Chicken Soup for the Warrior's Soul

by Lisa Grandstaff

Part II

XENA POSED, STATUE-LIKE, SWORD HELD VERTICALLY in front of her face. Several moments passed, then abruptly she struck forward at an invisible opponent, a slashing blow designed to cut the enemy to the ground with a single stroke. 'The Bow of Artemis' sword-form was a simple but effective tool, one she used often when fighting lesser foes. It had a corollary attack in the art of the staff.

Returning to her set stance, she began moving through 'Thunder and Lightning,' aiming a false blow, then following the opponent's slight withdrawal flinch with a deadly cutting motion. Her concentration steady, she flowed back into her ready position. Her sword now pointed directly outward, held at rib-cage height. Her tightly muscled forearm allowed no tremor, no shiver to pass into the hilt. 'The Firefly' called for instinctive physical and spiritual unity. In a split second, The Firefly discharged its combined energy and the imaginary opponent fell to the ground writhing.

'Eye of the Whirlpool' followed a perfect execution of 'Falling Waters.' She was now ready for 'The River of Life.' This sword-form most closely resembled a mystical dance, and required deep intimacy with the rhythm of the intervals. Gathering all of her energies inward, she began moving back and forth, creating a tempo with her footwork, then subtly and randomly altering it. The sword glinted brilliantly in the noon sun's cascading rays, adding a surreal presence to her intricate physicality. Her foe, equally skilled and competent, swirled in a rhythm of his own design, his courage and determination matching hers, stroke for stroke. Many minutes passed, the sword cleaving the humid forest air cleanly and passionately. Xena centered her focus within a tiny primitive spark, then launched a piercing strike as devastating and final as she was capable of. Her loud spirit yell, unleashed with the blow of her sword, shocked the song birds in nearby trees into hasty flight.

Xena swept the perspiration on her forehead aside with the palm of her hand, then wiped it dry on the woven shirt she wore. It took some time for the sounds of the forest to return to normal. She used the natural ebb and flow of the wildlife around her to regulate her breathing and relax her adrenaline-filled muscles. When the birds resumed their fluttering and screeching, wings flapping madly to catch a perfect landing, she felt a final release. The workout had been productive and uplifting.

In the sound of my own heartbeat, I hear your voice....

She sheathed her sword in its scabbard respectfully. As the point of the blade slid home, a faded image crystallized into vivid life before her eyes.... A bearded man stood in front of her, a gentle and mysterious manner pervading his every word in spite of the array of weapons he surrounded himself with. Her first, fundamental lesson had been 'Spanning the Abyss.' She could hear the cryptic voice clearly through her much younger and hungrier ears, but as if he sat beside her on the mossy rock in the here and now of this wooded glade.

"For you to make your way through life, it requires a certain spirit, a decisive streak from far beneath the surface of your waking thoughts.... To overcome the difficulties and challenges of your chosen path, you must exert all of your energies, together, as one essence unified in physical and mental harmony. A failure to do this will result in your most inevitable downfall. To span the abyss of our existence, each one of us must form his or her own bridge to cross from one side to the other."

She closed her eyes, attuning herself to the sounds of the tree branches rustling in the warm currents of air slinking through their leaves. A vortex of impassioned images and emotions swept through her chest and burst forth from her head, leaving in its place a placid stillness, almost cold as it crept down her arms and legs. The sensations of her physical body lessened, then became non-existent. She felt her spirit move through the leafy canopy above her head, felt the gathering storm clouds pulsating beyond the northern ridge, understood the frantic chittering of the birds and the far-away cry of the spiraling hawk.

An airy freedom suffused her awareness. She drifted with detachment above the valley of Amphipolis, sensing the depth of the soil in the plain below her with its precious burden of life, both past and present. She saw no corporeal death-- only a symbolic sacrifice of blood and sinew, anger and strife merged into a larger pattern of human folly played out upon these lands in a never-ending cycle of hatred and war, rebirth and reclamation. The supreme balance of the positive/negative energy flow buoying her up blurred and distorted her material frame of reference.

The gliding hawk tilted his wings sharply, then floated up along a column of air that led directly to where she hovered. Its golden eyes met hers in a penetrating stare, then the bird surged forward through her place, its cry piercing the air and carrying her with him. She felt his 'bridge' as she traveled with him: simple, yet provocatively powerful, it was a fact of his existence, unquestioned and resolute. She felt each swoop, every powerful thrust of his wings... the steep descent of his dives and the eddying layers of cloud they plunged through together.

