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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 18: Happy Those Early DaysI lay in the dark holding Gabrielle, wondering what I would do next. We had all spent the previous evening laughing, talking, and telling stories about our time in Athens. Cyrene had asked many pointed questions, mostly to do with Gabrielle and myself. She never asked them of us, only eliciting information from the others. Perhaps she was still trying to figure it all out or at the least, decipher me, of what had become of the warlord she had last heard tell of. I had tried in every way I could to manage a few moments alone with her, but it seemed as though she purposefully avoided it. There was nothing I could do but try to enjoy the evening.
I knew I had come a long way when it came turn for Delia to speak. She told some most embarrassing tales, again mostly of me. She seemed to tell them for Cyrene's benefit. Such as the time Delia had caught me whistling in the castle hall. I had gone to my rose garden to cut a flower for Gabrielle and then had tried to hide the blossom from Delia's eyes once she caught me. Sitting there and listening to Delia tell the tale, I wasn't sure whose expression seemed more surprised, Gabrielle's or my mother's.
I was so accustomed to waking before dawn that I lay there, attempting to meditate myself back into some state of sleep. I was never good at stilling myself in this way, always too much going inside my brain.
"Why don't you simply get up before you burst," Gabrielle's sleepy voice came to me.
"I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean to wake you," I whispered.
"It's okay you didn't." She kissed my cheek and rolled over, clutching a pillow in my stead.
I chuckled, realizing that she was right. She wasn't even fully awake. I rose, dressed, and kissed my wife before heading downstairs. It was still dark, but I needed no candle. I felt my way along the wooden walls, my memory leading me down the narrow staircase that came out in the great hall. I don't know why I did it, but I turned right at the bottom of the stairs, down the hall that led to the inn's private quarters.
The first room was Cyrene's, of that I knew. A soft light glowed through the crack at the bottom of the door, spilling out onto the hallway floor. Shadows flickered in the light, telling me that my mother's day had begun. I should have turned back then. This was no longer my home, and I felt like nothing more than an intruder. I continued along the darkened hallway. Two doors down it had been; the room where I spent my youth. Always two doors down from my mother's room, close enough for her to hear me on those occasions that I had tried to slip in late.
I still didn't know what drove me to press the latch and push the door in. Just curiosity, I told myself. I fully expected to find Selene or Coras sleeping soundly, but what I did find surprised me even more. The predawn light bathed the room in pale blue. I saw only shadows at first, until my eyes became accustomed to the half-light. I entered the room, turning in a full circle, wondering at the sight. The room was empty, more directly, the room had been untouched. It looked as it did on the day I fled, taking nothing more than a change of clothing and my sword.
I slowly sat down before the small mirrored dressing table. My favorite hair ribbons still lay upon the table, worn and faded with age. An abalone shell comb lay beside a silver hair comb. I looked around the room in complete surprise.
"What are you doing in here?" Cyrene's voice surprised me.
I stood quickly, turning toward the door. "I'm sorry, I--"
"Xena?" she asked. She didn't wait for an answer. "Oh, I thought you were Selene. What on earth--"
"I'm sorry. I don't know what possessed me."
She turned abruptly and left the room. I quickly followed.
"You're up early," she effectively changed the subject.
I took the hint. I would take Gabrielle's advice. She had told me last night, just before we fell asleep, not to force the issue. She reminded me that I would gain nothing by forcing Cyrene to speak to me. Her advice had been to wait until Cyrene was ready. Patience had never been one of my skills, but I took a deep breath and tried.
"I'm usually up at this hour, but I find myself without much to do here."
She turned to go, saying no more. I didn't want the conversation to end and so I trailed after her like a hungry puppy.
"I could help you," I blurted out.
"You? Help?" She looked at me as though I had just offered to burn the place to the ground. She smiled again, just as she had done the day before. "Xena, even as a young girl you couldn't keep from burning water."
Now it was my turn to smile. "All right, I admit that my culinary skills haven't improved much over the seasons, but I could do some of the morning's heavy work for you. Bring in water from the well chop wood for the ovens?" I wasn't sure what else to offer, but she looked as though she was thinking about it, so she knew what I was talking about.
"Well," she hesitated. "There's bread to bake today, but Cor usually does the wood chopping."
"Let the boy sleep late, then. I'll handle it." I went off in search of the woodpile, hoping it was still outside the kitchen door.
"It's hard work," she called after me.
