By Maggie (email@example.com) and PeriBear (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Cyrene and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters, and all story plots, included here come from the fertile imaginations of the authors.
NOTE: This was a collaborative effort; comments, kudos and critiques may be submitted to either, or both, names above.
We just thought that having a day was so great, how about having a whole week? So,
we decided to find out. It begins with ......
DAY FOUR: THE TRIP
"I beg your pardon!!"
"Mother, you cant make that trip by yourself. Not along the western route. Its much too dangerous."
The woman facing the warrior wore an irritated scowl.
"Young lady, I was making this trip, by myself, two summers before you were born! And I carried Toris in my arms the entire way!"
Cyrene drew herself up to her full height and glared up at her tall, muscular daughter. Twin pairs of ice blue eyes met stubbornly, neither owner willing to surrender to the authority of the other, neither intimidated by the others temper. Finally the warrior relaxed and she reached for her mothers rounded shoulder.
"Mother, that was over twenty summers ago. The traffic on that road has changed. Its not safe anymore. Especially for a woman traveling alone."
The older woman scoffed away her daughters remark. She tossed her mane of shoulder-length, auburn hair and crossed her arms defiantly. Xena turned imploringly to the blonde bard standing silently across the room who was diligently trying not to laugh. She turned back to her mothers angry frown, making an effort to keep her voice even.
"Mother, I know this is the time of year you always go to Kithira for Aunt Dylestas birthday. What I meant was, Gabrielle and I would be happy to escort you there. Id like to see Aunt Dyta myself." The warrior smiled encouragingly at her parent. "Will you let us do that for you?"
The smaller, dark-haired womans annoyance slowly faded. She studied the face of her tall, slender offspring. Finally a tiny smile began to emerge across the attractive, mature face.
"Well, it would be nice to have some company. Alright. Ive already prepared the food for the trip."
The little blonde suddenly became vocal. "Food? Home-cooked?" she chirped excitedly. "That would be a wonderful change of pace!"
The warrior cast a withering frown at the girl. Then she turned back to her mother.
"We eat off the trail when were traveling, Mother."
Cyrenes gaze was steady on her daughters. She turned a questioning eye toward the bards expectant smile, then returned her attention to the warriors blue eyes.
"Ill bring the food," she said evenly. "Ill be ready in a few minutes."
With that, the woman crossed the expansive room and disappeared into the adjoining area. Xenas jaw rippled in clear frustration. She let out a short, exasperated sigh.
"Oh, this is going to be a lovely trip," she said, sarcastically. Then she heard the bards giggle. "Youre alot of help," she said to the young girls amused expression.
"Oh, cmon, Xena," the bard teased. "You wont have to hunt up our meals for a whole day. Think of that."
The warriors lips curled into a crooked grin. She sat down heavily on one of the wooden chairs that littered the large room, resting one long leg on the seat of the chair in front of her, and crossed her arms over her waist. She willed herself to induce patience and respect into her behavior, in order to reduce the friction she anticipated from her maternal parent.
"Well, just remember, little bard. This trip was your idea." She turned an accusing look in the girls direction.
Gabrielle answered the scathing glance with an innocent smile. "You said she would probably try to go anyway." The bard looked in the direction in which the older woman had departed. "Shes got a will almost as immovable as yours."
Xenas eyes betrayed the sterness of her glare. "Youre about to witness stubbornness at its highest level."
"You mean I havent already?" The bard flashed a smirk toward the warriors pique.
"Youre going to pay for this, too." The blue eyes on the bards face were cryptic and enigmatic.
The young blonde smiled widely at her friend. But the clear warning in the warriors eyes made her stomach tremble.
"Well, Im ready," Cyrene announced as she came back into the room. She now wore a brightly-colored shawl, the colors dancing in the streams of light filtering into the room. She walked behind the high counter and withdrew a large, rattan basket. She lifted one end of the lid, scanned the contents, then lowered the cover again.
She picked up the basket and walked toward the two younger women. Xena stood up and turned toward the entrance to the inn. Cyrene paused next to her daughter and wordlessly handed the large hamper to the warrior. The tall woman looked down at the basket with a heavy dose of hostility, then followed the bard and her mother outside.
The warrior secured the basket with the straps on Argos back. Then she untied the reins from the standing post and the three women walked to the edge of town. When the trio reached the dusty path, Xena turned north while her mother and Gabrielle strode on to the west.
Cyrene soon noticed that her daughter was no longer behind them. She turned to search for the warrior and saw her standing several strides away from them, a stubborn frown pursing her lips. The older woman retraced her steps until she arrived beside Xena.
"Where are you going?" Cyrene asked irritably. "I thought you said we were...?"
"I said the western route is too dangerous. Were going north."
"North?" Cyrenes tone was critical. "Thatll take much longer and west is such a pretty...."
"Mother," the warrior said, a bit too sharply. "That road is full of bandits and ambush. Weve been hearing about all sorts of trouble all the way here."