They flew on, sinew and bone, flesh and feather, into the rarified air, ever higher and colder until every sensation became as sharp as glass. With a final rush, they peaked above the thinnest clouds, skimmed the crystalline tops, then dropped through the miasmic mass, tearing great chunks free in their wake.

Each breath I take is anchored in the knowledge of love....

At long last, he deposited her gently back in her resting place, then took to the sky once more. The beating of his wings as he departed forced her eyes open. She blinked once or twice, then looked around. The serenity of her composure somehow made the green shades of the plantlife around her more vibrant. The aroma of the glade was magnified-- the scent of the earth, as it cried out for moisture, the fragrance of the vegetation in its pungent need, the very smell of the air in its most molecular form-- each impression now amplified what had been unobtrusive before.

The tenuous breeze stirring the leaves around the glade bore the faint tang of rain and electricity. In sudden recollection, she hurried to her feet and gathered her equipment. There would be rain! She retied the cord snugly around her waist and straightened out her shirt. After pausing for one last look around, she headed back to the village in an effortless, ground-eating lope.

"MOTHER?" SHE YELLED THROUGH THE BACKDOOR. "ARE YOU IN THERE?" When she heard no response, she turned and headed to the inn. It was past the time when Cyrene made her way home from a long day's work. Perhaps there was something that required her attention this evening, or more likely-- trouble. Xena was well aware of the segment of townsfolk that resented her homecomings.

The streets were fairly empty during the dinner hour and the heat swelled angrily out of the road, baking lifelessly in the late afternoon sun. Even the chickens and goats kept to the weedy roadsides, or shaded patches of bare earth next to the barrels and crates strewn about.

The Four Coins stood serenely, no outward sign of any problems. Xena entered as sedately as she could manage. There, behind the bar, stood her mother and Jessora in animated conversation. As if with a sixth sense, Cyrene glanced up at once and made eye contact with her daughter. With a conversation-ending smile for Jessora, she swept around the bar and headed to the door.

Xena merely waited. When her mother reached her, she grabbed her daughter's arm and steered her toward the table in the corner. "I'm glad you got here. I was just going to send Jori out looking for you."

"Is something the matter?"

"No, not really. Jessora says a small group of men from Iolcus are just outside the hills, coming down the road from the plateau, and they're carrying an odd load."

"Does Jessora have any more information about them? How does she know they're from Iolcus? I assume they're riding in, right?"

"Yes, they're riding, but we know nothing more. Kerekes thinks it's just that group of touring balladeers that Jessora asked to visit last month, but never made it. They look like they're carrying some kind of banner or pennon and a small cart full of curiously-shaped things. Normally I wouldn't be concerned, but with the drought and all...."

"If you don't mind, I'll go take a look--"

"No! I mean, Kerekes has already ridden off in that direction to meet with them. It'll be okay, I'm sure. Just the fact that you're here will be enough to ward off any problems. I'm sorry, Xena. I know you need this time to relax, but it seems like you're not getting much chance."

"Don't worry about me. This kind of thing is more the routine than the exception. And I've been able to do quite a bit of relaxing, thank you very much."

"Oh? Well, I still don't think you need to concern yourself with this. But since you're sitting here, how about something to eat?"

"Only if you promise to keep me company."

Cyrene motioned to the nearest barmaid, then sat down at the table wearily. "It's been a long day for me. I must admit I'm concerned about you, Xena."

"Concerned about me? Why?"

"Well, for one thing, I'm not happy with the way our conversation ended last night. Please give me a chance to explain what I meant." She hesitated, watching her daughter's eyes for any sign of anger. She decided to continue. "I guess I'm concerned about me, really. After so many years of convincing myself that you were dead to me, I've allowed a place in here" she stubbed her finger into her chest "for you again. To lose you twice would be too much for this brittle heart. You're all I have left now, and the thought that I might drive you away...."

"You'll never do that! Stop worrying. I'm big enough to accept all of the disappointments and anguish I've caused you, and I deserve whatever that brings me."

"You misunderstand. I'm not interested in dredging up the past! In fact, I'd love to abolish it completely. Neither of us are without guilt. The most we can say is that we did what we had to do, right or wrong, in order to survive. Many men have come and gone in both our lives, in various capacities.... Who among them is left?"