I looked back and grinned at her, one of the smiles that reminded me of my youth. "Mother, I just held off a hundred thousand Persians from taking Athens. I should think I could handle a few logs."
"Very well then, but I warn you, the whole lot needs splintered for the baking ovens outside. I bake bread all day today."
"All right, all right," I called back. After all, I was a fairly strong warrior; an unnaturally strong woman. How hard could it be to chop some wood?
"I can't believe that boy chops this much wood every day," I said as I hefted the axe into the air once again. It came down neatly into the middle of the log and I banged the wood against the cutting stump to send the axe the rest of the way through. Sweat dripped down my back and I shook back wet locks of hair from my eyes.
"Not every day, only on bread baking days," Cyrene answered.
She tossed more wood into the large opening and straightened up, wiping her hands on her apron. I smiled to myself, thinking that I could barely recall a time when Cyrene wasn't wearing her apron.
The ovens were quite large and I noticed that Cyrene had added two additional ovens during my absence. They were short and long with oval openings every foot. The items to be baked were inserted through the openings and sat on a clay shelf. At the back of each oven was a large clay enclosed fire pit. The heat of the fire went into the ovens through small holes in the clay wall that separated the baking area from the fire pit. I fondly remembered burning more than one loaf of bread as time got away from me when I was a young girl.
"I can do that." I rushed over to help just as Cyrene bent down to add wood to the last oven.
"I'm not that old yet."
"That's not what I meant," I tried to explain.
She looked up at me then, honestly looked at me for the first time since our awkward reunion. I still couldn't discern what she was thinking. It seemed that mistrust and confusion reigned chiefly among the many emotions that passed between us, however.
She wearily sat down upon a wooden stool, as if finally feeling her age. I watched in silence as she took a deep breath and stared at her own hands as they lay in her lap. She didn't raise her head when she spoke.
"Why did you come back here, Xena?"
I wasn't prepared for her honest question, but how many times during our journey had I asked myself that same question? I had been unable to come up with an answer, but perhaps it was because I was looking for too much. Perhaps the answer was so simple that I had overlooked it.
I sat down on the ground beside her, displaying nearly as much fatigue. I wondered if we were both merely tired of carrying around this burden. The weight of anger and regret can become a heavy load indeed.
"I'm not sure. I think maybe I think I just wanted to come home."
She sighed deeply and I could only imagine what memories flashed past her mind's eye.
"When word came back to us that you had been given the name of Lion, everyone in town forgot why they blamed you. Only two seasons before they had wanted to stone you. They didn't see it as you had helped them defeat a vicious warlord from taking all they had and then enslaving them. They simply saw that half the men in the town were dead and that you had talked them into fighting. Suddenly, they all took credit for knowing you. It didn't surprise me, though, what you did to protect Greece. You always had such a sense of justice and fair play about you that it didn't surprise me at all."
"I wish I had lived up to the name. I know that you're ashamed of me. Quite possibly, you detest me. I don't blame you for feeling such things. I just thought that maybe I don't know. Like I said, I don't know why I'm here." I rubbed my temples, feeling the beginnings of a headache.
She went on as though she hadn't heard my words. "Five seasons later I heard that you burned Pella to the ground, but before you did, they said you took the constable's wife back to your camp. They said you raped her and then gave her to your men. I didn't believe it until the talk said that became your trademark, to teach other villages a lesson. Finally, the talk said that rape was the kindest thing you did to those women."
I could feel tears spilling down my cheeks, but I was unable to stop them. How could I refute the truth?
"Just when I had thought you dead to me, just when I thought that piece of my heart had finally died, talk came back to Amphipolis that you had begun to change. When they said that you had freed the slaves and began to look after the people instead of use them, I didn't believe it, nobody did. Little by little, opinions changed as stories filtered up to us of the wonderful things you and your new Queen were doing in Corinth. Then, people started whispering about how the Lion had returned to Greece. I didn't know what to think. I only knew that I had begun thinking of you again, wondering what you were really like."
"I've changed," I managed to say through my tears. "I know people may not believe me, but I am trying."
"Did you know, back in those early days, that when I went to the market, people spat on me?"
"I'm so sorry," I said just before my tears turned into genuine sobs. "I'm just so sorry."
Few times had I cried like this and never around anyone other than Gabrielle. I felt weak and pathetic, but I didn't even care. Worst of all, I couldn't stop. It was as though over time a crack in a cistern had grown wider and wider, finally weakening the clay enough to let loose the contents inside.
