Chapter 24: Yesterday, All My Couples Seemed So Far Away

"I think I'm gonna be sick...," Gabrielle sat hunched up against a barrel, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs pressed close to her chest, as buffets of wind rocked the soaring vessel to and fro. The Dutchman had ordered Xena, Gabrielle, Autolycus and Argo to go below decks and had forbade them to poke their heads out of the hold lest they be blown to oblivion in the ocean swell far below.

"If Boreas' icy blasts sweep yuuu away," the Dutchman had told them, his worn captain's hat askew on his creased and rugged forehead, "yuuu have nowhere to go but down to Poseidon’s watery grave. So yuuu be good boys and girls and stay put, ja?"

"Do what I showed you when we were on Cecrops’ ship!" Xena shouted above the roar of the wind, her back snugged up against the ribbed prow of the flying craft.

"I am, see?" Gabrielle moaned, sticking one arm out and banging, with the tips of the fingers of her opposite hand, on the key pressure point below the wrist. "Idd izzn't hewwping..."

"Try switching arms... Ouch!" Xena let out a sharp cry as Autolycus, rolling around and smashing into her, accidentally jammed Xena's brass cuirass hard against her chest, forcing her back against the curved wooden staves of the ship's interior.

"Would you watch it!" Xena snapped. "Can't you chain yourself to the keel or something!"

"My sincerest apple-juice, Xena Babes. Whoa!" With nothing to hang on to, Autolycus slid from side to side, then rolled smack up against the post of the main mast. "Uggh! I can't remember having so raunchy a ride since that delightful day in the Amazon village when Velasca did a tap dance on my lumbago."

"Bleagghhh!" Gabrielle leaned forward and heaved into the bucket she’d jammed between her knees. "I'll get you back for this," Gabrielle vowed as she glared at Xena through tight, squinty eyes. "I'll watch while you pig out on octopus soup and squid stew after I’ve told you it was fresh spring trout."

"You tried that trick the time Joxer thought he was a monkey, remember?" Xena reminded Gabrielle, grabbing hold of the reins to keep Argo from taking a dive. "As I recall, you lost your lunch just looking at the darn stuff."

"Oh, yeah, that’s right," Gabrielle grimaced.

"Don't give me the hairy eyeball. It was your idea to hitch a ride aboard this flying scow," Xena chided as Argo, nearly toppling, whinnied but, with Xena's help, managed to stay upright.

"Sounds like we've just entered a region of high truculence," Autolycus observed.

"Fleagghh!" Gabrielle heaved again. "Forget squid stew. Make it salamander soufflé..."

"If everyone would just grab hold of themselves, maybe we could ride this thing out," Xena suggested.

"What part of myself would you like me to grab hold of, W.P., D. of N.?" Autolycus queried as he rocketed from side to side, "the brakes, the fan belt or the old..." (curl, curl, moustache, moustache) "...stick shift..."

"Maybe you should try grabbing hold of your mouth," Xena gave Autolycus a dirty look.

"Nnnn, that's too appetizing," Gabrielle shook her head. "What about... a tarantula truffle..."

"Waugh!" Autolycus let out a grim howl as a shift in the wind veered the vessel portside, causing his lower back to hit, with a stinging bump, against the base of the mast. "And here I thought Sacro-Illiac was a holy name for the city of Troy!"

"Or a bowl of spider spaghetti..."

"Try focusing!" Xena commanded. "Concentrate on where we're going and what we're gonna do when we get there!"

"Going where to do what?" Gabrielle picked her head up. Her blue-green eyes, glazed over with air sickness, were the color of a wall that's long been in need of several coats of fresh paint.

"Back home to rescue your sister," Xena said, "who's been taken hostage by Latrinus, remember?"

"My sister. I have a sister?" Gabrielle said woozily, trying to stay marginally conscious.

"Lila? Who Bellerophon came to tell us got kidnapped?" Xena said.

"I get it. I have a kid sister who's been napping," Gabrielle spoke through the rolling roar of the prow. "No, I have a sister whose kid has been napping. I guess that makes me an aunt."