"And are many deaths truly worse than one death? I am always reminded of a death that came at the greatest cost I could ever have imagined. To look into the eyes of your spouse and realize that the one person you believed would be your sanctuary, your comfort and your support was your most deadly enemy-- if only for the space of a few precious minutes-- well, I couldn't take that chance. Your life was in the balance, Xena! Have I not sold my soul, too?" Cyrene stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath.

Xena reached across the table and grasped her mother's hand. "I'm sorry. I did misunderstand you. We can talk about the future if you'd like."

"No." Cyrene shifted slightly to allow the young woman carrying the dinner tray to lay down her burden. "Let's talk about the present. Isn't that where we left off last night?"

Xena took the hot plates from the girl with a smile, then waited for her to leave. The noise of the busy diningroom provided a fair amount of privacy for conversation. "Let's talk about the present, then."

"Well, when I spoke of my desire to be a grandmother, it wasn't meant to make you feel guilty. I was being truthful with you, and you shouldn't have gotten angry with me for saying what was on my mind. Should I lie about something so important to me?"

"No. You're right. I should have...." She halted, as Solan's face temporarily blotted out her eyesight. After a moment of light-headedness, she cleared her throat and tried to continue. "Should have told you... I mean, I should have let you say your piece without being so defensive. I'm sorry." The huge burden of grief and guilt surrounding every aspect of Solan's short life was best left for another time altogether. She had reconciled herself to her son's death, and the telling of his tale would only hurt Cyrene even more deeply. Her mother had suffered enough in this one lifetime. Perhaps she'd never know of her grandson, or his father, Borias. That wasn't necessarily bad.

"...her? Xena? Did you hear me?"

"What? Oh..." she stammered "I didn't catch all of that. One more time?"

Cyrene looked at her quizzically, then repeated her question. "Don't you think it would be easy for me to accept her as my daughter? After all, what's there not to love?"

Xena realized belatedly that her mother was speaking of Gabrielle.

"Sure. I mean, she's easy to get along with. She puts up with me, doesn't she?"

"I merely meant that this is far beyond the disapproval stage. I can only imagine what you've experienced during the past eleven or twelve years, amongst all those men... NO! Let me finish! I know, personally, how war can affect the sensibilities of a fighting man-- or woman, for that matter. The Atrius that wanted your death was not the Atrius I loved and married, not anymore. I only know that he returned from the battlefield incredibly changed. Awful things happen, and sometimes even the men who fight side by side end up killing their comrades or... or... raping village women and girls." She shivered in horror. "I'm convinced you've seen your share of ugliness when it comes to the sexual act... and maybe been involved with it on both ends of the rope."

Xena said nothing, stunned by the direction her mother had headed in. She continued to stare at her mother's face intently, determined to accept whatever came.

"Don't you see? Somehow, somewhere deep inside you, a tiny island was preserved, a place no one ever reached. You kept your heart safe in a sanctuary, undiscovered and unspoiled. To this day, I don't know how you could have done it, but in my business, I've seen too many people who've had that place ravaged or destroyed; those people will never know love again. I am absolutely overjoyed that you still have the capacity to understand love... to experience it, to live it, and to give it. That in itself is a miracle. That miracle is what had me convinced that it was safe to allow you back into my heart-- to call you my daughter once again."

Cyrene paused, but still received no reply. "What I'm trying to say is that no matter who you'd presented to me, it would make no difference. The only thing that matters is that you can love. I don't care that it be man or woman or centaur, old or young, Greek or Persian! But how could I not love someone like Gabrielle? I love you both, Xena. And I miss her... I've grown used to her being here with you when you visit."

Xena sat quietly, in amazement. Her mother's monologue had struck at several well-guarded areas. Although not entirely surprised, Xena was impressed anew with her mother's perceptive abilities. It would definitely never pay to underestimate the woman she was.

"I miss her, too."

"When are you supposed to rejoin her? How much longer can you stay?"

"I don't know for sure. She said she'd find me, either in person or through a messenger. I'm sure she's okay. I can feel it."

"I'm sure she is, too. Let me help you."

"I don't understand."

"Let's try to make the rest of your visit as restful as possible. Are you ready to go home, now?"

Xena scratched her head, puzzled at the odd turn the situation had taken. "Okay. I'm ready."

