subject drop. "I just wanted to ask you something, well maybe its more of a tell you something." She easily moved onto new subject area. Xena nodded as they begin walking toward the campsite, telling the child to continue without words. "Well, I was just thinking that I was kinda hungry and I was wondering if maybe we could have something to eat. Its morning so it has to be breakfast time. I asked that girl if she wanted to eat too, but she just snarled at me. She's awfully grumpy. Is she always like that?"
Xena stopped and stared at the other girl who had drawn her arms across her chest and breathed in short angry burst. She shook her head slowly, "I'm afraid so. I'm really afraid so." The warrior told herself more than answering the child.
The girl nodded toward the sneering adolescent still propped against the fallen log near the fire. "Is she your daughter? I'm sorry." She hung her head in embarrassment.
"My daughter," the warrior repeated in a hushed voice. "She told you that?" She asked the little girl who now stared at her with a twinge of anxiety.
Young Gabrielle shook her head. "No, she didn't. I just thought..." The little girl shrugged her shoulders and scuffed her toe in the dust. "She has the same eyes as you do and hair too. I got hair and eyes like my mom." She looked up sidelong at the warrior, hoping she had not insulted the very tall woman.
Xena couldn't help chuckling a bit. She hadn't really ever thought about it, but yes Gabrielle did resemble her mother. "Yes," she answered quietly, "yes you do. I bet you look just like her." The child smiled with relief, the warrior was not angry. Papa had told her a hundred fold times that she needed to think before she spoke. Not taking his advice had gotten her into more trouble than she cared to remember and she certainly did not want this very stern looking lady, warrior or not, to be mad at her for some silly slip of the tongue. She smiled again and the warrior woman smiled back, giving her hand just a little bit of a squeeze.
They stepped again toward the campsite. "When we get home you'll see, you'll like my mom. She'll like you too." The child stated matter-of-factly, causing a chill to crawl over the warrior's flesh. Hecuba had strong feelings for the warrior, like was not one of them. Xena looked again for the goddess of love. This situation needed immediate resolution.
Breakfast consisted of dried dates, the last of a few figs they had acquired in the last village they had passed, a strong tea that Xena was not quite sure was healthy for youngsters, and several strips of venison jerky. Gabrielle ate as if she had been invited to a king's banquet, commenting over and over on the meal. The older child had turned her back to them refusing to acknowledge their presence or her own hunger. Xena sat with her elbows resting on her knees and her chin resting on her hands. She stared pensively at her young daughter before grabbing the wooden dish that held the girl's food and rising slowly. She looked at the plate then at the back of the child's head. The girl picked at the splinted bark of the log pulling it free then tossing it toward the tree line. The warrior's keen hearing picked up some of the girl's mumbled comments on the situation. She moved cautiously to stand behind the girl. Things had started very badly. The warrior was willing to try again. The girl turned toward the woman staring at her emotionlessly. She showed no fear, only anger as she stubbornly faced the warrior.
'That's my girl.' Xena thought to herself, remembering her own stubborn defiance toward her mother on so many countless occasions. She tapped her fingers lightly on the underside of the dish. 'What goes around comes around, Xena,' she told herself. 'Not so easy to deal with yourself is it?' For a moment Xena could swear that she was thinking in her mother's voice. She put on her best maternal smile. She held the dish toward the girl silently.
The girl looked at the offering then back into the warrior's eyes. She turned to face the woman, settling herself comfortably against the log with her legs crossed before her. She reached up with both hands and took the dish and held it there for a second as if it were an offering made to a deity. Xena let out the breath she wasn't aware she had been holding. The girl smiled with only one side of her mouth as she brought the plate closer to her face examining its contents carefully. She looked back up at the warrior then slowly turned the dish over depositing the meal on the warrior's boots. Then she flung the plate in a very unpolished chakrum style into the underbrush to her right. She never broke eye contact with the warrior, nor did she lose the sinister smile that lined her face. The girl's eyebrows raised in a 'how do you like that' fashion as she waited for Xena's reaction.
The warrior drew a deep breath and looked away from the child she now could picture herself throttling mercilessly. She chewed her bottom lip and placed her hands on her hips as she set her feet parallel to her shoulders in a definite battle stance. She pursed her lips and let the breath escape slowly through flared nostrils. The warrior sucked in her cheeks giving herself a drawn narrow almost pointed appearance and turned back to the girl who still smirked at her own antics.
"Its a long, long time until your next meal, my young friend." The warrior informed her young hellion in a voice that was hauntingly even.
"You call that a meal?" The girl spat. "We feed our pigs better slop than what you Greeks consider a meager diet. I will not lower myself to eating with chattel." She drew several quick breaths as she pulled herself to her feet and stood before the warrior without a hint of fear. "And I am not your friend, Greek. I am the daughter of Rome and when my uncle discovers you've kidnapped me you will be hunted like the pestilence you are and put through the most painful drawn out death a Greek bitch, like you, is less than deserving." The girl's voice rose with each word until the cords on her neck were drawn rigid and her face crimson.
Xena stared at the child for a few seconds. Behind her the smaller girl waited breathlessly for what might happen next. The warrior stepped close, standing directly over the girl with one foot placed strategically on either side of the girl's feet. She bent at the waist coming nose to nose with her small challenger. "Be very, very careful in the battles you choose," Xena warned in a low menacing voice. "You have no idea who you are dealing with but, I do." With that she returned the sneering smile and inwardly laughed as the girl tried very hard not to flinch under the steely gaze. The warrior stood, walked across the camp, and sat next to the young Gabrielle. She crossed her legs and folded her hands on her lap, never taking her eyes from the deep blue that followed her every move. "Close your mouth, Gabrielle, you look like a trout." She instructed the little girl without looking in her direction.
Gabrielle's mouth snapped shut with a smack as she swallowed hard. Her eyes remained wide. She watched the staring contest before her, alternating her gaze from Xena to the girl across the campfire. "Wow," she whispered. "If I ever talked to my mom like that " She left the statement open and shook her head slowly from side to side.
"You won't have to worry about that anymore, will you?" The girl commented to Gabrielle while keeping both eyes trained on Xena. Gabrielle took a breath and wrinkled her brow. Her look of confusion seemed to amuse the young Roman princess. "Are you so stupid you don't know what's going on?"
The younger girl sighed and shook her head. "It isn't nice to call people names, especially things like stupid. My mom says that is what causes so much anger and then people start fighting over things and "
"Then your mom is stupid too." The girl interrupted stoically.
"That's not nice!" Gabrielle stood quickly, fists clenched at her sides. Xena just as quickly put her hand on the girl's chest, gently pushing her back down.
"That's not nice." The Roman child mimicked the young Greek in a singsong taunt. She stopped before the warrior voiced the warning she was sure would come next and for a few moments the only sound heard in the small clearing was that of the inhabitants' breathing.
"You know what's really not nice?" The adolescent broke the silence, her voice suddenly animated as if she were about to tell a joke. Gabrielle shook her head, her bottom lip still jutting out in a fine pout. "Her." The girl jerked her head toward the warrior.
The smaller child looked at Xena. "I think she's nice. She gave us breakfast and rescued us from from "
Suddenly the older girl burst into uncontrollable laughter causing the warrior and small Poteidian to jump in surprise. "From what?" She wrapped her arms around her midsection. "You don't even know!" She laughed harder, covering her mouth with one hand and pointing with the other. "She's a warrior! I told you that, dummy. SHE'S A WARRIOR! She's the one we need rescuing from!!" The laughter continued for a brief moment then stopped short. The girl stooped forward, arched her back and slowly crept toward Gabrielle as she taunted, "your wonderful mom is probably lying back in her little Greek hovel in a pool of her own blood, with this warrior's knife sticking out of her dirty neck!" She finished in a shriek an arm's length from the smaller girl.
"EVE!" Xena barked as she leapt to her feet. Gabrielle gasped as she too stood quickly, coming nose to blade with the sharp circular weapon on the warrior's hip. The cold metal so close to her eyes, caused the girl to involuntarily shudder and her stomach to flip flop a bit. She backed away, immediately shaking off the feeling she would lose the breakfast she had just finished.
The older girl grinned maniacally. 'One more little push.' She told herself watching that look of blind trust slowly turning to mindless terror. 'One little push.' She laughed out loud. "Your whole family, your whole village wiped out by raiders lead by this 'lady' who took you and me to sell into slavery in some disgusting perverted kingdom where young girls are prized for their "
"ENOUGH!" Xena commanded. Gabrielle jumped back tripping over a tangle of blankets. A pair of twin Sais slid from beneath the coverings, their trident points glistening in the morning sun. The girl struggled to escape the threatening weapons. Small whimpers escaped her lips as she frantically crawled backward. The young Roman squealed with laughter once again as the little girl moved closer to the white-hot embers in the fire pit. "GABRIELLE, NO!" Xena realized the youngster's peril and reached to stop her but the woman's misplaced anger terrified the small child who whimpered once before pulling in the opposite direction. The warrior's uncanny speed caught the small hand inches above the heat. She pulled the child away from the danger while the older girl's laughter continued to accompany their odd dance.
Xena stood the small girl in front of her as she dropped to her knees and snatched the possibly injured hand. She spread open the small fingers and turned the palm over examining it closely. Gabrielle stood frozen in fear allowing the warrior to inspect her extremity. She sobbed deeply as huge tears spilled across her smudged cheeks. "Did you did did you hurt my momma? Did you?" she hiccuped between her tears. "Did you?" She repeated in a mournful wail, her green eyes wide with apprehension. Her terror told her to pull her hand away, but something in the warrior's tender touch, her careful examination told the child she had nothing to fear.
Satisfied there was no injury, Xena dared to look into Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes. "No, no I didn't hurt your mother, Gabrielle. I would never "
"HA! Like she's going to tell you the truth!" The young Roman interjected with disgust as she kicked a spray of sand toward the fire. Xena shot her a glare acerbic enough to silence the girl. Gabrielle sobbed again, drawing a deep breath and swiping at her tears and running nose with her sleeve. The child was clearly torn between what the girl was telling her and her need to believe the warrior.
"Then then w-where is she? And where's my daddy?" The child sniffled. "Is are they okay?" She swiped at her nose with the opposite sleeve and waited for the warrior's answer.
Xena felt the sweat bead on her forehead. There was no way to answer this question. She had no idea where Hecuba could be, or if the woman was still alive. 'Damn you Aphrodite!' She grumbled to herself. Twenty-five years into the future and Gabrielle was more than ten years younger than when they had first met. Hecuba was not young when they had last crossed paths, if she had not departed this realm she was definitely a very old woman. She would not know this child was the same little girl she had raised so long ago and Gabrielle would not recognize the mother she had become. There was no way to fix this.
"She's " Xena hesitated, glaring at her own vindictive child. "I I don't know. I don't know where she is Gabrielle." It was the deepest truth she had ever buried in a lie.
Gabrielle wept bitterly. The warrior held her small shaking body by both shoulders, afraid to embrace the child that feared her moments before. "Then, am I lost?" The girl managed to blurt out through the weeping.
"Yes, yes you are," Xena agreed. The child did not realize just how right she was. "We're all lost and I'm going to do everything I can to get us home." Gabrielle cried harder, and instinctively the warrior pulled her to her breast. The child wrapped her arms around the woman's neck, buried her face in her shoulder and allowed all of her sorrow to pour out. Xena stood with the girl in her arms gently rocking back and forth while rubbing the child's back and hushing her quietly. She trained her eyes on the older girl who now sat back against the log again, examining her nails with a most satisfied smug grin across her chiseled features.
"Why, Eve? Why would you want to hurt her?" Xena asked, unable to believe the cruelty capable of her child.
The girl glared back and growled through her teeth, "My name is Livia."
An hour later Xena had cleaned up most of the morning's disaster. She'd managed to carry one and drag the other child to the stream's edge in order to wash the tear stained grime from young Gabrielle's face. Eve, or Livia, as she insisted, sat on a large rock sunning herself like some large satisfied feline. The warrior had pulled a scroll and quill from her saddlebag then asked the little girl to write down everything she could about her village and her family. She wondered just what sort of story this very young bard would produce. Gabrielle lay on her tummy, sprawled across the bedroll and touched the tip of the quill to the tip of her tongue before starting her 'work'. Xena smiled. Some things would never change.
Eve had been silent since the altercation. She neither apologized nor antagonized, but merely watched almost as if she were waiting searching for an opportunity to start all over. Xena was determined not to let that happen. Part of her wanted to wallop the attitude out of her wayward child. Part of her ached with the guilt that her own absence had been its cause. Ares had stolen her opportunity to raise her daughter with love and kindness, to show her there were other ways to see and conquer the world. She'd been denied the chance to love and nurture her child, to teach her to be loving and nurturing as well. Before her she saw a spoiled, pampered child of affluence - a child without discipline or compassion, whose selfish desires were put before everything else. Xena dropped the firewood she had collected next to the fire she had rekindled. It was not difficult to see how Eve had become the vicious young woman she and Gabrielle had met in Rome. No one had ever cared enough to give her direction. Without a mother's love and guidance Eve had become hard and cold. It was a painful truth to swallow. The warrior eyed her daughter who now refused to make any eye contact. Gabrielle, Gabrielle the bard, the Amazon Queen, the warrior who fought for justice and peace, would know how to reach this spoiled, lost child. Xena, the mother of an infant turned adult over night then instantly reverted back to adolescence, did not. For as much as she wished to approach her young angry offspring, her own fear held her in place.
In the distance the warrior's acute hearing picked up a roll of thunder. The rose colored sky of dawn had also been a harbinger of the storm that was brewing on the horizon. The soft breeze that had greeted the morning had grown stronger with the scent of rain and the odd metallic stench of lightening. This clearing would not provide protection for what was to come. She would need to find shelter before the storm arrived. Xena stood straight and still, allowing all of her senses to prickle with the warnings nature was bestowing.
Eve watched in silent wonder as the woman who was her mother seemed to fall into a trance. The girl's own skin tingled with some unknown foreboding. She rubbed her hands along her arms and glanced in all directions as if expecting someone or something to burst through the brush into their camp. She jumped involuntarily as the warrior's head, that had been laid back against her neck with eyes closed fell forward suddenly. The woman's crystal blue eyes seemed to stare right into the girl's thoughts. Half a smile turned the warrior's face fierce and the girl looked away quickly.
Xena's decision came just as quickly. The storm was still hours away, there was still time to avoid braving it, if they moved quickly. They would break camp and head west. Landmarks and surroundings had changed greatly in the twenty-five years the warrior had been asleep in that cave of ice, but she was sure there was a village reachable before sundown.
"Okay, ladies," she began, trying to keep her well-honed commanding tone in check. "Time to clean up and move on." Both sets of young eyes turned to the warrior as she continued. "Gabrielle, you can roll up the blankets and collect the utensils." She tossed the bag in which they had always stowed their gear to the smaller girl. "Roll up your scroll and put it in there as well, you can finish later." The child's brows wrinkled as she wondered how the warrior knew she was about to protest. However, the fact that this mysteriously awesome warrior was asking for her help stirred the girl into action. She did as directed, carefully placing the quill inside the skin before meticulously rolling it then sliding it into the bag.
The warrior tossed two empty water skins at the older girl. She caught them reflexively. "Eve, you can fill those with water then help me get these things on the horses." With that Xena turned to continue with her own work.
Eve looked at the bags in her hands then at the warrior and tow-headed child who seemed to work together as if they were a well-practiced team. She narrowed her eyes then fired the water skins back at the warrior. The first struck Xena, unexpectedly, across the back of her head. One quick step allowed her to avoid the second, which she caught before it hit the ground. She turned on the child seething with sudden anger.
"I am no one's slave!" The girl spat before the warrior could speak. "If you want water, get it yourself. Roman elite will never bow to Greek rabble. AND I have no intention of going anywhere with you. You and your little pup can traipse all over this countryside, but I'm staying right here until my guard finds me and then ." The girl's words droned away as the warrior slowly reacted.
