Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Renaissance and Universal. No copy right infringement was intended.
This is the ninth of a series of stories. Subtext and violence are restricted to the guidelines used by the television series.
Gabrielle and Xena walked through the busy street of Thebes. They were a striking contrast. Xena towered over her small friend. She was broad shouldered and her high cheek bones were framed with thick, dark hair. Her strong, beautiful face and lean, sensuous body were in juxtaposition to the black leather battle dress and armor she wore. Yet she carried her weapons with the casual confidence of an experienced warrior. She didn't smile and her sea-blue eyes were stormy and watchful. In contrast, Gabrielle's round innocent face was lit up with excitement as she looked first this way and then that checking out the wares at each seller's stall. Unlike her friend, she wore the simple dress of the Amazons and carried no arms but a walking staff.
Ahead of them in the bustle of market shoppers, a man cursed loudly and someone pushed through the crowds towards them. Gabrielle craned her neck to see what was going on while her friend, the Warrior Princess raised her hand to her chakram, a sharp ring of deadly metal that hung from her hip. The woman in front of them gave a cry of surprise as she was pushed aside by a running child who dived to her knees at Xena's feet and wrapped her arms around the Warrior's leg. Xena looked down in embarrassment and tried to pull her leg free while her friend Gabrielle laughed with delight.
Suddenly, an angry man carrying a large cleaver broke through the crowds, "There you are, you bitch! This time you'll get the punishment that your kind deserve!" growled the fat, sweaty man shaking with rage and grabbing for the child.
Xena's hand shot out and blocked the man's reach. "Mother! Mother! Don't let him hurt me!" cried the child clinging to Xena's leg and looking up beseechingly at Xena.
"What?!" cried Xena incredulously looking down at the child for the first time. A scowl was replaced by a look of complete surprise. The eyes looking up at hers were a deep sea blue and her lean waif's face was surrounded by thick, black hair. Her all too thin body was clad in black leather and she carried, a wooden sword in a scabbard on her back. Xena looked at Gabrielle, who looked in shock at the child and then with a startled look at Xena. "She's not mine!" snapped Xena raising her arms to plead with Gabrielle and the crowd that watched on with interest.
"Mother! How could you deny me?!" sobbed the child holding on even more tightly as Xena tried to pull free again.
"Some mother!" snapped someone in the crowd.
"Should be home taking care of your little one then she wouldn't be getting into trouble," said another.
"She's not my child!" roared Xena looking for support from Gabrielle but her friend just raised an eyebrow and looked knowingly at Xena. "Will you let go!" snapped Xena looking down at the child. The little girl that looked so remarkably like Xena just shook her head stubbornly.
"Well, if you don't claim her, Warrior, I do," growled the ugly, fat man with the cleaver. "She stole from me, she did and she is going to pay for it with the loss of her hand!" threatened the man grabbing for the girl again. Xena's hand snapped out once more and stayed the angry man.
"You're not cutting off her hand! She's a child," growled Xena and Gabrielle moved forward with her staff raised. "What did she steal from you that would justify such a terrible penalty?"
"She stole some loaves of bread from my stall," stated the man moodily looking around at the crowd for support. "She steals from all of us, she does!" Many in the crowd nodded their agreement.
Xena's face went stony. She looked down at the child who clung to her leg. "Gabrielle give the man some dinars to pay for the bread." she snarled softly, reaching down and grabbing the child by the scruff of the neck, " And reassure the shop keepers that... my child.. will not be stealing here ever again. I'll meet you back at camp," ordered Xena dragging the protesting child off while a completely confused Gabrielle was left to smile at the crowd and make amends for Xena and ....her child?
Xena pulled the struggling child down the road and out into the countryside at a quick pace. Only when she was sure that they were away from others did she stop and look down at the child she held. The face looking up at hers was grave and stormy. "Zeus!" cursed the child pulling free of Xena's grasp, "You didn't have to drag me you know, mom. I was just as anxious as you to get away from that mob."
Xena's eyebrows went up, "Don't swear. And stop calling me mom. I'm not and you know it."
The child smiled knowingly and raised an eyebrow, " You are a former warlord and the daughter and Princess of the god of war," pointed out the waif, "I am a cute, innocent, abandoned child. Everyone knows you sleep around, so who are they going to believe?!"
Xena's face stilled in cold rage. She picked the child up off the ground by her shoulders and put her face in hers. "I do not sleep around! And you are not my child! And I don't have to prove that to anyone!"
"Sure mom," smiled the child leaning forward and kissing Xena's nose. Xena dropped the child in surprise. "Hey! Watch it! Kids are fragile things you know!" snapped the child looking up from where she sat on the ground. Xena tapped a toe and looked annoyed. "O.K. so you're not my real mom." relented the kid, "But I've adopted you, and that's just as good. Stop fighting it, Xena. You'll make a great mom!"