Gabrielle had wandered up behind the two arguing at the edge of the road. "Shes right, Cyr ... maam," the bard said, reluctant to use the womans formal first name. "Weve heard all kinds of terrible stories."
The older woman turned a warm smile to the bard. "Gabrielle, please call me Cyrene. Or, if you wish, you could always call me Mother, too."
The little blondes smile glowed across her open face. "Thank you, maam ... Mother," she corrected. "Id like that." She turned to find the warrior shooting an aggravated glare at her.
Cyrene turned her attention back to her daughter. "Now, Daughter, I think we would have a much nicer trip if"
"Mother! Were going north!" The tone warned against any argument.
After a moment, the smaller brunette readjusted her shawl and displayed a martyred expression. "Fine," she said meekly. "I was just making a suggestion." She turned and marched stoically in front of the mare. Gabrielle followed, keeping her eyes away from the warriors impending fury.
Xena stared into the space where her mother had recently stood. She slowly closed her eyes and took a very, deep breath, then turned and followed the two smaller women. It had already been an exceptionally long day.
Throughout the following hour and a half, the little blonde and the short innkeeper engaged in a steady stream of conversation. Most of the verbiage escaped the warriors attention; she was happy to have them subject each other to the activity. It left her free to enjoy her own silence.
Cyrene had been entertaining the bard with endless stories of the early days of the warriors life. Many of the events shared by the matron resulted in the tall womans hearty embarrassment. It seemed as though her mother was making a special effort to share only those incidents in which a young Xena had managed to break something, ruin an article of clothing, skin some part of her body or stumble ungracefully onto or against some unsuspecting piece of furniture.
Before very long, the warriors self-esteem and her patience had been pushed to their farthest limits. In an effort to stem the rising tide of irritation she felt, Xena suggested they stop for some rest and a light snack. The two chattering women agreed.
Xena found a small, shady area along the dusty road. She steered Argo toward the grassy spot and looped the mares reins around a low hanging branch. She unhooked the basket of food and deposited it on the ground beside her mother who had settled herself comfortably on one of the wide, flat boulders on the grassy knoll.
The warrior sat down on the grass and leaned back on her hands, stretching her long, sinewy legs out in front of her. She rolled her chin down toward her chest, then around on her shoulders, not at all surprised at the tightness that had become evident there.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged a short distance away from them, an expectant smile lighting her face. Cyrene was rummaging in the basket, extracting bundles of food she had packed. She handed the bard a small parcel wrapped in a napkin. The girl pulled back the cloth and squealed happily at the serving of nutbread she discovered. The warrior smiled at her friends enjoyment and turned a pleasant expression up into her mothers proud face.
"As long as you feed her, shes happy," the warrior quipped. Cyrene smiled warmly at the little bards delight. She handed her daughter a similar bundle.
"No thanks, Mother. Id rather have a piece of fruit, if you have any."
"But its your favorite." The older womans disappointment suddenly darkened her expression.
"I know, but Id rather have some fruit."
"Itth delishoush," the bard mumbled around a bite of pastry.
Cyrene replaced the bundle in the basket and handed a large, red apple to the warrior. Xenas attention was still on her friends full cheeks, so her hand and the apple didnt quite connect. When her mother released it, the fruit bounced off her knee and rolled across the grass toward the bards leather boot. The girl retrieved it and tossed it back to the warrior, who caught it easily.
Xena brought the apple to her mouth, preparing to bite into it. Her anticipated enjoyment was abruptly interrupted when her mother snatched the globe out of her hand and began briskly rubbing it against the fabric of her skirt.
"Here, you cant eat that now. Its been on the ground," the older woman lectured. "You never know whats been wallowing around on this grass."
The warrior watched her mothers ritual with a frustrated glare. She turned to acknowledge the amused snort that escaped from the bard and sent an rankled glower in the young womans direction. Finally, Cyrene handed the apple back to her daughter, complete with a disapproving shake of her head. Xena took a large, crisp bite out of the newly polished apple and sat chewing the pulp, an adolescent pout clearly visible in her chiseled features.
"Shes always been one to just put any old thing in her mouth," the matron said to the smiling bard. "I swear, this child ate more dirt than anyone else in Amphipolis."
Xena sat up quickly and coughed, laboring hard to clear her throat. Cyrene reached with a maternal hand to thump the warriors back.
"Sassy, are you all right?" she chided. "You tried to eat it too fast, didnt you?"
The bards jaws stopped chewing and she stared at her friends astonished face. Xena glanced at her mother, horrified, then turned to meet the little blondes astounded expression. For the first time in their entire relationship, Gabrielle saw a look of supreme mortification cover the warriors face. The girl swallowed the mouthful of nutbread and watched her friend carefully.
"What did you call her?" the bard asked when she could speak without fear of laughing outloud.
Cyrene kept her attention on her daughter, her hand still in place on the distressed womans back. Eventually she raised her eyes to the bards.
"Oh, we used to call her that when she was little." The older woman laughed softly, then bent to focus on her daughters embarrassed face. "Better?" she asked lovingly, then spoke to the girl.