Xena drew a deep breath as she retrieved the first skin from the ground. She squeezed both so tightly the caps popped in unison. Gabrielle stared wide-eyed then quickly buried her face in the stack of blankets she had been holding as the warrior marched toward the one who had thrown those bags. The warrior stopped before the girl who stared at her, almost daring her to make a move. Xena slammed both bags into one hand. At the same moment she snatched the girl by the scruff of the neck and pulled her to her feet in a move so rapid the child had no time to recoil. She pulled the girl close while pressing the water skins against her chest. With one quick jerk she spun the girl toward the stream and the storm in the distance. In three long strides they had reached the tree line, out of Gabrielle's earshot. Eve took several small quick steps to keep up with the warrior.
"Do you see that?" Xena growled in a hushed whisper next to the girl's ear. Eve nodded although she was not quite sure where the warrior was pointing. "Good," the warrior breathed. "That storm is coming this way and we, Greeks, well we aren't very fond of spending the night in soaking blankets while being pelted with hail and all that debris these things tend to throw around. Now, I intend to break this camp and find someplace to wait it out and I intend to do that with or without your help, BUT all of us are leaving as soon as I am ready. We can't get far without water, even Romans know that it gets pretty dry traveling without it. So you can take your elite a " the warrior reconsidered for a moment, "backside down to that stream and fill those or you can drop it right back where it was. Your choice. " The warrior loosened her grip on the girl's neck as the girl took the skins in her hands and swallowed hard. She took one step toward the stream then stopped, reconsidering the warrior's implied threat.
"How do you know I'll come back?" The girl asked without turning around.
Xena folded her arms across her chest and tapped one foot impatiently. "The same way you know that I'll come after you, find you, drag you back here and tie you across that horse's saddle if you don't."
Eve considered this fact, somehow knowing the warrior was not bluffing. She gave one curt nod then disappeared into the brush that separated the clearing from the water. Xena nodded and smiled then turned back to her chore.
After a brief battle with the young Gabrielle over riding, Xena had had let out a long exasperated huff of air then plopped the smaller child onto Argo's saddle and pulled herself up behind the shaking youngster. She reached around the girl showing her how to hold onto the saddle horn for support then strengthened that support as she held the reins while bracing the thin body with her arms. Eve bounced gracefully onto the back of the large chestnut mare sliding easily into the saddle then directing the animal with little more than a flick of her wrist and a bit of slight pressure with her knees. Xena was impressed as well as tinged with maternal pride at her daughter's equestrian skill. The third horse was now burdened with the gear that had before been shared by each animal.
Xena rode ahead studying the landscape for anything that seemed vaguely familiar. Gabrielle chattered on pointing out a field of yellow and purple wildflowers and how they reminded her of a fabric her grandmother had woven last spring. She spied at least six different colored birds and eight butterflies of various sizes, each of which came with a short story or memory. Even the rocks and ruts in the road seemed to inspire some sort of conversation initiation in the child. Xena continued undaunted by the prattle that had long ago become as melodical to her ears as her nightly sword honing had become to her companion's.
Eve rode a few feet behind. Xena had bound the packhorse to the girl's saddle in an effort to prevent her from any thoughts of suddenly sprinting off on her own. She watched the woman react to the blabbering child in front of her. 'She never shuts up,' she thought to herself as she rolled her eyes when Gabrielle pointed out yet another cloud that looked like a kitten. The older girl looked in the direction the child pointed. Clouds were clouds and they looked like clouds. 'Stupid child's game,' she thought to herself remembering a group of children who had been playing beneath the balcony of her chambers. They had been lying in the grass watching the clouds and playing the same stupid game. She'd tried to see what they did but the only things she saw in the sky were clouds. In frustration she had ordered her guards to disperse the youngsters and forbid them to return there again. The girl strained to see anything above but the white billowy shapes that floated effortlessly against a field of grayish blue. She turned and looked over her shoulder at the dark gray horizon dotted with angry black shadows. "Won't be long until that storm swallows that 'kitten' will it?" She mumbled sarcastically. An angry hot feeling overcame the girl as she watched the warrior and child interact.
It was a familiar feeling, yet one the girl could not name. It was more than anger but angrier than hate. It brought a pain to her chest she could not understand and a lump in her throat she could not swallow. Eve knew the feeling well. Every time she watched a woman smile at her child in the market place every time a child wrapped his grubby arms around the portly middle of a tavern keeper every time a smiling adult cooed to a weeping youngster or wiped a tear streaked face every time that same burning feeling would pour over her. She found herself despising even the thought of seeing those people. She hated the adults. She hated the children more. She hated them both for loving each other. She hated love itself. Love made people weak, made them need each other, made them do stupid things, make stupid decisions. People who loved other people had no focus, no ambition, no direction. The girl watched as the warrior before her threw her head back in laughter. She felt her stomach twist and pushed away that strange pang that liked to strangle her heart. For some reason, reasons the young gladiator could not comprehend, she felt hot tears well up in her eyes. She brushed them away as quickly as they appeared. Tears were for babies and old women. Tears were for weaklings and those defeated by victors. Tears were were . Her thoughts flittered away as some small voice told her that tears were telling her she needed the same thing all those 'weaklings' needed. She shook her head, disagreeing with herself.
The warrior had turned and stared into her eyes. She was sure the woman could see into her mind, to read her every thought and know exactly what she was thinking feeling right at that moment. The girl set her gaze in stoic freeze and looked away quickly. Xena slowed her horse allowing the chestnut mare to amble closer. She gazed down at the small form that had grown quiet and, lulled by the palomino's gentle gait, had fallen asleep against her arm. The hands that had gripped the saddle horn knuckle white were now trustingly wrapped around that same arm. At the same time she could feel the older child approaching. She waited until the girl was next to her before speaking.
"Get something in your eye?" Xena asked in a throaty voice. The girl pulled her arm quickly across her face before turning on the warrior with a narrowed stare. The warrior stifled a chuckle as the child nudged her steed to step a bit faster. The woman easily urged her horse to do the same and once again they rode side by side.
"You ride well." Xena tried a conversation starter, sure that her Gabrielle would have done the same.
The girl scoffed. "I have a stable of horses in Rome. I was riding before I could walk." She tossed her dark tangle of long curls over her shoulder and jutted her chin out with pride.
Xena sucked a breath through her teeth and nodded. "Guess your uncle taught you well."
"My uncle is the emperor of the greatest civilization on earth, warrior. He has servants to see to such things." The girl sneered.
"Xena." The warrior replied without looking at the girl. From the corner of her eye could see the perplexed reaction. "My name is Xena." She repeated. "Not warrior, not Greek, Xena."
"Xena," Eve whispered, still looking straight ahead, "I've heard that name. The servants speak of a mighty warrior called Xena who tried to bring down the house of Caesar. My uncle says it is but a legend. Rome would never fall to a mere Greek warrior woman. And even if it is true, you couldn't be the same Xena. She died many years ago. You are nothing more than a charlatan, trying to revive some long dead Greek hope for salvation." The girl's voice rose as she spoke. "It won't happen." She stressed each word emphatically. The smaller child stirred at the sound but did not waken. Eve stared at the girl for a moment, watching as the warrior shushed her quietly, immediately quieting the alarm that had sounded. Again that painful burn filled the girl's chest. Again she hated the small blonde child just for being small and blonde and so easy to love. Again she hated the strong warrior who somehow wasn't such a bad person and somehow caused another part of her to also want to be close and protected. She had to learn more about this strange woman.
For what seemed like hours they rode side by side in an uneasy silence. Eve's words had driven a dagger into her mother's heart. 'That Roman bastard,' Xena thought, 'he taught her to hate the very heart of what she is, filled her mind with Roman arrogance. I should have been there. Damn you Ares!' In her mind she screamed to the heavens knowing full well that the mighty god of war was already suffering the consequences of his selfish actions. Even that thought made her suffering worse. Ares, she knew, had not been the cause of this bizarre course of events. What he had done, by placing she and Gabrielle in that cave of ice was not out of revenge or animosity but out of some deep unlikely love he had for both Xena and her small companion. Ares was bad, but not evil. By paying them homage he had changed the course of all of their lives. But somehow she had been given this chance, this one chance to get back some of that time and so far she wasn't doing a very good job of it. She glanced at the girl next to her then quickly looked away.
And so it went as they rode, both stealing quick secret looks at the other then just as quickly looking straight ahead as if the other was not there.
"She talks too much." The girl broke the silence in a dull flat voice, still looking ahead.
Xena smiled. "You get used to it after a while."
"How can you stand it?" Eve asked in a voice that began to sound a bit more childlike.
The warrior shrugged her shoulders as her bottom lip turned out and her eyebrows went high. "I guess when you care about someone you just don't notice it much." For a second she remembered how annoying the young bard had been when they first met and later how she missed the girl's chatter when it was absent.
Eve rolled her eyes and let a breath bounce over her lips. "Why?" Tumbled out with the breath as she looked toward the warrior and the child for the first time.
"Why?" Xena repeated.
"Why do you care?" The girl seemed totally perplexed by the situation.
The seconds that ticked by while the warrior turned the question around in her mind were almost audible. How could she answer that question? What words would explain how she felt or why she felt it? When did she know for sure she loved the small girl who had followed her out of that dusty little village so long ago?
"Well?" Eve urged impatiently.
"Look, Eve " Xena began.
"Why do you call me that?" Just as suddenly the girl changed the subject.
"Eve?" The warrior asked. The girl nodded. "I guess ," Xena began. "I guess its because you remind me of someone, someone very sweet and close to me. Someone I love very much."
It was the girl's turn to fall silent in thought. Never had anyone used those words to describe her. Never had anyone told her she was anything but the daughter of Rome. Never.
Gabrielle squirmed a bit and stretched herself awake with a little jump as she realized she was still atop the tall horse. Xena steadied the child who tilted her head back and looked up at the warrior's chin. "It's very bumpy up here. I need to get down. I have to I really need " The child squirmed again in a motion that said what her words could not. Xena understood immediately.
"There is a brook up ahead. The horses need a break and some water. I think we all need a rest." She slid off of the horse and lifted the child to the ground. Gabrielle quickly darted behind the nearest hedge. Eve dismounted gracefully and stood for a moment shifting her weight from foot to foot before she dropped the reins of her steed and dashed behind a hedge on the opposite side of the road.
A short time later the horses had been watered and the warrior offered what was left of a loaf of dark bread and some hard cheese to the girls as a midday meal. Eve once again turned up her nose at the offering, but Gabrielle was more than happy to partake of the feast. Although the threat of the storm was still hanging in the air the warrior felt the children as well as the animals needed to rest. So, as Gabrielle gathered a bouquet of multicolored flowers from the thigh-high grassy meadow, Eve and Xena sat together on a large rock picking up the pieces of their last conversation. Xena kept one eye on the girl she knew was attracted to trouble like a moth to a candle while keeping the other trained on the girl who was now suddenly very communicative.
The young Roman stood for a moment watching the younger girl skip through the swaying grass of the meadow before turning to face the warrior that sat on a fallen tree trunk. Xena glanced from one child to the other and then at the apple she was slicing. She smiled a half smile at her daughter seconds before the girl looked away. Eve edged closer to the warrior and sat next to her on the log. Xena held out a slice of the fruit, motioning for the girl to take it. The child looked at it for a moment, unsuccessfully trying to hide the fact that her stomach grumbled a yearning for any bit of food. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten or, for that matter, what she had at that meal. The girl hesitated but finally gave in to her hunger. She snatched the piece and eyed it carefully before taking a bite.
"Thank you." Xena commented.
"For what?" The girl asked around the food in her mouth as she reached for a second offering.
"It's the polite thing to say to someone who offers you food when you are as hungry as you are." Xena smiled.
Eve stopped chewing and eyed the warrior, slowly raising one dark eyebrow. She considered spitting the fruit to the ground and stomping away. The look the warrior returned and the fact that her brow was raised just a bit higher with a bit more threat caused her to reconsider. She began chewing very slowly then swallowed before answering. "I don't have to be polite, I'm the daughter of Rome. People like like you and that dirty farmer's kid," she nodded toward Gabrielle who stood in the center of a blanket of multicolored flowers. The girl's blonde hair tossed in the rising wind and she reached to push it away from her eyes as she turned into it. "You are the ones who must say thank you to me and to my family for allowing you to exist or to even have the chance to offer us anything." Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact, as if she found it hard to believe the warrior wasn't already aware of the facts.
"Hmmm " Xena commented as she chewed her own piece of the apple. She glanced toward the child in the field then back at her task. "That's the second time you've mentioned Rome as your parent, what about your real family?" Xena asked innocently, wondering how much young Octavius had told her small child in her absence. "You mentioned an uncle," she took a slice of apple from her blade and handed another slice to Eve. "Any other family?"
Eve looked away as if she was not about to answer. For a moment she watched Gabrielle, who was adding to the bouquet she had created from the wild flowers. "I have all the servants and teachers I need. I my " She hesitated searching for the right words and wondering why after so many years of not so much as thinking about it, she now felt comfortable telling this stranger about something she had long since buried in her mind. "He isn't really my uncle." She said to the piece of apple she held on her lap. "He found me when I was a baby and raised me as his niece, just as his uncle raised him. He became the emperor of all Rome, some day I will rule as well." Somehow that bit of comfort she had always used to console her aching need was not working today.
"Did he ever " Xena hesitated, not knowing, if she was sure she was ready for the girl's answer. She looked again toward the meadow and the child still there. "Did he tell you about your mother?"
Eve shrugged her shoulders and looked to the field as well. It was odd that neither of them could make eye contact. Suddenly she felt uneasy and felt the warrior's anxiety as well. "He said she was dead when he found me. He said there was an accident a terrible accident and it was a miracle I survived. He said that the gods had plans for me but that she had better plans and he would make sure I was raised properly. He said I had a lot to live up to and that I would live under his protection for as long as he was able to provide it."
Xena looked deep into her daughter's eyes and once again the girl felt as if the warrior was looking right into her soul. She looked away quickly, trying desperately to slow her now rapid breathing. Octavius had told the girl at least that much, however the girl misinterpreted the facts.
"Did you kidnap me?" Eve asked in a small voice.
"No, I did not." Xena shook her head as she answered. The warrior stared at the girl who refused to look back. "Don't you remember?" She had wondered all morning if either of her now small companions had any recollection of how they had come to their current plight.
"I remember," the girl chewed her lip in thought, "I remember going to bed in my own chamber and then being at that stream this morning, nothing else. Perhaps I was drugged?" She finished more as if she were asking than telling the warrior.
"So you think I snuck into your well guarded palace in Rome and drugged you then managed to sneak both of us out right under all of your guards' noses?" Xena began then continued before the girl could answer. "Now, was I dragging Gabrielle there along behind me or did you and I then gallop all the way to her little village on the other side of Greece to snatch her from her bed and then make it back to that clearing all before sun up?"
Eve crinkled her nose in thought then frowned. "I suppose it does sound a bit impossible, even for you. Even IF you are the Xena."
Xena shook her head and turned to spy her other young charge happily adding to her floral creation completely oblivious to the cares of the world. Eve followed her mother's gaze, that hot feeling returning to her cheeks. It seemed the kid demanded all of the warrior's attention all of the time.
"Are you telling me you just found us there?" The girl demanded as the hostility crept back into her voice.
The warrior turned back to the girl slowly, wondering why she was suddenly back to her nastier self. "Something like that, yeah, for lack of a better explanation."
"You expect me to believe that?" The girl huffed in disgust as she crossed both arms over her chest.
"Let's just say I don't expect you to believe any more than what you see or any more than I believe myself. I can't explain what happened, but I intend to do everything in my power to make it right. And that I do expect you to believe." Xena finished then looked back to the now empty meadow. "Damn!" The warrior whispered under her breath. She was on her feet in an instant and half way across the field in the next. Without thinking, Eve had jumped as well and was only a half step behind her mother.