I can never be sure what it was that caused Cyrene to act as she did just then. Perhaps we had both been feeling that a piece of our lives had been missing over the seasons. Maybe it was simply that we each realized that time can heal many things or that people really can change. It could have been something as basic as the fact that no mother can resist her own child's cries.
I felt her hand in my hair, gently stroking my head. "Oh, Xena," she sighed.
She pulled me against her and suddenly my head was in her lap, my arms around her waist. I couldn't stop crying, but it seemed acceptable somehow. She hugged me and I thought that I had never felt anything as wonderful. Who knew that three additional words could cause me to fall apart so completely?
"My little one," Cyrene bent and whispered against my hair.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
The sound of an axe, as it bit into wood, must have been what awakened me. Sunrise brightened the room considerably. It fairly glowed as the sun's light filtered through the parchment thin draperies. I lay in bed, luxuriating in the almost decadent knowledge that I had nowhere I had to be and no battles to fight. I examined the room from my comfortable position, impressed at my surroundings. I had expected no more than a simple cottage-like atmosphere at the inn, but this room alone dispelled that notion. Instead of a simple bedside table, there stood a hand carved table made from a most expensive wood. The large room also had a small sitting area with two comfortable looking chairs in front of the fireplace. An oval, hand polished looking glass hung on the wall and its length went from nearly floor to ceiling. Two small tapestries hung on the wall along either side of the looking glass. Even the colorful hand woven rug upon the floor reminded me more of our home in Athens or Corinth than an Amphipolean inn. It made me wonder about the woman who was our host. I hoped that I would have time to get to know Cyrene better.
I rose, barely able to remember that I had sent my wife from our bed before dawn. I brushed my hair and rinsed my face before crossing to the other side of the room, pulling open the window shutters.
Looking down into the area behind the inn, the sight of Xena mesmerized me. She lifted a large axe, bringing it down in one swift motion upon a log set up on an old stump. The log split in two and she placed the halves upright once more, chopping them into even smaller pieces. I watched and remained silent, not wishing to call out for fear of breaking the enchantment that Xena had cast over me. Equal parts pride and lust struck me at the same time. Once I could focus my brain on something other than the play of her muscles, bunching and releasing as she swung the heavy axe, I realized she looked rather happy. Physical activity of any sort always did make her the happiest.
I continued to watch as Cyrene came into view. She tossed wood into the back of the clay ovens and it looked as though she was preparing for a day of baking. I wondered how Xena had talked Cyrene into accepting her help. Only yesterday, Xena's mother looked as though she had wanted to strike her daughter down. In fact, Cyrene did try her best until I stepped in to intervene. It very nearly took all of my effort not to strike back. Xena wouldn't defend herself, but then again, I knew that. I watched as her heart broke in those few moments. I also knew that she felt this was a just punishment upon herself and that she owed her mother this little satisfaction. I understood Xena's thinking, but I couldn't comprehend how a mother could feel that way until Cyrene reminded me of her pain, a mother's anguish. Still, I could never merely stand by while someone hurt my wife, not even her mother. I tried not to embarrass Xena, while at the same time quietly convincing Cyrene that I would not allow her to continue.
It was a strange thing to watch, Xena and her mother in the yard below me. Both women had unusually beautiful faces, but the moment they were both in a room at the same time, their expressions grew pinched. I know it's an odd way to describe it, but that's precisely what I saw. I faulted neither woman, but my most fervent wish was that each of them would somehow see their lives through the other's eyes.
Xena had suffered terribly over the seasons. Laden with Ares's dark curse, she became something she had little control over, something so evil that even she could not speak of that time easily. She lived practically an entire lifetime without the love of family, disowned by her own mother. Cyrene was the opposite side of that coin. Feeling betrayed and abandon, she had lost all three of her children on the very same day. I hoped that I would never experience such grief, as Cyrene must have surely felt for those many seasons alone.
The ages of Xena's half-siblings surprised me until I thought of why Cyrene might have conceived them in the first place. It was only guesswork on my part, but perhaps Cyrene thought that the Gods would give her another chance if she tried again. Besides, she appeared much healthier than her age indicated and I knew, better than some, what it felt like to pray for another chance at motherhood.