"Lyceus couldnt say sister when he began to talk. It sort of came out sassa. Then Toris changed it to Sassy, when it became clear that his little sister was exactly that ... sassy."
Xena coughed again, her face a study in humiliation.
"Somehow, we all started calling her Sassy and it just kind of stuck. Didnt it?" the woman said, bending her head again toward her daughter. The matrons eyes grew sentimental. "Id almost forgotten about that silly name. How about you?"
"I remember it. And how Toris thought he was being so clever." Xena swallowed slowly, then took a deep, calming breath. The warriors gaze clouded in a faraway memory and she touched her mothers hand.
Cyrenes hand closed around her daughters callused fingers. Gently, she swept the long, dark hair away from the warriors flushed face and pulled the brooding woman closer. She placed a brief, simple kiss on the warriors forehead and watched her take another shaky breath.
"Sassy. Thats what you always were," Cyrene said softly, her chin against the raven hair of her daughter.
The bards amusement subsided. She found herself blinking away the tears that had suddenly appeared in her eyes.
Finally Cyrene broke the heavy emotion in the air. "I do wish youd try to keep your hair back from your face, though. You have such a pretty face behind all this." She combed the long tresses back with her fingers.
Xena slapped her palm against her forehead and groaned softly. When she pulled her hand away, a soft, open smile lit her face. Unexpectedly, the warriors bright laughter sparkled across the golden morning as she squeezed her mothers hand. The bards giggle augmented the cheerful sound.
The warrior retrieved the errant apple which had again fallen to the ground. She took a corner of her mothers shawl and made a great, joking show of polishing the fruits shiny skin, then raised it to her mouth to snap off a large bite.
Finally, she stood, picked up the basket and handed it to her mother. "We need to get moving again, Mother," she said, still chewing the bite of apple. "You want to make it to Aunt Dylestas before dark."
Cyrene took the basket and repacked the contents with authority. As the bard rose, the older woman turned to the girl and handed her the hamper.
"Sweetheart, will you take care of this? I need to ... find a private place."
The older woman moved toward a leafy grove beside the grassy area. Xena looked down sheepishly at the bard. She handed Gabrielle the half-eaten apple and reached to reattach the basket to the mares back. The bard watched as the deft fingers of the warrior tied the leather straps on the saddlebags around the food hamper. The tall womans glance caught the girls intent stare and she felt a warm blush slowly cover her face.
"Sassssy?" the bard chanted slowly and deliberately.
"Dont start," Xena answered, her voice threatening.
"Sassy," the bard said very quietly, her brows furrowed in mock consideration. "Kinda cute, when you think about it. Saaassssy. Hmm."
The warrior closed her eyes as her jaw stiffened. "Gabrielle."
The young blonde giggled and handed the partially eaten apple back to the warrior.
"Shes the only person in the known world who can always make me feel like Im twelve years old again." The warriors expression was equal parts frustration, embarrassment and wonder.
"Im a grown woman. Ive commanded armies, conquered villains, even taken on gods and goddesses, for Hades sake! And Im not in that womans presence for ten minutes before I become a blithering, stumbling fool!"
The warrior crunched another bite from the apple with a bit more force than might have been absolutely necessary.
"Mothers are like that. Yeah, they are," the bard joked. "I think theyre all cut from the same bolt of cloth."
The two friends shared an easy laugh as Cyrene rejoined them, readjusting her clothes and reclaiming the colorful shawl. She smiled and walked briskly over to the younger pair. Her eyes scanned her daughters face, traveled over the young face of the bard, then returned to the warriors again.
"What are you two up to?" the matron asked suspiciously. "Whats going on?"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a mischievous grin, then turned to the older woman standing between them. At precisely the same moment, they said exactly the same thing.
Cyrenes brows knitted together in a motherly scowl. She turned to her daughter and, with a subtle movement of her hand, reached to touch the long lock of hair that always hung along the side of the warriors face, smoothing it back behind the womans ear. She patted the warriors cheek and started toward the road.
"Well, lets get moving, girls. We dont want to be late for the celebration."
Xena closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. The feathery lock returned to its usual position along the side of her face as an exasperated sigh escaped the tall frame. When the warrior opened her eyes, she was confronted with the bards small fist, the forefinger pointing directly at her nose. She looked at the finger, then at the sparkling green eyes of its owner.
"Be nice," the bard warned her, shaking the finger firmly. Then the girl skipped away to join the older woman on the road. The warrior retrieved Argos reins, took a deep breath, and followed the two shorter womens path. The sun was already climbing higher in the sky.
Once the trio was back on the road, the bard and the matron resumed their cheerful conversation, each regaling the other with humorous tales about their various escapades with the third member of their party.
Occasionally the subject of their shared anecdotes was moved react to the chortled comments. More than once, the warrior found herself smiling at the memory of a past event, only to feel her amusement quickly fade away to be rapidly replaced by self-consciousness and embarrassment. She decided to try and ignore most of the dialogue and concentrate on the direction of their journey.