Gabrielle had picked three of every flower that grew in the large meadow, crisscrossing the tall tickly grass several times. She had glanced several times at the warrior woman and her daughter seated on that big rock near the horses and the brook. At the very edge of the meadow she'd found the most beautiful butterfly that shimmered iridescently in the afternoon sun. Even the looming dark clouds in the southern sky did not dull its brilliance. The creature was bigger than both of the child's hands together and it perched on a large yellow blossom inches from her grasp. Experience had taught young Gabrielle that to catch the insect would mean its demise. "Butterfly wings are made of powder," she had told her mother as she held the still creature in her hand on that occasion. "They melt when you touch them." Her fascination with the light beautiful creatures was not dulled by the hard lesson. This particular butterfly seemed almost hypnotic. She watched as it uncoiled its long straw-like tongue to feast on the nectar of the large flower. Then skipped along behind its bouncing flight as it went from that plant to the next and then the next in its search for nourishment. The insect's path took them both to the end of the grassy field where it climbed higher into the sky and flittered off on a sudden wind. Gabrielle squinted into the sun as it disappeared then turned, fully intending to return to the warrior with her now completed collection of wild flowers. She would have done just that if her stomach hadn't growled a hungry little growl and her eye hadn't caught the bush heavy with deep purple berries. It was a short skip down the knoll to that bush. She'd be back before they noticed she was gone.
It wasn't difficult to follow the path the child had left in the tall grass, but the path was so zigzagged and crisscrossed it was more like finding the way through a labyrinth.
"GABRIELLE!" Xena called frantically. How could she disappear so quickly? "GABRIELLE!"
"She couldn't have gone far." Eve stated breathlessly as she struggled to match her mother's long stride. "Her legs aren't that long." She noted more to herself than to the warrior, realizing how difficult it was to maneuver in the high meadow grass.
Xena stopped and turned in a complete circle hoping to catch the slight movement of the grass where the child was hiding. The only movement was the swaying of the waves in the heightening breeze. "GABRIELLE!" She called again and waited for an answer. Visions of every tragedy that could befall a small child ran across the warrior's mind before she pulled in her emotions and brought herself to full calm. Eve watched the transformation with amazement. Once more Xena set out, following the convoluted trail the child had left. It took them across the meadow where the warrior spied the blonde head only a few seconds before her daughter caught sight of the girl at the base of the small hill. By that time Xena had already sprinted halfway there.
Gabrielle had heard her name on the wind at least twice and did make a half-hearted attempt at answering. It was a child's ploy. A way to say 'yes, I answered you. Didn't you hear me?' without really telling a lie. She was on a mission, a mission to pull as many plump berries from the bush in as little time as possible. What a surprise she would have for her new friends! She was so intent in her work she did not hear the warrior approach.
"Gabrielle!" Xena tried unsuccessfully to keep the anger out of her voice as she dropped her hand on the child's shoulder and spun her around. "Are you "
"Look! Berries!" The girl announced with a wide smile.
The warrior looked at the mound of purple the child had amassed in the pocket made by holding up the hem of her skirt. A chill crawled over her flesh as quickly as she slapped the girl's hands away causing the fruits to spill then roll away in all directions. She squatted to child level and grabbed the girl by both shoulders pulling her close. "Gabrielle, " she breathed, " did you eat any of them? Did you!?" She pinched the child's cheeks together with one hand causing her mouth to drop open. Relieved to find no trace of dark purple juices there, she released the small face and waited for an answer.
Gabrielle shook her head rapidly, realizing the depth of trouble she had gotten herself into this time.
Xena breathed a sigh of relief and dropped her chin to her chest. She still held the child by the shoulders. Eve stopped a few feet from them as she arrived on the scene and took deep breaths to fill her aching lungs. The warrior stood quickly, her worry and anger not yet abated. Still holding fast to the youngster she then, just as quickly, spun the child away from her and landed a swift resounding swat across the girl's backside. She spun her back faster than the child had time to react. "Don't you ever pull a stunt like that again!" She warned as she shook a finger in the small culprit's face. "You stay where I can see you and you put nothing in your mouth unless you check with me first! You got that?"
Gabrielle took a quick short breath and stood at attention eyes wide with surprise. Her hands went immediately to the site of her indignation. She blinked rapidly and swallowed hard before nodding then quickly shaking her head, hoping that one or the other was the answer the warrior was expecting. For a moment none of them said a word, as if each was waiting for the next to get time moving again. The large warrior's eyes were locked on those of the small child before her as the young girl at the base of the hill watched.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle inhaled as the tears she had been holding finally fell over one dirty cheek.
"You should be!" Xena barked causing both girls to jump. She regretted it immediately. A low rumble of thunder in the distance called her to action. She scooped the child before her into her arms in one move and stepped around the other in the next. "Let's get moving." She ordered as she did so.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck knowing that somehow she had been forgiven. Eve watched for a moment as the woman strode away. She noted the small girl held a bouquet of colorful flowers in the hand that rested against the warrior's back. The smaller girl smiled at her, even though the tears were still wet on her cheeks she was smiling. Eve was confused. Xena was angry enough to strike the little girl, but still held her close. The kid certainly smarted from that swat but still hugged the warrior like she could never let go. It didn't make sense and it did make sense. Eve hated the mixed feelings these Greeks forced into her mind. She wanted to be angry but something inside melted the hot feeling, something made her want to hold the little one herself, something she did not quite understand. The warrior stopped, turned and cocked her head in the direction of the horses telling the girl, without words, to 'get moving!'. A second, louder and longer roll of thunder reverberated in the air as Eve hurried to catch up to her mother and Gabrielle.
As the shadows grew long and the storm rolled closer. The thunder, which had earlier been little more than a growl in the distance, now seemed to rattle trees and rock the ground. Lightening matched its counterpart strike for strike illuminating the now darkened sky with each flash. Xena had hoped to find a village that boasted a large warm inn. She had hoped to have a hot meal in both her young charges. She had hoped to tuck both of them into a soft bed under even softer blankets. She had hoped to weather the storm behind strong oak shutters while feeding cords of wood to a crackling fire in the hearth. What she settled for was much less.
A quarter of a century had brought many changes to the area she had once known without map nor guide. Villages had grown and towns had disappeared. Roads twisted and turned in new directions and even riverbeds had changed their course. But one thing held true, rock stone, cold granite remained intact and experienced very little transformation in the twenty-five year interim. These landmarks sparked flickers of memory in the warrior and soon she had old bearings completely in tact. Trees and brush had grown over the entrance but three quick chops with her sword cleared enough away for the trio and their equine companions to enter the large cave.
"It's dark." Gabrielle observed, half hidden behind the warrior's leg.
"It's filthy." Eve grumbled, kicking a small stone out of her path.
"It's home." Xena announced placing Argo's reins into her daughter's hand where those of both other animals already rested. She pulled a flint stone from her belt and struck it against the branch she had grabbed on the way into the cavern and wrapped an old rag from one of the saddles around. The sparks seemed brighter in the darkened space. The flame caught quickly, throwing a dancing light across the smooth walls of the cave. The warrior jammed the end of it into a small crevice in the stone and turned back to her daughter. Gabrielle had not moved more than an inch from the safety of Xena's leg during the entire exercise.
"You take care of the horses," she instructed the older girl. "Then collect some of these larger stones and put them in a circle there," she pointed to a large smooth area a few feet to the right. She reached down and took the hand of the child next to her. "You come with me." She ordered, reminding the girl she had not forgotten the incident earlier that day. "We need to collect dry wood before that storm hits full force." Before either child could protest or react she turned and marched out of the cave with Gabrielle almost running to keep in step.
Eve stood watching the empty entranceway, still holding on to the horses' leads. She stomped one foot and let out a high pitched squeal. That dark hot feeling was returning with a vengeance. "I can carry a lot more wood than that little kid can!" She called after the warrior. "AND I don't need a nursemaid. I can take care of myself!" Her own voice answered in an echo of 'self self self " almost as if it were taunting her with the fact she was now and had been for the most part all by herself. She kicked one of the stones Xena had pointed to and found out immediately why warriors and farmers wear boots instead of sandals. The girl fell to the floor hugging her now bruised and swelling toe while issuing a string of cuss-words that would embarrass a sea captain. She stopped mid word and glanced back toward the entrance instantly wondering why she had done so and why she would think that stupid warrior would give a DAMN about what she did or said. She swore again, loudly almost daring the woman to object then pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped both arms around them in a vain attempt to console herself. It was something she had learned long ago. Something she did when the dark came to haunt her or when a bump to her knee or elbow sent her in search of sympathy that did not exist in the Palace of Agustus Caesar. She wiped the tears from her face as quickly as they began to fall. Tears were for babies, for weaklings, for those who fell victim to needing others. Rising slowly she forced herself to walk on the injured foot without a hint of a limp. She walked to one of the horses and pulled loose the cinch on its saddle then allowed it to slide off and land with a crunch on the stone floor. Something in one of those sacks made a crackling noise and she smiled hoping that whatever had broken was something the warrior would greatly miss.
She did the same with the other two horses.
Xena dropped the stack of wood she had gathered and stood over the circle of stones her daughter had arranged. She placed her hands on her hips. 'Not bad,' she thought to herself. It was a bit larger than they needed, but Roman's normally saw things on an exaggerated scale. Xena had learned a long time ago from another young girl not to criticize such an attempt. A short turn toward their gear made the warrior forget that lesson.
"Eve, I told you to unsaddle the horses." Xena stated as evenly as possible.
The girl looked over her shoulder from the rock she had climbed onto at the three saddles that lay on the ground next to the beasts that had carried them. Blankets, furs, bags, utensils and cooking gear lay strewn where they had fallen. Eve shrugged her shoulders. "I did," she remarked indifferently.
Xena walked around Argo, stepping over the saddle. She patted the horse's flank as she passed and rubbed a hand down the animal's side. "Eve," she began slowly, "this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Then you should have done it yourself." The girl retorted before the warrior could continue.
Xena grit her teeth. 'Now what?' She asked herself. Not twenty minutes ago she had actually thought they had called a truce, a very shaky truce but a truce nonetheless. What could have happened in that short time. "Eve," the edge in the warrior's voice was growing apparent. "I want you to pick up these saddles and clean this up before I get back."
"I am not your slave, warrior." The girl answered with an edge that matched her mother's tone, " and I will not do your bidding." She kept her back to the warrior refusing to meet her gaze.
"Back?" Gabrielle chirped from where she had been standing watching this altercation. "Where are you going? You aren't going to leave us here all alone are you?" There was the slightest hint of panic in the child's voice.
Xena wrestled with which dilemma to handle first, her daughter's insolence or her ward's terror. She stared at Eve's back fighting the urge to carry out the scene that played in her mind. She wanted to grab the girl off that boulder and shake some sense into her, after she walloped the living daylights out of the little brat. How in the world had that sweet wonderful baby become such a sarcastic moody monster?
"Xena?" Gabrielle tugged at the leather straps of her skirt. She looked down into those deep green eyes that right now so desperately needed to be reassured that all was well and there was nothing to fear. The warrior squatted to the child's level.
"Hey," she began, brushing a stray blond hair off the girl's face and pushing it behind her ear. "We have to eat, Gabrielle and if I'm going to snare anything worth our while, I've got to do it before the rain starts."
"But it's already raining, see?" The girl pointed over the warrior's shoulder.
Xena turned and eyed the large drops that fell intermittently outside the entrance. They landed in the dust causing small wisps of dirt to leap out of their way. "That?" Xena smiled as she turned back. "That's not rain, not yet. I'll be back before that storm dares to throw any real rain this way."
Gabrielle looked into the woman's eyes for a moment almost convinced. "But, what if you get lost or a bear comes while your gone or it gets dark or we can't start the fire or it goes out or we run out of wo ." The warrior placed her index finger over the girl's lips, silencing her gently. She stood and took one small warm hand into her own leading the child toward the circle of stones.
"First of all," she began, "I'm going to start the fire before I go, it will keep all the bears away. They don't like fire very much." She winked as she arranged the kindling in the circle then added a few larger pieces of wood. Once again she took the flint from her belt and struck it with expertise, starting the flame on the first attempt. "The fire will keep you warm and there'll be plenty of light. You have more than enough wood to keep it going. And you won't be alone, Eve will protect you." The older girl turned toward her mother offering only a sardonic grimace. "After all," Xena continued knowing she had the adolescent's attention. "She is a Roman and they are totally in control at all times, fearless as well as invincible. You'll be safe with her." Eve rolled her eyes at her mother's taunt, let out a huff and turned away. Xena bent down close to the child before her, took the small face in her hands and almost whispered the rest. "And I never get lost." She kissed the top of the child's head and spun on her heel, heading for the door.
"Oh and Eve?" She spoke as calmly and sweetly as possible, keeping the anger she still felt out of her voice. The girl on the boulder took a deep breath and let it out loudly. Although she did not turn, her mother knew she was listening. "The saddles and the gear? The right way." Xena reminded her in not so many words with a hint in her voice that a threat was mixed into somehow. Eve narrowed her eyes and cursed the woman under her breath. "Gabrielle can help." Xena added as she turned in the entranceway issuing one final warning, "and both of you stay put until I return." That said she stepped into the light rain and away from the cave.
"Gabrielle can help." Eve mocked wickedly, moving her mouth without sound.
Gabrielle stood watching the door, listening to the sounds of nature and saying a silent prayer that would keep the warrior safe. She had never met a warrior before, let alone a woman warrior but she was sure now that all those stories she had heard were not true. She liked this warrior very much. In fact she had already decided that she was going to be exactly like this warrior when she grew up. Suddenly remembering the small parcel she had been holding, she turned and climbed up onto the large rock then plopped down next to Eve but chose to face the doorway instead of the back of the cave as she was doing. Carefully the girl opened the cloth that she had gathered closed, creating a makeshift sack. She spread it across her lap and tapped the larger girl on the shoulder. "Want some?" She smiled, pointing toward the pile of deep purple berries on her lap. With the other hand she plucked one of the fruits and started to put it into her mouth.
A quick hand grabbed her wrist stopping that action. Eve looked from the berry to the pile in the girl's lap. Gabrielle followed her gaze then smiled. "It's okay. Xena showed me where to pick these. They're good." Eve dropped the hand she had been holding and shook her head, wondering why she had bothered to stop the little chatterbox. "Xena said the others were ink berries, birds can eat them but people die if they do. She said people in a place called Chin make ink out of them and she said someday she'd show me how to do that. She said that the people in Chin write with ink on special paper and that I can do the same thing. She EVEN has some paper!" She continued to put berry after berry into her mouth speaking around chewing. Eve watched with idle fascination, wondering how the child didn't choke herself. "Have some!" The kid squeaked again, "they're very delicious. I picked them mostly for you."
"Why?" Eve was totally bewildered, her tone a mixture of anger and apathy.
Gabrielle blinked a few times. "Well, you didn't eat breakfast or lunch. You gotta be hungry. I know it isn't a feast like you have in your palace but they are good." She held out a few berries to the older girl.
Eve hesitated a bit hoping Gabrielle would just give up, but the stubborn little Greek just sat there with that smile plastered on her little round face just waiting. The older girl took the fruits and placed one in her mouth. They were sweet and she was hungry. She popped the others into her mouth and reached for more. "You picked them for me. Why?"
The smaller child wrinkled her nose and shrugged her shoulders. "Cuz that what's friends do. Right?" Gabrielle gathered the ends of the cloth together and held the sack out to Eve. "You can have all of them, you're probably lots hungrier than me.
Now the older girl shrugged, "I do not have nor do I desire friends." Once again she turned her back on the little girl.
Gabrielle was not one to give in so easily. She placed a hand on the older girl's shoulder and patted her gently. Eve pulled away from the unfamiliar gesture, immediately defensive. The younger girl jumped back. "I have servants and slaves and people to do my bidding," Eve barked at the child. "And I have an army to defend me and conquer anything I feel the need to conquer. I will be a great champion of my people. I will command them. I will NOT seek their friendship!" She announced as she stood and spoke to the cave as if she were making a speech to a crowded Coliseum. Gabrielle actually had to look to assure herself there was no audience below. She stood clumsily trying not to lose her balance on the gravel that covered the rock.
"Can I be in your army?" She asked with wide-eyed excitement.
Eve stood with her feet firmly planted and her knuckles resting on both hips. She looked down at the child. "You? You're just a kid."