To the child's surprise, Xena looked like she had been hit. She staggered back and wringing her hands she turned and moved away. Once again the visions of her son Solan who she had given up to the Centaurs as a baby flooded into her head. She felt his dead, ten year old body in her arms. And the guilt of not being able to protect him from her past washed over her. And then there was Little Xena, still a baby, that Gabrielle and her had left back at the Amazon Village to be raised while they continued their quest..."No," she said quietly, "I'd make a terrible mother." Xena wheeled and snapped at the child, "Why would you want to be like me anyway? Do you know what I've done? How much fear and pain I caused?" The Warrior grabbed the child and shook her, "Take off that sword and go back to your family before it is too late. Don't make the mistakes I did!"
"Xena! Help!" came Gabrielle's voice from back down the trail. Xena's head snapped around. She let go of the stubborn child and pulling her sword she charged back down the road. Following on her heels was the little warrior. Xena came over the ridge to find Gabrielle struggling with three cutpurses that had jumped her. One had her around the neck and was strangling her. With a battle cry, Xena jumped at them kicking the one off Gabrielle and then turning to meet swords with the other two. Exhausted from her choking, Gabrielle collapsed to the ground gasping. Xena kicked one swordsman low in the groin and then turned to battle sword against sword with the remaining robber. He was good and experienced in battle and Xena smiled as she fought him back until she could see an opening and slam him hard against the ear with the broad side of her sword. The thief cried out in pain and dropped to his knees.
Gabrielle screamed as a blade swung at her. Xena turned to see the cutpurse that she had pulled off swinging a death blow at Gabrielle. Suddenly, a wood blade flashed out in front of Gabrielle's face and stopped the killing stroke. Xena leapt forward and punched the ugly assassin as hard as she could. He crumbled into a heap. Then she turned and touched Gabrielle gently, "Are you all right?" she asked with real concern.
Gabrielle nodded shakily and got up on her feet with Xena's help. They turned to look at the child who's quick action had saved Gabrielle's life. "Thank you," said Gabrielle.
The child smiled pulling the knife from the wood and placing her sword back into it's scabbard on her back. " I'm practicing to be a hero like my mom." she stated tucking the robber's knife into her belt. Xena sighed in annoyance and pulled the blade from the child's belt and threw it in to some bushes. "Hey!" protested the child turning to search for it. Xena grabbed the child by the shoulder and pushed her towards Gabrielle. The warrior threw her hands in the air and groaned in frustration as she turned away to walk back up the road. Gabrielle laughed and wrapped her arm around the child as they followed.
"What's your name?" she asked the child who had wrapped her own arm around Gabrielle and was leaning close. This child hasn't had much affection, thought Gabrielle, Or food by the feel of her skinny arms.
" Don't know. Unless you count, hey you girl," said the girl seriously eyeing the Warrior who stormed on ahead.
"No one gave you a name!" exclaimed Gabrielle in disbelief.
"Not that I can recall," replied the waif unconcerned.
"Well we'll think about it," reassured Gabrielle giving the little warrior a squeeze, "And see that you have a proper name to use."
Later that night the three sat around a fire. The child chewed nosily on the last of the goat's meat that Xena had bought from a local farmer. Xena raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think anyone could eat as much as you Gabrielle, but this one has got you beat!"
Gabrielle looked up at her friend sharply and then relaxed when she realized her friend was teasing her. Xena was so rarely relaxed that it was sometimes hard to tell when she was joking or not. Xena looked back at the child, who having eaten most of the meat they had cooked, was now sucking on the bones. "Where are you from?" she asked gently.
The waif stopped chewing and looked up nervously, "I'm not sure. The first place I remember is Corinth. When you were there, Xena." Pain crossed Xena's face. Gabrielle reached out her hand to touch her friend in understanding. The last time Xena had been to Corinth, she had been a vicious warlord and had destroyed and killed. Was this child an orphan because of Xena?
Xena swallowed hard and a nerve pounded at her temple. "W..What happened to your parents?" she asked. Her quiet voice knifed through the tension in the air.
"My dad, was killed in battle that day. You said he was a great soldier and a trusted warrior and you'd miss him. I heard you!" said the girl with pride, "His name was Aiolos."
"Aiolos! He was one of my men!" exclaimed Xena, looking up in surprise. "He was a fine soldier and loyal."
The girl nodded, "He wasn't my real dad, but he was the only one I really remember. He bought me at a market somewhere to be his servant but he liked me and he never really treated me like a slave as long as I took care of his horse and equipment really well," explained the child matter of factly.
"And if you didn't?" asked Gabrielle before Xena could stop her.