As the morning progressed and the sun climbed higher in the summer sky, the rise in temperature along the dusty path was soon felt by all three travelers. Cyrene decided to remove her shawl and pulled it off her shoulders. Xena took the garment from her mother and turned to drape it across Argos saddle, walking slowly along side the animal as the trio continued on the path.
Cyrene turned to glance at the back of her daughters head. "Sassy," she chuckled, again making the warriors jaws clamp together. "You still have that hair buckle Bou ... my father made for you."
The warrior stopped the mares progress and turned to face her parent. For a long moment the two women stood looking squarely into each others eyes. Finally the slender woman spoke, her voice clipped and stiff. "Yes, I still have it. I havent been without it since he gave it for me."
A brief, tense silence fell over the little group. The bard watched the two women closely. Her intuition concerning her best friend had become honed sharp during their time together, but Gabrielle could sense the tension also present in the matrons reaction. Since it was obvious that the subject remained a painful theme between them, the girl had sense enough not to press the issue.
After a moment, Cyrene turned brusquely away from the piercing blue eyes of her child and resumed walking down the dusty path. Gabrielle shot a quick look at the warrior. There was more than irritation in her strident manner; the bard could see a deep plane of hurt. She laid a gentle hand on her friends arm and smiled warmly toward the tall womans pained expression.
The two friends turned together to follow the mature female already several paces ahead of them. When she was again beside Cyrene, Gabrielle put a small hand on the womans shoulder. The matron turned to meet the girls green eyes and stroked the long, blonde hair.
After theyd walked arm in arm for a dozen strides, Cyrene turned to the bard and peered at the girls rather unique blue and bronze necklace. She studied the accessory closely for a long moment, then raised a questioning eye to the young bards green gaze. Gabrielles open gaze saw the question in the matrons eyes.
"Im sorry to stare, child, but Ive been curious about your necklace all morning. Its very unique."
The bard reached to stroke the stones lovingly, her green eyes bright with pride. "It was a gift from the Amazons," the little bard explained. "It signifies my official acceptance as one of them." The girls green eyes softened as her thoughts turned to the brave women in the Amazon village who had welcomed her into their fold and bestowed the royal status upon her. She looked up again into the older womans gentle blue eyes.
The warrior saw the look of a storyteller overtake the little bards expression. She smiled proudly as she listened to her friend sharing the details of the history of the necklace and of how the bard had come to be regarded with great prestige in the view of the women whose gift it had been.
Gabrielle told the older woman how she had accepted Terreius right of caste as the young Amazon princess lay fatally wounded in the bards arms and how, as a result, the girl had become a member of the tribe with the title of Amazon princess. She told of the care Ephiny had taken when she had first put the necklace around the bards neck, stating that the blue stones signified royal lineage and that the honored piece was specially crafted to indicate the importance of the little blondes new title.
"I dont wear it often," she said, her green eyes serious. "Only on special occasions. I dont want to lose it or have anything happen to it."
"Quite sensible," the matron declared.
"But," the bard continued, blushing slightly, "I wanted to wear it today because ... I consider this a special occasion ... being with you, I mean." The girls face flushed crimson and she lowered her eyes shyly.
The matron gathered the small bard in a loving hug, then gently plucked the soft flesh of the girls cheek between her thumb and the side of her forefinger, shaking the small mound slightly.
"You are the sweetest child," she said to the girls beaming face. The warrior watched the exchange, smiling quietly. Yet she felt a tiny sense of regret that she wasnt Gabrielle, at that moment.
Cyrene had been entertaining the bard with another hilarious account of the warriors childhood clumsiness when the warrior deduced they had come nearly half the distance to their destination. She knew the road would divert and split soon; she remembered her last journey along this route.
Xena welcomed the opportunity to give her assaulted ego a respite. She motioned for Gabrielle to cross to her mothers other side and handed Argos reins to the bard. Striding toward the side of the road, the warrior announced she was going on ahead to make certain the road still conformed to the route she remembered.
"Oh, Daughter, stay with us," her mother chided. "Well be at the fork soon enough."
Xena turned around to answer her. "Mother, Ill be right back. Gabrielle, stay with her."
The warrior sent her best in charge look back toward her mother and the bard. She waited a moment to make sure her authority was not being questioned.
Maybe it was because she was walking backwards at the time. Or maybe she was distracted by the rather odd look on Gabrielles face. Or maybe, and more to the point, the warrior had by now become so unnerved by her mothers ingenuous attitude toward her that her normally razor-sharp reflexes had somehow become short-circuited.
Whatever the reason, Xena didnt notice the large tree stump at the edge of the road until the back of her boots scraped against the bark of its sides, causing her to sit down on it unexpectedly and rather abruptly.
"Oomph!!" the warrior grunted as her backside came to rest on the hard, wooden surface. The momentum of her backward progress forced her to grab awkwardly at the sides of the trunk to maintain her balance, even though her behind had already come to rest on the top of it. Her legs flailed straight out at the knees, then her feet came to rest on the dirt path again.