"I am not a kid!" Gabrielle protested, her brows knitting together in annoyance. She placed her own hands on her hips, imitating Eve's stance.
Eve laughed a breathed chuckle that bounced over her lips. "You can't hold a sword or swing an axe." She chided. "You're too little!" The girl finished, accentuating the last few words.
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Oh yeah? Well watch this!" She looked back and forth across the floor several times then slid off the boulder and snatched a fist-sized rock from the floor. She tossed it from hand to hand a few times then nodded in satisfaction. "You see that rock over there, the one that looks like a little bunny?" Gabrielle pointed across the cave to her right. Eve squinted in that direction trying to see anything that resembled a rabbit. The only thing that came close was a small rock about the size of an apple that sat on the edge of a flat ledge about thirty feet across the cavern and ten feet up from the floor.
"I see it. So what?" Eve smirked as she turned up one side of her face in disgust.
Gabrielle tossed the stone she held from hand to hand again until it rested snugly in her right palm. She spat on it then rubbed it briskly between both hands. Eve raised an eyebrow at the strange ritual, then rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Watch!" Gabrielle announced with a silly grin. She wound her arm around a few times then patted the stone with her left hand once, pulled her arm back then let the stone fly. Before Eve could tell the kid she just didn't have enough strength to send the stone that far, or to gloat over the fact that it struck a rock formation at least five feet short and left of the target, the rock bounced of its first mark with a soft thud then hit the little bunny rock dead center. The stone flipped off the ledge only to be replaced by the piece Gabrielle had thrown. She turned back toward the taller girl. "HA!" She announced amicably, beaming with pride. "You are looking at the best rock tosser in all Poteidia!" She jabbed her chest with both thumbs to emphasize the point. Then added in a hushed tone, "as long as my mom and dad don't find out."
Eve nodded slowly as she jumped from the boulder, landing mostly on the foot that was not injured. She managed to mask the pain that blasted from her now very purple toe. "Not bad," she whistled through clenched teeth. "Not bad at all. For a kid." Picking up a stone of her own she narrowed her eyes as she examined her target then let the object fly. Without taking any detours the stone hit Gabrielle's stone and sent it spinning to the ground.
Gabrielle snatched another stone from the ground and picked out a new target, thereby challenging the young Roman to a contest of skill. Eve took up the challenge. The horses pawed at the ground. The saddles and gear remained where they had fallen and the flames in the stone circle ate away at the wood.
The rain that had been nothing more than a few intermittent large drops had quickly turned into driving needles of frigid water. Xena had not gone twenty yards from the cave entrance when a flash of light and a crash of thunder tore open the sky and let loose the deluge. Her hopes for finding any game worth catching quickly dissipated. Even the smallest of creatures had the sense to seek shelter in this weather. She shook her head, causing her long wet locks to slap her cheeks. 'Great,' she chided herself, 'this is just grrrr-ate.' Another streak of lightening ripped across the sky in a jagged blue line illuminating the distant horizon in an eerie metallic glow. The thunder followed seconds behind in a cadence that forced all of human anger to pale in its wake. The warrior had seen the effects of such powerful acts of nature on men. Even the bravest of mercenaries did not fight during a storm like this. She had also used the intensity of that great force against the giant that had threatened old what's-his-name's little village a few years ago. Xena had no intention of ending up suffering the same fate as Gareth had met on that particular stormy day. 'Hower, his name was Hower,' she grumbled to herself, picturing the moon-faced gaga-eyed farmer that had fallen head over heals for her. Thank the gods for Minya and some quick thinking on her part.
The ground was quickly becoming nothing more than a muddy swamp-like mess. Any hope of tracking small game to its burrow was fading rapidly. Xena stopped at the shore of a small lake, watching the rain drops dive into white capped waves the wind had churned across its surface. A small waterfall gushed with its extra load over deep green moss covered stones at its basin. "No sense even trying to fish," she told the lake's inhabitants. "Even fish have enough sense to say out of this stuff." But fish and rabbits and quail did not have two small girls waiting in a cave a few hundred meters away. Fish did not have to listen to small blonde future bards telling them just how hungry they were and how much they would love to have some of mother's nutbread just about now. The warrior's own stomach grumbled at the thought. She placed a hand over it to keep it quiet, suddenly realizing that she was probably just as hungry as her two young companions. The little reserve that they had saved was used for breakfast and again for lunch since she was sure they would come across a village before nightfall. "Just my luck to travel in the only part of the Roman Empire that's virtually uninhabited," Xena complained to the sky as another combination of lightening and thunder wrestled for control of the air. She turned and stepped into an ankle deep puddle of slimy black mud. A cascade of curses rolled like music from the warrior's throat as she pulled her boot free with a loud popping sound.
"Seems like all of nature is angry tonight." A soft voice commented directly behind her.
Xena swung around pulling her sword free in one fluid movement. She pointed it directly at the chest of the goddess that stood there in what seemed to be a fragment of dry in an ocean of wet. Aphrodite smiled weakly but did not back away from the weapon that now rested against her flesh. She knew the warrior could take her life. Perhaps that was what she wanted.
The warrior blinked the battering raindrops off her lashes, let out a snort then pulled the sword back and away from the goddess. "If this is your idea of revenge, Aphrodite, you had better think about changing your title. This is the ultimate!" She barked as she slammed the weapon into its scabbard. A spray of water leapt from the sheath as the sword found its rest. Xena placed her hands on her hips and waited for the goddess to respond.
"Revenge." Aphrodite repeated in a soft voice. "Is that what you think?"
Xena turned up her palms and shrugged her shoulders. Of course it was what she thought, what else could she think?
"Not revenge, Xena." The goddess replied, meekly. "I was trying to help "
"HELP?" Xena exclaimed, throwing up her arms in exasperation. Thunder crashed at the same moment giving the warrior's voice an almost omnipotent timbre. "You call this helping??? Let's see. You've turned my companions into children. Stranded us in the middle of nowhere in the worst storm I have experienced in my TWO ." She held up two fingers in front of the other woman's face and shook them for emphasis. "TWO lifetimes. I'm tired. I'm wet. I'm cold and I'm hungry. AND I've got two kids waiting back at that cave doing Hades knows what while I tell myself I am hunting in the middle of a QUAGMIRE!" She stopped and drew a deep breath then continued in quieter tone. "So explain to me please, Aphrodite, just what part of that is your helping?"
Aphrodite chewed her bottom lip and drew a deep breath. She raised one hand and widened the circle that surrounded her until it encompassed the warrior, shielding her too from the maddening rainfall. By this point Xena was too angry to notice or even to care that the rain now fell around her instead of on top of her. "There was this guy " the goddess shrugged as she began.
Xena rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to chastise the goddess verbally but stopped when Aphrodite dropped her head in defeat. The warrior drew a breath and shook her head. 'This had better be good!' She told herself but to the goddess said, "and?"
Aphrodite blinked a few times trying to judge the warrior's acceptance. Xena did not really seem like she was very interested in anything she had to say or any explanation she tried to make. She looked doe-eyed at the warrior then continued in very soft voice. "He said I did a good thing when I took Gabrielle and Eve to Olympus. He said I did it at great risk to my own life and that in doing that I had shown that I could truly stand for the meaning of love." The goddess giggled in her usual fashion. "I tried to tell him who I was, but he didn't really seem to care." She stopped for a moment puzzling that situation but sensed the warrior's growing impatience. "He said as a reward I would keep my immortality but " she sniffled and pulled a pink handkerchief from nowhere. Xena sighed at the goddess's acting. "He said no one would be worshipping me, no more temples, no more tributes. I'll just be a memory." The last of her statement faded away into heavy faux sobbing.
Xena waited a few moments then prodded, "And how does all of that explain all of this?" She spread her arms in front of her and held her palms up waiting for an answer.
"He told me I could continue to help people with matters of love and all that kind of thing." The tears and the hankie disappeared simultaneously. "And that I could grant wishes."
Xena shook her head in exasperation. This was getting her nothing more than the return of that pounding headache that had never quite fully disappeared.
"So I granted yours." She smiled proudly then added, "after all you are the only one I really know well enough right now, but he told me I have to look for some guy named D'Milo and another one called Valence no, no that's not right it's Valentius, Valencia...no Valentine, yeah that's right. But he said it would be awhile before I'd have to worry about them. This D'Milo guy is supposed to make me a household word! Can you imagine? Oh, and the bonus is that my son, Cupid, he gets the same deal if I do things right with this Val guy."
"Aphrodite?" Xena tried interrupting.
"Anyway you know all that stuff about granting three wishes? Well that isn't the way it goes." She shook her head.
"Aphrodite?" Xena tried again.
"One wish is all I can grant oh and no one can see me except for you and sweet pea, that is, but I guess that is because of all that stuff with your daughter and "
Xena placed two fingers against her lips and issued an earsplitting whistle. The goddess threw both hands over her ears and let out a short squeak. "Thank you." The warrior sneered, "but how does any of this concern the present situation?"
"Well," Aphrodite began, clearly insulted, "if you'd let me finish I would have told you I was just granting your wish."
The warrior's eyebrows raised almost to her hairline. "Aphrodite, even in my worst nightmare I would NOT wish for this!"
"But you did," she nodded. "All of you did. That's what I was trying to tell you. I can only grant a wish that someone makes for someone else and only if that wish is made of a pure heart and out of pure love." She smiled contently.
Xena dropped her face into her hands and shook her head to keep herself from screaming out loud. Raising her head she pulled her hands down contorting and elongating her features for a moment before she continued. "That's, that's right. Mm hmm, yep that is just about right," she began with dripping sarcasm. "I wished that Gabrielle was what, eight maybe ten years old and more trouble that she was the very first day I met her and that I can't take my eyes off her for one minute because she has no conception of the dangers that are never less that two feet away, and that she trusts everyone and everything so implicitly that any dirt bag that happens along can convince her to take up and follow him to who knows where. BUT that wasn't enough for me, no I added that my daughter should be turned into an angst driven adolescent that would probably be more likely to slit my throat than admit to having the slightest kind feeling toward ANYTHING while I try to decide whether to take her in my arms or yank her over my knee!" She stopped and drew a breath, holding up a finger to halt the goddess before she spoke. "Oh yes, Aphrodite I can clearly see myself making that wish!"
The goddess pouted, throwing her arms across her chest and looking more like a child herself than a goddess with or without a legion of worshippers. "But you did, Xena. I couldn't have granted a wish that wasn't made." She explained in a semi-whiney defensive tone. Xena drew a breath and shook her head in disagreement. "Yes, Xena." Aphrodite continued. "You wished that they could have back their innocence. You wished it twice."
Xena thought for a moment then remembered her silent vigil over her two young companions the previous evening. "That wasn't a wish, it was it was I was just how could you think I " The warrior fell over her words before collecting the thought. "I didn't mean I wanted them to be children! For Hera's sake Aphrodite! It was just a thought." The warrior was clearly exasperated.
"Well then you all think alike because Gabrielle wished that you could have had the time to see your daughter grow and Eve wished someone had been her guide so that she wouldn't have hurt all those people, including you. All of you wished the same thing. Three wishes made unselfishly by pure hearts. I had no choice, Xena." Aphrodite explained calmly. "Although I have to admit that Gabrielle was kind of an accident. I only meant to send Eve back to her childhood so all of you could kind of be a family and all that stuff. My little friend just stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Xena almost laughed at the irony of Gabrielle doing such a thing. "Then all you have to do is change them back." She sighed hopefully.
Aphrodite shook her head. "It isn't that easy Xena. It has to be a wish."
"Okay, so I wish Gabrielle and Eve were themselves again." Xena blurted out in frustration.
"That won't work either. It took three wishes to get them there it takes three to get them back." The goddess informed her sadly.
"I don't suppose I could just tell them to make that wish?" Xena drawled in a defeated tone.
Again the goddess shook her head. "It has to be made of free will and with "
"A pure heart." The warrior finished for her. She stepped to the edge of the dry bubble she had finally noticed and poked a finger at the driving rain. Immediately her hand was soaked, but as she drew it back it was just as instantly dry. "So Gabrielle and Eve have lost years of their lives and don't even remember who they are were will be." She mused more to herself than to the goddess. "I suppose, if I can survive through it, they'll be grown in a few years. It shouldn't be too bad." She said but thought, 'unless I throttle one or both of them in the meantime.'
Aphrodite sighed and looked away quickly. "Well, Xena it kinda doesn't work that way either. You wished for them to be innocent. I'm afraid what you've got is what you've got."
"You mean " Xena began but never finished as the goddess nodded in agreement.
"But I think I can give them back their memories. If that's what you were thinking?" She waited for an answer as she poised to grant the request.
Xena held up a hand, "No! Oh no, no, no. I don't think either of them would be very happy to know the intensity of the predicament they are in. And I know that I certainly can't." For a moment both warrior and goddess simply listened to the sounds of the storm in all of its fury. "The only thing I wish right now it that those two could have a good meal before this night ends." Xena shook her head. "I've got work to do Aphrodite. If you really want to help, go back to the cave and keep an eye on them until I get there."
The goddess nodded with a small smile then in a blink she disappeared taking the spot of dry land with her.
Xena stood again in the teaming rain and called after her, "And don't go granting any wishes!"
"I'm hungry." Gabrielle announced as she let the rock she had been holding drop from her fist.
Eve looked down and shrugged her shoulders. "No more berries," she shrugged. "But if we look real hard I bet we could find some mushrooms. They grow in dark dank places."
The smaller girl wrinkled her nose and turned down her mouth in disgust. "Yuck!" She commented as she turned and plopped herself down on a flat smooth rock. "I think I'll just wait for Xena."
The older child found a rock of her own and sat as well. "In my palace we have the best nutbread in all of Rome. Cook makes it everyday since it is my favorite. Sometimes I have it instead of supper."
Gabrielle's eye's widened at the mention of her favorite delicacy. "You've never tasted my Momma's nutbread. She uses a secret recipe that my grandma got from her grandma. People come from miles around just to smell it baking." She rubbed her tummy and licked her lips. "You'd want it instead of breakfast, lunch and supper!" The little girl smiled, knowing she had out done her larger friend's comment.
Eve poked at the small stones that were strewn about the cave floor with one of the sticks she had taken from the woodpile. "Can I ask you a question, Gabrielle?" Her voice sounded more childlike than regal for the first time that day. The smaller girl nodded quickly and waited. "Earlier today when Xena found you, she struck you and yet you rode with her and held tightly to her even after ward. And now you seem anxious for her return. If someone in my palace had struck me in that way I would have had their arm cut off and left them to die in their own blood. How can you care for someone who treats you so brutally?"
The smaller girl shuddered at the vivid picture of retaliation Eve painted. "She wasn't being brutal, she was being like a mom. I guess. Moms and big people that care about you get scared when you do something stupid. Sometimes they just want to give you a reminder so you don't go and do the same thing again and maybe break your neck. Like one time my uncle told us the story of Icarus and how he tried to fly to the sun. So we collected all the feathers in every hen house in the village to make a pair of wings. Then we tied them to my little sister, cuz she was the smallest and I don't like to be up high." Gabrielle shook her head as she explained then continued, "we were gonna push her out of the barn loft but my Poppa came in just at that minute. Boy was he mad! We all got reminded, real good, about how it was not a smart idea to try to make your sister fly." She giggled softly. "Anyway Xena wasn't being mean and I shouldn't have gone off like that either. And it didn't hurt." One dark eyebrow raised in a silent question. Gabrielle's cheeks reddened, "well it doesn't hurt anymore." She mumbled quietly.
"No one in my palace would dare tell me I was wrong or that I had done something stupid." Eve announced once more retaining her royal attitude. "They have no right to do so under penalty of death."
"But did you?" Gabrielle questioned sincerely.
"Did I what?" The girl returned, her brows knitted and face pinched tightly.
Gabrielle's eyes were wide with wonder. "But did you ever do anything stupid? Something you probably shouldn't have done?"
Eve thought for a moment. She wasn't used to explaining her actions or justifying them. She was not the one considered 'stupid' in the palace. If she made a mistake, it was someone else's fault, never hers. "Once I was playing with the candles in my chamber and caught the draperies afire. It took most of the afternoon to put it out and everything in my room was lost." Eve remembered.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle grimaced knowing how her own parents would have handled that bit of misconduct.