"Never mind," Xena fumed.

"Didn't even invite me to the shower," Gabrielle grumped.

"I could have swiped that belt and no one would have been the wiser," Autolycus yattered. "Then you hadda talk me out of it. When we get off this flying bucket of salt spray, I'm gonna file a grievance with the breaker and enterers’ union."

"There's a curse on that belt if anyone takes it without Admete’s permission," Xena said. "That's why the Amazons can't go busting in and haul it down from where it’s hanging on the wall."

"Xena, has it never occurred to you that you might be underestimating the extent of my masculine charms," Autolycus said, gripping the fringed strap of one of Xena's boots for balance as the ship came out of its port spin and straightened its course. "With enough time and a little Autolycan magic, I might have won the lady's heart and gotten her to hand me the belt."

"If you’d’ve been able to do that, would you have brought it to Croesus?" Xena asked.

"I dunno," Autolycus mulled it over. "Maybe I'd've looked to strike a deal with the Amazons. Bet they'd pay top dinar for it."

"You're not only mad," Xena said, "you've got a death wish."

"Look, it wasn't me who decided to hop aboard this rig," Autolycus pouted. "That idea was the brainchild of your enterprising companion over there."

"A worm casserole with a crust of shriveled snakeskin," Gabrielle plotted.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of rolling, tumbling, pitching and grinding, the ship began its steep and rapid descent toward the calm, blue waters of Poteidaia's protected harbor.

"My ears are popping!" Gabrielle moaned.

"My corns are popping!" Autolycus groaned.

"My top is popping!" Xena’s face turned red as her generous bust began to creep out of its brass and leather sheathing.

"I'm a man of honor. You can trust me not to look," Autolycus chivalrously placed his palms over his eyes, then separated the middle fingers on either hand which enabled him to peek. "By the gods," he muttered, "I can see that the monster sword you carry strapped in its scabbard on your back isn't the only item in your Warrior Princess inventory that was forged in the heat of battle."

Only the jerky splashdown on the open sea several knots from port saved Autolycus from having his head lopped off by the none-too-amused Warrior Princess.

"Thank you ever so much for taking us so far out of your way," Gabrielle, having recovered sufficiently from her motion sickness to wobble to her feet, warmly shook the Dutchman's hand as he delivered them, via his little skiff with its small sail and jib, to the swaying docks along Poteidaia's lapping waterfront.

"To help a pretty girl like yuuu is never no trouble," the Dutchman said, removing the stem of his carved ivory pipe from his mouth as he pushed the tiller to the far side of the stern, tautened the slackening sheets and brought the small craft about. "Yuuu are both nice girls. But yuuu," the Dutchman looked critically at Autolycus, "in daytime, a man ought to dress himself, not travel about the world in a pair of slippers and green pajamas."

"Whadaya mean," Autolycus frowned. "This getup is very distinctive. It's my King of Thieves outfit."

"Oh. Ja. Now I understand," the Dutchman said, tossing the leader onto the dock where one of the steevies shanked the rope to a davit and lowered a wooden ladder to hoist the passengers up to the pier. "Yuuu are the King of Thebes. Then yuuu must be quite a fella. Murdered your father and married your mother. Now yuuu are blind, so it is hard to dress yourself. Well, shuuty shuu," the Dutchman waved as the steevie tossed him the leader, and the skiff went sculling away from the dock into the gusting surf that would take the Dutchman back to his ship. "Yuuu look like pretty Dutch girl," he called out to Gabrielle who was waving and smiling as he drifted away, "but yuuu wear less clothes and no have wooden shuues."

The Dutchman's skiff faded from sight as Gabrielle looked around the harbor, first at the fishing boats moored in the marina, then at the bait, tackle and aquatic supply shops that lined the pier. Several flights of rickety wooden steps, connected by narrow landings and rope handrails, climbed the steep hillside into town.