The other two women were beside her within seconds. For a long moment, Xenas eyes were locked on the ground at her feet. When she raised them again, her focus was met by her mothers delighted smile. A crimson blush swept over the warrior, from the top of her leather tunic to the roots of her dark hair. Even with her eyes locked on her mothers face, she could still see Gabrielle battling to control her mirth.
Cyrenes blue eyes scanned her daughters mortified form. She turned slowly to the bard, one dark eyebrow raised in amusement.
"Does she entertain you like this often?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and swallowed hard. She didnt trust herself to look anywhere near the warriors blue stare.
"No, actually, our journeys are pretty boring most of the time."
Cyrene glanced again at the woman seated immobile on the tree stump. The warrior hadnt moved one centimeter and the blush was still in place, rampant and dark. The matron took a short step to her daughters side. She cheerfully pulled the same errant lock of hair back behind the warriors ear and patted the tall woman on the head.
"With your hair out of your face, maybe you could see where youre going."
Gabrielle clamped her jaws tightly together and turned her back on the dark-haired pair. As the little bard took in long, deep gulps of air, Xena could see the slender form trembling with barely controlled laughter. Slowly the girl turned back to the two women, her green eyes twinkling brightly, but her expression serene.
The older woman stepped back from the figure on the tree trunk, her arms crossed lightly over her ample figure. She grinned playfully at the sheepish warrior, then clasped her hands casually behind her back.
"When youre ready to join us, well be walking that way," the matron said, using her thumb to indicate the direction of the road. She turned and looped her arm through Gabrielles and the two small women resumed their journey on the dusty path.
Xena sat very still on the large tree stump, embarrassment and frustration rattling her senses. She heard the raucous laughter cascading from her mother and Gabrielle as the pair walked away. The warrior relaxed her jaw just enough to expel a sharp, pent-up sigh. Then she dropped her head, closed her eyes and let out a tiny, barely audible whimper.
Gathering all the self-esteem she could muster, the tall, slender woman removed herself from her wooden throne and turned to follow her companions. By the time she had reached them, she had regained at least a small amount of her composure. But it had taken a hard, concentrated effort.
A little while later, the sun slid into the highest point above them. Gabrielle knew her stomach could always determine mealtimes. She craned her neck to look up into the bright circle and the green eyes lit with pleasure.
"Lunch time!" the little blonde announced and both dark-haired women laughed.
"I told you. Feed her and shes in Elysium."
Cyrene pulled her dark, wavy hair up away from her neck, and patted the damp skin with her handkerchief. "My goodness, it got hot, didnt it?" The mature face glistened with perspiration and exertion. Xena noticed the slight fatigue in her mothers face and decided Gabrielle was right. It was time to stop for lunch.
Once again, Xena selected a quiet, grassy area next to the road. The little grove was sheltered from the path and bordered a small, calm lake. The warrior led the mare to the water and watched as the animal enjoyed the cool contents of the reservoir. Behind her, she could hear the cheerful chattering of the bard and her mother as the older woman emptied the hamper.
"Sweet Artemis, give me patience," the warrior said quietly to the water gently lapping in the small pond. "I love her with my whole being, but shes driving me mad!"
"Be brave. Were almost there."
The bards light-hearted comment made the warrior turn around. The green eyes were amused, but sympathetic. The little blonde smiled widely at her friends frustrated scowl and put a small hand on the tall womans arm.
"Cmon, lunch is ready."
Xena cast a helpless look toward the grassy plane where her mother was laying out the meal. Her lips curled in a knowing grin.
"Ill bet you a bag of dinars that I can tell you what shes pulling out of that basket," the slender woman said, looking back down at the bards laughing green gaze. "Besides more nutbread and food than the three of us will ever be able to eat, therell be a tablecloth and at least two napkins for each of us."
Gabrielle laughed outloud, then covered her mouth with one hand. She moved closer to the warrior and laid the blonde head against the womans muscled shoulder.
"Like I said, theyre all the same," she said, nodding toward the grassy area. "Lets eat."
The warrior gathered Argos reins and followed the small blonde back toward the little grove. She saw Cyrene busily laying out the food for their meal. As she tied the leather strips to a nearby bush, Xenas eyes drifted down to the ground in front of her mother. There, spread over the grass, was a small, blue and white tablecloth with three matching napkins precisely placed at separate points along the edge.
The tall woman turned a smug smile toward the little bard. The blondes open face was aglow with amusement. The warrior took another deep breath and walked toward the picnic.
Gabrielle sat down across from Xenas mother, happily accepting a good-sized piece of venison from the womans outstretched hand. As she sank her teeth into the meat, her eyes widened as the matron also handed over a serving of cheese and a rather large piece of hearth-baked bread.
As she lowered her lanky frame onto the grass, Xena focused an amused expression on the bard. It always amazed her that such a small person could devour such large quantities of food. The warrior shook her head in wonder, then turned when she felt her mothers attention on her. The older womans brow was gathered in maternal concern.
"Whats that on your face?"