The orphan shrugged, "He was a warrior. Anyway, he taught me to use a sword and ride and live by my wits and I have. Except, I caught the fever in the spring and that made it hard because I'm not too strong yet and when I was sick I couldn't get food. Gabrielle looked at Xena in horror and Xena's jaw tightened in rage that a child should have lived such a life and be so worldly at such an early age. "Dad, told me to grow up to be a warlord like you, Xena. But then you turned to good so now I have to be a hero instead," explained the child.
Gabrielle reached out and touched the child's arm, "Being a hero is a much better choice."
Xena still looked angry as she scanned the sky. " There's thunderstorms about but I don't think we'll get rain here. We'd better get some sleep."
The three settled down around the fire for the night. Off in the distance thunder rolled and sheet lightening lit up the sky. Gabrielle saw the child cowering below the blanket that Xena had lent her. "Xena," said Gabrielle, picking up her blanket and moving over to spread it out behind her warrior friend, "If it's going to storm. I'm sleeping close to you!"
Xena looked over her shoulder at her friend in surprise as Gabrielle made a big deal out of settling down close to Xena's back. Gabrielle met Xena's eyes and then looked over at the child who was still hiding under her blanket. Xena smiled in understanding, "Sure Gabrielle no problem, Zeus' storms can be scary and I guess you'll be safe close to me. Zeus is my grandfather, so he is not likely to hit me with a lightening bolt," said Xena in a voice loud enough to carry to the girl under the blanket. The thunder rolled again and the little warrior darted out from under her blanket and dived into Xena's arms. Xena covered the frightened child with her own blanket and wrapped her arms around the child awkwardly. Gabrielle looked over Xena's shoulder and smiled at the strong warrior so carefully holding the small child. "What?!" asked Xena looking embarrassed and pulling a face at Gabrielle. Gabrielle smiled and snuggled into Xena's back. Xena sighed and closed her own eyes.
Xena woke just before dawn. No morning chill. It was going to be a very hot day. She looked down at the dirty face of the child that slept in her arms. The little warrior's face had softened into innocence. Against her back she could feel Gabrielle's warmth and hear her breathing. Xena didn't move, her sharp ears and eyes had already surveyed the area even before she was fully awake. All was safe. There were few times when the Warrior could let her guard down a little and enjoy a moment. The little child stirred and Xena looked down into the deep blue eyes. "My dad always said you had sad eyes," observed the waif in a sleepy murmur.
Xena gave a bitter smile and said nothing. But the little girl squirmed closer into Xena's embrace and wrapped her arms around the Warrior's neck, "Don't be sad Xena, Gabrielle and I love you."
Xena smiled openly now and a deep blush rose in her face. "Thank you, but you really don't know me," said Xena gruffly holding the child's head with her hand next to her face.
The orphan's voice came muffled from Xena's shoulder, "Yes, I do. I've seen you kill lots of people and I saw you kissing Ares too and I know all the tales about how Hercules turned you to good and all the great things you've done since."
Xena looked startled and then grimaced, "Well," she said, "Maybe you do know me pretty well then. But look kid this is no way for you to live, stealing to get by and living by your wits and sword. You deserve better. I don't want any little girl to miss out on life like I did."
"I'm not going to Xena! I know where there is a dragon and now that I'm stronger, I'm going to steal it's hoard of gold and then I can just go around doing good things," explained the serious child.
Xena's intensely blue eyes widened, "Look, dragon's are pretty rare and the few that remain are very dangerous! You don't want to get mixed up with one of them." The orphan nodded her understanding and nestling back down into Xena's arms. She was soon asleep again.
Behind them Gabrielle yawned and sat up. "Hey, you two! How come no one has got the fire going!" she grumbled good naturally getting up and moving around Xena and the child to add wood to the ashes and to fan the embers back into flame. Xena went to get up too but the waif still lay contentedly in Xena's arms. Xena looked at Gabrielle in bewilderment and Gabrielle smiled and waved Xena to stay where she was. Xena settled back and held the sleepy child in her lap looking both pleased and awkward at the same time.
"So what are we going to do with her?" Gabrielle inquired softly, "take her to the Amazons."
"I guess," stated Xena with a frown looking down at the sleeping form. " We're certainly doing our bit to bluster the Amazon nation!" she grinned sheepishly looking up at the Amazon Queen with whom she shared the parenting of Gabrielle's child.
"Nothing wrong with that," laughed Gabrielle, "I think this one could do with some training. She's nice still. I don't want her to grow up to be... well..." stammered Gabrielle biting her lip in embarrassment.
"Like me," stated the warrior flatly as she lowered the sleeping child to the ground and rose in one smooth movement. Xena had planned to walk out of the camp to go some where quiet and nurse her hurt until she could be good company again. But suddenly Gabrielle was in front of her, looking up at her with those emerald-green, trusting eyes.