They spoke to one another and I could see Cyrene turn and sit. Finally, she asked the question that I know had filled Xena with dread. I wondered how Xena would answer and abruptly realized that I had been listening in on a most private conversation. I was stuck where I stood, though. I couldn't pull away or close the window without drawing their attention. I simply pressed my back against the open shutters and attempted to blend into the background as best I could without making a sound. I offered up a quick supplication to Athena to keep me hidden. I cursed my luck for hearing what was happening below, but I would have felt worse if my disturbance had been the catalyst to break up a much-needed dialogue between mother and daughter.
I listened, my heart breaking for each of them, as they related their own feelings. I was proud of Xena. She didn't make excuses or attempt to cover up any of her past misdeeds. She didn't make up a reason why she had come home, and she didn't beg for forgiveness. She was honest in her assessment of why she had come, even to say that she simply didn't know. Each woman opened her heart, perhaps not completely, but that sort of trust would only come with time. They were honest and it was obvious that candor hurt. Gods, if it caused me pain to hear, what must they have been suffering?
I closed my eyes against my own tears. How could a woman not feel her lover's pain as though it was her own? The sound that caused my entire chest to ache with empathetic grief was the sound of Xena crying. Not just cries, but uncontainable sobs. When I chanced a glance down into the yard, I saw something that I don't think I shall ever forget. The sight of my dear wife, the Lord Conqueror, crying in her mother's arms was too much for even me. I could intrude no longer and while they were thus occupied, I took the opportunity to slip back into the room. Unfortunately, with the shutters open, I was still able to hear all that went on below.
"I'm sorry, mother, I overslept. I--" I heard Cor's voice stop abruptly in the yard below, and I can only imagine what he thought at the sight before him.
"Are you all right? Is Xena okay?" he asked. I didn't have to see his face. His tone clearly told of his confusion.
"Yes, everything's fine, Cor. Xena's just taken slightly ill. She'll be fine in a bit, just overheated is all."
"Oh. Do you want me to uhm, chop the rest of the wood?"
"We'll worry about that later, love. Right now, I'd like you to take some wood into the kitchen and get a fire going for tea. If anyone asks about breakfast, tell them things will be a little late today."
"Okay," Cor answered. He bent down and quickly loaded his arms with wood for the kitchen stove. Hesitating before going back into the inn, Cor added, "Don't worry, Xena. Once I got so hot chopping wood that I passed clean out."
I smiled at the boy's helpful nature. It was apparent that Xena's younger brother had an acute case of hero worship for his warrior sister. I heard Xena mumble something to the boy, but I couldn't understand what she said.
"I don't know what came over me," I heard Xena say as she sniffed back her tears.
"I always told you that you should have a good cry now and again. You always did hold everything inside."
I knew I would tell Xena about my eavesdropping later, but I couldn't resist as I moved close enough to the window to see Cyrene wiping Xena's tear and dirt-streaked cheeks with one corner of her apron.
"You children always did have such a hard time keeping your faces clean," Cyrene continued, and when she said 'children', I somehow knew that she referred to the children she had lost.
Xena tried to smile, but more tears came instead. Perhaps she had held it back for so long that she simply couldn't stop once she started.
"I don't want anyone seeing me like this," Xena said suddenly.
"I understand," I heard Cyrene say. "Come, little one, I'll show you the back staircase it's new. You just need to lay down rest for a while and you'll feel better."
I smiled through my own tears. I always wondered why Xena had chosen that term of endearment for me, little one. I knew that she hadn't used it with me as a mother to a child, although the way in which she protected and nurtured me in the beginning of our relationship would have made it seem so. I now interpreted the words as something extraordinarily special. Of all the terms that Xena could have used, she chose the one that had reminded her of family, safety, and home, of a love that she so desperately desired, but had felt herself too unworthy to request. I was proud to be the recipient of that endearment.
By the time Cyrene led Xena into our room, I had quickly dressed in a simple skirt and blouse. Even though I knew what had transpired between the two women, the sight of Xena took me back. They came through the door with Xena leaning heavily upon her mother. Xena's eyes were so swollen they were almost closed. I was at least relieved to see that the uncomfortable expression that existed whenever they were together had relaxed.
"Not to worry, Gabrielle. She'll be perfectly fine after a little rest," Cyrene said.
"Mother and I had a talk," Xena said as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
I took Xena's admission as a subtle way of telling Cyrene that there were no secrets between us. Tears fell from Xena's eyes and I must say that I began to worry. It wasn't like her to fall apart so completely. She looked utterly spent.
"I'm cold," she said. I sat down beside her and could feel her shivering.
"Are you all right, love?"
She shrugged and I felt Cyrene's hand on my shoulder. "It's taken a lot out of her," she whispered to me.