Xena absently ran a slim palm over one cheek, then turned to casually inspect the food spread on the tablecloth. The matron pulled her handkerchief from the sleeve of her blouse, then moistened a section of the flowery cloth with her tongue. She took a firm hold of the warriors face and purposefully rubbed at the offending smudge while her daughter grimaced in subdued fury.
"Mother, please," the tall woman whispered plaintively. She clamped her jaws together in a defiant glare.
Gabrielle pulled her lips between her teeth, biting hard to stem the laughter that threatened to overwhelm her. She focused on the piece of cheese in her hand and blinked away tears of unbridled mirth welling up in her eyes. When she felt a modicum of control return, she looked up.
Cyrene was replacing the handkerchief in her sleeve. She looked at her sulking offspring and reached to smooth back the lock of hair that lay along the side of the warriors face. Xenas hand flew to stop her. For an instant, the warriors blue eyes flashed the color of cold steel. The matrons lips curled in a disapproval. After a moment the older woman spoke.
"Are your hands clean?"
The blue eyes of the warrior widened in astonishment and her mouth dropped open slightly. She glanced helplessly at the bard. The girls jaw stopped chewing as she looked down at her own hands, then quickly back to the matron across from her. Gabrielle cleared her throat and Cyrene transferred attention to the girl.
"We ... visited the little pond over there," the bard said cheerfully.
One dark eyebrow slipped upward as the mother looked at each younger face in turn. The question having been answered appropriately, she handed a cut of the venison to the warrior and followed it with a large wedge of cheese. Even as she accepted the food, Xenas face remained grim. She silently brought the cheese up to her mouth and bit off a mouthful, chewing it slowly and quietly.
The three women ate in silence for a moment, then Cyrenes quiet laughter floated over the group. She smiled across the tablecloth at the bard, then gazed lovingly at her daughter. She dabbed her mouth daintily with her napkin and touched the warriors arm gently.
"This reminds me of the Harvest Festival when you were six. Remember?"
Once again, the warriors eyes widened in shock. She stared at her parent, a terrified look in the blue pools. She gulped quickly, trying to clear the food from her mouth.
"Mother, I ... I dont know how you remember all those ... times from long ago. Im afraid even I dont remember that particular ... day."
There was a desperate plea in the slender womans gaze, but the matron missed it completely. She laughed openly and turned to the bard whose expression had become expectant and receptive.
"I was giving Sassy a bath"
"MoTHERR!!" the warrior shrieked and clamped one slender hand over her eyes in shame.
"What?" her mother said as the bard giggled quietly. "Im sure Gabrielles mother gave her a bath when she was six." The woman looked innocently at the bard. "Didnt she, honey?"
The girl battled the laughter welling up in her throat and wordlessly nodded in answer to the womans question.
"You see?" the matron said smugly to her mortified daughter. She turned back to the bard. "Anyway, I was giving her a bath when we heard one of the barkers for the carnival calling all the villagers to come see the show."
The warrior groaned and put both hands to her head. The little blonde felt her laughter bubbling inside again but kept her eyes on the matrons animated face.
"Well, before I could stop her, the little dickens jumped right out of the bathtub and scampered straight out the front door into the street." The older woman laughed openly, her eyes dancing happily with the memory. "Out she went, not a stitch on, trailing bubbles and soap all the way through the house. She was so slippery, even the boys couldnt catch her." Cyrene slapped her lap and laughed heartily again.
Her daughters reaction was quite different. The tall woman dropped her hands and shot an imploring look across the tablecloth toward her friend. But any support she might have expected from the bard vanished when she saw the girls reaction to her mothers story.
The girl had collapsed backward onto the grass, her entire body shaking with laughter.
The bards stomach convulsed wildly as she lay on the ground cackling loudly and holding her head, tears of mirth streaming down her cheeks. She took a quick, labored breath and rolled over to one side. When she saw the warriors look of betrayal, she fell down onto the grass again, shrieking and pounding the greenery with one small fist.
Finally the blonde gasped and wiped her face with the back of one hand. She turned a gleeful expression to her friend. "Im sorry, Xena. I j-just couldnt h-help it," the girl sputtered, then fell flat on the grass, overcome by giggles again.
The warrior glared at the helpless figure, then turned a murderous look toward her mother. The older woman had one hand over her mouth and trained a mirthful gleam at her daughters furious expression. Finally Cyrene put a loving hand on the angry womans arm.
"Im sorry, too, Sas ... Daughter," she amended. "I didnt mean to upset you. Its just such a pleasant memory for me. When you were all so small and ... still so innocent."
Xena felt her irritation drain away. She saw the love in her mothers blue eyes and touched the cherished face gently. A small laugh tumbled from the warriors lips as she turned to the small bard who was now sitting upright again. The girls smile was warm and gentle. She turned back to her mother and the two women shared a tender embrace.
"Okay, okay," the warrior said with a calming sigh. "Lets just finish with lunch and get back on the road. We still have some distance to go." She reached for the wedge of cheese. "Eat, little bard. You know how you love Mothers cooking."