THE HOUSE WAS DARK AND STILL, RESTING CONTENTEDLY in the small breezes of the evening. Its old walls exuded satisfaction with the imminent setting of the sun. Cyrene fussed quietly in the kitchen, while Xena spent the time mulling over the day's discoveries. Even her mother's words slid into place with a click, filling out areas where pieces had been missing-- she spoke of love more eloquently than Xena had ever dreamed she could.

Surely it was nothing new to find that every human being was a pawn in a much larger game of chance and destiny. It was only the shock of momentarily seeing the insignificance of a single life when its overall importance was brought into perspective. One human being was like an individual blade of grass in a vast meadow. What makes some things matter, and others not matter? How then do the actions of one person become so momentous? The paradox was there to be considered and felt; experienced, but not thought out. She walked to the wall mirror and stared at her face.

Gabrielle had often teased her about her obvious reluctance to look into mirrors more than casually... "Oh Xena, come on-- can't you see what the rest of us see? Some would give their children to possess what you have! Appreciate yourself!" Her only rejoinder was the tried and true "Beauty is only skin deep, kiddo."

Purposely willing her mind to stillness, she focused on her eyebrows, then her chin, then her lips. True, the visage of a killer did not reside in those enigmatic blue eyes. Before leaving Hercules, it had never been difficult to stare at her own reflection, but so much had changed since that time. Back then she knew what she was, even if she wasn't happy with what she saw. Later, without truly understanding why, she had developed a slight aversion to mirrors. The 'why' was obvious now.

Yet, lost in the study of her own face, she didn't see what she had prepared herself for. Not a saint, not a savior; not a murderer or a destroyer-- yet she was all of these things to so many people. What was she to herself? Was her mother right? "The most we can say is that we did what we had to do, right or wrong, in order to survive...."

The mirror's surface began churning, distorting her reflection, and oddly shaped representations of familiar places and events boiled up to its murky surface. She saw herself clad in black armor, clawed epaulets denoting her rank as warlord and chief decision maker, red and black cloak snapping in the wind behind her. She saw another woman burying weapons and armor in a shallow pit just outside a village. The saddened face of a man who'd lost all hope, unexpectedly filled with irrepressible joy, shaking her and bestowing feathery kisses all over her forehead and cheeks... a bloodied blade being withdrawn from a resisting torso... a young woman looking at her with awe and devotion, asking her for friendship, and the delicate refusal she tendered....

A light touch on her shoulder broke spell of the mirror into a thousand pieces. "Xena? Are you positive you're feeling all right?"

"Yes, Mother." she said with a gentle smile. "Never been better."

"I still think you need a little more rest. You're not going to leave tonight, are you?"

"No. Maybe tomorrow night, though."

"Good. Have you visited the grotto since you've been back?"

"No! I haven't... I'd almost forgotten it."

"Well, I haven't. Why don't you think about going up there tonight, for a while, to look around and maybe say hello?"

Xena frowned slightly, then said "Okay... if you insist."

"I do. It'll be just the thing. You need to have a little more time to yourself before you go."

"Wait a minute... what about Kerekes and those men?"

"Don't worry. I told you, they're probably just those performers. I promise, if anything happens, I'll send Jori or someone out to find you. Everything will be fine."

"You're sure?"

Cyrene looked pointedly at her daughter, hands firmly planted on her hips. Xena didn't wait for her mother's left foot to start tapping-- the look on her face communicated her intentions plainly.

She shrugged. "You win. It'll be getting dark in a couple of hours... perhaps I should--"

"Go now. I hate to be a pain, but I've got to get back to the tavern to greet these people, and help Jessora put them up for the night."

"I thought Jessora took care of all that?"

"Sometimes I like to get my hands a little dirty, too! You go on, I'll be busy. As long as you come back tomorrow, I'll be satisfied that I did eveything I could to make your stay the best yet. Who knows? Maybe it'll make you come around more often?"

With a wry smile, Cyrene turned and headed for the kitchen. Xena stood, amazed at her mother's suggestion that she visit the grotto tonight. Something's up, she thought, and I'll soon find out what's going on!

Cyrene returned within seconds, holding a leather sack out in front of her.

"Mother, what is that for?"

"Here" she said, hanging the strap over her daughter's shoulder "I made this up for you. It's just some things to snack on, to eat and drink." She took Xena by the shoulders and pulled her close, giving her a light kiss. "Go now, so that you will return to me tomorrow."

Xena shook her head once more, at a loss for words. She gazed back at her mother one more time, then stepped purposefully out the back door.


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