The sights, sounds and smells of the harbor, intimately familiar to her since she'd been a child, had the ring and feel of home. Yet it was a different Gabrielle who looked at the sights and listened to the sounds and basked in the smells of Poteideia's calm, resplendent harbor. It's not that you can't go home again, it's that you can't go home again, Gabrielle realized as she let her gaze drift up the steep incline to the curving promenade above the dock, to the spot where she used to lounge, of a mild summer evening, on the shaky, breezy balustrades of the boardwalk.

The sun had dissolved like a round loaf of pocket bread into the glassy bowl of the harbor as little Gabrielle had wished, upon the first star of the evening, for... she no longer remembered what. And in not remembering what it was that she'd wished for, it dawned on her that little Gabrielle wasn't so little anymore. Further, if the town, warmly awaiting, on weekend evenings, the arrival of the farm girls from the outlying villages, who'd come to crowd its streets and corners with shouts and laughter and the pressing of combs, fashioned from polished cuttlebone, into long lengths of rich, falling hair to be swept up and gathered and held in place in the final outpouring of childhood, if this same late summer town should fail to notice that Gabrielle, now dressed in a light though durable halter top and a short, glittering golden skirt, wasn't so little anymore, Gabrielle wasn't, for that reason, obliged to affirm its blissful lack of acknowledgment.

"We all clear on what the plan is?" Xena's voice interrupted Gabrielle's reverie.

Gabrielle turned to stare, with a mildly puzzled expression, at Xena, the Warrior Princess. Who, exactly, was this odd woman, a good ten years her senior, clad in brass and leather, bearing a sword and a razor-sharp disc with which to vanquish men in battle, this harridan who had more blood on her hands than might be poured from all the buckets of ichor and brine which lined the pier with the day's catch of sliced and gutted fish, this virago capable of leaping, when the need arose, as high as the roofs of buildings or the limbs of tall trees? And how had little Gabrielle, the farm girl who, in her spare turns of the sandglass, had pored over children's tales inscribed on scrolls of parchment and had ridden on bridal paths through the nearby hills on Tippany, her pony, and had sneaked, from the larder, with her tiny kid sister, the eggs, flour, shortening and bitter, brown bars that went into making the gooey sweets to stock their make believe Chocolate and Vanilla Farm..., by what inscrutable roll of the dice or unwinding spindle of thread had the Fates contrived to transform the little girl from Poteidaia, the sum total of whose previous adventures had consisted of being lost, one winter day, in a sudden, freak snow squall less than a league from home, into the friend, companion, confidante, lover and, to hear Xena tell it, the light and life of this monumental Destroyer of Nations?

Xena, Xena, concertina, if you only knew me, really and truly knew me, Gabrielle had intimated at their campfire one night when, as was so often the case, it had been just the two of them and Argo under the sky-clawing stars, I can't help thinking that you'd find me pathetic and ridiculous. And if I knew you, really and truly knew you, maybe I'd run screaming, in stark terror, away from you to seek shelter at the farthest ends of the earth.

But rather than run, Gabrielle had stretched out her bedroll alongside the campfire; and, for her own part, rather than laugh at Gabrielle's odd notions of what life was or ought to be like, or turn dismissively away from those bright, idealistic notions, Xena had settled down beside her, stretched out on her own bedroll, and, hoisting herself onto one elbow, had looked deeply, though without expression, into Gabrielle's nearly closed eyes.

What? What is it? What did I say? Gabrielle, with a mild frown, had come slightly awake when she'd noticed Xena staring down at her with her broad, Warrior Princess face, its ice-blue eyes and that overpowering presence even when shed of its leather and armor.

Xena had shaken her head and had looked away. It was nothing. Time to get some sleep, that's all.

Oh, okay, Gabrielle had mumbled and then had closed her eyes.

In the next instant, Gabrielle had heard a rustling on the ground beside her and then, without warning, she'd felt warm, warrior arms encircling her and embracing her tenderly as her mother or a good friend or a patient lover might, enfolded by the warmth of a soul which, though bright, burning, strong and fierce, yet needed, itself, to be held and gentled. Even while relaxing into the depth of that warm, warrior embrace, Gabrielle could inwardly have run away to seek less than safe haven on fens of fear or coombs of confusion. She could have caved in to the need to stave off any claim of connection that might have entailed a sense of obligation – but she hadn't.