The warrior smiled at the little blonde, her deep affection for the girl clear in her expression. As the girl returned the fondness she saw in the blue eyes, she retrieved the piece of venison, took a bite and sent a warm smile toward the matron. The three women resumed their meal.
When the basket was repacked and retied on the mares back, the travelers started walking again. A camaraderie had been established within the group and at last the warrior seemed at peace. The journey continued in relative calm for the next hour.
By mid-afternoon, the bard was feeling a bit guilty about her friends day-long ordeal of frustration so she decided to distract the matrons storytelling inclinations by involving the older woman in long discussions concerning various seasonings and food preparations. Without the irritation of Cyrenes incessant, though unintentional, assault on her ego, Xena had actually begun to enjoy the journey.
She watched gratefully and admiringly as the young blonde cleverly enticed her mother into sharing detailed practices involved in certain methods and recipes. The warrior also experienced a sense of pride in her mothers generosity and patience in sharing her secrets with the little bard. She felt a deep contentment when she recognized the two womens obvious affection for each other.
The last leg of their journey was about to be realized. The travelers decided on one more brief stop before traversing the final distance to their destination. The two smaller women selected a shady nook beneath a small cluster of trees a few dozen paces away from the road. Xena felt a slight hesitation about being so far from the path, but she agreed with the others choice and led Argo into the little glen.
When she had secured the mare, the warrior turned to find her companions again rummaging in the food basket. As she approached the two women seated together on a large fallen tree limb, Xena shook her head, her slim hands poised on her hips. "I told you shed packed more food than we could ever eat." She met the bards smile with an amused grin. "I guess I should have realized who I was talking about when I said that."
Cyrene unwrapped a large piece of nutbread and handed it to her daughter who took it happily.
"But then, I do love nutbread," the warrior quipped, raising the confection to her mouth.
The light in the womans face faded abruptly. The blue eyes suddenly darted into the wooded area behind them. The bard saw the change in her friends manner. Her own senses became briskly alert.
Xena dropped the wedge of nutbread without even realizing she had done so. Her senses had suddenly become tight and sharp.
"Daughter!" Cyrene admonished. "Please be more careful," she said, retrieving the nutbread from the ground.
"I do hate to waste this, but--."
"Mother, be quiet!"
Something in the warriors tone silenced the older woman immediately. Cyrene watched her daughters body become tense and alert, her blue eyes sweeping the area around them. A foreboding grew in the matrons stomach.
"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered.
"I hear them."
An instant later, a sharp whirr sounded in the glen as Xenas hand shot out to catch the arrow quivering directly in front of her mothers throat.
"By the gods!" Cyrene screamed.
The warrior pushed the shaken woman backwards.
"Mother! Get down!"
In one fluid movement, the tall woman drew her sword from its scabbard and turned to face the group of robbers streaking straight toward them. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and positioned herself in front of her friends mother. Cyrene cowered behind the bard, trembling and frightened.
In another second, three attackers arrived in the glen, screaming loudly and waving their swords. Two of them headed straight for the tall warrior. She dispatched one easily with a sharp backward slap of her free hand. The blow sent him sprawling and he fell to the ground. The second advanced forward, swinging his weapon at the slender womans head. She blocked his intended strike with her sword, then delivered a sweeping kick to his chest. The bandit staggered a moment, then recovered and started toward her again.
Gabrielle was dealing with another brute. Her staff caught the ruffians midsection dead center and he bent over, coughing and breathless. The little bard swung the wand across her body and brought it down hard across the mans back. He fell to the ground on his face, squirmed a moment, then lay quiet, spread-eagled and unconscious.
Cyrene had stepped backwards when the bard began the conflict with the thug. She stood transfixed as the two younger women battled the three degenerates. She noticed a foul smell behind her and started to turn, but her movements were stalled by the pressure of a filthy sleeve around her throat. When she saw the long, lethal dagger pointed at her chin, she let out a sharp cry.
Xena instinctively reacted to the sound. She parried the thrust of the thief in front of her, then brought her foot up hard against the mans throat. His body flew headlong into the trees as the warrior spun around to confront the villain holding her mother captive.
Cyrene pulled hard against the squalid material clamped under her jaw but the robber pulled her tighter against him. She could see his leer out of the corner of her eye. Then she saw her daughters face. It bore an expression shed never seen there before. The cold ruthlessness of the warriors gaze frightened even her captured parent.
Xenas eyes were shrouded, the lids falling halfway across the blue crystals. The white teeth of her smile were clenched, the crimson lips curled back in a deadly sneer. Her lean body was bent in a low crouch, like an animal ready to attack.
"Let her go."
The guttural snarl from the warriors throat was primal and eerie. A fearful rage showed clearly in the deep blue eyes as she took a slow, menacing step toward the robber and his hostage.
"Let her go or Ill kill you."
The robber instantly recognized the danger lurking in the warriors primitive attitude as his gaze locked on her threatening stance. He quickly deduced his precarious position and decided against his original plan. A split second later he loosened his grip on the older womans throat and shoved her body hard toward the warrior in an attempt to use the elder as a shield for his escape.