"All right, then," I said as I finally pushed myself into action. "Lie back."
It was like pushing a feather backward. Xena lay on the bed and I helped remove her boots. She was as helpless as a rag doll as I helped her off with her clothes and under the covers. Cyrene stood back, but stayed in the room. I had a feeling that she simply didn't want to embarrass Xena any further.
"I hate those things," Xena said about the nightshirt I slipped over her head.
"I know, but it will keep you warm," I said. I pulled the thick coverlet up to her chin. She looked uncharacteristically small and vulnerable to me. "I'll make you some of that red tea that you like and fetch a mug up to you," I said, thankful that I had brought along some of the leaves and berries I used for the brew.
"Feeling any warmer?" I asked and she nodded her head like a little girl.
"I'm going downstairs for the tea. Anything else I can get for you, love?"
"Something for this head. It feels like it's going to explode," she replied hoarsely.
"Right. Would you like your mother to stay with you?" I whispered after I kissed her cheek. Again, she nodded and I knew it was something she would never have asked for herself. I could only surmise it was her weakened state that allowed her to agree in the first place.
I turned to Cyrene, who had been closely watching the two of us with an odd expression upon her face.
"Would it be too much trouble to ask, Cyrene, if you--"
"Of course not, dear. Go right to the kitchen and have Cor get anything you need. Selene should be up by now, too. Please tell them where I am."
I happily noted that she had already taken a seat on the bed beside Xena's prone form. It looked as though she had never intended to leave, even before I asked her to stay. I found that to be a very good sign, especially when I saw her reach uncertainly for Xena's hand and take it in her own. Cyrene's hesitation told me that these two women still regarded one another as strangers, but that the enigma known as the bond between mother and child was something that had endured.
I left the room, fully intending to take my time about brewing the tea. I wanted to give them as much time alone together as I could, even if it was for nothing more than to have Cyrene watch Xena sleep. Xena's physical condition worried me some, but I knew what it felt like to carry such an extreme burden for so many seasons. Telling Xena about the birth of my child when I had been a slave had been one of the hardest things to overcome. I also knew the physical and mental catharsis I had experienced by loosing myself of the heavy weight. Finally letting go of it had left me as limp as a wrung out dishrag.
I entered the kitchen, hoping not to run into anyone but Cor. It was not to be, however. Nearly all in our party sat at a large table in the kitchen enjoying morning tea. We said our good mornings to one another and I told Selene and Cor where their mother was.
"Mother's a very good healer. I bet she fixes Xena right up," Cor said. I swear, the boy was perpetually cheerful and optimistic.
"Xena is ill?" Delia asked.
"Well, she's feeling a bit fatigued," I answered truthfully. I hadn't wanted to reveal Xena's private business, but I didn't like lying either.
"Perhaps you would have me visit with her?" Yu Pan asked.
"Thank you, Master Yu Pan, I appreciate that. I think this may be something that Xena's mother might be better suited for. Mŭqīn yĕ nǚér." I added the last three words, mother to daughter, in Yu Pan's own language in hopes that he would understand my true meaning.
"Ahh, I understand. There are times when a mother's touch holds as much power as any healing herb."
"Perhaps I should check on her?" Solan looked worried.
Gods, how many people would I have to tell about this in order not to tell them? Yu Pan saved me.
"I would speak with you first, my friend. Perhaps outside?" Yu Pan requested.
I smiled and nodded at my mentor as he and Solan walked past me.
"I suppose I'd better get the morning meal going," Selene said.
"Why don't you let us help, dear?" Delia asked, indicating Anya who nodded her head enthusiastically.
Selene looked at Delia with what I had come to recognize as the young woman's customary expression of wariness. "That's really not necessary," Selene responded.
"It's all right," I said, placing my hand atop Selene's. "Delia does all of our cooking in Corinth, it's the only thing that makes her truly happy. Your mother might be a while," I added with a whisper.
The young woman agreed with some reluctance, and they began the cooking. Selene explained the schedule that the tavern and the meals were on. It was difficult to read Selene. I was uncertain whether she felt intimidated by our group or if her mistrustful attitude was simply a part of her nature. Neither would have surprised me. I had known many a young woman whose dour expressions made them look older than their years. I knew also that having Xena here must have been affecting Selene on many levels. I wondered if the young woman worried for her mother, or if jealousy of her older sister might not be more to the point. Whatever the cause, I hoped it was something Xena and Selene could move beyond.