Color me crazy or foolish or hungry or absurd, Gabrielle had thought to herself in the very next instant, the embrace complete, the women parted, their faces turned away from one another, their limbs wrapped in their separate bedrolls, the fire crackling, the leaves rustling, the stars crowded though not noisy in the sky, but, when all is said and done, these colors don't run.

"As clear as we'll ever be, I guess," Gabrielle replied.

"Autolycus?" Xena turned to the King of Thieves.

"You're on, O mighty chakram'ed one," Autolycus bowed with a flourish.

"Okay, you and me'll meet up at your parents' place before dark," Xena said to Gabrielle, "and we'll be checking in with you before the moon comes up around the midnight candlemark," she said to Autolycus. "Any last turn of the sandglass questions?"

"What if we've come too late and something terrible has happened?" Gabrielle said with a note of fear sidling into her voice.

"Then we'll deal with it," Xena said firmly. "One more thing," Xena looked at Autolycus. "Try not to tick anybody off, especially anyone who's wearing a badge; and when you're not on the job, stick those cutpurse fingers of yours in your pockets where I'm sure you'll find some tiny gem stones or clinky coins or little round balls to entertain yourself with."

"Little round ba...?! Ee-yah, righto; pinballs, sure. The ones I came away from my last casino heist with," Autolycus tried to save something more vulnerable and less visible than face.

Whistling a carefree tune, Autolycus went slinking into town to case the pottery works, while Gabrielle headed for her parents' cottage via the main gate whose damaged pikes and bracings she inspected with an inward tremor, thinking of Lila in the hands of her kidnappers, possibly her tormentors. Mounted on Argo, Xena went riding at a gallop up the north road from which direction her sixth sense was telling her that Latrinus' men had come sweeping down on the previous evening to pull off their nasty prank.

"By the gods, mine wishful eyes were like to be deceivin' me!" Hecuba shrank in an amazement that bordered on terror when she beheld the golden apparition of her elder daughter standing on the doorstep. Hecuba's nerves, already frayed, were catapaulted into an agony of disbelief on the verge of precipitating a faint. "Surely thou were't some nymph or sylph or protean creature sent from Hades' dark realm to con, in my time of trial, the likeness of my dearest Gab! Else, like a woman gone mad, have I begun to conjure visions corporeal when naught were confrontin' my ravin' senses save the flickerin' wisps of thinnest air!"

"No, mother, you're not going mad," the young woman in gold, bearing her staff in hand, spoke softly as she stood by the threshold of the door at which Anike had stood barely a candlemark earlier. "It's really me."

"Hope!" Hecuba's eyes widened and glowed with furious alarm. "By Hades' winged helmet, I did rest assured that we were well rid of thee, both thou and thy horrid offspring, the which were keen to destroy both my darlin's 'til the warrior woman come and sent the twain of thee screamin' unto the deepest vales of Tartarus!"

Hecuba backed away from the door, casting her eyes about for a broom or soup ladle, any ineffectual thing to wield as a weapon in an effort to ward off, if only for a vain instant, the depredations of the maniacal Daughter of Dahak.

"It isn't Hope, mother," Gabrielle said, softly. "Hope is no more. Her brief and evil days are done. Would that they had been neither."

Gabrielle took the twin-faced amulet and extended it toward her mother. "I believe you sent this along with your message."

Hecuba's eyes grew even wider when she reached out to take the one item of jewelry which never, before the previous evening, had left her person, the medallion which bore the inscription of Artemis on one face and Demeter on the other, the signet of the two gems whose gleam she beheld most lovingly in all the world.