"No, not like you, like some warlord long ago that was you for too long, not like the Xena I know," stated her friend wrapping her arms around the insecure warrior." If she turns out like my Xena then I would really love and respect her," whispered Gabrielle as she leaned her head against the warrior's shoulder.
Xena felt the pain of her past wash away on Gabrielle's words of trust. She bent down and placed a kiss on her partner's head. "Always there for me, aren't you?" she murmured.
Gabrielle looked up and smiled feeling the tension leaving Xena's body. "Always," she pledged seriously then stepped back. " Fish would be good unless you want to breakfast on chewed goat bone." Xena pulled a face and picking up her sword she headed off to the stream.
Noon found them picking berries from thorny bushes on a hillside. Over their harvested meal, Gabrielle had entertained them with a folktale about how the hedgehog got it's quills. Then the child, happy and relaxed ran off to chase butterflies while the two adults rested. "I think that fluffy cloud looks like an elephant," stated Gabrielle seriously.
"I think you've never seen an elephant so any old cloud could look like one to you," drawled Xena moodily.
Red crept up Gabrielle's neck. "And I suppose, warrior princess, you've seen lots of elephants and know how to ride them too!" snapped the Bard competitively.
"Yeah," admitted Xena sadly, " I've used them in combat in the lands across the Mediterranean. I'll tell you one thing, no elephant is ever going to float like a cloud!"
Gabrielle looked sharply at her friend but Xena face wore it's passive mask as she lay with her eyes closed. "What's the matter, Xena?" she asked.
Xena stood up in one sudden explosive move causing the Bard to start. "I don't know... I guess this kid...I mean...us, we've both lost children, then we left Little Xena with the Amazons...I mean...I don't know if..." Xena turned away in frustration finding it hard to talk about an emotional issue.
Gabrielle sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees looking out over the valley. "Sometimes," she began softly, " I feel the weight of guilt and sorrow pulling me down.
When that happens I try to remember what you told me once. You said that no one can predict the future. That all you could do was live each day to the best of your ability and accept the outcome of your actions with strength. We carry the dreams of our lost children in our hearts, Xena. Little Xena will grow up happy and strong surrounded by a nation of mothers and in the knowledge that you and I love her. I think this child made a great choice in picking you as a mom."
"Oh yeah," drawled Xena sarcastically turning with an argumentative look to Gabrielle.
"No, I do," stated the Bard getting up and meeting Xena's angry stare. " Look at you! You've only known the kid for a day and already you are beating yourself up because you don't think you can be a good enough parent to her! Xena, you are already thinking like her mom. Listen to your own advise, Xena, deal with this outcome with strength," the Bard urged heading off to join the child on the hill.
"Gabrielle," called Xena softly.
"Yeah," replied her friend turning back to look at the warrior.
"You're good for me," admitted the warrior.
"We're good for each other, partner," smiled Gabrielle and the two friends moved off to join the child.
Xena scooped the waif up into her arms and looked seriously into the child's cornflower blue eyes. "What if Gabrielle and I adopt you?" asked the warrior.
The child grinned from ear to ear and hugged Xena around the neck. "I knew you'd come around, Xena. Wow, two moms and famous ones too! Boy, are we going to kick some butt!"
Xena sighed and rolled her eyes lowering the child to the ground but keeping hold of her hand. "No, we are not going to kick butt. We are going to take you to be raised by Queen Gabrielle's nation, the Amazons. And Gabrielle and I are going to see to it that you get a good education and a healthy, disciplined upbringing." stated Xena firmly.
The little warrior looked up at her hero with a big grin, "Then can we kick butt?" she asked undaunted.
Gabrielle laughed, " Xena, this child not only looks like you but she sure has your personality. Are you sure..."
Yes, I'm sure!" cut in Xena with a mock look of annoyance on her face. Then she gave a wicked smile and looked down at her new daughter. "We are going to call you Gabrielle. Elle for short," said Xena. And then seriously she added, " I hope you grow up to have her wisdom." Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears at the backhanded compliment her warrior was giving her. She moved forward and put one hand over Elle's shoulders and one around her friend's waist and they started off again down the road.
That evening, Elle sat in Gabrielle's arms where she had crawled to hear a story. The warrior who had sat across the fire sharpening her sword had now gone off to check the perimeter before turning in. "Moma?" started the child.
"Yes," responded the Bard instinctively hugging the child closer at hearing herself being called moma for the first time.
"I need your help," stated Elle solemnly looking up with worried blue eyes to Gabrielle.
"You know Xena and I are always here for you, Elle," responded Gabrielle starting to feel apprehensive about where the child might be going with the conversation.