I went about brewing the rooibos tea that Xena liked so much. The red tea came from ingredients found in the land across the seas. Many leagues to the south of Greece, past the Aegean and even further south from the Mediterranean lay the dark land. I was surprised and elated when a merchant in Corinth had obtained a generous amount of the brew. I had never been there, but I had read a few of the rare accounts of the dark-skinned tribes that lived on the plains among wild and ferocious beasts. The rooibos was actually a bush with leaves that looked much like our own cedar trees. I brewed the tea from these red needles and it made for a very smooth, earthy flavored drink. I added some powdered white willow to the steaming mug, along with a touch of crushed valerian root. The mixture would cause Xena to sleep, but I knew that she had intended that anyway.
"Gabrielle? Can I do something to help?" Cor asked.
"Well " He looked so earnest that I wished I had some small task for him. "What do you usually do during the day?"
He grinned and he reminded me of Xena and Solan with their dark hair and electric blue eyes.
"I mostly try to keep from being underfoot and getting into trouble."
"Well, I for one could use a strong young man to show me where everything is in this kitchen." Delia winked over at me. "Heaven knows how I'll be able to reach up into that top cupboard."
"Oh, I could do that! I know where everything is," Cor answered.
I looked on and saw Selene smile, perhaps for the first time since we'd arrived. It made all the difference and suddenly the young woman looked beautiful. I smiled back at Delia and mouthed the words, thank you. I then took Xena's mug of tea and made my way up the stairs and to our room.
I don't know why, but I felt like knocking before I entered the room. I paused at the door, deciding against it in case Xena had already fallen asleep. Stepping inside as silently as possible, I surprised neither of the women. Cyrene turned toward me and smiled just as Xena opened one eye toward the door.
"Well, sneaking up on the two of you is definitely out," I said. "Here you are, love."
Cyrene added a few pillows behind Xena's back as I assisted her in sitting up.
"I'm not an invalid, you know," Xena said to no one in particular.
I sat down on the opposite side of the bed as Cyrene rested. "I know, my Conqueror, but doesn't it feel good to have two women wait on you hand and foot for a change?"
She chuckled lightly, and then winced at the explosion of pain it must have caused in her head. She took a sip of the tea and smiled. "Wonderful as usual. Thank you, love." She raised the mug for another sip and paused, looking over her cup at Cyrene and me. "Did anyone ask about me?"
"Well yes. Everyone was having tea. Don't worry," I turned to reassure Cyrene. "When I left, Delia and Anya were helping Selene get everything started for the day."
"I don't know " Cyrene's expression had turned to one of worry at leaving her customary responsibilities. "I feel strange having guests do my work."
"We're not those kinds of guests," Xena said and offered her mother a small smile.
"Xena's right. Besides, Delia is in complete charge of the kitchens back in Corinth. She does it out of a love of cooking, so you have one of the best down there."
Cyrene relaxed some, but I could tell that she was unused to having others do for her and didn't know exactly how to react to such assistance. How much like her daughter, I thought. How was it that they had been away from one another for so many seasons and yet still had so many similar characteristics?
"So what did you tell them about me?" Xena interrupted my musings. "You didn't tell them I was--"
"No, love. I mean well, I did have to hint at it to Yu Pan. He was going to come see you if you were ill."
"That's okay, I guess. He knows how to hold his tongue."
"I think he might have told Solan. Oh, and I guess Delia pretty much guessed when she heard Cyrene was up here, and--"
"So, basically everyone knows."
"Yes. I'm sorry, Xena. I--"
"Don't worry, love. I'm not angry."
Xena smiled weakly and reached over to squeeze my hand before she continued to drink her tea. Only a few more moments had passed when Xena cleared her throat.
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I feel a little strange with you two just sitting there staring at me," Xena said.
"Oh," Cyrene and I said in unison as if just realizing what we had been doing.
"Why don't we just have a seat over there," I suggested, indicating the chairs by the fireplace.
We rose and moved to the other side of the large room. The tea had already begun to work its magic. Xena took my hand and squeezed it once more before I walked away, and I couldn't resist placing a quick kiss upon her cheek.
Cyrene and I sat in silence for some time. I admit that I wasn't quite certain as to how to begin a conversation with Xena's mother. I was also unsure of just how much had passed between the two women. Had they actually settled anything concerning the past? Certainly, the act of a mother comforting her crying child didn't necessarily speak of forgiveness.