"But how can such a thing be?" Hecuba stammered, growing dizzy and the words beginning to fail her. "Twere naught but yestereve I took this token from off my neck and give it into the safekeeping of the Felaf... Yet you were scores of leagues hence, way down in Tiryns... Can it be that mine eyes behold as my heart desires...? Oh, Gab! Is it truly you? My little Gabrielle! My little angel song!"

Then Hecuba rushed, with open arms, to close the distance between them as she flung her arms around her daughter, gripping her in a crushing hug and pouring the glad and bitter torrent of her tears unashamedly into Gabrielle's loving embrace.

"My darlin'! My love! But how? By what trick of the gods were you brung back so quick?" Hecuba wept. "By Hestia's caked pots and crusted pans, your form were feelin' substantial: your face and neck and arms and breasts and sundry baser parts appear sturdy and sensate. And your eyes. Such eyes as I'd be knowin' anywhere were thou twice gone the many leagues to Tiryns. But your hair, child. Oh, my. I’d forgot. 'Twere near all gone.

The bulk of you were seemin' right present, though. Oh, Gab, whate'er the god or demon or billowy sail has brung you home in the wink of an eye, I praise the hand or hoof or force of nature what done it. Oh, child, I've missed you. I've missed you so bad," Hecuba wept again, this time with jolting sobs of joy surging up from deep within her long-empty womb.

Gabrielle's eyes watered as she held and comforted her mother. "I've missed you too, Mom," she said softly and then she joined in the weeping.

"You got word of the horrid mishap what did lately befall your poor sister," Hecuba managed to say when she'd recovered enough of her composure to reach inside her vest pocket for a hankie.

"Yes," Gabrielle said, looking up into her mother's eyes. "We got the news and came as quickly as we could."

"You and... the Warrior Princess. But how?" Hecuba said, still startled. "You been far off and long gone. I done give the medal to the wanderin' Felafel Man, hopin' that in his travels, he might devise some means of gettin' it to you. No horse and rider can run the roads nor full-masted ship sail the many leagues beyond Mycenae in week, ne'er mind a day. The man were a cook and caterer. Were he a magical sorcerer too?"

"He gave the medallion to Chiron who took it to the Centaur village," Gabrielle explained. "Bellerophon was there. Chiron asked him to hop on Pegasus and take to the heavens to seek us out, which he kindly did. Then we got on board a flying ship whose captain was a nice old Dutchman, and he generously set us down on the docks less than a candlemark ago."

"The wonder of modern inventions," Hecuba shook her head. "I'll ne'er get over 'em. Nor, I'm sure, will your father. Come, dear, sit yourself down; please. Let me fix you somethin'. I got half a loaf of nutbread yet. I know you've a likin' for fresh nutbread. A friend of Lila's brung it, that nice young Anike from the village south of town. And tea. 'Twill all heat up in a jiffy."

"Mom, please, I haven't come to put you to any trouble. Actually, my tummy's feeling kind of queasy. We had a pretty rough flight."

"Then sit down and let me have a look at you," Hecuba led Gabrielle to the table and plunked her down on one of the dining chairs. Taking a seat beside her, Hecuba took both of Gabrielle's hands in hers and smiled broadly. "Have you been eatin' well, child? And keepin' yourself clean and stayin' warm and dry at night? Have you been happy? Have you been learnin' things 'bout the wide world and the place you might be wantin' to have in it?

"You were ever so much the dreamer. Your father were thinkin’ you ought to be applyin' yourself to the learnin' of practical things, like cookin' and mendin' and tendin' to the beasts what were out in the byre. But you were always one for countin' the stars in the sky and wantin' to know their names and who it were who put 'em there and why there were so awful many of 'em. Oh, but it were good to see you. My eldest. My beauty. Though your sister were gettin' to be quite a beauty in her own right, I’ll say. A bit more roundness in the bust and belly, and her hair were darker, like your grandmother's, but the sweetness that were kindled in her pretty face now and again, 'twere ofttimes remindin' me of you, Gab, and 'twere such as to make a mother want to weep."

Hecuba paused and her face grew downcast.