"I lied to my other mom," whispered the child, tears starting to run down her face. "I mean I'm good at lying and I was just going to sucker the two of you with a sob story but then you were so nice to me and now you've gone and adopted me...."
Gabrielle's heart was pounding but outwardly she tried to remain calm. "So now you've started you'd better tell me the truth.
"Aiolos isn't my father," sighed the child miserably. "I was just given to him to be trained." Gabrielle felt a wave of cold chills wash over her. Suddenly, she knew without this child telling her. Inside, she'd known ever since she had hugged the child on the road the day before. Elle had the same animal tension, the same restless alertness... "Ares is." the child mumbled.
Gabrielle pulled the little girl close, " I should have known. You are so much like Xena."
The child pushed away bitterly, " You mean we're both like him! His chosen."
"No, not like him. If you were you wouldn't be here now. No, you are like Xena, a darkness yes, but it's tempered by a gentle soul. You and Xena have a velvet darkness that wraps the weak and helpless up and protects and cares for them. I should know. I'm the one who gets to see that side of the Warrior Princess the most," responded Gabrielle with gentle confidence. "I know its not easy for the two of you to control the warring powers within you. But I also know that winning that battle for the side of Good helps to make this world so much better for so many. Already Elle, I owe you my life."
"Ahh, that was nothin," grumbled the girl with the same awkwardness that Xena felt when faced with gratitude. " I'm afraid to tell Xena, cause she might send me away.
I mean I didn't go looking for you or nothin. It was just good luck that I ran down that street and met the two of you, but I mean, this is better than hiding in slums trying to avoid Ares."
Xena halted in her patrol. A slow, unpleasant sensation crept up her back and made the hairs at the nap of her neck stand on end. "Show yourself!" she snapped to the night drawing her sword and turning in a tight circle.
Ares appeared in front of her. Like Xena, he wore dark leather, his vest held loosely by a sword belt. His face too was etched into the same classic plains and his dark wavy hair
reflected the same highlights as his Chosen One. "Xena, Xena, always the warm welcome," Ares smirked swaggering closer.
Instinctively, Xena stepped back from his reach. "Just tell me what you want, Ares." sighed the warrior looking both bored and annoyed.
"I hear you've picked up another brat, Xena. You're getting to be quite the little mom!" the God of War taunted.
The barb ripped deeply into Xena's tortured soul. "You bastard!" she growled swinging her sword at him.
Ares laughed and stepped back. " When you get sick of her. You send her back to me Xena," warned Ares stepping close and grabbing Xena's arm and pulling her near so that she could not attack again. He breathed into her face. "You think Hope was bad," he whispered in sinister warning, "that little bitch makes Hope look like a sweet little child." With that he was gone. Xena spun around sensing for him. Then she lowered her sword and used a shaky hand to wipe the sweat from her brow. She should know better than to let that bastard-god get to her, she thought and yet...
Elle suddenly stiffened in Gabrielle's arms. "He's here," she warned. Gabrielle leaped to her feet readying the staff that was never far from her reach.
"Who?!" she asked over her shoulder as she scanned the terrain for an enemy.
"Ares. I can feel him," muttered the child nervously holding her toy sword, "He's come for me," she finished and then swinging around she took the legs out from under a surprised Gabrielle as her wood sword caught her smartly in the knee caps. In an instant, the orphan had shot like a rabbit off into the darkness.
" Xena! Xena!" yelled Gabrielle as she held on to her knees and curled into a ball of pain.
Xena sat on a boulder looking into the night trying to calm her beating heart. She wasn't sure she could go through another experience like Hope. She wasn't sure that her relationship with Gabrielle could stand the strain. Who was this child that Ares had come to warn her about?! You couldn't trust the God of War, yet if she had in Britannia, she could have saved Gabrielle a hellish experience, prevented Dahok from getting a hold on earth, and her son Solon would still be alive. Ice clutched at her heart and a vein pounded erratically at her temple.
"Xena! Xena!" came the pained shout from Gabrielle and all else blanked from Xena's mind as drawing her sword and spreading out her senses she ran towards her friend. Xena forced herself to circle the campsite keeping to the deep recesses of darkness even in the night. When she was sure the perimeter was secure from intruders she entered the halo of light that radiated from the campfire and ran to Gabrielle who was moaning in pain.
"Gabrielle! What's happened? Where's the child?!" Xena asked holding her sword at ready and scanning the darkness as her other hand reached down to reassure her friend.
"Run off. She knew Ares was near and she was afraid. Go after her Xena! I'm all right." groaned Gabrielle.
"No, you're not!" responded the warrior as she sheathed her weapon and turned her attention to her partner. By the light of the fire, Xena could see that Gabrielle's knees were starting to swell. "Zeus! Did Elle do this!? asked Xena as she picked Gabrielle up in her arms and carried her from the camp towards a shallow stream not far off.