I looked back toward Xena and noticed that she had put the empty mug aside, and lay back down. She had her eyes closed and the line of her brow had relaxed, indicating sleep. Cyrene's voice carried my conscious mind from concern over my wife back to the woman seated next to me.
"You two are remarkable to watch," Cyrene said.
"I'm sorry, Cyrene. My mind must have been wandering. What did you say?"
"The two of you you're much different than I thought you'd be, her especially."
"Is that a good thing or not?"
"Yes," she chuckled, "I meant it as a good thing. Gabrielle, I I'm not sure what you expect from me, even what Xena expects of me, or from her visit here. I Gods, I actually know so little about her." Cyrene's voice was quiet, so as to be barely a whisper. I had to lean forward in my chair to hear her clearly, but I knew that if Xena had been awake, her unnaturally acute hearing would have sensed it.
"I've spent so many seasons feeling nothing at all over the past," she finished.
I smiled, not being able to stop myself.
"You're amused?" Cyrene asked.
"Not in the way you might think," I answered. "It's merely that Xena has used those exact words to describe the situation. It seems to me, though, that she spent the time doing nothing but feel."
"I hope I haven't offended you," I said in response to her silence.
"No, dear. I suppose you're more right than you realize. If I think about it, not a day's gone by that I haven't thought of it all thought of her. I always wondered if I did it, if I turned her into what she became."
"I suppose that's what every parent ruminates about, whether they've had a falling out with their child or not," I answered in an attempt to be diplomatic.
I held back from saying what I felt to be true, that Cyrene's actions had certainly added to Xena's change. There was so much more, though. There were no easy answers. Was it the dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship? Could having no strong male influence in her life have made Xena susceptible to Ares's promises? Had the darkness he had cursed her with made it easy for her to turn from honor to evil? How many issues had played a part in why Xena had decided to listen to what the beast had whispered in her ear? I knew that both women needed to hear something solid, some answer to it all, but I was afraid they would find none. The truth was that they both could have handled things better on that day so long ago.
"Do you think it was my fault then?" she asked.
I wasn't sure if she was looking for absolution for a past misdeed or merely curious as to my response. "Cyrene," I reached over and laid my hand on hers. "I do know this much. Laying blame is not why we're here."
"Why are you here then?"
I offered her a confused smile as I shrugged. "It's hard to put into words. For some sort of closure, perhaps. To settle old accounts make amends. Find something that's been missing. Perhaps merely for that connection that one can only obtain from family. Take your pick. I wish I had better answers for you, but I'm sort of going through the same thing myself."
"That's right, Xena did say that you had family in Potidaea. Has it been long since you've seen them?"
"Nearly twenty seasons," I answered.
"Oh my. That's is a long time." She looked at me as one who knows there is more to a story, but has the good manners not to ask.
I don't know why, I hadn't even discussed it with Xena first, but I started in on an abbreviated version of my life. I told her of the different lands where I had lived as a slave, of how I first met Yu Pan, and finally, of how Xena and I first met. If she was surprised, or even repulsed, she hid it quite well. I held my tongue about many events, but I attempted to be as honest as a conversation with my wife's mother would allow.
"I didn't well I thought they must have all been rumors who you were before. By the time we get news up here in Thrace it can become well, the stories can become quite fanciful. The bards that pass through the tavern downstairs act like they get their stories from the Conqueror herself."
She smiled and I found it contagious. I smiled along with her. I had heard some of those tales that made Xena, and even me, sound almost mythical. They accentuated everything. The good things turned into fantastic, unbelievable exploits, while they exaggerated the bad things to epic proportions.
Frankly, it's the same in Corinth," I added. "The people hang on every word and the bards tell the tale as though they lived in our very castle. In reality, they wouldn't know Xena if she sat down at a table with them."
"I think I should check on our patient," I said, glancing to the other side of the room.
I rose and walked over to the silent bed. I smiled down at her still body, knowing she slept. Xena had kicked her legs free of the coverlet and even the sleeping shirt. I pulled the heavy blanket over her once again and bent down, placing a light kiss upon her forehead. When I returned to my chair, Cyrene had that same odd look on her face.
"It's quite amazing really. I see how she is with you, Gabrielle, and with your friends downstairs, and she is nothing like the Conqueror that laid siege to this land."
"That was a different woman," I said.
"You make it sound so simple."