"Oh, Gab, it were awful beyond words what them horrid beasts done to the poor girl," Hecuba said as her anxiety for the well-being of her missing daughter began to rise in her throat. "Yestreen were the feast of thesmophoria. You were recollectin' the festival what were honorin' the goddess Demeter. Much as the one what were honorin' Artemis when you and Alexis and Serafin and all them fit and trim girls were gone skitterin’ about the wood, shootin' off them bows and arrows and racin' 'round the glades on the hunt for hares and stags and wild, thrashin' things."

"Yes, I remember those days," Gabrielle nodded.

"Your sister were headin' up the Demetoids now," Hecuba said proudly. "Lead girl of all the four villages what were makin' them enaretes kores do aught as she were tellin' 'em. She were growin' up to be a right capable maid, your sister. And when the dancin' had got underway – the partyin' for the young ones in the square whilst me and your father were clutchin' onto the wee, gray squealer in the company of Mickey and Timmy and t'other good lads – 'twere then, at the height of it, the gate, of a sudden, come crashin' in, and then were loosed 'pon the company a bevy of wild men on horseback with masks on their faces what set hard shrift 'pon the crowd with sword and cudgel and rent 'em all asunder. Even as the mob, terrible scared, were runnin' this way and that, the fell creatures gone circlin' 'round your poor sister, her and Alexis both, and then...

"Oh, Gab, 'twere bleedin' awful what gone on next. The wild men, in them horrid bird masks, were cryin' out, ''Twere them two doxies what shagged our boys as now were lingerin' in the jailhouse ...' Though Lila, dear lass, never laid a hand on either one of ‘em. 'Twere all Alexis' doin'; though, by Artemis' barely covered tuft, I'll ne'er know how the girl come to have such skill with a punch and a kick. Then, lungin' and swingin' and twistin' 'em high in the air, they done made for poor Lila and Alexis as well, flingin’ 'em onto the horsies, and off they gone into the blackest depths of the night. I seen Lila holdin' onto the stirrup for dear life; and Gab...," Hecuba's voice broke as she choked down a sob, "they done worse. They hit her. They hit your dear sister. The men – one of Latrinus' foul and nasty brood – he took his fist and he struck her. Sweet Lila what would never crush a bug on a hearth brick. He took his fist and he done like this to her..."

"Mom, stop," Gabrielle said gently. "You'll only make yourself ill with grief and worry. They did something mean and ugly, those men. And they'll pay for what they've done. That's why we're here, me and Xena."

"The sight of it nearly done your poor father in," Hecuba said. "To be shamed so in front of the men. His own child, his little girl, bein' mauled by cowards and him not able to do nothin' to stop 'em. To be made to watch while them evil vermin was beatin' and bangin' 'pon the dear, defenseless girl. What must the sweet child have been goin' through in that awful instant, Gab, when them wicked men was beatin' and bangin' 'pon her? And Alexis got it worse than Lila. Her they were beatin' and bangin' twice as hard."

Gabrielle began to get angry.

"And the young man, Orestes, the lad what has the gamey leg and were payin' secret court to Alexis, them two as were carryin' on at night out in the meadow, though her father don't seem to know a drachma's worth of boiled cabbage 'bout what his daughter and her suitor were up to; and the gods only know but what the girl has gone and coaxed the lad’s seed out of him," Hecuba pointed out the open shutter toward the mostly gleaned fields that sat in the amber glow of the slanting, afternoon sun. "The men on the horses were smashin' the lad: Orestes, him they call The Big O, boxed him in the chops as well. Then they done rode out the gate with the girls in tow and were gone off to their secret lair in the dead of night. Your father and t'others went huntin' in the hills for what traces of horse and rider they might chance to spy, may the gods take pity on 'em. Bloodied 'em, Gab, those thievin' sons of mischief. For no good reason that I could tell save the sheer, ugly cruelness of it."

Gabrielle, staring past her mother and out the window of the cottage, began to get really angry.

"Xena must be hot on their heels by now," Gabrielle, placing those angry feelings aside for the time being, sought to assuage her mother's fears. "And if I know Xena, she's sure to have some hopeful news when she gets back."