Xena responded with lightning reflexes. She easily diverted her mothers stumbling form toward Gabrielle, then advanced toward the backstepping bully with the speed of a ray of light. Before he could raise his arm to protect himself, she brought the hilt of her sword sharply across his jaw. The man dropped his dagger and staggered to the side, groggy and defenseless.
The warrior dropped her sword and grabbed the front of the mans tunic. She pulled him forward and plunged her knee hard into his groin. The man howled and bent forward as Xena grabbed the ragged shirt again, hauled him upright and delivered a crushing punch to his face. The robber fell backward onto the ground.
Cyrene watched from Gabrielles arms, horrified at her daughters malicious actions. When Xena took a step toward the helpless marauder, the bard moved to halt her progress by grabbing the slender arm from behind.
"Xena, dont!" the bard pleaded.
The warrior wrenched her arm from the girls grasp and stepped toward the vanquished brigand. She straddled the prone figure, her weight pinning the man to the ground. Then, with her face contorted in unbridled rage, she thrust both hands onto the rasping throat and began to choke the man unmercifully.
"Xena! No!" Gabrielle screamed, pulling at her friend.
The warriors attitude remained savage. The sneer had grown even more malevolent as the man gasped and pulled pathetically at the womans deadly grip.
Cyrene shook herself out of her frozen state and quickly moved beside her daughter. The bard stepped out of her way, but remained nearby as the older woman bent to put a firm hand on the warriors arm.
"Daughter!" she said sharply. No response. "Sassy!" Still no change in the warriors actions. "Xena!" Cyrene shouted, her hands tugging hard at her daughters arm.
The warriors body jerked and she raised her head slightly. The sneer dissipated as the slender woman slowly regained her senses. The hands on the mans neck loosened as Cyrene reached to pull her childs face toward hers.
"Let him go, Xena" the matron said quietly to the dazed blue eyes. "Let him go."
Gradually the warriors tense body relaxed as recognition slowly dawned across her pallid face. The blue eyes turned cautiously to the white-knuckled grip she maintained on the robbers throat and her muscled body began to shake. She slowly released her hold on the man and slumped numbly to the ground beside him.
The breathless mugger coughed and tried to pull air into his lungs. When he realized the warrior was no longer on top of him, he scrambled to his feet and stumbled away from her.
"Get outta here!" Gabrielle snapped at the floundering highwayman. When she threatened him with her staff, the man took a few unsteady steps, then turned and ran headlong up the road.
Cyrene knelt and gathered her daughters trembling form into her arms, holding her child tightly. Xena clung despondently to her mothers supple body, sobs emerging from her quivering frame. The older woman rocked the heartbroken warrior gently, lovingly stroking the dark, flowing hair.
"Shhh, Baby. Its all right," the matron murmured gently. Mamas here. Mamas here."
Two hours later, the trio reached the town of Kithira. They walked casually toward the site of the celebration, their manner festive and relaxed. At the gate of the family members estate, Cyrene turned to the two younger women and hugged each in turn. Then she turned a gentle expression toward her daughter.
"Well, this has certainly been an interesting journey. But next time, we take the western route."
The tall warrior met her mothers gentle smile. The older womans weathered hand started toward the side of the warriors face, but before it could complete its journey, Xena reached up and took the matching locks of hair on either side of the chiseled cheekbones and tucked them both securely behind her ears.
"Happy?" she said to her mother, smiling widely.
An instant later, the three women burst into laughter. Xena took her mothers hand and held in against her own cheek.
"Youre right, Mother. But then, you always are."
DAY FIVE: THE ORDEAL
"Hang on, Gabrielle!"
What in Tartarus does she think Im doing? the bard wondered as she gripped the free-swinging bridges ropes tighter and moved her feet farther apart to accentuate the precarious balance she had barely been able to maintain.
"Im coming to get you!"
"Good, cause Im not going to be moving from here on my own any time soon," the little blonde shouted, averting her eyes from the floor of the canyon far, far below.
Xena grasped the ropes and stepped onto the bridge, then rapidly made her way toward the middle of the canyon where her friend was frozen in place, too terrified to move.
Suddenly, the bridge began to sway and Gabrielles eyes widened with fear as the wind funneled through the narrow canyon, buffeting the ropes and causing a terrible shuddering to travel the length of the man-made platform. By the time the vibration reached her, it had attained such an enormous level that she was violently tossed around like a canoe in a hurricane. She turned frightened eyes to the warriorbut Xena was gone.
"Oh, gods, no," the bard whispered as her eyes frantically searched for her friend. Then, suddenly, she was falling and she closed her eyes, waiting for the destructive end of the free-fall, knowing now what had happened to the warrior.
Gabrielle sat up, gasping. She breathed deeply, trying to calm the pounding of her heart, fighting the effects of the nightmare. She couldnt seem to stop trembling, then realized it wasnt just her. The ground beneath her was escalating from a vibration to a rocking to a violent shaking, which threw her back down. All around, she heard trees toppling and rocks crashing to the ground.
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