Eve shook her head. "Not a word was said, but the woman who made the candle was banished from the palace as well as the city. Her family was banished as well."
"That's awful!" Gabrielle squawked. "It wasn't her fault. You were very bad and you should have been punished. Where was your mother?" The girl almost sounded like a mother herself as she shook a finger in the other girl's direction.
"Rome is my mother, Gabrielle." Eve said flatly, realizing that she now missed something she had not been aware of just a short while ago. This little imp was dirty and ill educated but she had parents a mother that loved her and cared enough to teach her wrong from right. Even Xena seemed to care very much for this girl, for what she did and where she was and how she got there. She wondered what it was about herself that caused that luxury to be preempted from her life. In the palace of Rome she could buy anything she wanted, have any servant that pleased her and dismiss those that did not. But she could not pay someone to care to love
"It's okay." Gabrielle soothed as she leaned over and wrapped an arm around the taller girl's shoulders. Eve wanted to pull away, but this touch this innocent gesture was more pleasant than she had ever thought it could be. She had seen so many such gestures and had written them off, but experiencing it was quite a different feeling. She was almost embarrassed by it. "My mom won't let us have nutbread instead of supper, but when we get home she'll make some that's lots better than you ever tasted." The kid went on as she rested her head against Eve's.
Eve smiled a real smile and leaned into the little girl's heartfelt embrace. She secretly wished she had such a mother and even more wished that maybe this little one's parents might consider taking in an orphan. Rome hadn't been such a good mother and no one there ever knew or cared to tell her anything about her real mother. On the rare occasions she had spoken to Octavius he had been evasive to say the least. He'd told her that her mother had died a hero's death and that was all he had known. After which she was usually ushered out of the man's presence and forbidden to see him for long spans of time. She soon stopped asking. "Do you really think Xena can help you find your way back home?" She asked softly.
"Sure!" Gabrielle smiled back. "Xena can do anything. You'll see. She'll get you home too."
Eve nodded sadly. For all the people that lived and worked in the palace she had felt closer and had more attention from these two strangers in only one day than she had had in most every other day of her life. She wasn't quite sure she wanted to go 'home'. She wriggled out of Gabrielle's embrace and stood slowly. "Come on," she motioned for the child to follow. "We better get that mess over there cleaned up before she gets back." Gabrielle rose as well and followed her older companion toward the saddles that still lay on the cave floor.
"Looks good, huh?" Gabrielle asked over her shoulder as she smoothed the last blanket out flat on one of the bedrolls. Eve nodded as she added a few more logs to the once again burning fire.
"Helloooo?" A strange voice called from the cave's entrance.
Eve stood and turned toward the sound, placing herself between the younger child and the intruder. "What do you want?" She called without the slightest hint of fear in her voice. Gabrielle peaked from behind the taller girl.
Aphrodite stepped into the light cast by the flame. She smiled sweetly and wiggled her fingers in a friendly wave. "Hi, sweet pea." She sang to the smaller child causing Eve to push Gabrielle farther behind. "You probably don't remember me, do you?" She cooed to the girl ignoring the larger child's defensive posture. Eve immediately grabbed Gabrielle's hand and backed away slowly. The goddess stood back and placed her hands on her hips, clearly insulted by the girl's action. "Oh, come on Evie, don't be such a poop! Do I look like a threat?"
Eve eyed the strangely dressed woman. She'd seen women dressed in flowing veils in the palace, but they were usually the entertainment for some banquet or festival that went on behind closed doors. Dancers rarely posed a threat to anyone. She didn't appear to be concealing a weapon, not that there was anywhere to conceal anything in the shear pink lingerie the woman had chosen to cover, or almost cover herself with.
"Maybe she just needs to get out of the storm, Eve." Gabrielle whispered. "It's a big cave, there's lots of room. I don't think she's gonna hurt us."
"Hurt you?" Aphrodite repeated as gently as possible. "No, no I don't want to hurt anyone. I just thought thought you might be hungry and well I've got all this food and it will only go to waste if I don't find someone to share it with and well these rocks don't seem very comfortable." She snapped her fingers and a large horse stepped into the cave as well. It pulled a wagon laden with the biggest softest pillows either girl had ever seen. They just didnt exist on small Greek farms and even those in the palace of Rome seemed shoddy in comparison. "Do you think you could help me out?" She smiled at the girls as she reached under the cushions and drew out a small package wrapped in pink paper and tied with a darker pink string. The goddess pulled the string and the wrapper fell away revealing a still steaming loaf of nutbread. Its aroma wafted quickly across the expanse of the cave.
"NUTBREAD!" Both girls exclaimed in unison. Aphrodite smiled as they dashed toward her offering.
A short time later the goddess and her two new friends had arranged the large pillows into soft beds covered not only with their own furs and blankets but silky quilts in a myriad of pink shades and designs. Gabrielle sprawled back on the new bedding and patted her full tummy. "That was the best meal I've ever had." She closed her eyes and let out a long satisfied sigh then jumped up suddenly remembering something important. "We saved some for Xena right?"
"There's plenty for everyone." Aphrodite assured her.
Eve set the plate she had been holding on the floor at her feet and eyed the woman suspiciously. "How is it you and your wagon aren't wet?"
'Like mother like daughter,' the goddess mumbled under her breath. "I just know how to stay out of the weather better than most, I suppose." She lied to the child.
"Nobody is that good." The girl narrowed her eyes and shook her head warily. "Who are you exactly?" She leaned forward posing the question again.
Xena marched through the wind and mud back toward the cave, empty handed. She wasn't quite sure whether her anger was toward that ditzy goddess her inability to find any sort of sustenance for her wards the fact that she had wards to worry about in the first place or just a combination of the whole stupid situation. And the fact that absolutely nothing she did had any bearing on solving it. Being soaked to the bone wasn't helping matters either. She tried unsuccessfully to push the looks she knew she would get, when she told the girls they would have to wait until morning for a meal, out of her mind. They'd just have to understand and she'd just have to accept the look of disappointment from her little bard as well as the one of animosity from her delinquent daughter. The thought of staying out in the storm was almost more inviting. A loud clap of thunder preceded a burst of lightening as it split a large tree in half, sending splintering sparks in all directions.
The warrior hurried her step.
The child, Eve, had been the instrument by which the Olympian gods had fallen. Aphrodite was not quite sure it was safe to reveal her identity without the presence of the Warrior Princess. In her own immortal heart she knew she could do no harm to this or any other child, but there was still the fact that her entire family was lost because of her. She hadn't agreed with any of them and was still pondering the fact that her arrogant black-sheep brother had given up his own immortality to save this girl's life. She wondered if all of this occurred just because she hadn't wanted to see Gabrielle hurt in the process of all that rigmarole. Gabrielle was, after all, the only true friend Aphrodite had ever known. She was innocent and certainly it was unfair that the girl should have to die in Athena's silly plan. Still again, Athena was her sister...but she was being selfish and she was unwilling to listen to anything Xena had to say. It was a nasty, ugly business and she put out of her mind. Everything was new again and that strange guy she had met right after leaving Olympus had made her believe she was capable of walking this new path. She stared into the girl's deep blue eyes wondering if the child could see through her ruse in the same way her mother had always done.
"Exactly I'm just someone who wants to help." She finally answered.
Eve shook her head but before she could continue Gabrielle chirped, "I bet you're travelling with a circus and you got separated in the storm. My uncle told me about circuses. I've never seen one, but you fit what he described. Are you lost too? Me and Eve and Xena are lost. Xena said so. Maybe you can tell us the way back to Poteidia or to Rome. You probably know where Rome is right?" She waited wide-eyed for a reply.
"Oh, she certainly is a performer, a real clown." A deeper voice growled.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she pushed herself up from the pillows and ran toward the warrior. "You're all wet." She informed the incensed warrior as if it wasn't immediately apparent.
"What are you doing here and what is all of this?!" Xena temporarily ignored the child and demanded of the goddess who had risen and faced the warrior.
"You told me to keep an eye on them. They were hungry and you weren't having much luck out there." Aphrodite explained with a jerk of her head toward the outside.
Xena swore a string of ear-burning oaths about goddesses and rain and luck as she pulled her armor free and tossed it to the floor then reached for one of the large soft cloths Aphrodite had thought to decorate the cavern with earlier. The goddess placed her hands over the ears of the blond haired child who sat in front of her watching the warrior's every more. Eve couldn't help but let out a low chuckle. The warrior rubbed the moisture from her limbs then used the towel to furiously mop her drenched hair. She couldn't help but hear the snickers of her audience.
"I'm glad you find this so amusing," her deep voice growled from beneath the cloth. For a moment the soft snickering stopped then burst anew in a chorus of adolescent laughter, childish giggles and Aphrodite twitter. The warrior pulled the towel away from her face and cast a glance at the trio that silenced them immediately. She tossed the now soaking rag over her shoulder and stalked toward the remains of the feast that lay spread on the cavern floor. Stooping closer to the food she narrowed her eyes and looked from silent face to silent face as the others held their breaths in anticipation of the explosion sure to follow. She dropped down onto the closest rock, rested her elbows on her knees and drew a breath through her teeth. The fire crackled and popped loudly, causing both children to jump and the goddess to let out a soft squeak. The warrior did not flinch. She turned slowly glaring at the Olympian benefactor. Aphrodite swallowed hard, expecting the worst. Eve smirked at the anger the warrior was struggling to contain.
But it was the warrior that jumped slightly as a soft rose colored quilt fell across her shoulders and was pulled together by two small hands. "You need to get warm or you'll catch your death." The small voice scolded with words that echoed a mother's concern. Gabrielle's small hand wrapped around one of the warrior's cold palms. The warmth that she felt there seemed to melt away the storm brewing within her. "Come on, now," the little girl coaxed, gently tugging at the mighty warrior. "Sit over here and I'll get you something to warm your insides as well." She smiled a familiar smile and the light of the fire reflected in her twinkling green eyes. "Please?" Xena's resolve was broken with that one word spoken by that one voice that could pierce her darkest mood. She acquiesced, rising slightly and allowing herself to be taken to a pile of cushions and gently pushed into their bulk. Aphrodite smiled a sigh of relief only to receive a quick warning glance from the warrior.
Eve felt the burning anger grow within her own chest as the heat rose to her cheeks. She did not understand how she could feel so much hate and so much affection at the same time. She tossed the apple she had been eating into the fire and kicked a pillow across the floor. With one furious push she rose from her seat and marched away from the group back toward the rock she had used as a perch before the warrior had left on her very unproductive hunting trip. She was angry with herself for not making the move the smaller girl had done, she was more angry because it hadn't even occurred to her to do so. She was angry with Gabrielle for caring so much and for Xena for letting her care. She was angry with the strange woman who had arrived so conveniently with so much to offer. She was angry just plain angry with an anger she could not control and did not care to explain. She cast one final look over her shoulder at the small child that now offered a full platter of food to the smiling warrior while she continued to babble on about keeping warm and getting dry. No one seemed to notice she had walked away. No one seemed to care. No one seemed to realize the seething anger that threatened to burst into full rage within her.
"This isn't exactly what I meant Aphrodite." Xena chided the goddess as she bit into a piece of roasted lamb. "I said keep an eye on them. And you do have a few little problems you might try to do something about as well." She shook the bone in her hand at the goddess, hoping she'd take the hint.
"I told you, Xena," the woman whined in a high pitched voice. "There's nothing I can do unless the same people make the same wishes for the same thing. " She threw up her arms. "What is it with warriors!?"
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the cushions watching the conversation. Her head turned from woman to woman as they exchanged comments. "Aphrodite?" She asked as her entire face wrinkled into the word. The women stopped and looked at the girl who they had almost forgotten. "Like the goddess?" The girl's eyebrows disappeared until the spray of tawny bangs on her forehead as her voice stretched into a juvenile squeak.
Aphrodite beamed with the pride of being recognized. "She is so cute!" She squealed as she reached for the child.
Xena was quicker, She snatched the girl and set her out of the goddess' reach. "Adorable," she drawled as she shirked the blanket off her shoulders and turned to the child. "Why don't we go see what Eve's up to while our friend here cleans up this mess?" She nodded toward the goddess with a sarcastic glint then pulled herself up from the cushions and took the girl by the hand. "All the mess, understand?"
Aphrodite blew a breath into the air causing her curly bangs to flip up then back down. She folded her arms across her chest and dropped back onto the pillows with a disgusted huff. Why couldn't Xena understand that there was no fixing this mess? She waved one hand and the leftover food and used utensils disappeared, leaving a clear floor and a crackling fire. 'Maybe I'll just turn Xena into a kid as well. That'll teach her." She grumbled to the warrior's back. Outside the thunder crashed and lightening exploded as if in a warning answer. "Oh, I was just teasing " the goddess told the storm.
"Hey, Eve, whatsa matter?" Gabrielle called to the girl seated high above on the large boulder.
"Leave me alone," the girl growled and flung the rock she had been holding toward the child.
The warrior caught the object in mid flight and glared at her angry daughter. "Don't." She issued a one-word warning.
"Why not!?" Eve demanded rising to her feet. "She does!" She pointed at Gabrielle accusingly. "Did you know she does Xena? Did you know your precious little darling could probably take out an eye or crack a skull with one of these?" She pelted the warrior with stones as she shrieked. Xena easily deflected every missile as she stepped in front of the smaller child. Her anger grew with each stone she parried.
"Knock it off, Eve." She snarled through clenched teeth as she stepped closer to the girl's perch.
"Or what? Or WHAT, warrior?!" The girl screamed. "And I TOLD you my name is LIVIA!" The shower of pebbles continued as the girl flung a handful of gravel down at the warrior.
Xena turned her back on the shower, protecting her smaller charge with both arms and taking the brunt of the onslaught against her back and shoulders. She turned back and without warning leapt into a somersault, landing next to her daughter and grabbing her wrist before she could launch a second attack. "I said, that's enough!" She repeated to the semi-shocked, totally infuriated child.
"Let go!" Eve yanked her wrist back in a vain attempt to pull away from the warrior.
"What's wrong with you?" Xena demanded.
Eve struggled to control her rapid breathing, angry once again that the warrior could not see her plight or tell her what was wrong. But the warrior's grip was like a vise and the girl was trapped. Below Gabrielle watched the altercation dreading the outcome for both of her new friends. Eve hadn't been angry before, they'd had a good time. Why had she told Xena about the rocks? They were only having fun, but mother AND father had warned her about throwing rocks. They had told her, very specifically, what would happen if she insisted on perfecting that skill. What would Xena do now? Curiosity overcame the little girl's fear and she began climbing the large rocks to get to the top of the boulder for a better look. Maybe she could help if she could just get up there. She hated to see people argue and was usually the first to step between any disagreement between her friends at home.
"Get away from me! Leave me alone!" Eve continued to fight her mother's grip, kicking at the warrior's legs and pulling with such force that Xena had to lean forward in order to compensate. Eve leaned back farther until she almost rested against the surface of the large rock. She continued to kick and scream obscenities at her captor, refusing to listen to any of the logic or threats the warrior was attempting to hand her. Although her eyes were locked on the warrior's her free hand reached the ground and wrapped around a stone that was nearly too large for her grasp.
Gabrielle looked up at the back of Xena's boots as she balanced on the edge of the rock. She lifted her foot to the nearest stone and continued her climb refusing to look back at the distance she had covered. Just a few more feet and .
Eve squeezed the large stone in her hand, forcing her fingers to stretch around its girth. Xena was still trying to reason with her but the woman's voice was no more than a droning buzz to the girl. Blinded by anger borne of jealousy and loneliness she heard nothing but the jealousy evolved hatred in her own heart. Using the hold the warrior had on her left wrist for momentum she pulled the heavy rock from the ground and thrust it toward her captor, hoping to knock her off balance enough to escape. Xena was quicker and sensed the girl's action before she saw the rock coming toward her. She easily dodged the girl's makeshift weapon, pulling her body to the left with a quick jerk. At the same time she let go of the child's hand allowing her to drop roughly against the stone's surface.