"The degree of difficulty depends on how you look at life. Look at my own life. For me, there's only here, right now. If I allowed myself to flounder in my past, I'm sure I'd have a different outlook. It's become a matter of will, I suppose. I'm not successful every moment of every day, but I try, and I work very hard at not letting her win."
"Her?" Cyrene asked.
"Me," I answered, wearing an enlightened smile. "The other side of the coin that is my other self."
"You are incredibly wise for a woman so young," Cyrene said.
"I can't take much credit. I believe it must be a wisdom borne of circumstance and nothing more."
"I don't know what to make of it all, what to make of her. You know, you go through your life pushing all these emotions into a hiding place so you don't have to deal with them, so you can forget. You try to bury them and when something like this happens, and you pull out all those old memories to examine them, it's all just one confused jumble."
"That's a very gray way of thinking. I like that," I answered. "I'd rather talk to someone who doesn't know what to make of things than someone who looks at everything as black and white, someone who feels as though they have all the answers."
"Well, then you should love talking to me," she replied, followed by light laughter. A long silence existed before she spoke again. "Where does all of this leave me and Xena then?"
"Wherever you want to be situated, I suppose. I've heard you ask a number of questions, but I've not heard you express where you want to be when all's said and done."
"The easiest thing would be for us to pretend that this little talk never happened, to go on with our lives. We'd know that there was no animosity between us. We've gone on without each other for this long. I don't suppose it would kill us to continue in the same way."
"I suppose that would be the easy way of it all, but is that what you'd actually like to see happen?"
"Of course not," she answered quickly. "I have to think of Selene and Cor, too."
"And you're thinking that not having Xena as a part of your life would be easier on them in some way." I knew I was pushing, and I hoped that my words wouldn't cause my prompting to explode back in my face.
"Not really," she answered with a sigh, running her fingers through her shoulder length hair. "I pride myself as an honest woman, Gabrielle and I think I'm simply making excuses. What I'm trying to say is that it would be easier for me not to have to deal with emotions that I've finally managed to bury."
"Had you really buried them, Cyrene?"
"What do you mean by that?" Her tone told me that I'd struck some sort of tender spot.
"It's only a guess on my part, but it feels to me like you weren't exactly a reluctant participant in Xena's attempt to make amends. You didn't seem as though you tried to fight it very hard."
She opened up her mouth, I expect to refute my judgment, but I continued before she could speak. "Oh, you started out skittish enough, but I'm thinking that if you had really not wanted the bother of it all, if you'd really wanted to do what was easiest, then you wouldn't be experiencing so much doubt and confusion right now. I like you, Cyrene. Frankly, I don't think I ever expected to like you so well in such a short space of time. So, my words are not out of any misplaced loyalty toward Xena. What I say to you now I say because I see, not only the pain that you and Xena have suffered, but also the inequity of your excuses."
"Each of you says that you've buried the past, but your actions speak much louder than your protests. Simply said, you both sort of gave in rather quickly, if you ask me."
"I never thought of myself as a transparent person, but I feel positively naked in front of you," Cyrene said.
I laughed, but then quickly covered my mouth, looking over at Xena. She still slept, but I lowered my voice a notch. "I'm no seer, Cyrene, but I've spent a lifetime watching people who paid me no mind. I learned to anticipate and to avoid confrontation merely by learning a person's tendencies. I suppose that's why you think me able to look inside you," I answered.
"Well, you were right. There's a room downstairs, Gabrielle. Xena grew up in that room. All this time, all these seasons I've left it just as it was when she left when I drove her away. You're the first person I've ever told that to. I'm afraid I've never even explained it to Selene and Cor. I think they both know who the room belonged to, though. At the very least they suspect, especially Selene. I may have some fences to mend there, too. I don't know why I kept the room as I did, but there you are. So you see, your assessment was much closer to the truth than you realize. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time now."
"So, what will you do?" I asked.
"I'm still confused about it all. There are things that I'm sure neither Xena or I will find easy to say, but what makes it easier is recognizing that we both want to make it right. Each summer that's gone by has brought me a little closer to despair of it ever happening. Now that the opportunity has arrived, I'm terrified."
"Cyrene, there's no reason to be frightened. Xena's just as confused as you are. I'm almost certain that if you two just sit down together you'll find that you're each experiencing all of the same fears and doubts."
"Well, then I suspect the next few days should prove to be very interesting around here," Cyrene said.
I believe she had no idea just how lively things could get when the Conqueror and her family were around.
End of Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Chapter 19: I Remember A House Where All Were Good
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