"I could only wish for some such gladsome tidings. Oh, Gab, I can't believe your home," Hecuba fondly squeezed her daughter's hand. "It were so great a joy to be seein' your splendid face no matter how drear the cause."

They sat together, mother and daughter, drawing strength from one other's presence. Gabrielle looked around the cottage in which she'd grown up, recalling every nook and cranny. Had she felt moved to do so, she could have run, at top speed, in utter darkness, all through the lower floor and up the ladder to the loft, never colliding with an object or missing a step. Yet the wide stone hearth and the long wooden dining table, the ladder to the loft and the eaves above her head where the thatch was daubed with tar to keep the winter rains from tracking lines of moisture down the walls seemed, nonetheless, as strange and distant to Gabrielle as though she and Xena had been transported to this odd, out of the way village from the far corners of the earth: from Chin or Britannia or the land of the devis and darshans where evil djinns, aboard their magic carpets, swooping down to prey upon worshipful villagers, may have been the sum and substance of the day's tragically repetitive occurrences.

How, Gabrielle pondered, could she even begin to tell her mother of the many wonders she'd encountered in the course of her travels with Xena; of foreign gods and strange ways and time travelling to a future life in which the Fates had revealed that she would be born and raised a proud and noble warrior while Xena, her companion through the ages, would be anointed a holy woman of mercy and peace? It wasn't for want of love or any lack of affection that Gabrielle felt the yawing gap of tongue-tiedness which, like a severed rope bridge dangling on its rattling slats comically above the fatal depths of a chasm, now seemed to separate her from the mother whom she cared for, respected and still, in many ways, adored. The gap resembled, rather, the upward swooping trunks of a willow tree, branching, mere thumblengths above the ground, from a common root, the separated trunks sloping each on its way to further branchings, those branchings then spread further and further apart, with every lift and curve, never to touch at the heights, yet ever joined at the base.

As the afternoon wore on, it seemed as though a great burden began to lift from Hecuba's spirit. She puttered and fussed, wanting to do everything she could to pet and pamper her much-loved and widely traveled daughter. And Gabrielle, struggling to avoid reverting to any and all less-than-gown-up roles of the past, found a way to permit her mother to indulge her, even allowing herself, here and there, to enjoy, under less than auspicious circumstances, the warm attentiveness and occasional gushing of a doting parent for whom she'd always be, foremost, the little golden girl, her mama's precious angel song.

Gabrielle's reunion with her father was outwardly more restrained, except, perhaps, for Herodotus' initial shock at finding her at the cottage when he returned – first at seeing her at all, next at seeing her in her skimpy, golden-threaded attire and severely chopped hair. Herodotus, too, couldn't believe his eyes, but whereas Hecuba had bubbled over with pent up emotion at Gabrielle's homecoming, Herodotus, after embracing his daughter and assuring himself that this unexpected appearance wasn't a skilled trick on the part of a teasing god or renegade shaman, seemed to become a trifle withdrawn, almost morose, as he delivered the less than encouraging news that though the men had found the trail that led to the high, eastern ridge above Nea Moudana, they hadn't made much progress in following it far enough to locate the warlord's hideout. There was simply no way to know, at present, where Lila and Alexis might be or whether they may have been chained and sold to some slave trading caravan that, even now, was heading north to the wilds of Bulgary and thereafter to destinations unknown.

"Dear gods, don't be spoutin' no such awful thoughts, lest the speakin' provoke the doin' of ‘em," Hecuba sank down, dejected, on one of the padded chairs next to the hearth.

"No good shall come of buryin' our heads in the sand, my love," Herodotus said somberly. "Girls in a warlord's camp were useful for naught but three things: to work, to sell or to offer 'em up for pleasure. Better our girl were worked to the bone than to have them bones sold at auction or be defiled 'pon a venal warlord's cot."