Gabrielle stood at the edge of the boulder, proud of her accomplishment but never had the chance to revel in that pride. The object that struck the child's chest took away her breath and sent her reeling backward over that edge. She heard the high pitched scream not realizing it was her own as she flipped in midair and spun toward the ground below. That scream was cut short as the world went black in a wave of pain.
Xena spun at the sound, unaware that the girl had followed her yet at the same time hardly surprised. She stared for a second over the edge at the small form sprawled below. Eve pushed herself from the floor and did the same. She looked back into the fiery glare of the warrior that stood next to her. "I...I'm...I didn't know I " but Xena had already leapt to the floor as Aphrodite rushed to the same spot. "I'm sorry I didn't mean to " Eve spoke to no one. "I'm sorry." She whispered. "Please " She prayed.
Aphrodite reached to take the child in her arms only to be stopped by strong warrior hands that now seemed to shake despite the calm resolve the woman put forward. "Don't don't ." She ordered as she knelt next to the child. Carefully Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's small chest feeling the softest rise and fall of precious air still filling the girl's lungs and the steady flutter of the heart beating beneath. She carefully ran her hands along the girl's ribs, arms and legs relieved to find nothing broken. Gently she probed the child's neck and head finding a large bump just behind and above her right ear. Gabrielle moaned as the warrior found the spot. Her eyelids fluttered once twice then opened wide and filled immediately with tears as the reality of what had happened formed in the child's mind. She pushed herself up with both hands still unable to make a sound. Although her face was contorted in pain her cry was silent. That lasted but a second as the breath that had been knocked from her small lungs was drawn back with intense force and her voice was found then released in a shrill shocked sob. The warrior quickly took the girl into her arms, comforting herself as much as the child before her.
Eve watched from above, squatting down on her haunches on the same edge Gabrielle had just left. She sighed with relief as the girl began to cry. For half a moment she believed she had killed the youngster and knew that the warrior would certainly take her life in retaliation. At the same time she wished she had fallen herself, maybe maybe then she I
"Shh, shh," Xena comforted the small form that sought to bury itself in her embrace, but she pushed the girl back hoping to find the worst of her injuries and tend to them immediately. "Let me see, Gabrielle," she coaxed softly. "Show me what hurts ."
Gabrielle's sobs lessened as she debated the greater of her pains. She laid a hand on her chest as she coughed another sob and squeezed her eyes shut with the pain it brought. Xena pulled the child's vest away gently and raised her tunic to reveal a dark bruise that covered the expanse of the small chest under it. Above Eve cringed at the sight. Xena lowered the child's blouse and gathered her into her arms as she rose and started toward the cushions near the fire. "It's okay, okay," she cooed to the girl. "We'll take care of it right now." She laid the girl against the pillows after tugging the tunic over her head and reached for the saddlebag that held her medicine pouch. She looked again at the angry wound then at the girl who watched from above, her gaze more than a threat of what was to come. Gently the warrior smoothed the soothing balm over the girl's chest until her weeping was all but a few sniffles. She pulled a roll of bandage from the bag and motioned for the very worried Aphrodite to help the child sit in order to wrap her injury. With that done the warrior shifted around the girl to examine her head more closely. There was no gash, no blood, no need to torture the little one with stitching. She would probably have a terrible headache for quite some time, but it was a good guess that it was the fact that she'd had the wind knocked out of her in the fall more so than she had been rendered unconscious by the fall. Xena would keep an eye on that wound regardless. She turned the child back toward her and lifted her chin.
Gabrielle sniffed once and swallowed hard then whispered, "I'm sorry, Xena," before lapsing back into a flood of tears. Once again the warrior took the small girl into her arms and rocked her gently while rubbing one hand in a small circle on the child's back.
"Sorry?" She repeated as she placed a kiss on top of the girl's head.
"I shouldn't have climbed up there. Don't be mad, please Xena ." Again the child's words dissolved into tears.
"You have nothing to be sorry about, Gabrielle. I'm not mad " Xena comforted as she once again glanced toward her wayward child. For several seconds she rocked the girl until her tears subsided, then she carefully handed the little form to the goddess that had been sitting close by also offering words of comfort.
Aphrodite took the small sobbing form and wrapped a soft blanket around her chilled body. She pulled the child close and rocked in that way a mother rocks any hurt child. She whispered softly and began to hum a song she had not used since her own son had been a baby. She missed that time. She missed being needed. She missed needing someone. The goddess of love suddenly realized that perhaps, motherly love was stronger than any other form of the emotion she had loosed upon the world. She glanced up at the warrior who now stood beside her, then back to the shivering child.
The warrior had risen slowly and turned toward the boulder where Eve still sat. "Why Eve? Why her? It's me you hate. It's me you want to hurt. Why?"
The young girl stood, shaking her head slowly. "No I I I'm it was an accident I didn't "
"Accident? ACCIDENT!?" Xena bellowed as she stepped closer. "Did you think you could just throw your little tantrum without some consequence? Did you think at all?"
Eve looked at her mother for the first time since Gabrielle had been hurt. She sniffed back her weakness and allowed all of her anger to pour forth in protection. "What do you care about what I do?!" She shot back. "You only care about her, only her! What difference does it make what I do or what I feel!? Why would you even listen to me!?" She turned and leapt from the boulder's opposite side, dashing into the black bowels of the cave and away from the situation she had wrought, away from the plethora of emotions that were brewing inside of her, away from the woman that somehow felt so close yet remained so distant. The last thing she expected was the warrior to follow. She had had many tantrums in the palace of Rome, all of which ended with her stomping out of the room and slamming every door she could slam on her way to wherever she ended her rampage. No one ever followed.
Xena was not a Roman, nor was she about to let her child go wandering off in a dark cave, especially when she was not yet through with this business that she fully intended to get to the bottom of, or else. She sprang to the top of the large rock in one vault calling after the girl that slid around a large stalagmite and into a narrow crevice. The warrior cursed under her breath. If she went back for a torch she would lose precious time. She somersaulted to the floor and easily followed the girl's trail despite the darkness.
The passage ran for a few meters, it's walls smooth and even. There were no portals that lead in other directions. It seemed to be one straight line. Xena thanked whatever force had created this marvel for that small favor. Although she could not see the girl, it was easy to follow the sounds she made in the narrow hall. It ended abruptly in a strange circle of greenish light. A wide cavern of phosphorescent crystals reflected off a deep black underground lake. Eve stood at its edge, her shoulders shaking with the tears that had overtaken her on her journey. The walls were solid, without egress. It was a dead end. She was trapped. Xena stood in the entrance of the only means of escape.
"You stay away from me!" Eve cried as she turned to face the warrior and backed into the dark water. "Stay away!"
Xena marched forward. She was tired of this game, tired of this attitude.
Eve allowed herself to fall backward unto the water, immediately slipping beneath its surface. Xena followed, diving into the depths and pulling the girl back to the surface. Eve gasped for breath but fought to free herself from the warrior's grip desperately attempting to keep her face below that surface. Xena yanked the girl roughly and dragged her back to the shore.
"Let go, just let me go, let me go " The girl frantically fought the warrior.
Xena dropped down onto an outcropping of stone and stood the girl before her, holding her fast. "Stop it," she ordered with a short shake, "stop!"
"Just let me go nobody cares they don't ever care nobody nobody " The child was hysterical.
"What are you talking about?" Xena demanded.
"Why did you come after me?" The girl countered. "You don't care. NOBODY cares about me. They hate me, they all hate me. I wish I was her, then you'd love me too. I see you. I see how you smile and laugh at her and love her and nobody, NOBODY ever loved me like that. NEVER! Let go!" Eve screamed as she squirmed and struggled to free herself from Xena's grasp.
"Enough, Eve!" Xena tried to be heard over the girl's ranting. "Listen to me!" She gave the girl a hard shake. "Listen!"
"NO, no! I'm Livia. Livia!" The girl screamed, throwing her head back. "I hate you. I hate everyone. I want to die. Nobody will care. Nobody will notice. LET ME GO!" She shrieked then drew a deep breath and spat into the warrior's face, hoping the shock would be enough to loosen her grip and allow for escape.
Eve glared through her hysteria with pure defiance. Xena pulled back one hand and slapped the girl's face for her effort. For a moment time seemed to stop as the shocked young girl held her breath and stared into the woman's angry eyes. The warrior wiped her hand across her own face, immediately regretting that the girl's dare had brought out that part of her, yet refusing to give into the guilt or let go and possibly lose her daughter again. She renewed her grasp on the girl's shoulders and shook her again. Eve drew in a deep breath, but remained silent as she raised her hand to touch the sting on her cheek.
"Someone in that palace of yours should have taught you a lesson a long time ago. I'm sorry I wasn't there to take care of it myself." The warrior commented with both anger and regret. She never would have allowed her daughter to grow into this belligerent teen.
For a moment the child stared into the warrior's eyes, she drew a shaky breath then slowly relaxed. "You hit me." She remarked softly in disbelief.
"Yes, I did." Xena agreed, "and you're lucky I don't turn you over my knee and make up for lost time! You, my dear young warrior, have a lot of very hard lessons to learn."
"You hit me." The girl repeated. She stared into the eyes of the woman before her, questioning her without words as her body relaxed. Eve sobbed and sniffed back renewed tears, "Nobody never cared what I did or didn't do and no one, NO ONE ever cared enough to teach me anything like that." She sniffled again and tugged against the grip the warrior now had on both of her wrists. "And no one ever hit me."
"I'm sorry, Eve I " Xena began, immediately regretting her action and noticing the rosy hue on the girl's left cheek.
"No no not sorry why?" The girl repeated, desperately seeking an answer.
"I care about you Eve. I've always cared." The warrior explained in a hushed tone as she loosened her grip on the girl.
A tear rolled over the girl's cheek and she dropped her gaze to the floor. "Like you care about Gabrielle?" Her voice was little more than a whisper as all of the fight drained from the dark-haired child and she gave in to the consequence of her actions.
"What?" Xena asked raising the girl's chin with one hand and wiping her tears with the other. "Gabrielle?"
"I didn't mean to hurt her, I was just mad, mad because you love her. Mad because she she's so easy to love and I'm so no one ever loved me like that." Tears streamed over the girl's cheeks as the words became more difficult to express. She took a short breath and forced herself to go on. "I see other kids and parents and families that love them, but not me not me. Why Xena, why not me?" she whispered allowing all the pain-wrought anger that had built to pour forth. A tear rolled over the warrior's cheek as she realized the anguish her child had endured without her. Eve shook off the feeling and continued to explain her actions a few minutes before. "I just wanted to get away, but I didn't know she was there really I didn't. I wouldn't hurt her, not on purpose, not on purpose, please forgive me please don't hate me I need you to not hate me ." Eve dissolved into her pain, allowing its full release. After so much time it seemed to cause more distress than she had anticipated. The hurt had overtaken the anger and she was at its mercy, vulnerable and alone with her truth. The child ached to be held, ached to be comforted, ached for the love of the mother who stood inches away, yet she refused to give in to that need.
Xena stared for a moment, hardly believing what she heard. Its reality formed slowly in her mind. Eve was right. Gabrielle, even now as the child that she was, was and had always been so easy to love. She was sweet and gentle, loving and affectionate. Eve was all angles, pointy and rough, stubborn and independent. Xena had seen so much of herself in her young daughter, her proud and thick-skinned adolescent did not seem to need or to want her motherly attention. She'd forgotten how much she had needed her own mother's love in those long dark days of arrogant youth and how envious she had been of the little brother that seemed to enjoy all that Cyrene had to give. But at the same time, Xena herself could not help loving the sweet child Lyceus had always been. Perhaps that was why Gabrielle fit so neatly into that space his death had left in her heart.
The warrior blinked and took a deep breath as she tried to explain to her distraught child. "I do love Gabrielle, Eve, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for you too. Don't you know that love is that only thing that expands by giving it away?" Xena struggled to hold back her own tears. Somewhere in her fuzzy ice-packed memory she remembered someone telling her that. She remembered being held close in a warm embrace that smelled of fresh bread and warm cider. She remembered the woman who sent her off to slumber every night by placing a soft kiss on both of her eyes and telling her that same thing. So many nights, so long ago mother -- and the warrior's heart ached for that same embrace. "Gabrielle is a very dear to me. She saved my life and my soul and I owe her so much, but you " She looked into her daughter's eyes then pulled the girl into a tight embrace, holding what she had for so long dreamed of holding close to her heart. The girl relaxed in her arms, slipping into that same embrace born of that same dream. It was as if she had found the place she had needed for so long. The place she had missed for so many years without ever remembering when or where she had been in it. "You, my dear heart, fill up a place inside of me that has been empty for so very, very long. No one will ever love you the way I do right now, and for always."
"Gabrielle said that only someone who really cares about you would strike you when you did something stupid. She said only your mother loves you that much." The girl's voice sounded muffled from beneath the warrior's arms. Xena smiled. It sounded very much like something Gabrielle would say. Only that little imp could find something good in even a mother's disciplinary tactics. "If I could pick a mother, I'd pick you." She added softly.
Xena smiled wider and squeezed the girl tighter, "and I'd pick you every time." She assured her daughter by placing a kiss on the girl's forehead. They stayed that way for quite some time before Xena pushed the girl away and looked into her eyes. "Come on, let's go see how Gabrielle is doing. Okay?"
"Do you think she'll forgive me?" Eve sounded worried.
The warrior smoothed the girl's hair away from her face and smiled. "If I know my Gabrielle, she already has." Again she kissed the child's forehead.
Eve smiled back and nodded then stood and took the warrior's hand. Together they walked back to where they had left Aphrodite and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was out from beneath the blankets on her feet and halfway across the cavern floor before the goddess could reach out to snatch her back. "EVE!" She called as she ran toward the warrior and her daughter. "EVE! Are you okay? What'd you run away for, you could get lost in the dark and that's not fun! I got lost once in the dark and it was awful. Did you see any bats? They live in the dark and they can get in your hair and make all kinds of creepy noises?" She stuck both hands into her hair and pushed it into a wild tangled coiffure. "You didn't get hurt did you? You could hit your head or fall or .
Xena scooped the thin half-dressed child from the floor and placed a hand gently over her mouth. "Take a breath, Gabrielle." She advised the child with a smile. The warrior winked at the girl who stood at her side. She was right, Gabrielle, being Gabrielle had no need to forgive for she held no grudge and placed no blame. She was bruised physically, but her heart was right where it had always been. Eve had been forgiven, the incident forgotten.
The small blonde child took a deep breath, just as she was told, and let it out in a long exaggerated whoosh then looked into the warrior's eyes. She placed her small hands on both of Xena's cheeks and turned her face to meet her gaze. "What's the matter?" She remarked in a tone that was all too familiar to the warrior. She never could hide her emotions from the little pest. Xena shook her hands away gently and set her on the ground, then rubbed both eyes.
"Hard to see in that gloom back there," she poked her thumb over one shoulder, "my eyes are killing me."
Eve picked up on her mother's cue immediately and began to rub her own eyes as well. "Yeah, me too. Must be I'm tired."
Gabrielle placed both hands on her hips and huffed, "Boy, you two must think I just fell off a turned up wagon!"
Eve giggled at the girl's interpretation of a well-used adult phrase. "I think you mean turnip."
The younger child scowled a bit then smiled again. "So what happened? Ya gonna tell me, huh?"
Xena bent down to the girl's eye level then turned her toward the dark cavern below. "Well, you could just go try it out for yourself. That is if you really want to know."
Gabrielle squinted and blinked into the pitch black that lay beyond the edge of the firelight. She chewed her bottom lip considering her options. Then backed up a few steps to stand beside the warrior. She looked into the sparkling blue eyes that now challenged her and swallowed hard. "By myself?" She inhaled. Xena pursed her lips to contain her laughter and nodded seriously. Gabrielle looked back at the darkness and then to the warrior and back again. She took a quick breath and blew it out over her lips. "No no," she shook her head and reached down to take the warrior's hand, "I think I will just take your word for it anyway I'm tired too."