Gabrielle fought back the tears and nodded, "I think she was afraid I'd follow her," muttered the Bard from Xena's shoulder. Xena said nothing but the vein at her temple throbbed strongly and her jaw was clamped in rage as she lowered her friend to the ground by the creek. They'd trusted the kid, like Gabrielle had trusted Hope and the result was that the little bitch might have crippled her best friend! Xena's trembling fingers pulled flat rocks from the cold water and leaned them around Gabrielle's swollen knees. Gabrielle moaned and lay back putting her arm over her eyes. " Thanks, Xena, that feels a little better."
"What happened?" asked Xena with a tight voice as she carefully started to examine her friend for any other wounds.
"I'm O.K." stated Gabrielle staying Xena's hand with her own and gently rubbing her friend's hand as she saw the rage mounting in her warrior. "She didn't mean to hurt me. She was scared and she wanted to get away."
Xena pulled her hand away and continued to check her friend. Her blue eyes flashed with anger. "She did hurt you. Maybe badly. After you took her in as your own daughter. She's like Hope, Gabrielle. Ares... Ares said so."
Gabrielle's eyes grew big as she stared at her best friend. Easy here Gabrielle! Don't say the wrong thing. If Xena thinks that you are going to side with evil like you did for Hope all was going to be lost. "Oh no." she whispered softly, "Xena, are you sure?"
Xena sat back now satisfied that Gabrielle's only injury was her knees. "I wasn't, until this." she said her voice ragged with anger. "Gabrielle, I have to go after her. I might have to kill her," Xena said looking for reassurance from her friend and family.
Gabrielle's heart contracted in pain. Oh Gods! not again! she thought as she closed her eyes. "Yes," she said with sad calm, "We have to find her. She was talking to me Xena. She'd lied and she wanted to know what to do. Then she sensed Ares, just like you do. Did Ares come to you?" asked the Bard looking at her friend sitting beside her.
Xena worried a piece of stick in her hand. "Yeah, he came to warn me that Elle was as bad as Hope was." Xena's eyes looked up at Gabrielle's face from under her long eye lashes trying to gage her friend's reaction. Gabrielle's face was a mask of pain but her voice was calm and confident.
"All the more reason for us to hunt for Elle then. She told me that she was afraid to tell us the truth. According to her Ares gave her to Aiolos for training in your army. She said that her real father is Ares and that since Aiolos's death she has been hiding in the slum from him. What do you think Xena?" asked Gabrielle looking at her friend with worried eyes as she took Xena's hand.
Xena's eyes widened with surprise at the news, then she turned to look off into the darkness. "She might be my sister," observed the warrior tightly. "Or she might be the super-natural power that ends the world," she finished her voice hardening. "Maybe she is both. I nearly was," Xena finished doubt and anger spreading through her as she unconsciously played with Gabrielle's fingers. "Gabrielle, I don't know if either one of us can go through...well, you know," finished Xena lamely.
Gabrielle leaned over and put her head on Xena's shoulder. Slowly the tension left her companion's muscles as the warrior calmed herself. "I know. But we don't have a chose. We have to go after her. There is either an evil power loose in the world or one very confused and frightened girl trying to live with an awful deadly power within her veins.
Either way, Xena. You are the only one that can handle the situation."
"Yeah," sighed the warrior, "I remember being young. I couldn't understand why warfare came so easy to me and so hard to the boys. I was embarrassed that I was so strong and I always tried to cover it up. Eventhough my competitiveness always forced me to win, I always made sure I won by just a little bit when I could have left them eating dirt!" Xena laughed bitterly. "Sometimes I'd hurt people by accident when I was young. Especially my brothers. It took me a while to control all that power."
Gabrielle saw her opening, "Maybe that's what happened tonight. Elle was scared. She might have hit me harder than she meant." The Bard felt Xena stiffen at her words and hurried on to reassure the warrior that she was not going to have to doubt her loyalty again. "But we have to be sure. We have to search for Elle with the knowledge that she could be evil."
Xena turned to look at her friend, "Gabrielle, I don't want to lose you again." Tears rolled down the stoic warrior's face.
Gabrielle hugged her friend closely as her own tears joined Xena's. "It's O.K. Last time, we undermined our relationship by not being honest with each other over many issues. I think we both learned a pretty cruel lesson. Whatever we have to face. We'll argue it out together and work as a team on this one. O.K.?"
Xena gave the Bard a tight hug and pulled away to look at her through wet eyelashes. "O.K. partner. Come on," Xena continued, scooping her friend up, "now its time to get you back to the fire."