"Latrinus and his gang may be the scourge of these villages while Perdicas, Andros and the others have gone to fight the war," Gabrielle spoke with assurance while she set the table for dinner, "but now that Xena's here, these goons have more than met their match."

Herodotus looked at his elder daughter and, in doing so, his face became a battleground contested by the competing armies of a smile and a frown.

"Have I told you it were good to be seein' you home again, Gab?" Herodotus looked at Gabrielle as though she were an acquaintance from the distant past, a friend with whom, at one time in his life, he'd been intimate.

"Yes, Dad, but I won't mind hearing you say it again," Gabrielle looked warmly at her father.

"Your mother were missin' you somethin' awful," Herodotus said, perhaps being unable to say, for the sake of any pain, embarrassment, shame or pride that the admission may have cost him, which other parent had equally been missing her.

"So I've gathered," Gabrielle smiled at her mother who returned the smile.

"Nor were I of a mind to believe that I were the only soul under this chunk of thatch who may be layin' worthy title to that well-staked claim," Hecuba looked at Herodotus, her smile slightly fading though still clearly visible on her face. "I'd almost forgot how lovely she were," Hecuba said dotingly. "Her blondeness come from your side, I'll warrant, for there were few if any so fair 'pon mine."

"But your hair, lass," Herodotus stared at Gabrielle, "and your dress. Or the lack of ‘em, I should say. Wherefore have you cut and cropped it so? Be it a penance 'posed by an oracle for some lapse or misdeed? Or, in the manner of the One God people, were your shorn locks a sign to the world that you were now a maiden betrothed? And do you go about the towns and countryside so scantily clad as to make men in the pubs leer and coo, temptin' and 'toxicatin' 'em as if 'twere for your own teasin' pleasure?"

Gabrielle dropped her eyes in momentary shame at her father's gaze. She loved him dearly and he dearly loved her. But how could he begin to comprehend the many goings on inside her that she didn't claim to comprehend herself?

"No man has dared to test my virtue, father," Gabrielle said, her eyes still downcast. "If he did, he'd be in no condition to try it a second time. I lost my hair when I nearly lost my life in the clutches of someone whose wicked ways had to be stopped. It was for the greater good," Gabrielle's eyes looked up to meet her father's gaze. "I hope you'll believe that. I hope you'll have enough faith and trust in me, in what you and Mom have brought me up to be... me and Lee... that you'll never have cause to worry about my conduct when I'm away from home, that it might ever be shameful, cheap, degrading or wrong."

Herodotus stared at his daughter as he set down the mug of ale, now partially consumed, which Hecuba had poured for him when he'd walked in the door. He could see that Gabrielle was no longer his light and bouncy little girl, plying him with endless questions about everything that lived and moved and had its being under the sun, to the point where he'd occasionally rear back and, with a loud laugh, declare, "By the gods, child, were I to say how the sky were blue, you'd be wantin' to know why it weren't green; and were I then to hold forth 'pon how the sky were green in faith, you'd be curious to know why 'tweren't a brighter shade of red."

A little girl would not have spoken to her father in such a calm tone of reassuring independence. Gabrielle looked and sounded more as a woman might, and Herodotus felt something new stirring inside him as he beheld his elder, more adventurous daughter: a current of respect; not a wave, nothing to wash over and submerge him as he stood by the hearth, his boots still muddy from his trek through the woods and his arms and neck itching from the day's bug bites, yet something that swept through him with an undertow. The child of his loins, the one who'd had the stubbornness – or who'd summoned the courage – to defy and disappoint him, wounding his pride and scorching his shame, was, he had to confess, something of an awe-inspiring mystery to him, a strange presence in his household the thought of whom, at odd moments of the day, frustrated and vexed him. And yet, beneath the roiling surface of vexation and its rare, runaway rip tides of fury at her refusal to bend to his will and to the norms which his will upheld, he couldn't help trusting in, even basking a bit in reluctant admiration of her. Gabrielle's word, in the end, was her bond; the heft and hove of it as good as any man's.

chapter title: a trope on John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s "Yesterday"

Continued in Part 25

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