Xena stood, took Eve's hand as well. She looked down at her still sodden daughter and the smaller girl whose costume consisted of a bandage wrapped around her chest and a pair of knee high knickers. "You'll both be sick if we don't get you back to the fire and I think it's way past time you were both asleep." Despite double moans and protests she turned them back toward the mountain of pillows Aphrodite had set out for herself as well as her company.
A candle mark later both girls lay sleeping comfortably nestled on plush pink cushions, covered by thick quilted fabrics and soft downy furs. Xena sat a few feet from their bed, poking at the fire with one long piece of kindling. One dark head and one light were barely visible beneath all the coverings. She sighed at the symbolism of that image. The light and the dark of her soul side by side in innocent slumber, her love and her hope given a second chance at the lives they should have lived. Yet for the first time in a very long time, the warrior was not quite sure where tomorrow would take her, or if she even wished to face it at all. A dark cloud of guilt seemed to overshadow any joy she imagined she should be feeling. Like Aphrodite had said, she'd gotten exactly what she had wished for, but at what price. What did her 'girls' have to give up in order for her to find the inner peace she had fought so desperately to find since since she racked her brain searching for the root of this mental turmoil. 'Dahak,' she screamed in her mind as she poked the stick deep into the flame causing millions of sparks and embers to flash into the air and light up the small area.
The goddess who sat next to her small blonde friend jumped at the flare of sparks, her own reverie broken by its sudden glare. She blinked a few times and swallowed before attempting to address the sullen warrior. "Guess I really screwed things up this time, huh?" Aphrodite's voice broke the silence between them. "It's just that that I well I thought just thought that maybe ." She hemmed an explanation. Xena cast the goddess a glance without picking up her head, it was dark and said volumes in its silent warning. Aphrodite swallowed hard and nodded her understanding.
'Dahak,' Xena thought again as she jabbed a shimmering chunk of charred wood. It shivered in orange and blue waves giving an illusion of iridescent scales. She watched, as the fire seemed to move like a living creature under the blackened surface of the log. Flames seemed to reach out toward her and pull her back into a memory she had long since buried with so many other visions of horror. That was the defining moment, for as sure as Cortese had killed her soul with the brutal slaying of her beloved brother, Dahak had taken Gabrielle's innocence and trust with his demonic violation. The anger, the hate that still dwelled in the darkest places of her heart raged to the forefront and she strained to hold them in check. Yes, part of her wanted to blame the dark demon for all of her young protégé's horror, but a larger part realized she was just as guilty.
"If I'd sent her home that first night none of this would have happened. None of it!" She growled out loud, as she stood and hurled the poker she was holding into the dark corner of the cave. It was a more a verbal thought of self-admonishment than a comment made to her quiet companion. This time not only the goddess jumped but Eve tossed quickly to one side pulling the quilt closer around her head and Gabrielle whimpered a bit before pulling herself into a tight ball. Even in sleep her small face contorted into a grimace of fear. The goddess moved quickly to her side and brushed her hand softly across the child's brow until she calmed and relaxed into peaceful slumber. Eve moaned a bit as if annoyed by the sudden disturbance but settled quickly back into rest.
"I can blame whoever and whatever I want, but it all boils down to that one moment. The one decision I should have made but didn't have the damn sense to make." She barked at the wide-eyed goddess who nodded in agreement even though she was hopelessly lost. "Everything that came after, even this," Xena spread her arms wide and moved in a circle, "is all my doing." She dropped her arms, slapping her sides. The echo bounced off the cave walls. "And Eve, my own sweet baby she was left to grow up alone without a mother, without guidance or love all because of me!" Xena pounded both fists against her chest. "ME! I destroyed my life and the lives of everyone I loved. My mother, my brothers, Solan everyone I touch." She dropped to her knees at her child's side, reached out to gently touch her cheek, then spoke softly to the sleeping girl. "My beautiful baby you were supposed to change everything, my hope, my promise I am so very sorry." A tear rolled over the warrior's cheek as she kissed her own fingertips then placed them softly against the girl's brow. "It was my arrogance that tore us apart and my self serving need to have you back that brought us here. I couldn't explain to you, as an adult, all that happened. How will I ever explain now?" She smiled a weak smile at her daughter. "I have so much to tell you, so much to teach you ." She brushed errant tears from her eyes with the back of her hand then turned back to the goddess. "Who am I kidding? Look what I did to this innocent!" She nodded toward Gabrielle. "I've almost hell, I have KILLED her or left her to be killed over and over. Look at what's happened just today. I almost lost her twice! What about the next time? Sooner or later her luck will run out, sooner or later she'll be another of my victims." Her voice fell lower and deeper, "sooner or later they both will."
Outside the cave thunder crashed and a bolt of lighting split a large tree through its center sending a shower of sparks through the rain-laden air. The halves fell to the ground with resounding thuds that could definitely have been mistaken for the footsteps of a giant. Even the cave seemed to quake with the force. Aphrodite looked, wide-eyed, toward the cave's entrance. She had seen her father, Zeus, in many fits of anger throw his thunderbolts throughout the skies and never once felt the overwhelming fear that nearly paralyzed her now. She moved closer to the sleeping child in an effort to console herself more than the girl. A second roll of thunder sounded outside the cavern followed almost instantly by an even more ferocious strike of super charged intensity. To the gentle goddess it seemed as if all of nature had somehow taken on the warrior's anger, or perhaps vice versa.
Aphrodite looked at the small child sleeping against the soft bedding. The girl's soft lashes lay against her round cheeks. Again the absence of a child in her own life stabbed at the goddess' heart. She had always liked the young bard turned warrior. Gabrielle made her laugh, really laugh. Gabrielle made her feel real, special and important. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, but someone this little one had taught her more about love than she had ever even tried to understand. Cupid had seen that first. She smiled at the girl and sighed as the warrior continued to rant and rage. If Xena felt that Gabrielle was in danger she could help. Maybe she could help with this whole mess. She'd take the little one to Olympus. It was kind of lonely there these days. Gabrielle would be safe since only Xena had the power to kill gods and she would never hurt her young friend. And Xena would have all the time in the world to spend with her own child.
"I could take her." The blonde goddess spoke softly, raising her eyes slowly to the angry warrior. Xena stopped mid-tirade and narrowed her gaze, clearly confused by the goddess' response. She raised one brow in question. Aphrodite looked back at the slumbering little girl at her side. She reached out gently and brushed the hair from the child's face, lightly brushing the back of her fingers across the soft chubby cheek. "I could take care of her. I wouldn't let her be a goddess or anything and well you could see her whenever you wanted and and ." The goddess' words drifted off as she met the warrior's pondering look. She raised her eyebrows and bit her lower lip, suddenly wishing she had kept her thoughts to herself. She braced herself for the onslaught of the warrior's indignation at her silly suggestion.
But the warrior did not react. She remained still and quiet, looking from the woman before her to the child that lay sleeping a few feet away. Outside, the rain beat steadily against the smooth granite of the entrance and splashed its rhythm on the leaves of trees and brush as well. The warrior looked away as if she could no longer bear to watch her sweet companion in sinless slumber. She drew a deep shaky breath and closed her eyes tightly, squeezing out the tears that had been threatening to fall. The warrior remained that way for a few moments, with Aphrodite both afraid and embarrassed to interrupt her private pain. Xena's eyes opened slowly as she blinked away tears and looked toward the ceiling, her breath came in deep, rapid strains, she chewed her lip as she struggled to keep her chin from quivering. She wrestled with a decision she could not bear to make, a decision that would forever tear from her heart the person that had given that very same thing back to her. It would be for the best. It would be the right thing to do. As the warrior's eyes closed once again, her chin fell to her chest and she nodded almost imperceptibly. "Yes " she whispered across her trembling lips, "she'll be safe with you."
Another crash of thunder and lightening lit the darkened sky outside the cave turning the world a furious combination of reds and oranges. The cacophony slowly subsided much like a pack of war-horses pounding through a decimated valley. Both warrior and goddess turned and fell silent in its awe. As the sound wound down and away both women remained as they were, still staring at the strange light that shone outside the cave's entrance. Red, yellow and orange had swirled away leaving a soft blue glow that seemed to illuminate the darkness of the opening. They watched, frozen in place as that light seemed to pour like some strange liquid across the floor and walls advancing slowly toward them.
Aphrodite pulled her feet closer, as if the blue light might stain her fuzzy pink slippers. Xena rose and pulled her sword from the sheath that lay within reach. She positioned herself between the glow and the people she would protect.
"Show yourself!" The warrior demanded, instantly pulling her defensive demeanor into place. She held the broadsword before her with both hands ready to take on whatever being would invade their small space. Even in her deepest despondency she would not surrender without a fight, she would not leave her loved ones without the strongest defense.
"Lower your weapon, Xena, I mean you no harm." A calm voice resonated seconds before the form of a man quivered into appearance. He stood for a moment surrounded by the hue of the light then seemed to absorb it completely before stepping forward into the meager brightness of the flame of their small fire. His presence was gentle, his appearance soft yet powerful. The man wore a tunic of deep red covered by armor of the finest silver. His voice was deep and comforting, giving a feeling of safety and protection without using any of the terms that might say the same. His eyes his eyes held the same blue light that had only seconds before illuminated the cave. He smiled broadly and held both hands out at his side to show he was indeed without weapons.
The warrior flicked her sword up quickly before glaring at the figure and relaxing her battle stance. "Michael," she sneered as she glared at the man only she knew to be an angel.
"Xena!" Aphrodite's voice came from behind the warrior, "this is him! The guy I was telling you about. The goddess giggled as she danced to the man's side.
"Leave your wings at home?" The warrior asked, ignoring the goddess as she crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head to one side.
Michael smiled as he cast a quick glance over each shoulder. "Just unnecessary for my purpose this time, Xena." He assured her.
Aphrodite smiled, "You two have met?"
"And just what might that purpose be?" Xena was suspicious. "Here to grant me yet another gift?" Her tone was more sarcastic than inquisitive.
The man chuckled amiably. "I was hoping to take one back. I was hoping you had learned something from it."
Xena huffed and rolled her eyes. "You give me the power to kill the Olympian gods, just to keep me at the mercy of your own. I'm having a real hard time learning anything here, Michael. I just don't happen to see a hell of a lot of difference." The two moved closer, stepping slowly toward each other until they stood almost toe to toe.
"Xena, you are such a challenge, a real test of conviction." Michael smiled, but the warrior refused to react. She glared at him never breaking eye contact.
"Hey you two!" Aphrodite protested as she nudged herself between the warriors.
"Aphrodite," Michael acknowledged as he turned from the angry warrior. He placed his palms on the goddess' cheeks and tilted her face toward his own. "You are part of the reason I am here as well."
The young goddess wrinkled up one side of her face and let out a soft sigh. "Guess I really messed things up this time, huh?" She turned away from the man who listened without judgement. "I mean I tried I really tried. To do what you said, I mean. To help people, to show them how to give and all that other stuff you said." She ended up playing with the pink polish on her fingernails in order to avoid looking back at the tall man.
"Actually," he began, putting his hands on her shoulders and turning her gently back toward himself. "This was not your doing, Aphrodite. Your heart was in the right place and you did present the idea we chose to follow but no, you are not at fault."
"You mean you " Xena growled, pointing a finger at the back of the man's head.
Michael raised a hand, silencing her. He turned toward Xena but still spoke to Aphrodite. "You see sometimes in order to show a person what they need, you must give them what they want." Xena sneered at the man, cursing under her breath.
Aphrodite's eyebrows knit together for a beat then she smiled, "Oh yeah, like be careful what you wish for! Right?" Michael nodded toward the warrior, his back to the goddess. Aphrodite thought again as the smile left her face, "then that means that I didn't it wasn't me " She shook her head unable to find the words to complete her thought as she walked around to face the man who now stood between her and the warrior. Michael shook his head. "It was you?" He nodded. "Then why "
"Because I needed to know for sure and so did you." The man answered the goddess' question before she finished asking. "And because I had to stop you."
Aphrodite blinked, "stop me?" She thought for a moment then realized the answer. She sighed and shook her head slowly. She looked toward the child who still slept, oblivious to the disturbance. "I can't take her, can I?"
Michael shook his head again. "No, Aphrodite, Gabrielle has much more to accomplish. She must remain." The goddess looked away, quickly brushing aside the tear that formed at the corner of one eye.
"Hmph, yeah, well what would I do with a kid anyway." She shrugged and raised her arms in an effort to quickly depart.
"You have a lot to do as well." Michael stopped her, gently taking her upraised hands into his own and bringing them down in front of her. "My Lord has found favor with you and deems that you forever remain as you are now. It is His wish that you exist throughout the ages for you are the embodiment of love and in that cannot mean harm to any person or thing." He laid a hand on the goddess' forehead while still holding her folded hands with the other. The action left her speechless. "You shall not be worshipped, Aphrodite, but many will know you and see you as an icon depicting the playfulness of man's affection for others. There will be a man, many centuries from now, who will sculpt your likeness in stone. Even after flood and fire it will stand in the archives of history for all to admire. Another will be sainted and shall be remembered when the season turns cold and man sometimes forgets his fellowship to man. In this man's name you, and your son, will become symbols of affection for generations, to generations. You, Aphrodite, will not be forgotten." Michael removed his hand and stood back allowing the goddess' hands to drop to her sides.
"Wow," was the only response the goddess could utter and even that was barely more than a whisper.
"However," the angel interjected and Aphrodite's smile disappeared quickly. She figured it was too good to be true. "Until that time comes, there is a very important task for you to do."
"Work?" The goddess gulped. "Like a real day to day grind type thing?"
Michael laughed out loud as he placed his arm around the goddess' shoulders. "Don't worry it's perfect for you." He pointed toward a large rock a few feet from the cave's entrance. The scuffling sounds coming from that direction signaled the fact that something was behind it. Aphrodite swallowed hard and tried not to think about her feelings toward animals. Seconds passed before the tall man coaxed, "it's okay, you can come out now. She's ready." The scuffling noises stopped only to be replaced by a fluttering sound, as if a small bird were hiding there, but even that sound was muffled by the high pitched chirrup of a small child's laughter. Aphrodite's curiosity was peaked and even Xena was now anxious to see just what might be behind that stone.
"Come on," Michael cajoled again. "Don't be shy."
A small chubby hand appeared at the edge of the rock, followed closely by a head covered with ringlets of wheat colored curls that fell across a pair of deep brown eyes. Aphrodite could not help but gasp as the little form stepped completely into view. It was a child, a very small child, no more than three or four years of age, clothed in nothing more than a strip of muslin that draped over his shoulder and across his thighs. The toddler clapped his hands over his mouth and giggled again revealing dimples in both cheeks. The goddess moved toward the child who seemed overjoyed by her attention. She dropped to her knees before him as he practically leapt into her arms throwing his pudgy arms around her neck and nuzzling into her neck. Just above his shoulder blades two tiny wings fluttered happily.
Aphrodite hugged the baby in return and cooed, "Oooo, just like my little Cupid!"
Xena could not help smiling, although her anger had not dissipated. The goddess brought the child to face her and studied his likeness as he in turned studied hers. He smiled again, this time revealing small white teeth and dark sparkling eyes.
"Aphrodite," Michael began, "this is Takis." The archangel ruffled the child's locks with his large hand and gave him a quick wink. "I think he likes you." The small being nodded in agreement as the goddess rose and stood next to Michael.
"He's my job?" She asked, eyebrows high.
"He and many more just like him." Michael answered. "Takis is one of our cherubs. They need someone to look after them and we thought that with your experience, you might just be that someone." Takis wrapped his small hand around Aphrodite's and smiled up at her waiting for an answer.
"Me?" The goddess seemed surprised. "You want me?" She pointed to herself, lifting her eyebrows high. The little one nodded his head up and down, causing his curls to bounce and fluttered his wings simultaneously. Aphrodite took a short breath and placed her free hand against her heart. Her voice caught in her throat allowing her only answer to be a quick nod.
Michael smiled knowingly. "Takis will show you the way."