"So what do you think?" asked a worried Gabrielle as Xena examined her knees the next morning. "I think you're riding Argo. But," continued the warrior cutting off Gabrielle's moan of dismay, "only for a few days. Nothing is broken here. You've got some water on the knee but although the knees are going to be sore for awhile, I think you'll be all right." Gabrielle sighed in relief and grinned happily at the smiling warrior.
"Lets go find Elle then and sort this mess out," stated Gabrielle trying to get up. Xena rolled her eyes at the Bard's tenacity and held her friend down.
"Gabrielle, I was thinking and..."
"No! Don't even go there warrior!" snapped Gabrielle. Xena opened her mouth to argue that Gabrielle should hear her out but Gabrielle anticipated Xena's words again and cut her off. "No! You are going to say that I should stay at the next town and you'll handle this yourself. No! No, for any number of reasons: I wont be left behind. I'm your partner not some tag-along. And we need to face this together. We need to show each other that we can be trusted. And what ever is out there, a monster or a half-sister, I'm going to be there to protect you and advise you and you are going to be there to do the same for me. And," Gabrielle emphasized giving the warrior a playful push, " I'm here to write stories about the adventures of warrior-princesses not the life and times of tavern owners! And," Gabrielle continued as Xena sat back and let the scowl on her face be replaced by a look of total bemusement, "If you try to stop me, I'll follow so you might as well give in Warrior Princess!"
Xena laughed and helped her friend to her feet wrapping an arm around her as Gabrielle eagerly, for a change, hobbled towards Argo. Xena bent and lifted the little Bard up into the saddle and then picked up the reins leading them off in search of Elle. "You know what?" asked Xena breaking her silence.
"What?" asked the Bard nervously wandering if Xena was going to except her arguments or trick her into remaining out of the action.
"When we find Elle. I'll stand back and you can talk her into surrendering!" laughed Xena raising an eyebrow to look at her friend.
Gabrielle smiled and playfully swatted at Xena. "See if I don't!" she taunted the warrior.
It was not hard for the warrior to follow Elle's trail. The child might be street wise but she was only fair at covering her tracks in the wild. Her path was winding towards a cone shaped mountain in more or less a straight line over the rough terrain. Xena stopped and helped Gabrielle down. "Idiot" she mumbled.
"What me?!" asked Gabrielle the heat rising up her neck.
"What? No! Elle." spluttered Xena realizing she had been thinking out loud. "She's heading for that volcano. I bet she's heard stories of it smoking and shooting out flames and she thinks there's a dragon in there! Idiot!" concluded Xena with feeling.
Gabrielle looked at the mountain with worried eyes, "Or she is returning to Dahok," she stated softly.
Startled, Xena turned to look hard at her friend. "Do you think that's the case?" she asked with concern.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend as the two stood by the restless Argo, "I don't know Xena. Everything in my being wants to scream out that this is a small innocent child and our daughter but I'm not going to make the mistakes I did last time. I've learned that compassion has to be tempered by wisdom and consequences."
Xena gave a weak smile, "I know what you are saying Gabrielle but I've learned that revenge is a hollow victory and that compassion is not a weakness if it breeds love."
It was Gabrielle's turn to look startled, "Yeah," she responded softly and the two turned to remove the saddle-bags from Argo while they stopped for a mid-day meal.
After a short repose the two trackers headed off again and by late after noon they had reached the sloping sides of the volcanic mountain. "You can't ride Argo very far up here Gabrielle," Xena warned. Gabrielle nodded her understanding but her face was grim. She did not want to be left behind yet Xena was right the horse would not be able to go much farther than through the foot hills of this mountain. Gabrielle's knees ached painfully and she was fighting a losing battle to keep that pain from showing on her face.
"Lets go," she groaned flicking Argo's reins because her knees were too sore to nudge the horse with her heels. Xena looked at her friend with worried eyes but said nothing. Slowly, they followed narrow goat trails up the mountainside. Dusk was coming on when Xena caught Argo's bridle and brought them to a halt.
"This flat area is a good place to camp," Xena observed.
"No!" snapped Gabrielle, "If we camp here, in the morning you are going to say you're going on alone and I'll have to agree. Let's go as far as we can together. Please Xena!" Gabrielle begged as she saw her friend start to argue.
Xena sighed. "It's too dangerous for Argo, Gabrielle, We stop here," stated the warrior firmly looking at the upset Bard. Gabrielle sighed in frustration but nodded and Xena gave a weak smile. She raised her arms to help Gabrielle down then changed her move into a pivot as her hand reached for her sword not Gabrielle.
"Hey!" yelled the Bard almost falling from the horse, "what you...." Then Gabrielle became aware of the noise too. Loose gravel bouncing down the hillside in front of running feet. Suddenly, Elle broke around the rocky corner of the trail.