The boy tugged at the woman's hand leading her toward the cave's entrance where the strange blue light had once again appeared. She turned before she stepped into its radiance and looked toward the warrior that up until now had only watched and listened to the exchange between the goddess and her 'benefactor'. "Don't let her forget me, kay?" She nodded toward the sleeping child, Gabrielle. Xena smiled through the anger that boiled within her and shook her head almost imperceptibly. She'd never admit it, but she'd miss the goofy goddess and she was glad she had not harmed her in their recent battle. Aphrodite looked toward Michael. "Thank you." She smiled as she stepped into the light and disappeared.
"She's going to have to consider a wardrobe change." Michael commented as the light slowly vanished.
The soft ring of a sword exiting its sheathe preceded the feeling of the icy point at the back of the angel's neck. "For your sake, the other part of your reason for being here better be to reverse whatever the hell you did to my " Xena snarled, clearly losing patience with the entire situation.
Michael turned to face the warrior, holding his hands up and out in mock surrender. "I assure you, Xena, that Hell has very little to do with my reason for being here and whether or not I do anything at all is solely dependent on you."
The warrior flicked her sword upward against the angel's chin. He allowed his head to rise with the motion. "Don't push it, Michael. This god killing power you gave me could very easily turn on you." She smiled wickedly.
The angel smiled in return as he took the blade in one hand and gently pushed it aside, stepping closer to the warrior. "That might well be, Xena, except for one small detail."
Xena narrowed her eyes, glaring at the angel. "Yeah?" She moved closer as well, stopping nose to nose with her opponent. Blue eyes darted quickly taking in the archangel and any weapon he might be concealing. "And just what might that be?"
The smile never left Michael's lips. "Because I am not, nor do I profess to be, a god. I am simply a messenger, a servant of a much higher power."
For a moment the warrior and the archangel stood, locked eye-to-eye, in place while Xena pondered that fact. She drew a breath through her teeth and expelled it with a snarl as she slammed her sword back into its scabbard. She turned and walked back toward the fire, staring into it in a futile effort to ignore the angel. "What makes this god of yours any better than the gods I've destroyed? After all this," she waved a hand toward the sleeping children, "it seems he enjoys playing with mortals even more than the Olympians did." She looked over her shoulder at Michael, who stood where she had left him. "I'm tired of games, Michael. I'm tired of being used."
"This is far from play, Xena and certainly not a game." Michael assured her. "Yet there are many tests of conviction."
"TEST?" The warrior turned and bellowed, then quickly looked at both youngsters and lowered her voice. "Test? That's what this is? Some twisted attempt to see just where I stand in all of this or are you merely here to make sure I pay for what I did?" There, finally she had said what she had thought since the angel appeared, voiced the fear that had haunted her since she awoke on that cold stone slab in that devastated temple. Her memory of most of her life was buried at that time, but the memory of the time she had spent in what Michael had called heaven was crystal clear. Guilt and fear had kept her from ever asking if Gabrielle had the same memory. "Is this my punishment, this this nightmare?"
"So, you do remember, as you should. But no, I am not here to punish you or to judge you. That is not within my power. Only God will stand in judgement of your deeds and misdeeds." The angel spoke evenly, as if consoling the warrior. His tone unnerved her. "He knows what you did on earth, in hell and in heaven and He knows why. In time you will return to know His mercy as well as His understanding. Your search, Xena, has always been for redemption, redemption for the sins of your past. You still travel that path, but your sacrifice to your greatest enemy has given you much favor with the Lord. As a mortal you have made many mistakes, as an archangel your mistake cost you the very thing you had strove to attain. The thing my Lord always knew you deserved. You threw that away in order to give peace to a lost soul." Michael paused for a moment and raised his eyebrows, "I did warn you."
"I make my own destiny, Michael. I don't blame anyone for my mistakes." She sneered.
"Yes," the man commented as he began to walk a circle around the warrior. "Luckily, Xena your virtues outweigh your vices. Pride is a weak shield, warrior. Do not wield it without a degree of meekness for it is the meek that shall inherit the earth."
Xena rolled her eyes in disbelief as well as frustration. "So why am I here and not burning in that hell hole of yours with the rest of the arrogant rabble?"
Michael shook his head. "Youre here because He deems it, because He feels you deserve the chance to restore your eternal soul and because your earthly work is not yet finished."
Xena thought for a moment weighing the urge to argue that point and the need to know more. She gazed once again at the sleeping forms a few feet from were she stood. "And Gabrielle Eve? What happens to them? " The warrior growled, the memory of her dive into the pits of despair with her young friend in tow flashed across her mind. "Gabrielle was there Michael. She s I how much does she remember?" Xena's stomach turned at the vision of her demon-self dragging the young girl's purity into the depths of depravity. Suddenly the irony of that allusion was too much for her to recall. She squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head to dislodge the memory.
The lone tear she brushed quickly away did not escape Michael's observation. He allowed the warrior to compose herself before slowly continuing. "Gabrielle was, and still is, an archangel. Her spirit is pure, brushed by evil yet still chaste. She will return ." The warrior's eyes shot up, glaring at the man. He smiled at her reaction and went on, "in time, and join the ranks of many that have come before her. What she does or does not remember I cannot say. That is something, you warrior, have worried much over these past months. It is a barrier you must overcome in order to move forward. There is much that must be done and Gabrielle figures greatly into the scheme of it. She has a great responsibility to assume, for she will announce the coming of the One that will shake the world to its foundation for His message of love and brotherhood will defy all time."
For the first time the warrior smiled a real smile. "Sounds like something she'd do." The comment was soft and quiet, and not meant for the angel's ears. He let it pass without comment. Just as quickly she pulled her warrior mask back into place. "But, you haven't been paying much attention have you, Michael? Eli is dead."
"Yes, he is and that which he was to accomplish is done. He has his eternal reward. Were it not for him and his belief, you would not be here now. His love, and knowledge that the world still needed you, was the gift that gave you the chance to retrieve your soul. There are very few given that opportunity. There will come another. Your daughter will help pave the way for His coming, just as Eli has done."
Xena's fists tightened until her knuckles whitened, she stepped forward, teeth clenched and voice feral. "You leave my daughter out of this."
Michael raised a hand stopping her. "Your daughter was a gift to you at the request of the one you saved. Her mission is to prepare the way. Your mission is to protect her, as well as Gabrielle. As I said Xena your virtues your courage, your counsel, wisdom, fortitude will guide them until their time comes."
Xena let out a long breath. "I'm tired of your games and prophecies, Michael. What are you here for? Gloating? Taunting? What? Either change them back or get out and leave us alone." The warrior was tired and that headache was slowly creeping back into her temples. She closed her eyes against the throbbing.
Michael frowned for the first time since he had appeared in the cave. "How much is left inside you after you've lost everything outside yourself?" He asked with an almost fatherly tone, as if he were about to dispense some great secret.
Xena rubbed her temples and willed the pain away. She looked up in disbelief. "What?"
"How m " The angel repeated.
"I heard you." Xena growled without raising her eyes to meet his.
Michael relaxed against a large boulder. "Then you have an answer?" He grinned.
The warrior opened her mouth to answer but instead let out a disgusted huff and turned her back to the man. What more could he and his One True God want from her? Besides she'd had her fill of kids, gods and angels today and just wanted a few hours of quiet a time to think decide and plan .
Michael moved quietly and slowly to the sleeping children, bending close to brush a hand over Gabrielle's soft blonde hair. "What you see Xena is what you wished for, but your friends remain as they have always been. Gabrielle's purity of heart and spirit still exist within her, just as your daughter's need for love and acceptance are part of her being. The truth is Xena that there was a time when they walked as children and spoke as children, but their time has come and they have surrendered their childhood. It is so much more comfortable for you to see these two as the children you need, rather than the warriors of integrity they have become. Perhaps, warrior it is you that cannot see that truth. Perhaps it is easier not to see. You said twice now that these two gifts are your love and your hope, have you not?"
Xena drew a deep breath and turned to face the man. He now stood over the girls, one silver armored boot at each child's head. The feeling that both extreme danger and ultimate safety surrounded Eve and Gabrielle unnerved her intensely. The pain in her head began to slam against her eyes blurring her vision with hot tears. The world seemed to wriggle in the crystal lens of water. She tried to answer, but the overwhelming ache prevented even that.
Michael's voice became soft and soothing, almost hypnotic. The warrior was as incensed as relieved, it was the only thing that pierced the veil of pain that now surrounded her. "There are great gifts given by the creator, Xena. As you well know. You are witness to many, but of all there are three that surpass all others. You are certain of love and hope, what you do not see is faith. Something in which both of your companions are rich. Faith, dear warrior, sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible."
The angel's words seemed to come to the warrior through a tunnel as a strange darkness closed in around her circle of vision. The warrior felt herself fall softly to the cushions Aphrodite had left. She struggled to remain conscious.
"You, Xena, you are their faith." Michael's voice grew almost indistinct. "Your refusal to give up, to quit no matter what the odds is what gives them the faith to follow their own beliefs. For as little as you believe in yourself, warrior, these two emulate their own courage of conviction on your mere day to day existence. They have more faith in you that you will ever have the ability to imagine. But now now is time to go home, warrior. Your obligations have just begun."
As the voice dissolved into the soft buzz of silence, Xena forced her eyes open nothing more than a thin slit. The soft blue light that illuminated the cave disappeared as the warrior's battle to hold on to consciousness was lost.
Xena awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright. Her headache had dissipated, leaving behind that dizzy, nauseous feeling that always accompanies a long night of heavy drinking. It was a feeling not unfamiliar to the warrior, but since she had not had a drop of anything stronger than water it was certainly not expected. She ran the back of her arm across her brow, noting the moisture that was there. Immediately she took in the fact that her entire body was covered with a sheen of perspiration. She ran her hands through her hair, feeling the dampness there as well. For a moment she wondered if the rain had somehow made its way into the cavern. The blanket that covered her was damp as well, but it was not the dampness that concerned her. This blanket was gray, old, and very familiar. She had used every night for more years than she cared to count. It was definitely NOT the satin quilt of the goddess of love. She spun, ignoring the uneasy feeling it produced, to check on her young companions. Panic tightened around her like a giant vice as she realized she was alone.
"GABRIELLE!! EVE!!!" Xena bellowed as she struggled to extract herself from the cocoon of damp clingy blankets surrounding her. She grumbled curses over and over as the soft net-like cover refused to release her. "EVE! ANSWER ME! GABRIELLE WHERE ARE YOU! DAMN!" The overwhelming fear that Michael had returned to his heavenly realm taking the youngsters with him drove her into a fury. "MICHAEL!" Xena pulled at the cover tangled around her feet. "MICHAEL! Damn you, MICHAEL you bring them back! DAMN!" She slammed her fists against the solid ground beneath her, ignoring the fact the skin of her knuckles pealed away with the action.
Two anxious voices accompanied the hands that fell on the warrior's shoulders. Her panic subsided as she allowed those familiar voices to calm her. She reached up and grasped the cool hands of the two girls.
"It's okay Xena, We're here. You're safe." Gabrielle comforted.
"Mother? Mother, are you all right?" Eve worried.
Xena blinked until she was sure her vision was focused and managed to finally pull herself free of the tangle of cloth around her. "Gabrielle!" Her voice came in a hoarse whisper as she reached to bring the young woman closer. She ran her hands over her companion's face and through her light short hair. "Gabrielle," she breathed, almost giggling, "you're not hurt you're old you're not you're you're ."
Gabrielle looked into the red rimmed eyes of her mentor and shushed her maternally. "It's okay Xena. It's just the fever. You need to rest, just rest. Let me get you some water." She gently took the warrior's hands in her own and noted the scraped knuckles as she tried without success to push Xena back against the pile of blankets on the floor.
The warrior turned quickly to the dark haired, wide-eyed woman at her opposite side. "Eve! Oh Eve," tears now streamed over Xena's cheeks as she stared into her daughter's eyes, "you're all grown up."
Eve and Gabrielle exchanged worried glances. Their warrior was sicker than they had thought. Perhaps all they had done to heal her injuries was not enough. Gabrielle chewed her bottom lip as she went through every step she had taken, every herb she had used everything just the way Xena had taught her. 'Where had she gone wrong?'
"Oh, Xena I'm sorry I I tried but but ." Gabrielle could not contain her own tears, somehow seeing her friend in such a state brought her emotion to the brink.
"Mother," Eve gasped as she rested her head against her mother's chest.
Xena stared at both of her 'girls' as her mood changed and a smile spread across her face. She pulled both young women into a tight embrace, kissing both repeatedly.
Gabrielle pushed herself free of Xena's hold and ran a hand through her hair in an effort to put it back in place. She drew a breath and released it through a wide smile then reached out to place her palm against the warrior's forehead.
Xena snatched the hand before Gabrielle could make contact and pulled the girl closer. "Oh, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I am so sorry. I'm so glad you're back." She gazed at her daughter who had wrapped both arms around her mother to return her embrace. "You're both back." Once again she pulled them close, kissing them both.
"I guess the fever's gone." Eve smiled to Gabrielle from under her mother's grasp.
Gabrielle pushed the warrior's forearm up and peered under it at the girl just inches from her nose. "Ya think?" She smiled back as she again struggled in vain to escape the elated warrior's show of affection.
While Gabrielle and Eve broke the small camp and loaded saddles and gear onto three horses, Xena was forced to rest, quietly sipping some of the very same bitter remedy she had forced on Gabrielle on more than one occasion. A situation the young blonde seemed to find quite amusing as she told the story of how she and Eve had brought her there to escape the storm. Eve added that Xena had taken quite a beating in her battle with Athena and that they had done their best to minister to her wounds but the fever refused to break until this morning.
Xena watched from the pile of folded blankets her two 'nurse maids' had forced her to rest against. Sunlight peered through the cave's entrance reflecting off an object close to the warrior's boot. She reached down to retrieve the shiny object. She spun iridescent emerald colored feather between her thumb and forefinger wondering just where the archangel was watching. Gabrielle and Eve chattered on telling her the story of how she has been wracked with fever and how they had brought her to this cave to escape the store. Xena tucked the feather into her bracelet and smiled as the two younger women told their story.
"Well, that's it!" Eve announced as she hooked the last bag on her steed and turned to check the camp one last time.
Xena rose and stretched, shaking off all the anxiety of the past twenty-four hours. She shook her head, feeling no trace of the headache that had plagued her the night before.
"Xena," Gabrielle scolded, "do you think you're ready to travel? We could stay here for a few days until you f ." The raised brow of the warrior told the girl all she needed to know. Gabrielle laughed around a smile. "Yeah, right, I forgot about your amazing recuperative powers." She bumped her palm against her own forehead. "What was I thinking?" She laughed as the warrior wrapped an arm around her shoulders then reached up and ruffled the top of her head. Gabrielle grimaced jovially.
Eve pulled herself up onto her horse and leaned back in the saddle. "So where to now, mother?"
Xena took Argo's reins from Gabrielle and looked toward the horizon. "You don't remember your grandmother do you, Eve?" The girl shook her head. Xena looked into the green eyes that she knew where looking at her, waiting for an answer. "We need to know." She whispered to her friend, who nodded cautiously. Then to her daughter she announced, "How'd you like to see where your mom grew up, Eve? It's quite a place." She pulled herself up onto Argo and urged the horse ahead. Eve followed still listening to her mother's description of Amphipolis.
Gabrielle smiled at the sight of her best friend and the daughter she had risked everything to save. She took her own steed's reins in her hand and walked the animal from the cave. They were going home 'home,' she thought, wondering what her parents would think of this adventure. The young warrior knew that Xena's trip to her village would soon be followed by a trip to Poteidia. Gabrielle smiled. "Home," she whispered suddenly overcome with a strange longing to see her family. A soft breeze carried the clean smell of the rain-washed earth. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, then smiled at the beauty of the morning.
High above, Michael stood on an outcropping of stone surrounded by a soft haze of clouds. Nearby a second angel, dark and husky, stood as well. They both watched as three women rode toward a desolate town.
"Are you sure she's the right one for the job?" The darker angel, Raphael, asked with a twinge of worry in his voice.
Michael smiled, "She's the only one for the job."
Raphael nodded as he watched the warrior princess ride toward her destiny.
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