"Run! Run Xena!" she yelled grabbing Argo's reins and pulling the surprised horse around and leading her down the trail at a fast pace. Xena caught up in an instant while a surprised Gabrielle tried once again not to fall from Argo's back.
"Explain," snapped Xena as she watched the child with one eye and their backs with another as they hurried along.
The child pulled harder on Argo's reins and increased their pace. "The dragon..."she panted, "Back there...woke it up...it's after us."
"Oh Zeus!" exclaimed Gabrielle as the sky lit up with an orange glow. "Xena, what are we going to do?"
Xena grabbed the reins from Elle and pushed the child into a shallow cave as she grabbed for Gabrielle and carried her inside putting her down quickly. Then she coaxed the frightened warhorse in as well. Gabrielle pulled at Elle's tunic and got the girl to realize that she needed help getting up. Elle looked surprised and then shocked as she helped the Bard get out of the way of the frightened horse. The little cave just barely held the three women and the horse. "Gabrielle did I..." Xena's hand slammed over the girl's mouth and she held the child close to her body as they waited in silence for the dragon to fly along the path in search of the intruders. Gabrielle's eyes met the intensive blue of her friend's. Xena's back blocked the narrow entrance protecting them all from the dragon.
When Xena felt it was safe she whispered angrily into the child's ear. "Ares came to me. He said you are evil." Elle's eyes grew wide as she saw the blade in Xena's hand. Gabrielle leaned stiffly against the inner wall. She knew she had to trust Xena but she didn't know if she could stand there and let her kill a child. The image of Hope laughing as she drank from the poisoned wine skin flashed vividly before her eyes. She dug her hands into the rock and sweat beaded on her face.
Elle's head shook back and forth quickly and Xena slowly released her hand a little from the child's mouth so that she could talk. "I lied to you Xena. I was just going to use the two of you to get away. Ares put me with your army so as I could learn from you. He said you were the best. But I learned from Aiolos too. He said you were the best too but he said you were crazy and it was just a matter of time before your men turned against you. He said you thought you were leading an army when all you had was a bunch of well trained scum."
Gabrielle hobbled forward and put her hand on the warrior's arm. Xena closed her eyes and bit her lip. Her hands slowly released the child. For a minute all was quiet then Xena gave a bitter snort and looked down at the frightened child. "I should have got to know Aiolos better. It might have saved me a lot of grief. Are you Ares child?"
The girl nodded sadly. " I think so. That's what Aiolos always said anyway and why else would Ares be bothering with me. Aiolos made me promise that if anything happened to him that I was to get away from Ares and you."
Gabrielle reached out her other hand and touched Elle. "Xena's changed," she said earnestly.
"I know Gabrielle. But Ares is still with her. As soon as I joined up with you two, Ares knew," mumbled the girl looking at the ground so the two women could not see her tears.
Xena surprised Gabrielle by pulling the little girl into her arms. " Elle, do you...do you feel ...different inside... an angry force...you're stronger...I don't know," finished the warrior awkwardly.
"Yeah," sobbed the child. I didn't mean to hurt Gabrielle. Most of the time I'm just like most kids but sometimes this strength just comes from nowhere...it feels great but its really scary too."
Xena looked over Elle's head to Gabrielle. Their eyes met. A decision had to be made...by the two of them. Gabrielle nodded and Xena smiled her agreement. Xena's head bent and leaned against the top of Elle's head. "Looks like you are my sister and daughter Elle. Welcome to our family. Don't you worry about Ares, I'll keep him away from you. But right now we have to escape from a dragon!"
Gabrielle laughed in relief and hugged both Xena and Elle. "Don't you worry Elle. Xena always has a plan!" she boasted of her friend.
And of course Xena did. Several weeks later found Xena sitting on a rocky outcrop by the ocean. She and Gabrielle had taken Elle to the Amazons and spent several pleasant weeks together with Elle and Little Xena as a family. Now back on the road again the two women found a depression was growing on them. Xena looked up as Gabrielle sat down beside her. " I love them but I feel happiest out here," admitted Xena truthfully. "It doesn't seem right. It makes me feel guilty."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. But we are not like other people Xena. Hades! part of you isn't even human. In us is an ancient power. The Windsong binds us together and governs our fate. I love our children too but I know that I have to be at your side and your fate is to fight evil where ever you can." Gabrielle stood and reached her hand down to help her friend up. " Maybe we are not going to be conventional moms. But I know in my heart we'll be good ones and best of all I believe that because of what we are doing out here our girls will have a chance to grow up in a better world."
Xena smiled down at Gabrielle and then looked out at the sea. "Thanks, Gabrielle," she said softly. Then she looked down at her friend again with a twinkle in her eye. "Can't get a fire going can you?" she asked mischievously.
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, "Nope," she admitted and the two friends laughed together as they headed back to camp.
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